Fazio gone soft? Don't believe it for a minute at Primm Valley Golf Club's Desert Course

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

PRIMM, Nev. -- The campaign begins almost from the moment you step out of your car. Everyone wants to tell you how forgiving Tom Fazio's Desert Course at Primm Valley Golf Club is. Visions of unnaturally wide fairways and balls easily located in strangely sparse desert brush start dancing in your head.

Primm Valley Golf Club - Desert Course - hole 9
The sense of natural calm at Primm Valley G.C. is bolstered by the clear views of the mountains in the background.
Primm Valley Golf Club - Desert Course - hole 9Primm Valley Golf Club - Desert Course - hole 10Primm Valley Golf Club - Desert Course - hole 17

By the time a golfer gets to the first tee, he or she is likely to be convinced an easy, leisurely round awaits. The staff here is very friendly and persuasive with their dulcet tales of swing time harmony.

Then the starter nonchalantly mentions, "The greens are very fast today," slipping it in before a chipper "Have a beautiful day!" It doesn't register at first, surely doesn't ring any alarm bells. Not after this happy buildup.

By the second tee, the game is up however. One look out over this desert dogleg left around a lake -- whoever said Fazio sticks to convention? -- and it's quickly apparent this golf course has teeth. Long, nasty, score mashing teeth. Besides the not-so-small, not-so-desert body of water to maneuver around, there are bunkers in the middle of fairway, making for a very narrow approach. And oh yeah, trees to the right.

This isn't double jeopardy. It's triple jeopardy. Lake to the left, bunkers in the middle, trees to the right. Where exactly are you supposed to aim again? It brings to mind that old Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry line, "Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?"

Which is part of the fun of playing this Fazio. Some of the choices you're offered on the Desert Course are liable to leave you throwing up your hands in frustration and considering trying your luck in the dramatically marked Snake Habitat areas doting this 18 instead.

This course is about as domesticated as Siegfried and Roy's wayward tiger. Even No. 3, a shorter, straightforward par 4, features a tight fairway with bunkers all the way down the left side and a tilted green waiting up ahead. Forget landing a 747, on some of these fairways, you'd have trouble putting down a single-engine Cessna.

"This course is very capable of defending itself," first-time Primm player Mel Crowson said simply.

Excuse Crowson's manners. He is from Canada, Calgary specifically. Primm Valley Golf Club's Desert Course draws a number of players like Crowson looking to experience desert golf. It is a somewhat disjointed introduction. This is not a pure desert course. Rather, it's Fazio's rather eclectic take on one. Besides the lake, trees and the perfectly fine white sand bunkers, there all sorts of colorful cacti. If it looks almost like an unnatural dream.well, it is.

Fazio had much of the vegetation hauled in to this once barren spot and now it is carefully maintained by a hard working ground's crew. This is about as real and authentic as the Arc De Triomphe in the courtyard of Las Vegas' Paris hotel. Which doesn't necessarily make it any less impressive.

"I never knew the desert was so beautiful," golfer Michelle Shirkey said, wistfully.

Ah, the power of illusion. One of the things that Fazio's Desert Course at Primm Valley gets very right is the quiet, sense of isolation. You are literally in the middle of nowhere here. That's no trick. About 15 minutes from the Primm Valley casino complex -- hardly a metropolis in its own right -- the Primm Valley Golf Club seemingly rises out of nowhere out by the Nevada-California state line. It is easy to think you've made the wrong turn and you're headed right for buzzard country before the club's unobtrusive little sign comes into view.

Of the two sister Fazio courses here, the Desert Course is the one that maintains this sense of atmosphere. Primm Valley G.C.'s Lakes Course can become a buzz of activity with foursomes almost bumping into one another. But tucked away on the Desert Course, golfers melt into their own world. The holes are spaced far apart enough and shielded from each other well enough to leave sightings of other groups rare indeed.

In a land of Vegas area courses marked by familiar construction sounds, it is unlikely you'll find a quieter round within 60 miles.

This sense of natural calm is bolstered by the clear views of the mountains in the background, particularly on the 188-yard, par-3 fourth hole. Fazio courses sometimes take on an aura of mystique (usually because he works to build that sense) and The Desert Course is no exception to those marketing efforts with every single hole bearing its own catchy name. Yet, it is the subtle design touches that truly give this six-year-old course its unexpected grace.

There are a number of forced carries in Fazio's Desert, but rather than come across as gimmicks, they seem to fit right in. On a manufactured course in a manufactured town's long shadow, one of the most striking features of the Desert Course may be the lack of forced drama on its carries. Typical is the desert wash that cuts across a large section of the 13th fairway.

It isn't put there to make you clear it. There is an opening to the right that allows a golfer to play it safe. Doing so, just results in a much harder approach cutting back left toward the hole. This is true risk/reward thinking man's stuff on one of those 575-yard par-5s that often prove numbingly mundane in many designers' hands.

Forgiving? Maybe, if your reference point is being taught by ruler-snapping nuns. Fazio? Definitely, though a little more low key in spots than you might expect from such an obvious showman.

"When I tell people it's a Fazio design, a lot of groups want to play it no matter what," Assistant Professional Charles Fralix said. "But I think it's a little different than they might expect."

Different does not equal easy though. No matter what anyone tries to sell you on the way to the first tee.

Primm Valley Golf Club's Desert Course: The verdict

Primm is a real 45 minutes from Las Vegas, so visiting Fazio is no cakewalk side trip, but it is worth the little extra planning. This isn't one of those Vegas Valley courses that demands you take notice of all its majestic wonders. It isn't Fazio's own high-roller, showboater. It is more subtle than all that, its pleasures more developing than dominant.

This might be an oasis of isolation. That doesn't make it an oasis of unfrayed nerves. The Desert Course tests you mentally, early and often. The No. 1 handicap hole is the second hole. No easing into this round. Club selection will be a constant internal battle over the many decisions posed on these 18 holes.

This isn't the course where you go on autopilot. It is the course where you discover something about your game under some fun fire.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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