Psst! Painted Desert's great conditions make it a valuable Vegas golf secret

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LAS VEGAS - Oscar Sanchez isn't a greens whisperer, but he's close.

The staff at Painted Desert Golf Club has gotten used to seeing Sanchez standing over one of the course's greens with a garden hose, spraying a surface that had just been hit by the sprinklers. When anyone asks the superintendent what he's doing, Sanchez will tell them simply, "Eighty percent of this green gets hit by the sprinklers. The other part I need to do by hand."

And do it by hand he will. Day after day after day. You don't need to know that Painted Desert has an obsessed greenskeeper. But you'll notice the results.

Painted Desert is one of the most consistently green and well-conditioned courses in the Las Vegas valley despite its very Vegas-reasonable high-season green fees. One man can make a difference with a golf course, and you'll be happy that Sanchez has applied his devotion to this older (for Vegas) course about 25 minutes from The Strip.

Built in 1987, Painted Desert is one of the Vegas pioneer courses that often get overlooked or completely forgotten when today's Sin City visitor is booking a golf trip. It doesn't have a big advertising budget (owner American Golf pumps other properties more). It's not touted by the big casinos' biased golf desks.

It's simply a good course in good condition that the locals frankly hope you don't find.

"It's not too close to The strip you know," local golfer Bob Norton said. "If you add a cab ride to the price, it puts it out of reach for a lot of people."

Yes, the resident golfers like those tee sheets stay open when it's not Super Bowl or March Madness time. It takes an adventurous visitor to play Painted Desert these days.

Of course, once that visitor plays, he or she is going to come back, probably with a few friends. Everybody likes to be one to make a golf find.

"Once they find it, they're always coming back," Assistant General Manager Kevin Eclips said. "The comments we get most are about what great shape the course is in."

It's something unexpected, a secret amid all the high-priced, higher-hyped Vegas glitz. Painted Desert is about as isolated as a rush-hour subway rider. There's a tennis court complex that shares the parking lot. The highway runs alongside a few holes. There are so many houses camped around the course that the club feels compelled to post signs repeatedly reminding you that any damage caused by your golf ball is your responsibility.

Yet, in its own way, Painted Desert is an oasis of green.

The fairways show few traces of even the suggestion of brown, and the large greens stand out even more. Many much better-publicized courses would do well to emulate Painted Desert's focus on course conditions.

"It's in good shape 12 months out of the year," said frequent local player Lowell Barrett. "Every day."

With conditions not an issue, you can focus on an early Jay Morrish design. Painted Desert has a number of forced desert clears and desert areas to avoid, but this is not the showy, stark desert that's become the rage. Painted Desert's desert is tamer, sort of a gray sandbox hue with a few bushes stuck here and there.

You're always going to be able to find your ball. And in many cases, you'll have the chance to hit a decent recovery shot out of the stuff.

Rather, Painted Desert's challenge lies in the size of its fairways. The drivable par 4s are particularly squeezed. The lack of trees only adds to the dilemma, making it seem like the course is more wide open than it actually is and drawing foolhardy golfers into blasting away.

How did I end up out of bounds again?

This effect starts right off with No. 1 - a 386-yard par 4 where your drive can bounce off the desert edges, past the chain-link fence and into the road if you're not careful. No. 2's fairway is so tightly packed that there's a towering chain-link fence on the left side of the tee box, no doubt the work of moaning golf-course homeowners .

Painted Desert reaches its crescendo on No. 14 - the most drivable par 4 yet, 292 yards from the back tees. It's also the hole where you're most likely to lose a ball. You need to clear a decent-sized lake with your tee shot and then shoot up to a green on a raised ridge.

Of course, the green is ... well, really green.

"It's a beautiful course," said Canadian Marlene Rivit, the rare out-of-towner who found her way to Painted Desert.

The verdict

You could be a lot worse than fitting Painted Desert into a Vegas golf vacation. Especially if (as surveys show) course conditioning is the top concern for many golfers. You don't have to worry with Oscar Sanchez around.

Along with the green, Morrish throws little rolling hills at you on several holes, a fair share of water (it's in play on four holes, including the 187-yard par-3 eighth, where it runs along the entire left side and presents a tight landing zone) and raised greens.

The staff in turn throws out none of the "you're lucking to be paying to play here" hauteur one finds at many Las Vegas courses. These guys are so down-to-earth and easygoing you might forget you're anywhere near Sin City.

Of course, all the houses will remind you that this is definitely a booming town. On No. 11, a two guys sitting on their patio in golf hats called out "Stay up" as my approach shot plopped onto the green. And that was midweek. On weekends you could have FBR Open-worthy galleries with all the patios on all those houses.

At least they can appreciate Oscar's greens.

Dining out

Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill is one of the more reasonable, consistently high-quality name-chef restaurants on the Vegas Strip. Located inside the main floor of MGM Grand, it delivers tasty pastas and a nice people-watching view of the casino floor.

Burger Bar in the Mandalay Bay mall offers every kind of beef/condiment combination you can imagine, and some you probably can't. Unless you're a rancher, you probably never knew there were this many different types of beef. If you want a great hamburger (remember, it's Vegas), this is your place.

Avoid Bradley Ogden and it's overblown reputation and underwhelming food in Caesar' Palace.

Stay and play

If the real purpose of your Las Vegas trip is golf, it's hard to find a better base than JW Marriott Las Vegas Resort & Spa. The hotel provides free shuttle to a dozen courses in the area. This isn't The Strip, but the JW's standard rooms will make you feel like a high roller. Space is your friend here.

For those who want to be in the heart of the action, Aladdin is an underrated option, smack-dab in the middle of The Strip with rooms that outdo many more high-profile casino hotels. The only annoyance is the long, long walk from the self-parking, through the mall to the lobby and casino.

Fast Fact

Unlike many courses that throw a half dozen sets of tees at you these days, Painted Desert has just three.

Back, middle and forward. It's 6,729 yards from the backs, 5,548 from the forwards.

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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