Ready for a challenge? Try Las Vegas' 10 toughest courses

By Leigh Hallenberg, Contributor

LAS VEGAS -- Golf courses in Las Vegas have been popping up almost as fast as casinos in the past 10 years. The majority of these layouts are of the high-end variety, commanding fees of from $200 to $300 and more during the high season.

Big budgets, however, don't necessarily equal big challenges. So this list of the Top 10 Toughest Courses in Vegas is for the golfers who don't feel as if they have gotten their money's worth unless they have the scars to prove it.

The Wolf Course at Las Vegas Paiute Resort -- This is the newest of the Paiute Resort's three Pete Dye-designed courses and the longest track in the state at 7,604 yards. The Wolf Course hosted a "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf" shortly after opening -- an episode that pitted Carrie Webb against Annika Sorenstam.

"We instructed Pete Dye to make it our tournament course," marketing director Greg Frye said. "It was designed with the goal in mind of hosting professional tournaments and the long hitters of the current era."

As if Wolf's length weren't enough to meet this goal, plenty of other challenges will appeal to the golfer who relishes pain. The par-3 No. 8 is one of the signature holes. Little about the 206-yard hole looks promising. A 40-foot-deep waste bunker controls the right side of the green and Dye has the green sloping towards it as well. Slicers do not fare well here.

Even holes that may look familiar to the golfer who plays everywhere, are more difficult than they seem. Fifteen features a famous Pete Dye island green. But unlike No. 17 at the TPC at Sawgrass, which plays about 150 yards, No. 15 plays 182 yards from the championship tees. Frye says people come to the Wolf Course to challenge themselves and know they won't experience the most leisurely round they've ever played.

"Rarely does anybody play that well," Frye said. "The Wolf has a serious bite."

Boulder Creek Golf Club -- One of the newest and finest municipal courses in the country, Boulder Creek is owned and operated by Boulder City. Opened earlier this year, this Mark Rathert-designed course has 27 holes and uses a variety of design techniques to keep golfers on their toes. Oasis, arroyo and desert-style holes make precision a must throughout the course. By tipping out at 7,600 yards, Boulder Creek presents a championship test to rival the Wolf Course.

Dennis Silvers, a Las Vegas golf writer and ESPN radio host, names Boulder Creek as one of the area's most difficult.

"You've really got to be able to move your ball to do well on this course," Silvers said.

Features like white sand bunkers, palm trees and split fairways do everything they can to make this course both a challenge and pleasure to play.

Badlands Golf Club, Desperado/Diablo courses -- Because Badlands Golf Club consists of three nine-hole layouts, the course controls which pairing you play based on your tee time. However, an early morning time usually can get you onto the two original nine-hole courses. Together, the Desperado and Diablo tracts offer the longest distance and highest slope/rating. The course's newest nine, the Outlaw, offers its own challenges. But it was the Desperado and Diablo courses that established this Johnny Miller and Chi Chi Rodriguez creation as one of the toughest in the Valley.

Since it opened in 1995, Badlands has been considered one of Vegas' toughest courses because of the natural terrain that makes up as much of the course as the fairways do. Any errant shot here will end up in a craggy desert setting that can ruin a round. Nearly every green at Badlands can be compared to a dartboard. This is archetypal desert target golf.

Wolf Creek at Paradise Canyon -- While it isn't truly a Las Vegas course (it's in Mesquite, an hour northeast of Sin City), Wolf Creek commands a spot on this list. Opened in 2000, this course was the first design effort from Dennis Rider. Rider learned the trade under Arnold Palmer and took full advantage of all that was around him in Paradise Canyon. Wolf Creek lays on the land naturally and doesn't seem out of place among the desert hills and sand. These rugged hills add incredible elevation changes to a course that may appear uncomplicated. Case in point is No. 8. At 248 yards, the hole is long enough, add an elevation change of more than 100 yards and this par-3 can destroy a round. A canyon behind the green and a creek that circles it makes this hole more than the sum of its parts.

Wolf Creek calls its longest tees, the "Challenger" tees; and that distance has a slope of 154. This made it the third hardest course in the nation when it opened. In fact, the course had Yamaha create golf carts with four-wheel brakes so no golfers would careen out of control down a hillside.

When compared to some other courses on this list, Wolf Creek's 7,018 yards seems moderate. But it isn't the distance that creates the challenge here. Something else separates Wolf Creek from other courses. While many golfers are used to 600-yard par-5s, few have been forced to hit a 305-yard drive just to reach a fairway as on No. 16.

Reflection Bay at Lake Las Vegas -- Lake Las Vegas has more than a few things going for it as a golfing destination. One of its courses, Reflection Bay, besides being on this list, has a hole on the list of the Top 10 Most Scenic Holes. The Falls, another Lake Las Vegas course, also has a hole on the scenic list. The facility's hard work is not going unnoticed.

At the Reflection Bay Course, it's not just the mesmerizing lakefront course, but the Jack Nicklaus design that attracts players. Nicklaus uses natural elevation changes to subtly challenge golfers. He also knows how to use the water. On most of the holes bordering the lake, Reflection Bay places sand along the fairway as if the chance of going into the lake wasn't enough. So even when you think you're safe from the water, you aren't safe from the beach.

The land that Reflection Bay stands on may be strikingly beautiful, but it isn't easily mastered. Split fairways, waterfalls, arroyos and palm trees all look wonderfully natural, but present tests for every golfer.

Early on, as on the fifth hole, Nicklaus lets you think you're in charge. On this par-5 the fairway is generous, but strategic bunkering near the green makes you think twice about getting there in two.

"There's a really good blend of both desert holes and holes that have a lot of trouble on them as well," head professional John Spots said.

It is in this way that Reflection Bay can make you think you are doing pretty well until a glance at the scorecard proves otherwise. But no matter, Nicklaus has made Reflection Bay a course that lets you enjoy yourself amid your struggles.

TPC at the Canyons -- If it's good enough for the pros, it'll probably test the skill of even low-handicap golfers. As one of the host courses for the Las Vegas Invitational and the home of the Las Vegas Senior Classic, the TPC at the Canyons may be the most truly desert of all of Las Vegas' desert-style courses. And that says a lot because the area is packed with desert designs. What separates TPC at the Canyons from the others is how it makes use of every possible natural device on the course, including a whole host of trees, desert ravines, rocky canyons and a lake.

Designed by Ray Floyd and Bobby Weed, TPC at the Canyons opened in 1996 and had dropped into the background as newer and more lavish facilities opened around town. But with recent renovations -- and its inclusion in the Vegas Invitational -- it is picking up speed again.

For a true test and a true taste of the desert, the Canyons is tough to beat. Shot making is at a premium on this course. The course features three par-5s and four par-3s, but it's the par-4s that create many of the challenges. One example is the 381-yard No.13. As on most of the back nine, the canyon that gives the course its name comes into play here and makes golfers give a few extra seconds of thought before every drive.

From most holes on TPC at the Canyons, players can look up and see the needle atop the Stratosphere. But when playing at the Canyons, the lure of the casino has little pull. Because who needs to risk money when most shots on this course are a high-stakes gamble.

Rio Secco Golf Club -- Owned and operated by the Rio Hotel and Casino, Rio Secco is a traditional Vegas desert-style course. Much of its challenge comes from the variety of holes created by its surroundings. A dynamic par-72, Rio Secco stretches to 7,332 yards at its tips. This Rees Jones-designed course was built in 1997. Of its 18 championship holes, six are set on plateaus, six are in desert washes and six are in steep desert canyons. The four par-5s are where the course separates itself from some of the other courses in the area.

At a combined 1,150 yards from the black tees, Nos. 8 and 9 can be a trial for even the longest hitters. On No. 8, the 516 yards will probably tempt many to go for the green in two. The tactically placed bunkers in front and to the left of the green have ruined this plan for more than a few golfers. The green may be hard to hold so a long drive is key in any case.

On No. 9, the fun really begins. At a massive 634 yards, this hole will take most mortals three shots to reach the green. Three fairway bunkers make this task even more difficult. Jones doesn't relent near the green as two more bunkers guard it.

Worried that you won't survive because you can't hit the ball like Tiger Woods? Well you can always sign up for some classes at the Butch Harmon School of Golf located on site. Harmon has taught tour pros like Woods and Davis Love III, so he can prepare you for anything you might encounter at this tough course.

The Revere Golf Club, The Lexington Course -- The Revere Golf Club, formerly The Revere at Anthem, features two Billy Casper/Greg Nash-designed championship courses. The Lexington provides a classic layout that requires shot making for a good score. At 7,143 yards, the course isn't as long as some of the courses on this list, but most holes require quite solid shots.

"It's good for the low handicap because it's long enough where par is a good score," Tournament director Ryan Ott said.

Casper has said in the past that it's frightening to look out over many the holes and see what's in front of you. A combination of distance and tricky elements create the difficulty at The Lexington. Most holes force quick decisions by the golfer. The course's second hole quickly establishes this theme.

The 591-yard par-5s fairway slope will add distance to any drive to the right. However, this creates a blind second shot. Many of the Lexington's holes force plays like this. The course also features winding split-fairways and undulating greens that are deceptively large. Bunkers fill many fairways, making every shot a make-or-break opportunity.

Painted Desert Golf Course -- When it opened in 1987, Painted Desert was one of the first Vegas courses to really take advantage of its desert setting not for scenery but to penalize golfers who missed the fairways and greens. These days, as newer and more elaborate courses are built every year in Vegas, Painted Desert seems like the norm. This Jay Morrish-designed course will still challenge any handicap, and not kill any pocketbooks doing so.

Moorish's subtle mounding and sloping make Painted Desert look more harmless than it is. This is evident on the par-5 No. 3 and par-4 No. 9 holes. While not long, these holes prove that, with Morrish, accuracy is everything. The transitional mounding around the fairways on the 3rd hole helps to make the large slopes appear smaller.

The finishing hole on the front 9 is a 395-yard par-4. Again, Morrish's design doesn't challenge you with length. What does create difficulty is the left side of the fairway. It drops off and is littered with bunkers through the landing area, a factor that makes accuracy everything.

Royal Links Golf Club -- Unlike the desert courses so popular in Las Vegas, Royal Links is a tribute to some of the most famous courses in Great Britain. This par-72, 7,029-yard course is one of several facilities run by the controversial Walters Golf company. The first hole establishes the tone of the round. A challenging par-4, its fairway winds around trees that push drives to the left. A tight dogleg leaves most drives behind three deep bunkers that carefully guard the elevated green. Inspired by No. 10 at Royal Lytham, the hole is a testament to how difficult the links-style can be.

Leigh Hallenberg, Contributor

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