feature

The Golf Course at the End of the World

At Coyote Springs, where recession has stalled a mega-development, a golf course endures in magnificent desolation.

Photo by Brian OarCoyote Springs in the early stages of construction, 2006.

Photo by Lonna TuckerJack Nicklaus (in sunglasses) and fellow course-design legend Pete Dye get the lay of the land.

Photo by Brian OarHole 13

You drive out on Interstate 15 going north past the airbase and the speedway, the city trailing off like a radio losing its signal. You can still feel it, though, at your back. By night there’s its galactic yellow glow, by day its white noise. But then you turn off at U.S. 93 and you’re in a different world altogether, a long line of asphalt drawn on a bead over the harsh and mysterious and preternatural beige desert floor and leading, it seems, to infinity. Sawtooth rock outcroppings jut from the roadside sand. Few traces of human intervention mark this severe land. It is a place of jackrabbits and tortoises, the only sound that of the desert wind. Las Vegas is as remote as Vienna.

Twenty-five miles after the turnoff, you come across an incongruous Las Vegas-style stone monument announcing, in bold letters, “Coyote Springs.” It is like a lost human relic from Planet of the Apes. The sign seems calculated to appeal to homebuyers’ thirst for exclusivity, but there are no homes to buy, no stamped-out beige stucco units with Iberian tile roofs, no mock-palaces.

There are only a few low-lying sheds and—beguilingly, magnificently—the emerald aura of one of the finest golf courses in the Western United States.

★★★★★★

In 1998, Harvey Whittemore, a Reno lawyer and one of the most powerful lobbyists in the state, bought the 43,000 acres that constitute Coyote Springs. The stock market was booming. Home prices continued to scale their precipitous upward gradient. Las Vegas was the fastest-growing city in the United States, spontaneously generating itself as entrepreneurs, builders, professionals, the skilled and the unskilled convened in this low-tax, 24-hour, all-singing-and-dancing American Dream boomtown, where someone who might elsewhere have trouble getting a minimum-wage job sweeping in a factory or crating catfish could bring in $80,000 per year parking cars.

It didn’t seem a bad idea at all to get some cheap land way out in the desert, plan a community and begin to sell homes at 15-20 percent less than what a similar-size unit in Las Vegas would cost.

The plan is stupendously grand—159,000 units catering to a broad demographic that would include the retired, the rich, young families of differing incomes, people who want a second home in the sun and the workers who will service the entire operation, to be built over a 60-80-year time span. The plan envisions not simply a housing development but a small city, with schools and parks and malls and a whole infrastructure of roads and services built from scratch with private money.

At the center of it all is golf.

★★★★★★

If you contract Jack Nicklaus’ design company to build a golf course for you, you get to choose from three levels of service, the prices rising according to the level of involvement of the great man himself. The highest level is the Signature course, for which you will pay around $2 million, which gets you a lot of personal input on the hole layouts from Nicklaus, site visits at the various stages of development, and a golf clinic and ceremonial first round at a grand opening.

The course that unfolds before you amid the wilds of Coyote Springs is a Nicklaus Signature course. It is called The Chase, and it opened in 2008. It was to have been one of 10 courses at Coyote Springs, but for now it stands alone, and this is one of the defining characteristics that makes the experience of playing The Chase so intriguing and so vivid.

I have played Nicklaus courses in both Europe and the United States. They tend to have a grand, muscular and amphitheatrical look and are particularly beautiful in low light because of the artfully rhythmical mounding. There is a precision and intelligence about the questions they ask. And because Nicklaus pays so much attention to the nature of the land and wants to bring it visually into the design features, you feel the contours of what you are in. When the people at The Chase built a couple of the holes Nicklaus had drawn and then showed them to him, he told them he thought it looked all right apart from the bunker shapes.

“When I look out there into the desert,” he said, “I see jagged edges and steep lines. The bunkers should have that look.”

Golf tends to be a suburban or resort-based pastime, with buildings and comforts all around. It is a manicured, cosseted world in the main and will never bring you into the raw encounter with nature that hunting or fishing or hiking can provide. But there are times when you can at least get proximity. I’ve had a sense of it at Banff or amid the dunes at Waterville in Ireland or at the great El Saler in Albufera National Park near Valencia, Spain. In the desert, I think, this is heightened. The desert is so ancient, pitiless, savage and strange. You feel this emanating from the land all around you at The Chase. Golf is always a confrontation with the self, if you take it seriously. The desert adds starkness, and the aura of allegory to it.

The Chase is, by any standard, an extraordinary golf course (and a surprisingly affordable one, with green fees ranging from $50-$100, depending on the day of the week or the time of the year). Travel + Leisure Golf, Golf, Golf Digest and Sports Illustrated have all extolled its virtues. Three of these placed it in the top three of the new courses of its year. It is magnificent to look at, with some of the holes mounted as if on a dais, its fairways ripple and flow as at British or Irish links, and its greens are varied in size and highly complex in contour. There is a lot of water—it figures on 11 holes—and even in the desert it does not appear out of place. The bunkers have intriguing lacy or cloud-like shapes and are often unusually deep. You feel yourself extending outward on a course such as this. Compared with The Chase, the courses that slink through the backyards of Las Vegas developments are like bumper-car rides at a cheap fairground.

★★★★★★

There are many holes you won’t forget, even after playing them just once.

The fourth is monumental, with its high platform fairway. The par-5 fifth is innovative and, you might say, amusing with its stripes of desert zigzagging across it from tee to green. The eighth is a brute of a par-3 with water all the way along the right and finally up to the fringe of the long angled green. The 13th is beautiful to behold with its mountain backdrop.

The closing holes of the two nines, though, are different. The wild beauty of the place is suddenly tamed. They run parallel to one another, separated by a lake with a gaudy and trite rock formation and sprinkled with palm trees like decoration on a birthday cake. After all that desert experience where you can sense, if not see, coyotes and rattlesnakes and jackrabbits, you feel on these holes as if you have suddenly stepped through a strange slipstream of air into Orlando, Fla.

I was told later that this was a deliberate attempt to make a transition from the desert into the embrace of what will eventually be the more landscaped and resort-like area around the clubhouse. It may work when the buildings are all up, but the desert experience elsewhere on the course is so bracing and immediate that I think I would have liked it to run on all the way to the end.

Someday, that is, this place may become ordinary, or less extraordinary, anyway. The time to come and be utterly transported is now, when the immaculate greens are surrounded by nothing but the world as it emerged from the glaciers.

★★★★★★

Is Coyote Springs insane hubris? Is it a daring and magnificent vision? Or is it just plain business? It is certainly a product of the boom time in which it was conceived, and it certainly is suffering the consequences of the times we are now in. Much of the period in between has been taken up with negotiations over water use, the presence of streambeds on the site and the impact of development on the desert tortoise, which is near extinction.

The water issue has been, and remains, particularly contentious, with analyses by hydrologists, environmental scientists and zoologists and meetings with officials at county, state and federal levels. Water for the golf course is presently drawn from the aquifer that will eventually be used for the entire development, should it come to pass, with still more water from the aquifer to be pumped into the Muddy River and thence into Lake Mead. But the long-term plan is for the golf course to be entirely supplied by graywater—water recycled for irrigation after spinning down the drains of our dishwashers, washing machines and tubs.

By the time plans were altered to cede 13,000 acres for tortoise habitat and all government regulatory agencies had given their approval to the plan, the recession had hit and sales were extremely difficult to make. Golfers, and perhaps tortoises, have benefited from this delay, but certainly not Whittemore’s company, the Wingfield Nevada Group, or Pardee Homes, which together have already put upward of $250 million into the ground in golf course and infrastructure construction. The situation is now even more difficult because Wingfield can no longer offer homes 15-20 percent cheaper than in Las Vegas, where prices have plummeted. No one can foresee when or if the economy will recover to the point where such a project so far out in the wilderness could be viable.

As wildernesses go, though, this one is really just around the corner. I was back in the city in less than an hour after my round of golf. It took me nearly that long to get from the part of nearly central London where I lived to the part of central London where I worked. The Las Vegas-to-Coyote Springs trek would be considered a short commute in Los Angeles.

The hypothetical future residents of Coyote Springs would have proximity to true desert and distance from the vicissitudes of Las Vegas. In the early stages of the development, they might experience the exhilaration of a new beginning in a hauntingly beautiful place. But the comfort and continuity of city life would be just down the highway. In time, the development itself would grow into something like a city, with its own comforts and continuities to replace the bracing shock of the new.

It is, of course, anyone’s guess whether there will ever be such residents, or such beginnings. For now, there is only the desert, and The Chase.

Ordinarily, if you see the ghost town of a property development gone wrong, you can think, Hard luck, someone put their money on the wrong number. But a golf course—at least one made with such high levels of devotion and talent as this one—is different. It is closer to a work of art than a business venture. There is something mysterious and magical and moving about it, lying out there alone in the desert, emerald and white and blue, huckstering no one, just itself, a beautiful gesture.

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