Editor’s notebook: Show me the money!
Brian Oar, Wynn Golf Club

Editor’s notebook: Show me the money!

Sin City’s newest attraction boasts a big name (hello, Tom Fazio), a bigger greens fee ($550?!) and plenty of great stories.

October 16, 2019

Most of the first round of headlines about the new Wynn Golf Club, which opened last week in Las Vegas, has focused on its peak $550 green fee, which, yes, sounds exorbitant compared to what most courses charge.

Consider, though, that the greens fee includes carts powered by lithium batteries, caddies from a crew that includes more than a dozen current or former PGA professionals, and four or five hours on the only course on the Strip — you can’t even play a round of putt-putt this close to the casinos — and that number starts to feel almost like a bargain.

“And if you keep somebody from gambling for four and a half hours,” says Brian Hawthorne, the executive director of golf operations, “we might be saving people money.”

Hawthorne joined a conference call with Tom Fazio, who partnered with his son, Logan, to reimagine a course he first designed almost 15 years ago. Fazio was Fazio, quipping about how he might have fired Logan if not for their familial bond, the “budget” he worked with (but not whether he came in under whatever that number might have been), and the great exaggerations of his retirement.

“That’s competition spreading rumors,” Fazio says. “Why would you retire from the business of designing golf courses? It's easy, it’s fun, people pay you a lot of money and you work in great, exciting places for great people. Who would retire from that? Nobody. 

“The only thing I retired from was going to meetings. I don't go to meetings anymore because I don’t have enough time for meetings.” 

Fazio talked plenty about the course, of course.

“Most of the time we’re trying to block the views of surrounding areas, we’re trying to block the views of buildings,” Fazio says. “But we’re in Las Vegas, we’re on the Strip, we have these magnificent structures all around us and this magnificent environment of buildings and fun and excitement. There’s no way to hide them.” So, he embraced the surroundings.

“Step one was grading the land,” Fazio says. “Based on the corridors, we were forced with our golf holes to be in (certain) locations, because we saved much of the vegetation that existed. There’s even some vegetation from the original Desert Inn Golf Course where we kept some of the huge big trees. … It gave us the opportunity for mature framing and definition. The shaping evolved to whatever view we had. We put the best shape into the frame of the golf hole and (didn't) try to manipulate the shape of the land to what was in the distant view.”

The new course succeeds the old Wynn Golf Club, which closed Dec. 17, 2017 after a dozen years on the Strip. During an earnings call two months before he shuttered the course with plans to develop Paradise Park — a luxury hotel and convention center partnered with beaches, boat rides, water skiing and ziplines — former Wynn Resorts chairman Steve Wynn said transitioning from golf to broader entertainment would result in “a tremendous uptick in the value of our surrounding real estate.” What good is a 130-or-so-acre course that brings in a reported $5 million in profit when every one of those acres is worth two or three times that amount? “I’ve got a billion and a half dollars of real estate under that golf course,” Wynn said back in 2005.

But then Wynn resigned in February 2018 amid a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations and the executive team realized the financial benefits of a golf course. “Not only did we notice we lost 16,000 rounds of golf out there — 70 percent of which were cash — but we lost probably $10 million to $15 million worth of domestic casino business,” Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox said on a 2018 earnings call. “We weren’t really interested in building a large public swimming pool for the Las Vegas Strip. Now we can put our golf course back in as an amenity.”

The course might be key to future development, too. According to a recent profile of Wynn Resorts chairman Phil Satre published in The Nevada Independent, the company plans to develop on the 34-acre former New Frontier site it owns across the Strip from Wynn Las Vegas and Encore — and “getting the golf course back was critical to our positioning we have there,” Satre said.

For now, at least, “The idea was to incorporate not only the challenge from vegetation, but also relief and contour and framing and definition, and also some excitement in the terrain,” Fazio says. “We went from being a flat, narrow golf course to a rolling, elevated, framed kind of a setting.”

The course features Dominator Bentgrass greens, with Tifway II Bermudagrass and a seasonal ryegrass overseed on the rest of the turf — all under the eye of superintendent Jason Morgan, who received praise from Fazio.

“Every day during those hot summer months, those 100-plus degree days,” Morgan was “making sure the sprinklers are in the right position, making sure the spacing’s where they go and how they fit,” Fazio says. “There’s so much detail that went into that golf course in a short space of time and Jason was the guy in the field making it happen.”

Oh, and about that $550 greens fee? “If you put the economics of everything involved in that, it’s really not a high price because of the value of that real estate, the value of what was spent to build it, the value to maintain it, the cost to maintain it in that location is extremely high,” Fazio says. “It’s shocking to me that a golf course exists in this location.”

 Matt LaWell is GCI’s managing editor.