6,552 yards, 134 from the White tees
Technically in Henderson, Nevada but really, it’s Vegas baby. Designed by my friend and yours, Rees Jones, in 1997, the course is set in the hills above the city, moving well through canyons and washes as well as along ridge lines and cliff tops. The rigid terrain is used nicely, the skyline views were a welcome refresh and the variety was well thought out. It should be noted Butch Harmon is the teaching director here and for those so inclined with the means, this is a pretty good place for a lesson.
Before going on, it’s worthwhile to discuss Vegas golf in general. It’s in a little different head space than most destinations, mainly because the golf is generally not the main reason tourists are visiting. While there is more pressure on courses that are the main attraction to deliver, is the purpose of Vegas courses different? Are they to provide a respite from the gambling, drinking, shows, lights and no sleep of the strip? If so, what about the locals? Are they not also looking for interesting, really good golf? I think the answer to all of this is, yes. I for one was looking for a different experience than elsewhere. I wanted interest and intrigue but not intensity. I wanted to be able to socialize and have fun without the golf becoming too dull and ignore altogether, simply going through the motions. I wanted a sense of place that wasn’t too sanitized, but didn’t want to work too hard to experience it. The golf had to set itself apart and make it worthwhile to bring the clubs, but I just won’t have the bandwidth to tackle a course demanding my every ounce of being. I found it an interesting line to balance and the courses I played out here all did it differently yet appealingly well.
The underrated aspect of Rio Secco I found impressive were the off fairway natural areas. Being able to find your ball amidst the rocky desert hills or desert brush, then actually having a shot at recovery, was pretty cool. The variety likewise stuck out, the hills and terrain used a lot of different ways, some of it for fun and to instill confidence, some of it to intimidate and see if you’ll crumble or rise to the occasion.
Of course, we played here on what was called the windiest day in the last 20 years. This, either literally or figuratively, blew all the other groups off the course and allowed us to roam about at our leisure. Some holes became comically long while others seemed much much shorter. The wind was so strong that it would simply knock the ball down to the ground when the ball reached it, so you either had to hit harder to break through the initial gusts or keep it low enough to stay out of it altogether.
It was a day. Finally traveling and doing a lot of things I had trained myself not to for over a year, I awoke at some ungodly hour and took an Uber to the airport, where I found my favorite place to watch the sunrise with a coffee still intact. Trying to figure out what the hell Tenet was about, we were landing before I knew it and as I’m wont to do, went directly from the airport to the golf course. It was surreal. Months and months at home, adjusting to a different way, that part of me, ancient part really, formed thousands and thousands of years ago where my ancestors likely went from place to place, always in motion until that was the comfort, that part in a dormant slumber for some time, began to stir yet again. Vegas sensed it and took hold immediately.
The First is a 346 yard par 4 (from the White tees). Straight out with bunkers off to the sides, it’s an unassuming tee shot to get things started. The entry point to the green is on the right, while a large sunken bunker is off to the left. The green is wide, the right side obviously being more conservative while those approaching from the left are daring and feel like going for the pin.
The Second is a 432 yard par 4. The view of the city line is out in the distance while some incredible homes are on top of the ridge looking down at the fairway. The tee shot is elevated and must be carried over desert brush. The fairway is angled off to the right, leaving the golfer with the decision how far right to go over the brush, most all of it blind from the tee. The fairway moves downhill to the green and cants from left to right. Bunkers are at the right and rear, which almost help to keep off-line approach shots in play. The left to right movement resonates with every shot.
The Third is a 159 yard par 3. A forced carry uphill tee shot that seems easy enough but I found the depth perception tough here, mainly due to the apron before the green. A simple sole bunker off to the left brings definition to the hole and signals to the golfer in plain terms where not to go. While the challenge is straightforward, those who miss the green will likely compound the difficulty depending on where they end up. All right in front of us.
The Fourth is a 306 yard par 4. A short par 4 where decisions must be made at the tee. A large bunker rests just below the green and there are bunkers on either side of the fairway, so deciding where to end up on the fairway, or green, or even green side bunker, as well as what club goes the straightest, should be pondered. Like the hole prior, those getting out of position off the tee will face a much more daunting recovery approach while the rest of us have a shorter uphill approach shot to the green. The green moves a bit stronger here than elsewhere so bear that in mind.
The Fifth is a 383 yard par 4. A dog leg left moving through the hillside canyons, the right side is once again favored while the left side is for the more adventurous, who will need to negotiate over or around the sunken bunker on that side. The fairway moves a bit uphill to the green where it sweeps up and on to the left canyon wall while the green resides at the base of the wall. There’s lots of room to work with around the green, so use as you see fit.
The Sixth is a 168 yard par 3. A forced carry par 3, bunker lower left. Way too similar in structure the to the Third for me. With the elevation difference, it’s almost the same distance as well. It’s a wide green with some subtle movement, so those who have been battered around the canyon walls have a chance at saving some strokes here. Ultimately, it just feels like a lot more could have been done here to set this hole apart.
The Seventh is a 344 yard par 4. Things narrow within the walls with a break in the fairway. Hitting the fairway from the tee is paramount. The green sits below, large and deep with a nice inviting entryway. The surrounding desert ridge is above, looking down upon us in a natural amphitheater.
The Eighth is a 476 yard par 5. Moving a bit uphill, there is a break in the fairway that comes into play on the second shot but otherwise there is a lot of width here that is a welcome change from the canyons whence we just came. With the pin essentially blowing sideways and the ball moving like a pinball on the green, I some how managed to sink it and move on with my hat still intact. It wasn’t easy. Honestly, it was so windy on this hole we were hanging on dear life.
The Ninth is a 562 yard par 5. Back to back par 5’s, this one being downhill for the first half with no breaks in the fairway. Bunkers are sparsely placed at the sides and the width continues here as well and the green sits at a ridge, where going long means tumbling into abyss below. Again the left of the green has a lower short grass collection area, signaling the right side is where it’s at.
The front nine has a cadence as it moves from the hills into the canyons and back out again. The width expands and constricts, while it relies on the terrain movement more than it initially appears. It’s engaging yet the par 3’s seem to be mailed in. I would rank them 7, 2, 5, 4, 8, 9, 1, 3, 6.
The back nine starts with the 403 yard par 4 Tenth. A dog leg left moving downhill to the green, the area in front of the green moves downhill from left to right, where a bunker is at the deepest part at the right front. The green is raised and aside from the surrounding depression, is a nice large target to hit.
The Eleventh is a 447 yard par 4. This is fairly straight and runs downhill with bunkers on either side. The wind was with us and howling, my drive ended up at 320 yards. No matter; I managed to butcher the hole anyways, with the large bunkers at either side of the green, I almost got in my cart and went to get Butch to work on my sand game.
The Twelfth is a 151 yard par 3. A forced carry over a desert wash well below us, the green allows a wide berth of acceptable shots to get over it. The bunker at the front of the green is an additional buffer that needs to be carried, so be sure to account for it when deciding what club to use.
The Thirteenth is a 372 yard par 4. Downhill and straight as everything funnels towards the center of the fairway leading to the green, the terrain shifts closer to the green from left to right. The right side bunker is indeed well below the green and the left side noticeable above it. This movement is enough to consider off the tee to set up the ideal approach accounting for the green dynamics.
The Fourteenth is a 533 yard par 5. Starting to move within the canyons, we start to move uphill as the fairway dog legs to the left early on before straightening to the green. There’s a right to left tilt to it and the green is deep, with a single green side bunker at the front left. This is one hole where off fairway gets a little dicey but there is some width to play with.
The Fifteenth is a 371 yard par 4. A dog leg right where the fairway also tilts to the right, everything messages that the left side off the tee is where you want to end up. Likewise, the entry point to the green is on the left, with bunkers on either side of it. The green actually moves subtly from right to left, against the hillside a bit.
The Sixteenth is a 181 yard par 3. The final par 3 has water dominating the foreground but I suppose it isn’t a forced carry over it since there’s a path off to the right for those so inclined. Of course, even in that direction you will need to carry the desert rock and brush instead of water. Once you reach the green from whichever path you decided on, it is multi tiered and wide, the higher end on the right. There is room front right and right of the green to bail out on as well, but the green is moving away from you on that side so it will be quite a shot on.
The Seventeenth is a 518 yard par 5. The clubhouse is off to the left but we go out and back to finish off the round. This final par 5 isn’t the widest fairway, but it’s in front of us, bending a little left at the bottom of the hills off to our right. The green is off to the left, a forced carry over the rocky desert terrain and brush. The golfer must decide to go for the green on the second shot or yield for position for a closer approach. Short or left are the places to miss.
The Eighteenth is a 400 yard par 4. A forced carry off the tee is straight and again, right in front of us. The fairway rumples and eschews off the sides while the green rests along the water, rippling at its left. Running up to the green or flying into it is up to you but don’t miss; the green runs gleefully to the water, like the oasis it really is.
The back nine is well balanced with the front with well varied holes on good desert terrain. The starting holes warm you in before the transition to a more wild ride starting at the Twelfth continues on really until the end. The 3-5-4 finish is a good one, challenging with a bit of flexibility. I would rank them 15, 17, 14, 18, 16, 12, 13, 10, 11.
Generally, Rio Secco balanced that line I mentioned before. A nice measure of challenge, interest and a dash of intensity, yet not overly penal or complex. There is real golf here in spades yet it’s accessible for most anyone. The views of the city from above and the horizon added to the experience as well. Like a sound course is able to do, it does start to tighten for those really looking for a score. The terrain movement, a few forced carries and elevation changes ensure those going for a score will need to pay attention to those things to get closer to the pin.
While I enjoy courses designed By Rees and have been known to defend him from time to time, his bunkering schemes can be underwhelming. Placement is usually on the sides, or just one side, typically in the same spots. You see that here but looking beyond it, the natural desert comes into play a lot more often than it seems at first blush. That seems to be the more interesting and complex feature of the game here while the bunkers are more of the straightforward challenge Rees preferred to signal to the golfer.
As a public option in Vegas, this is a substantial course worthy of play. I’ll return at some point, the wind will not be as angry. That’s the safest bet I’m willing to make.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: This is Vegas, of course the clubhouse is some where you’ll want to hang out.
Practice area: Range, short game area, putting green. Even the halfway house is right there in case you need something while you’re hitting.
There’s a lot that happened after this round. While we decided on coming when we did because we heard everything was empty and relatively laid back, that was hardly the case when we arrived. The first weekend that seemed to declare a return to the way things were, a powder keg of pent up at-home inactivity hit the city at once. After a fantastic yet relaxing dinner at Esther’s Kitchen, which is exhibit A for off-strip dining, we hit the downtown casinos first. The crowds were unexpected, the craziness followed. A whirlwind of tables and dice and drinks and Uber rides, finally getting to the strip and going to casinos I had never heard of (my Vegas days were mainly in the early 2000’s), at some point I realized I had been up 24 hours from the time I was waiting in the quiet morning dawn for my ride to the airport, back home. Whether it was the revitalized energy of the city, or all that Smoke Wagon bourbon and Jack and Cokes is anyone’s guess, but a mixture of memories of my college days, love of Vegas, old friends and new all came together for a pretty fun night, memorialized in moments of hilarity and one liners, scattered like a deck of cards on the ground with no linearity, as it should be. Fn Vegas.