Courtesy of Shadow Creek
Saturday, April 6, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Map of Shadow Creek Golf Course
3 Shadow Creek Drive, North Las Vegas
Mark Brenneman traces his history as manager of Shadow Creek — the swank, exclusive golf club owned by MGM Resorts International — to a day 12 years ago when he was caddying.
Mind you, Brenneman was caddying that day for golfing great Nick Faldo, whose playing partner was Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The venue was Pebble Beach, a public golf resort steeped in American golf lore.
It’s about a nine-hour car ride from the Monterey Peninsula and Pebble Beach to Shadow Creek, a golfing oasis in the Mojave Desert that has grown to be somewhat of its own legend — a course where Tiger Woods practices and former U.S. presidents and movie stars come to unwind.
Brenneman, in his job running Shadow Creek, now serves as golf pro and caddy for the most elite players. The course opens its gates to the public only on rare occasions, including this weekend's Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational.
But back to that round between Faldo and Gates.
It was a few days before the U.S. Open. Brenneman wanted to be close to Faldo, a three-time winner of the British Open and owner of three green jackets signifying championships at the Masters. Brenneman, the golf pro at Spyglass Hill at Pebble Beach, assigned himself to be Faldo's caddy that day.
At the end of the round, Brenneman got an unexpected phone call from a corporate headhunter about a job in Las Vegas.
"Which golf course?" Brenneman remembered asking the recruiter.
"I can't tell you," he answered.
"Then I'm not interested," Brenneman said.
Still, the headhunter asked for Brenneman’s résumé. Brenneman had it handy on his computer, so he attached it to an email and sent it with a shrug. He was scheduled in a few days to be at the U.S. Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. But the next day, the headhunter called back. Bobby Baldwin, CEO of MGM Mirage Resorts, wanted to hire Brenneman.
Finally, Brenneman learned the golf course he was supposed to run was Shadow Creek.
"This course had been shrouded in mystery and people talked about it in whispers," Brenneman said. "I at least wanted to see it."
He took the job, and the golf course retains the same level of mystery today.
"It's never been on TV," he said. "We don't advertise and don't market ourselves. You have to stay at an MGM Resorts property."
No matter who you are.
A few years back, Brenneman got a call asking if then-President George W. Bush could play a round while he was in Las Vegas. Problem was, Bush was staying at a hotel owned by a competitor of MGM Resorts International. Sorry, Brenneman had to say. Just weeks later, Brenneman received a call from the office of Canada's prime minister, who was visiting under the same circumstances. Brenneman said sorry, again.
"You understand we're talking about the prime minister of Canada," the voice on the other end of the phone said.
"I know," Brenneman answered. "But if I can't let our president of the United States play here, then the prime minister can't either."
Bush would get his chance to play at the course last year, when he was speaking at the Aria, which also serves as host resort for the Jordan Celebrity Invitational. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, also has been a regular at Shadow Creek and keeps a fishing pole above his locker. He fishes out of one of the ponds on the course. Former President Bill Clinton has played there, too, along with high-rollers from MGM casinos who want to take a break from the craps or blackjack tables or baccarat rooms.
"We have greens fees of $500 a person that people can pay, but most are invited guests of the casino," Brenneman said.
Except for an occasional former president fishing in a pond, Shadow Creek is all about golf. There are no swimming pools or tennis courts typically seen at other golf clubs.
"You can find those at the casinos," Brenneman said in a voice that always sounds like he's smiling.
Steve Wynn built Shadow Creek for somewhere between $45 million and $60 million in 1989 on a flat piece of desert land, just off Losee Road in North Las Vegas. Designed by Tom Fazio, who has planned more of the 100 top-rated golf courses than any other architect, Shadow Creek rose out of imported dirt on the desert floor, with winding brooks with waterfalls, where players cross cobblestone bridges and walk amid pine and juniper trees. Snowy white egrets and blue herons swoop overhead. The Air Force Thunderbirds fly practice rounds in the distance from nearby Nellis Air Force Base.
Even after all these years, Brenneman still marvels at how nearby mountains look off one of the tees.
"See how the mountain range goes high left to low right?" Brenneman says. "Your eyes will always move along a diagonal."
At the end of that line is the green and the hole.
"And that's where you want to go," he said. "Little stuff like that makes all the difference. All the mountain ranges come into play in all these interesting ways."
Tall trees line the fairways, both as a buffer to the industrial areas surrounding the picturesque golf course as well as hiding what's around the next corner.
"You'll be driving along and all of the sudden the course reveals itself," Brenneman said. "You never know who's going to jump out of a limo and walk through the door; you don't know what's around the next corner."
Matt Damon, George Clooney and Sylvester Stallone have their names on brass plates over lockers. The plates are magnetic and can be swapped out to put another name next to the lockers of celebrities such as Jordan and Woods.
"I remember one day, Matt Damon was here, and he was walking through the locker room," Brenneman said. "He made a beeline right to his locker to make sure it was still there. When he saw his name, he pumped his fist. It's interesting to see people, no matter how famous they are or how much money they have, get excited about these things."
Such excitement can be attributed to Brenneman's own personality. He reacts with glee and amazement, showing visitors around a course he's seen daily for 12 years. It’s like a child seeing wrapped presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Each day, he drives from his home near Sahara Avenue and Valley View Boulevard toward an area of storage rentals and auto-repair shops. Most people making the turn off Craig Road onto Losee Road and toward the hidden valley of Shadow Creek usually arrive by limousine.
Just like his journey to Las Vegas started with a golf game between a golf champion and a titan of business, Brenneman continues to live a kind of fantasy life amid a forest carved out of the desert.
And that's kind of what Shadow Creek is meant to be — an escape from the Strip.
"See that arched bridge over there?” Brenneman asks as he drives a cart around the course. “Normally, an architect would put that front and center, like, ‘Look at me.’ Here it's 50 yards off the hole. It's subtle. That's different.
"Las Vegas is known for a lot of things, and subtlety isn't one of them. On a conscious level, the players who come here know they're in Las Vegas, but you also look at this and think you could be anywhere else but Nevada."