Where should I play golf in Las Vegas? This is a frequently asked question, especially when the northern winter is dragging on toward March Madness. It will likely come as no surprise that we think Vegas is a city where it is tough to find the architecturally interesting “bang for your buck” courses that we crave at The Fried Egg. But that does not mean we don’t have an answer to the question. Sin City visitors who have a day, a car and a sense of adventure can play one of the most underrated courses in America…in Utah.
Following along on the map below, at one end is a man-made wonder. On the other end is a natural wonder. In between is a wonder built by man on top of a natural wonder. The Championship Course at Sand Hollow Resort, designed by John Fought and Andy Staples, with its singular back nine, is well worth the effort of a two hour drive.
More than 200 million years ago, a geological transformation began in what is now Northeast Arizona and Southwest Utah. The transformed area, which stretches from the Grand Canyon in the south to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in the north, is known as the Grand Staircase. Totaling millions of acres, it also includes Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Park.
The Staircase moniker is a reference to the layers of stone that formed over millennia as ancient lakes receded, and sand dunes formed and blew away. Upheaval of the Colorado Plateau created the rock formations we now see, exposing the colored rock layers.
The oldest layer, the Chocolate Cliffs, can be found on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The reddish-brown Vermillion Cliffs appear near Kanab. The White Cliffs make Zion spectacular. The Gray Cliffs, between Zion and Bryce, were formed during the Cretaceous Period. The youngest Pink Cliffs, at a mere 50 million years old, are located in Bryce. Although these macro layer descriptions make the Staircase seem monochromatic by region, the reality is much more varied. Whether visiting a park, driving on the highway, or playing golf on or near the Red Rock Golf Trail in St. George, bands of color abound. Each rock formation has its own layers and character created by accumulation and pressure, and revealed by wind and water over time. It is truly one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Building Sand Hollow
Northeast of St. George, UT in a little town called Hurricane is a step of the staircase. Relative to the Grand Stairs, this step might be minuscule, but for golfers making their way around the back nine of Sand Hollow, the effect is as awe-inspiring as those produced by the nearby National Parks.
John Fought was an accomplished collegiate and professional player before turning to design. He partnered with Bob Cupp on noteworthy projects such as Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon before going out on his own. Fought is based in Arizona with a focus on the West Coast, but has also worked across the U.S. from the upper Midwest to the Southeast.
In addition to co-designing Sand Hollow and leading the build on the ground, Andy Staples has seen his profile rise due to a number of recent projects. He implemented his community links vision at Rockwind in Hobbs, NM, infused some Willie Park Jr. back into Meadowbrook outside of Detroit, and was tapped to master plan the renovation of Olympia Fields.
The pair’s collaboration on Sand Hollow yielded a course that has strong design features while still integrating with the landscape. Where nature speaks loudly, the shaping volume is appropriately dialed down. The choice to use local red sand in the bunkers and accent with native vegetation was spot on, and gives the course a unique look and feel.
The holes at Sand Hollow appear “found”, masking particularly the amount of prep work that went into creating golf along the cliff edge. According to Staples, “We think we moved 26,000 yards of dirt for the project, and I’d say 99% of that was on the 11th through 15th. The entire site was roughly 2 feet of blow sand on top of sandstone. The holes on the cliff were areas the wind had blown the sand up over the ridge and onto flats. For example, the 13th was there but all rock, so we just excavated 3-4 feet of rock and filled the “well” with sand.” A fascinating construction process, as evidenced by the photo montage of this short but tough par-4.
Not all of the holes in this section fell into place quite so seamlessly, but it’s hard to argue with the end result. Andy explains, “The 14th was a big cut in the fairway and fill at the green. We wanted to route this hole up the hill in more friendly ground but that area occupied the best home lots – golf lost. Interestingly, and a reason I was fine with the routing of the 14th, was the green site and angle of play line directly up with 15 green. I love it when you’re playing one hole, but a view to the next gets you thinking about it prematurely. The 15th was a tough build – we picked away at it over the course of most of the construction of the back nine. There was a cool tee down and to the left that called for an uphill wedge shot that was eliminated. Even without that tee though, the variety of distances, angles and wind direction make this hole incredibly different day-to-day.”
Clearly, Fought, Staples and their crew had to work the land to create Sand Hollow. What makes the course so special though is that their design works with the land as well.
Our focus here is on the inward nine, which is not meant in any way to diminish the outward. The land on the first nine might not be as dramatic, but the architects created a great mix of holes that play over rumpled ground around rock formations. They are strategically bunkered and punctuated with a fun set of greens and surrounds.
Short left of the green on the par-5 2nd
The front nine routing is a solid complement to the back, building anticipation like a perfectly arranged song. There is a looming sense that crescendo is coming, challenging the player to keep their mind on the shot at hand. By the time the turn is made, interest has been piqued.
The inward nine plays as a continuous loop out to, along and then back from the edge of the breathtaking plateau on which the resort was built.
A hole-by-hole breakdown of the most memorable stretch follows, with a mix of ground photos including beauties from Jon Cavalier (@linksgems). The photos and descriptions give some sense of what it is like to play these terrific holes, but what they fail to convey is the enormous scale of the setting. Photographer Brian Oar contributed his stunning aerial photography to add that perspective. Looping the heart of the back nine at Sand Hollow is like playing golf along the edge of the world. (Follow Brian at @brianoar and brianoar.com).
A note about conditioning – Sand Hollow is a year round golf course, and therefore goes through seasons. On a winter visit, I was delighted to find dormant turf playing firm and fast. My local playing partner was not equally thrilled, and spent much of the round questioning why the staff was not over-seeding and (over)watering to keep the turf bright green. It makes me cringe to think of resort management or players badgering Superintendent Wade Field to “green the course up” at the expense of playing conditions. Sand Hollow is a course that is begging to bounce. Further, our multi-seasonal photos illustrate that it is a layout that looks beautiful regardless of turf color. A great design in a drop-dead gorgeous setting is an aesthetic luxury. There is no need to muck it up by fighting nature and the seasons. The best approach is always to task the Super with delivering that healthy, bouncy turf, and let Mother Nature handle the rest.
HOLE #10 – 565 yards – par 5
Mounting the elevated 10th tee, the player gets a sense that something has changed – excitement levels are rising. The drive plays at a slight angle down a fairway with bunkers scattered, demanding that a line be confidently chosen. The second is uphill, which makes getting home difficult for all but the longest hitters. The lay-up area is generous, but favoring the left is ideal to get an angle on the pitch into this large contoured green.
HOLE #11 – 190 yards – par 3
The 11th is a lovely reverse Redan on level ground. Deep bunkers front the right of the green, which runs away at an angle from front left to back right. The wind whips on this exposed art of the property, making judging distance a challenge. With the infinity green setting and the butte beyond, players get more of a sense of the height and scale of this corner of the property.
HOLE #12 – 443 yards – par 4
Coming off the back of the 11th green and rounding the corner, players are met with their first taste of Sand Hollow’s ledge. It is a moment that one never forgets. In short order, however, one must gather oneself to focus on producing a strong tee shot on this stout uphill two-shotter. The fairway is much bigger than it looks, but it is almost impossible to convince your mind of that fact. Flirting with the left side yields the best angle into a green that is large and heavily contoured.
HOLE #13 – 320 yards – par 4
The short par-4 13th is a devilish little hole that distracts, tempts and beguiles all at once. Players are given the choice to fit a lay-up between the left and center bunkers, or more boldly attempt to carry the center bunker from the tee. The safe right side is severely disadvantaged due to the front right bunker guarding a narrow green that slopes slightly to the left. Pull of the drive, and birdie is a real possibility. All forms of disaster await poorly conceived and executed shots though.
HOLE #14 – 525 yards – par 4
The third straight par-4 in this stretch, is likely the most overlooked, but it is a fantastic hole. The drive is blind over a rise that has a “gun sight” bunker cut into it. The fairway runs downhill all the way to the green allowing players to bust a big tee ball. It is also sloped severely from right to left though, requiring a good line. Too high and the ball can hang up in the rough or desert right making the approach extremely difficult. Too low and the ball could tumble to its death left. The approach into the green accepts running shots making this long hole playable even for shorter hitters. A wonderful change of pace hole that adds variety to Sand Hollow’s back nine.
HOLE #15 – 230 yards – par 3
Sand Hollow’s final one-shotter is its most stunning. Multiple tees give the 15th tremendous flexibility, but playing from the chute between rock outcroppings is a must for first time visitors. The green is larger and more receptive than it looks from the tee, rewarding steady nerves. The 15th is another spot where it is best to pause for a moment after walking off the green to take in the entire scene.
The 16th through 18th holes turn back toward the clubhouse and work steadily uphill. As is true on the 1st through the 9th, Fought and Staples employ creative flourishes, such as the Great Hazard on the par-5 17th, to keep the interest level high all the way home.
Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Walking off the 18th green, players are treated to one final view from the property’s high point of the surrounding mountains that link Sand Hollow’s stair step to the Grand Staircase.
A few pro tips for first-time adventurers to put in their pockets. Sand Hollow strongly encourages players to take carts. A cart is completely unnecessary on the front nine as the holes are walkable and almost all of the green-to-tee walks are reasonable. It is nice to have a cart on the back nine though for some of the longer and more arduous hole-to-hole transitions. If you are a walking golf devotee, we recommend bringing along a cart loving buddy who can provide a lift to help you avoid superfluous hiking.
Speaking of hiking, Zion National Park is a mere 32 miles from Sand Hollow. Not far inside the south entrance is the Canyon Overlook Trail. Taking in the view from the top is a spiritual experience, and the hike up is still doable even after 18 holes.
If, after playing the main course at Sand Hollow, a little more golf sounds like more fun than outdoorsmanship, take the time to loop around the Links Nine. It plays over gentler ground, but is packed with strategy and interest. Grab a partial set and go have fun hitting shots without worrying about score.
Photo Credit: Brian Oar
The bottom line on an adventure like this is to pack the day to the point of bursting. It’s an all-world quality experience, and Las Vegas will be waiting for you, regardless of what time you return.