Southern Highlands Golf Club is “quietly close” to the Strip- and a world away from the typical Las Vegas scene.
Most of the sights and sounds that are distinct to Las Vegas are pretty hard to miss: the glow of the Strip which, on clear nights, can be seen for miles from both the road and the air; the outlandish, outsized architecture of fake Roman ruins, recreated pyramids and replica New York skyscrapers; the 24-hour sensory overload that’s promoted by the city itself in its very effective “What Happens in Vegas…” marketing campaign.
After you’ve viewed all of that and head south out of town on I-15, though, you’re likely to fly right by something else that should also be taken in to complete a full tour of Las Vegas’ special attractions. But if you slow down to exit on Southern Highlands Parkway, and then drive up Robert Trent Jones Lane, you’ll come to a golf course and club property that, in less than a decade, has also done much to add to the image of what Las Vegas has to offer.
Southern Highlands GC AT A GLANCE
The Strip is “literally 10 minutes” from Southern Highlands Golf Club, says Shelley Caiazzo, the club’s Director of Marketing. “If you want all the hubbub and action, it’s easy to get to it. We like to say we’re ‘quietly close.’ ”
Quiet as in desert quiet—but while the property still features the calm and peacefulness of the desert scrubland that it was until the end of the 1990s, anyone now dropped blindfolded onto the golf course or club grounds would be hard-pressed to think “Mojave” as soon as their mask was removed.
“It was literally all just dirt when I first saw it,” says Caiazzo, a former membership and marketing manager for ClubCorp who came from West Palm Beach, Fla. in 1998 to be the first employee of the golf club being developed as part of a master-planned community by Olympia Companies. “Coming from a lush place with unlimited water like Florida, it was hard to visualize that anything like that could be created here,” she recalls. “But as they kept moving massive amounts of dirt, creating elevation changes, building waterfalls, and planting tens of thousands of trees and flowering shrubs, it became something that had never been seen in this area before.”
What it became, in fact, led Links magazine in 2006 to cite Olympia Companies’ President, Garry Goett, as a “Vegas Visionary,” for bringing the concept of “high-end golf real estate” to Las Vegas through Southern Highlands. “What’s now commonplace throughout Las Vegas and its outlying areas began with one man and one idea,” Links wrote of Goett. “The success of Southern Highlands has caused others in the area to emulate the winning formula of golf and luxury.”
There’s nothing common, though, about the approaches that Goett and the management team of Southern Highlands Golf Club have taken to put, and keep, their property on the map, not only in Southern Nevada but on a national scale. And it’s certainly arguable whether the other properties that have followed the same “formula” have come close to creating the same effect.
It all started with the golf course, designed through a rare collaboration between the father-son team of Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr. Working with the club’s initial Superintendent, Riley Stottern, a third-generation industry veteran and former President of the Golf Course Superintendents Association, the design and grow-in had such an immediately spectacular impact that Southern Highlands quickly earned accolades as the West’s best new course and attracted PGA Tour events that showed off its 225 acres of rolling, immaculately landscaped terrain and creative water features.
Stottern left to return to his native Utah in 2004, but course maintenance didn’t miss a beat, as the two assistants who had worked under him were promoted to be co-superintendents.
“We turned three jobs into two,” reports Randy Lee, who now shares the role with Andy Hawkins. “In the normal course of duties, Andy focuses on turf issues, and I focus on the upkeep of the irrigation system and the business side.”
Lee was on site at Southern Highlands from the beginning of construction. Even when it looked like nothing but dirt, he says, “there wasn’t a whole lot of skepticism” about what it was going to become. “When you saw all the machinery and truckloads of sod being brought in,” he says, “you knew the people behind it were committed to making it special.”
The course of overseeded ryegrass over bermuda, with bentgrass greens, has continued to “improve a little bit every year,” Lee reports. The club adheres faithfully to a schedule of aerifying in the spring and fall, the latter session coinciding with when the course is closed in September for overseeding.
|“You have to be proactive, especially in a tight economy, or you’ll get run over.” —General Manager Stan Spraul, CCM||Director of Golf Jay Beckman ensures that golf club traditions are upheld so players can experience the “different, tranquil side” of Las Vegas.|
While Lee and Hawkins team up to direct a grounds operation that ensures the unfailing quality of the course, Director of Golf Jay Beckman oversees those at the club who make sure that playing a round there is always a special experience, too.
“This is a very traditional golf club in a non-traditional city,” says Beckman, an Iowa native who took his position at Southern Highlands a year after it opened, after working for properties like Castle Pines Golf Club in Colorado and the Innisbrook Golf Resort in Florida.
“Everything we stand for is in contrast to the modern, fast-paced, sometimes crazy world that is Las Vegas,” Beckman says. “When you come through our gates, you experience the different, tranquil side of this area. We don’t have tee times and have firm rules against cell phone use. The West Coast had never seen a place like this.”
With around 11,000 rounds played on the course annually and a “busy day” involving maybe 100 golfers, Beckman says the golf staff can focus on maintaining service levels and standards that he feels match up with “any golf course in the country.”
“Just about everyone on the staff has been here quite a while, which is a testament to the place and to the ownership,” he notes. “It’s a good working environment where people are empowered to make the decisions that ensure we don’t ever have to say ‘no,’ and can always provide the high level of response Southern Highlands has become known for.”
More to Enjoy
While the quality of the course and golf experience provided instant momentum towards establishing Southern Highlands’ reputation, the club hasn’t relied on those attributes alone. In 2004, Spa Southern Highlands was opened, offering a 25-meter lap pool and 4,000-sq. ft. fitness center as part of a total 13,000-sq. ft. “relaxation experience.” Five years later, Caiazzo feels the facility is still state-of-the-art. “For a private golf club, it’s still as magnificent as anything you’ll find at a resort,” she says.
At the Spa (where a Grille is open for breakfast and lunch) and inside the club’s Tuscan-style, 42,000-sq. ft. clubhouse, ample attention has also been paid to ensuring that the food and beverage offer at Southern Highlands measures up to the considerable F&B competition that exists in Las Vegas.
“You can walk down the Strip and quickly find ten good restaurants—and our members can, and have, eaten in all of the great ones, not only in Las Vegas, but around the country and world,” says Terry Redihan, who has been Southern Highlands’ Executive Chef for the last three years, after serving as Sous Chef for the previous five.
“Our President [Garry Goett] and General Manager [Stan Spraul] have been good about insisting that [the F&B staff] gets out regularly for restaurant tours, to see what the competition in the city is doing,” Redihan says. “That helps us keep getting new ideas, so when we change our menus every three or four months, we can always try to have a variety of new soups, appetizers and specials.
“Mr. Goett has also been encouraging us to provide lighter sauces and healthier menu options,” he adds. “Our new Sous Chef, Eric Castillo, is just out of culinary school and has shown us a lot of new, creative ways to keep up with the latest trends, without giving up taste.”
Demonstrating that Southern Highlands is not “above it all” in the sense of being overly stuffy, the club has also had good success with casual “T.G.I. Jeans” dinners on Thursday nights, where the dress code is relaxed. Plans are in the works to now extend the casual concept, which the culinary staff uses to introduce new menu items, to Sunday nights as well.
From the club’s inception, Southern Highlands’ ownership and membership has also demonstrated, through a major emphasis on charitable activities, that they never want to be perceived as ignoring the larger needs of Las Vegas. The most prominent of these efforts has been the annual Governor’s Black-Tie Invitational Golf Tournament, launched in 2001 and now held each spring as one of the highest-profile events on the city’s social calendar. The tournament, which now consistently raises close to $1 million each year to benefit a variety of area charities, concludes with a Governor’s Grand Bash, featuring live performances by big-name acts like Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey, Earth, Wind & Fire and Huey Lewis and the News.
Planning for each year’s tournament and Bash is a year-round undertaking for all of the club’s departments, as they seek to keep finding novel forms of excitement for the golf competition and parties. Redihan invites many of the city’s top restaurant chefs to contribute to the festivities. “[The restaurant chefs] are very generous with their time, and their participation serves as a great springboard to get people excited about what will be new and different each year,” he says.
Perhaps the most impressive contribution that Southern Highlands has made to not only Las Vegas, but all of Nevada, has come through its leadership in advocating for the needs of all golf courses and clubs in the state on two critical issues: water use and property taxes.
|Executive Chef Terry Redihan often goes “on tour” to ensure the fare in the Men’s Grille and other club outlets is always up to Las Vegas’ lofty restaurant standards.|
The water situation has become so critical that a ban has been imposed on any new course development in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas. But the promise of no new competition doesn’t make things any easier for clubs like Southern Highlands, which budgets $1 million a year for its water bill. That level of expense is
“unfathomable to clubs in other parts of the country; they think it’s absurd,” says Southern Highlands’ General Manager, Stan Spraul. “But it’s our highest managed asset, by far—and that number actually is much less than what it could be.”
Since becoming the club’s GM in 2002, Spraul has devoted considerable time to serving as President of the Nevada Golf Course Owners Association. The chapter was formed shortly after he arrived at Southern Highlands, he explains, after a Wall Street Journal article suggested that all golf courses in Southern Nevada should go brown to prevent a precipitous drop in the level of Lake Mead (the largest reservoir in the U.S., located on the Colorado River 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas).
“That led to proposals that all Southern Nevada courses be limited to watering on specific days of the week,” Spraul says. “It would have been devastating to the golf industry here. We worked with the Southern Nevada Water Authority to come up with an alternative plan: yearly water budgets for each course that are monitored and reported on monthly, with severe penalties if the budgets are exceeded.
“This has proved to be a win-win for both the state and the industry,” Spraul reports. “Water use by [Nevada’s golf courses] has been down 10-15% for each of the past three years. Where [the golf industry] was once perceived as water wasters, the SNWA now refers to golf course superintendents as the ‘best water managers’ of all its customers.”
The association has also had to devote considerable time ensuring that courses aren’t unfairly taxed as the state seeks new sources of revenues. “Property tax initiatives have come up more than once trying to rescind the ‘open space’ value on golf course land,” Spraul says. “We’ve worked hard to show we’re good stewards of natural resources and that [courses] should continue to be given credit for their value as open space.”
Spraul’s efforts have recently expanded to help form a Nevada Golf Industry Alliance. “It’s intended to show the broader perspective of everyone who’s a stakeholder in the industry—from the beer man to the meat man to the retiree whose well-being depends on being able to afford to play golf twice a week,” he notes. “We hope it will do even more to eliminate the perception that the only people involved with the golf industry are rich developers who aren’t part of the community.”
|The 4,000-sq. ft. Fitness Center helps the 13,000-sq. ft. Spa Southern Highlands still offer a “state of the art” environment, five years after its opening.|
Spraul’s experiences with these groups have shown him that “you have to be proactive, especially in a tight economy, or you’ll get run over.” That same approach has served him and his staff well during an economic downturn that’s been particularly challenging for Las Vegas, which was singled out by President Obama at the start of the financial crisis as a nonessential destination that troubled corporations should avoid while tightening their belts.
“Like everyone else, we’ve had to streamline our operations and look at how we can do a better job with less,” Spraul says. “But we’ve continued to stay on pace to grow, and feel we’re in good position for the future, especially with 100 new premium [residential] lots about to come online on the property.”
With currently about 300 members, the Southern Highlands staff feels confident it will fill its remaining openings (membership is capped at 360) as its reputation as another must-see Las Vegas attraction continues to spread, both locally and nationally.
“Our cap includes 35 national memberships, and we still have a few of those available,” notes Caiazzo. “We’re continuing to network with other top clubs around the country and more and more, we’re talking to people from other cities who’ve heard of Southern Highlands and want to play it, because they frequently come to Las Vegas and think membership here could be a very attractive asset for them.
“It’s also helped that we’ve held true to our standards and haven’t lowered our deposit requirements or skimped on how we’ve continued to improve the property,” she adds. “That says a lot about the integrity and commitment of our ownership, and only adds to the credibility we’ve gained.
“It was always [Garry Goett’s] vision to create Southern Highlands as a club with a national presence, and I don’t think there’s any question we’ve accomplished that,” Caiazzo says. “When people anywhere think of Las Vegas and golf now, it’s a pretty good bet we’ll come to mind.”
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