Playing Museum Golf and Being Flipped the Bird at Las Vegas Golf Course Royal Links

Image June 22, 2007–Royal Links Golf Club was created to honor the golf courses that have played host to British Open, and to the credit of designer Perry Dye and owner Bill Walters, it does a good job of capturing the feel and intrigue of what it just might feel like to play golf across the pond at historic courses like Royal Troon, St. Andrews or Carnoustie, the site of this year’s Open Championship. And with Las Vegas built on themed hotels that capture the magic and mystery of points throughout the globe, Royal Links fits nicely within the fabric of what makes Las Vegas one of the world’s most exciting destinations, golf or otherwise. You will experience intriguing holes, learn a lot about the home of golf, and even play a golf course that will be to your liking when you tee it up at Royal Links. Read on for a tribute to Royal Links Golf Club from a player’s perspective. Even if it meant a fictional Old Tom Morris "waving" to the group on the first tee.

Teeing it up at Royal Links inspires, entertains and educates, making it a most memorable and historic Las Vegas golf experience.

By Brian Hurlburt

This doesn’t feel right. I’ve just stepped to the tee of the par 4, 10th hole at Royal Lytham, a short but challenging hole that plays to a tight, dogleg-right fairway with mounds and bunkers. Royal Lytham is a prestigious and traditional links golf course that has hosted the British Open several times. Golfers who have won Open titles at Royal Lytham include Seve Ballesteros, Gary Player, Tom Lehman and David Duval.

But my equipment of choice for the round isn’t traditional by any standards, and the legendary golfers from the old country would probably scoff at the notion of any player using such modern (unfair?) equipment. In my hands, I have a turbo-charged Callaway metal wood, and I’ve just teed up a juiced NIKE One golf ball that is specifically designed to play longer and higher when hit with today’s big-headed drivers. As I look down at the glistening ball that is framed by a manicured tee box, I notice my pimped-out Oakley golf shoes. The dizzying, hip pattern and colors dance on my feet. I then tug on my leather, form-fitting golf glove that is supposed to give me the best feel and grip possible. Soon, I’ll be playing an approach shot to the green with my cavity-back irons that are more forgiving than a jury in a Paris Hilton case.

Image In reality, I’m just about to play—or should I say slay, given my high-tech golf weaponry–Royal Links Golf Club, a Las Vegas golf course that was inspired by the 14 golf courses that have played host to the British Open. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I spotted the statue of Old Tom Morris (winner of two of the first three British Opens) flipping me the bird. Who knew that a stately man like Morris even knew the international “hello” symbol?

Maybe Old Tom is just wishing me luck, I think, as I send a shot down the fairway, thus commencing a journey that begins in Las Vegas 2007, but will ultimately end in St. Andrews, circa 1873. To get to the first tee, our foursome strode over a replica of the Old Course’s Swilcan Bridge, made famous as the backdrop for some of golf’s most enduring photographs.

Royal Links is located minutes from the fabulous Las Vegas Strip, but decades from the fast-paced action that makes Las Vegas one of the world’s most exciting cities. Royal Links is a themed golf course, and like its hotel cousins that line the Strip, it is a Las Vegas experience that transforms you to another place, another land and another time. The only thing missing from this experience is you in knickers.

Just like the Luxor thrusts you back to ancient Egypt or The Venetian sends you to historic Venice, so does Royal Links transport you to when golf was pure, and the legendary gentlemen of the game were just in the beginning stages of trailblazing the sport.

Back in the mid 1990’s, golf course architect Perry Dye was summoned to the office of legendary Las Vegas gambler and golf course owner Bill Walters. Walters is a straight-to-the-point guy, and within minutes he told Dye that he wanted to create a course that had 18 holes from the courses used in the British Open. After a few months of planning, Dye asked Walters if they could vary from the original plan because fitting all of the holes together was presenting a tremendous challenge. Walters wouldn’t budge so Dye and his team, and a few of Walters’ people, set out on a two-week journey that saw them walk every inch of the British Open courses. “Bill loves golf, and his commitment from day one of this project was phenomenal,” says Dye, whose sister, Cynthia, chronicled the trip by snapping hundreds of photos.

Due to the time and effort taken by Dye and his team, the Las Vegas holes stay true to the originals, so much so that when golfers from across the pond play here, they have the home-course advantage.

“I felt like the course would fit very well in Las Vegas, because everything is themed there, and people expect something different and exciting when they come to Las Vegas,” says Dye, who was surprised to learn that so few courses had hosted an Open Championship. “Royal Links is a true experience, and that is what has been created here.”

Playing golf at Royal Links is like teeing it up in a museum, but here you get to touch and feel the displays. The Royal Links experience begins to take shape the moment you first catch a glimpse of the larger-than-life Claret Jug in the parking lot that welcomes players from all over the world. If you are fortunate to play Royal Links on a special occasion, you will be greeted at the clubhouse by an authentic bagpiper, and your round will begin after a blast from a Revolutionary War cannon.

The castle-themed clubhouse takes you back to the future, and offers a signature 19th century look and feel. The building is complete with golf mementos that were hand-picked by Walters and his wife Susan. Susan’s touch is evident throughout the clubhouse because she was the lead interior designer, a role she had played for all of the Walters Golf clubhouses. The other courses include Bali Hai Golf Club and Desert Pines Golf Club, and at one time, Stallion Mountain Country Club.

On one wall is a framed photo taken during a professional tournament played in Perth in 1864 that features Young Tom Morris, Willie Park, Old Tom Morris, Willie McDonald and GD Brown. On another wall is The Book of Putting, autographed by Willie Park, Jr. and inscribed with Open Champion, 1887, 89. Other trophies and artwork decorate Stymie’s Pub, where pints of Guinness are always on tap. The locker room is complete with name plates honoring the greatest Open champions. Also in the clubhouse is the award-winning and fully-stocked pro shop that was named to the Top 100 public golf shops list in 2004 and 2005.

Out on the course, special tee markers on each hole tell the story of the British Open. Each is a lesson in golf history, and dramatically adds to the overall vintage feel of Royal Links. On the third hole, inspired by Royal Prestwick’s second hole, we learn that Royal Prestwick was the site of the first Open Championship that was won by Willie Park. The hole at Royal Links plays 170 yards from the back teeing area to a green that is guarded by four well-placed pot bunkers that surround the green. The early morning shadows of this day make the bunkers appear black-hole like.

On the fifth hole, inspired by St. Andrews’ 12th, we learn that Jack Nicklaus achieved golf’s grand slam by winning the 1970 British Open played at the Old Course. We also experience several dastardly fairway bunkers that are undetectable from the tee. Royal Links Golf Course Superintendent PJ McGuire (fitting name, wouldn’t you say?) tells us that the bunkers came to be at St. Andrews when roaming sheep would huddle together on the backside of the hills as a way to stay out of the prevailing winds. The hole plays only 322 yards, but the bunkers and a tough green make it more than a challenge.

“This golf course is very well done,” says McGuire. “Because of the challenge, you may not have your best round, but you’ll come back in a minute. There’s so much going on that it’s tough to focus solely on the golf when you are trying to soak in the entire experience. Everything about this course is inspiring; the history; the theme. It’s pure Vegas, and it’s neat to know that the history of my profession dates back to the golf courses that Royal Links is modeled after. To me, that’s very special.”

Old Tom Morris is said to be the first golf course superintendent to receive a written contract for his services. He earned four shillings per month, and one suit per year for his work at St. Andrews in the 1860’s.

The eighth hole at Royal Links is inspired by one of the most infamous holes in all of golf, Royal Troon’s “Postage Stamp”. Open champion Park described the hole thusly: “A pitching surface skimmed down to the size of a postage stamp,” and the name stuck. After years of torment, the legendary Gene Sarazen, playing in his final British Open at the age of 71, made a hole in one. The hole at Royal Links features cascading tee boxes before shots are hit to a very small green surrounded by a deep pot bunker that hugs the left side of the green, and a rectangle-shaped bunker that rests pin-high and right of the green.

The 10th hole at Royal Links Golf Club is a player’s delight, and brings the “Road Hole” at St. Andrews to life. To maximize tee shot placement, golfers at Royal Links must hit over a replica scoreboard (similar to how players at the Old Course hit over maintenance and hotel buildings) to a two-bunker fairway that is guarded closely with native vegetation just a few feet off the fairway. The cart path and stone wall duck in close behind the green, forcing golfers to make sure they gauge distances properly. In 1984, Seve Ballesteros won the Open Championship when he parred the Road Hole and Tom Watson overshot the green after hitting a 2-iron. Watson’s chances took a fatal blow when his ball ended up stymied against the Road Hole wall.

Hole 12 is the longest par 4 hole at Royal Links, and is a dogleg right that plays 471 yards from the deep tees . Players must hit tee shots to a fairway guarded by a bunker on each side of the fairway, before two small, but deadly, bunkers stand ready to gobble up errant shots right of the putting surface. The hole brings to life the par 4, sixth hole at Royal Birkdale where Tom Watson, Peter Thomson and Mark O’ Meara have claimed Open wins.

The par 3, 17th is the toughest hole at Royal Links. The ghosts of Scottish golf past rustle to life with the playing of this 227-yarder. In 1982, Watson won his fourth British Open in eight years in the event that was played at Royal Troon. He would go on to win his fifth title in 1983 at Royal Birkdale.

Fittingly, our round culminates with a 515-yard, par 5, that was inspired by the Old Course’s 14th hole. The Old Course is known as the home of golf, and it feels right that the last on-course impression you have at Royal Links will be of golf’s home.

As you stroll up the final fairway, you will be thinking about the shot at hand, but your mind will also wander to the historic round that you just experienced. To the right, you will see the castle with the clock tower, reminiscent of the original Royal and Ancient clubhouse tower. Soon, pints will be served up to help wash down one of Las Vegas’ most memorable rounds.

And you will relish in the fact that you have played holes and attempted shots that some of the greatest in the game have played. Yes, you aren’t on the exact holes, but taken together, your round at Royal Links has placed you together in a group with Old Tom, Seve, Tom and Jack, and you’ve played the shot that Sarazen hit when he made a one at the postage stamp, and you’ve played into the Road Hole green from a similar spot that Ballesteros escaped from when he made par en route to the title. And you played holes similar to what Nicklaus and Watson did when they battled to nearly flawless 11-under par and 12-under par weekend rounds respectively at St. Andrews in 1977, when Watson beat the Golden Bear in both the Masters and the Open Championship.

“Playing Royal Links is designed to be very similar to what you experience when you play in the old country if you were playing any of the golf courses used in the British Open,” says Walters. “And 99% of the people who play golf in America haven’t played any of the British Open courses, and now they have a chance to experience the feel and flow of what it’s like over there. We designed the course in such a manner that it stays true to the old courses, but is also very playable.”

In Las Vegas, fantasy is reality. At Royal Links, your reality is playing legendary golf in modern times, even if Old Tom bristles at your Oakleys.

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