November 12, 2008

The Odds of March

Combining NCAA men's basketball madness and golf in a Las Vegas trip that's hard to beat

The 407-yard first hole of the Desert course at Primm Valley Golf Club.

The 407-yard first hole of the Desert course at Primm Valley Golf Club.

I've often wondered who makes the betting lines and how they're so good at their jobs. At the sportsbook inside Sin City icon MGM Grand last March, the Kansas Jayhawks were 22-point favorites over Portland State. This was the battle of a No. 1 seed against a No. 16 seed. I gave the points.

Since the NCAA basketball tournament went to a 64-team field in 1985, No. 1 seeds are 92-0 against No. 16 seeds. Therefore, this game was essentially over before it started, and yet, as the final seconds ticked off the clock, my fists were clenched, I was sweating in an air-conditioned room, and I was fighting the crowd for a better view of the TV. Kansas was up by 24, but Portland State had the ball for the last shot and heaved a three-pointer ...

Some might consider Las Vegas, especially in March, the ultimate buddies-trip destination with all the vital elements: blue skies, temperatures in the mid-70s, unlimited big-screen sports, gambling and golf. This was not my maiden trip to Vegas, but my first during opening week of the Road to the Final Four.

Vegas map

* Star listings from 1 to 5 are derived from readers' Best Places To Play ratings.

Three friends and I came to town with an agenda: We would play golf in the morning, bet and watch the basketball games in the afternoon, and then hit the tables until our tee time the next day. Not on the agenda were a couple of life's essentials: food and sleep.

We arrived Wednesday night, a college-days pep to our step, convinced this year we'd beat the system -- we'd leave Las Vegas as winners. I ignored wise words from my uncle: "You can win a race, but you can't beat the races."

No shock that we left on Sunday as losers, shoulders slouched and our wallets drained of dignity. Our posture was a badge of what we still considered good fun.

Thankfully, there was golf. This was our escape from the static and the strain of the Strip. We played two rounds at Paiute Resort and two rounds at Primm Valley Golf Club. We picked them because they were a combination of quality and value (by Vegas standards). All four courses we played were ****½, and the green fees were $200 or less.

At Paiute, 25 minutes northwest of the airport, there are three Pete Dye courses. We played the Sun Mountain ($169) and the Wolf ($189), passed on the Snow Mountain ($169) for no particular reason other than we had time to play only two. I preferred the Wolf. From the tips it plays at 7,604 yards, which makes it the longest course in Las Vegas. We played it from the black tees (7,009 yards), which was still too much distance for a group of guys suffering from sleep deprivation. We would've been better off playing the yellow tees (6,483 yards). Not the typical diabolical Dye, both courses could almost be considered user-friendly, as long as you aren't gripping the club with caffeine shakes.

Forty-five minutes south of the Strip, Primm Valley has two Tom Fazio courses, the Lakes and the Desert. The Lakes is more of a resort course; the Desert is for better golfers. Both cost $200, but the Desert plays longer and has a higher Course Rating. The Lakes has trees, waterfalls and feels more manufactured in a desert setting. I loved the back-to-back par 5s on the front nine of the Desert course. Typically, the seventh hole is downwind and reachable with two good shots. The eighth hole plays back into the fan and might not be reachable if you hit four perfect shots.

MGM Grand

Our first choice for lodging was Mandalay Bay because I'd heard it had a bright atmosphere, high ceilings and a classy crowd. We planned our trip in February, which was too late, so we stayed in adjoining rooms at the MGM. It was more affordable than other options on the Strip (standard room rates in March are $179 to $269 per night), and I heard the MGM had just finished a renovation of its sportsbook. It attracted a college crowd in school colors and the occasional face-painter to its wall of massive flat screens. When we were forced to forage, we found two meals at the MGM. Shibuya served top-shelf sushi with an over-the-top presentation. Our favorite meal of the trip was at Craftsteak.

As for my bets on basketball, Portland State missed that last-second three-pointer, so Kansas covered -- the start and end of my winning streak. Oh, well. It's never too early to start planning for next year. Oddsmakers have it at even money that we're going to Vegas again. Last March, the Nevada sportsbooks' take from college hoops was $240 million. Next time, my friends and I are determined to win a race and beat the races.



LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

BUTCH HARMON'S BASICS

(OF LAS VEGAS)

Favorite restaurant? "I'm a steak guy, so I like the Palm at the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. I get the New York strip, Pittsburgh rare with sauteed mushrooms, a good bottle of red wine, and I'm in heaven." Golf course? "If you're willing to pay $500, Cascata is the finest golf experience in town." Sportsbook? "Green Valley Ranch in Henderson."

OFF THE STRIP

If the Strip isn't your thing, stay and play at the Red Rock Casino. There's a modern motif in the rooms, and the bathing suits on the waitresses (above) at the Sandbar make for a walk-stopping scene by the pool. If you're hungry, T-Bones will solve your stomach problem.

BEAT THE LINES

If you can't beat the oddsmakers, you can beat the long lines at the betting windows of the MGM by going across the street to the Tropicana. The modest sportsbook is still run by hand, and there's rarely a wait.