April 13, 2008

Conspicuous consumption

High-rolling on and off the Las Vegas Strip

Cruising the Strip in a Dodge Viper SRT/10.

Cruising the Strip in a Dodge Viper SRT/10.

Anyone can get comped in Las Vegas. To get a free $1,000-a-night suite, dinner at Joel Robuchon or a foursome on Shadow Creek (or anywhere else, if you know what I mean), all you have to do is be willing to lose $10,000 at the tables.

But even if you don't have that kind of bank -- or you can't stomach that kind of risk­­ -- you can still do Vegas a la carte.

My mission was to drive (and play golf) like a superhero for three days in Las Vegas, but without a degenerate gambler's line of credit at one of the Strip casinos.

Though it would be more than a little lame to rent an exotic car for a trip to, say, Disney, it somehow makes sense in Las Vegas -- the place where a Chevy Malibu just won't do. Dream Car Rentals has locations on both ends of Las Vegas Boulevard, and you can roll in classics ranging from a Lamborghini Gallardo to a 1968 Pontiac GTO for five hours or by the day.

At $1,825, a full 24 hours with the Gallardo costs more than most mortgage payments, so we picked a Dodge Viper SRT/10 convertible -- which was just the right combination of price and ostentatiousness. For $395, we got five hours of car candy for two (and four pages of stipulations about not melting the tires or driving to the Grand Canyon).

Five hours might be the perfect amount of time to have a Viper, too. No supercar is built for running errands, but Dodge made spending time in this one particularly penal. The Viper is wider than a Toyota Camry, but the transmission tunnel between the seats not only takes up half the room in the cabin but heats up enough to boil your leg in stop-and-go traffic. And fuel economy? Push the go pedal, and you're sending somebody in Saudi Arabia to graduate school.

It doesn't matter if the radio knobs look like they were made by Fisher-Price when you get hoots of approval virtually everywhere -- even the drive-through at In-N-Out Burger. A Viper convertible has a medieval kind of sex appeal that's perfect for the Strip -- all unsubtle red flash and coarse rumble. We even got a thumbs up from a Vegas bicycle cop, who has to have seen everything.

After a sweaty afternoon in the Viper, we traded in the hot wheels for a rental car with a functional trunk and headed north, where we found most of the great golf.

As much as Las Vegas is about separating you from your money, Shadow Creek -- Tom Fazio's blank-check Pacific-Northwest-meets-the-desert masterpiece -- makes it hard to spend it. Granted, a $500 green fee is crazy talk for most people, but the folks who run the MGM Mirage properties (MGM Grand, Mirage and Bellagio, among others) won't just let you give a credit card for a round at their place. Staying at one of the properties is a prerequisite, and a membership in one of the casinos' players clubs is strongly advised. But if it's a weekday (and you have extra-special phone manners), they'll let you spend $2,000 for a foursome -- and even throw in a limo ride to the course.

I'd like to say it was worth it, but for the same money, you could drive 70 miles up the road to Mesquite, play your golf there, and have enough left over to hire an LPGA Tour player to come play with you in your member-guest.

Wolf Creek gets all the press when it comes to Mesquite golf, and it is astonishing to see. The quilt of desert-rock outcroppings, bleached bunkers, and radical elevation changes from tee to fairway make it look -- and play -- like an M.C. Escher drawing. They list the Course Rating at 75.4, but it might as well say "stupid hard." The best score in our group was a 92, by a club pro who had shot 68 the day before -- at Falcon Ridge, a course we all liked better.

Falcon Ridge is less than four miles from Wolf Creek, and it shares the same desert-canyon DNA. But playability is the big difference: I'll take 85 percent of the blow-you-away backdrop (and 40 percent less green fee) in exchange for risk-reward holes seemingly created by the golf-wagering gods any day. My buddy went from $20 up to $60 down during the space of one failed attempt to carry a rock face from the tee on the 382-yard 10th. We made him play the next three holes with a pink ball.

But if his manhood was threatened, he could restore it for $189 -- and five hours with a military-grade Hummer H1.