LAS VEGAS, NV - "We are out to bury Scottsdale," says Billy Walters, one of Las Vegas' most colorful, interesting, and (if you ask federal law enforcement officials) elusive personalities. Walters was referring to his plans to whack the Valley of the Sun's travel golf market with Vegas' emerging collection of high end semiprivate and resort golf courses.
Since his last name doesn't end in a vowel, you can rest assured this was merely a figurative statement.
But make no mistake; it was a statement.
Memo to Scottsdale: Las Vegas is coming after you and Walters is leading the charge.
On this cool, dry October morning, Walters is holding court at his Stallion Mountain Golf Club. His block-straight, salt and pepper hair and gray goatee give him that "cross my path and I will flatten you like a poker chip" look that really powerful men have.
Walters wears a crisp, pressed white shirt, a warm brown blazer and black designer slacks. His shoes cost more than entire sets of golf clubs. He looks you in the eye when he talks to you and is such a seasoned salesman, he could convince a room full of baby boomers that Elvis was alive and living in Las Vegas.
"On average, we are 30 percent cheaper than Scottsdale," Walters says. "We did a study that factored in airfare, lodging and the price of golf and we (Las Vegas) are more affordable. We are also ten degrees cooler anytime of year. I believe we are the number one golf destination for someone looking for high quality golf."
The golf scribes and public relations gurus in attendance nod their heads in approval, some while stuffing giant sausages and pieces of toast into their mouth. After all, this is the same Billy Walters who took Sin City developer Steve Wynn to the cleaners by winning over $4 million off an "unbalanced" Roulette wheel at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City.
The stories floating around Glitter Gulch pertaining to Walters are legion and most of them don't even flirt with fiction.
One of the country's best amateur pool players, Walters once played a mobster in nine-ball for over 10 hours while his wife stood by and watched. They both made it out alive and with enough money to live to see another day. The Munfordville, Tennessee native travels the world playing golf and once won $30,000 a day for seven days from a wealthy California man who thought he could take Walters via his handicap.
"They say that only a $1 million Nassau will peak Billy's interest," says one writer. "At the sports books, Billy is what is known as a 'Line Mover.' He bets so much money on sports, he can change the line in a game."
Single-handedly moving a line in Vegas is a surreal accomplishment for a man who could have easily resigned himself to a simple life on the banks of the Ohio River. Walters' father died on the operating table when he was just 18 months old. To eek out a living for her three children, Walters' mother moved to Louisville, Ky., and Walters was sent to live with his grandmother, Miss Lucy Quesenburry.
Walters gambled and hustled his way through two marriages and countless bankruptcies and ultimately landed in Las Vegas with his current wife, Susan, and a plan to pursue "a legal, lawful and ethical career as a professional gambler," as he once told the Las Vegas Review Journal, where he could "be looked upon as a respectable member of the community."
In addition to gambling, Walters also purchased four golf course properties within 15 minutes of The Strip. The rest, as they say, is history.
Later that day, almost everyone in the conference room will play at Walters' Royal Links Golf Club, oblivious to the $200 green fee. It's a nice track - a replica course inspired by the greatest golf holes of the British Open. The course itself is in sublime condition, the service is solid, the clubhouse is top notch and a stately bagpipe player wails away on some strange, Gaelic version of a Beatles song.
Still, for the average golfer off the street, Royal Links is about as affordable as Pinehurst No. 2 or Pebble Beach, yet the course has never even so much as sniffed the national rankings.
Two days later, a smattering of scribes will play the Brian Curley/Lee Schmidt designed course at Bali Hai Golf Club, a round of golf that commands about $295 on the weekends during the peak fall season. Bali Hai is one of Walters' most prized possessions - a South Pacific themed course replete with alabaster white waste bunkers, date palms, and more water than should be legal in a region that gets less than four inches of water a year.
"It is three times more expensive to build a golf course in Las Vegas than it is anywhere else," Walters says. "The soil is rock on top of salt so you have to import soil. Then you have to shape it and create water features."
"Have to create water features" is the operative phrase. A golf course doesn't necessarily have to have million dollar water features. Not unless it is in Vegas, baby. Walters reveals the water budget at Bali Hai - a cool $900,000. A few gasps from the crowd, and a few ambivalent stares. Those with the blank looks on their faces, polishing off the remains of breakfast, are the folks who understand that to be successful in this town, you have to one-up your opponent.
Las Vegas will never be a bastion of affordable golf. Like Walters says, it just costs too much to build a golf course. One local golf director estimates that in order for a new course in Clark County to recoup its construction and land expenses, it must charge at least $60 for a round of golf. Since most courses are in the business of making a profit, don't expect to ever see sub-$100 dollar greens fee at a new Vegas facility.
So whether or not Las Vegas will eventually bury Scottsdale as the Southwest's premier golf destination depends on the perspective. If the measuring stick is high dollar layouts, castle-like clubhouses, and sultan-esque service, then Sin City could very well be standing over the six-foot deep hole with shovel in hand. If the benchmark is sheer number of golf courses, affordability, and variety, then Vegas may have already plotted an errant course that alienates 90 percent of the country's golfing population.
Either way, no one is willing to bet against Billy Walters. History has shown that it is a losing proposition.
October 27, 2002