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Secret golf meccas: Mesquite, Nevada and St. George, Utah

By John Kensington, Contributor

What images come to mind when you consider the term "golf mecca"? Often the mental picture includes gorgeous but jam-packed courses, exorbitant greens fees, and little to do for the non-golfing members of your group. In this TravelGolf.com series, we will examine golf-rich regions that reside under the radar screen of most golf travelers.

Wolf Creek Golf Club
Wolf Creek at Paradise Canyon is a "must play" course in Mesquite.
Wolf Creek Golf ClubPalms golf course in MesquiteSunbrook Golf Club in Utah

These "Secret Golf Meccas" feature high-quality courses at reasonable rates, interesting non-golf diversions, and, best of all, an uncrowded feel.

Mesquite, Nev. and St. George, Utah

Location: 100-140 miles northeast of Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas, indeed.

The transition is abrupt as you head north by northeast on Interstate 15. Leaving behind the sensory overload of the Strip and environs, you rise high above the Las Vegas basin towards a desolate yet achingly beautiful parcel of desert. If you do not possess a map, nor a conviction that this road must lead somewhere, you might begin to lose hope of ever rediscovering civilization.

Yet, about ninety minutes out of town, hope reemerges in the form of a dull glow on the horizon. Welcome to Mesquite, a Nevada border town that recalls the less-cluttered feel of Fifties-era Vegas. Travel another half-hour further east, and you will come upon the unfailingly scenic and peaceful community of St. George, Utah.

Here are neighboring cities that exist as a moral dichotomy, one a neon-embossed outpost of sin, the other a sedate Mormon enclave. Separated only by a slender portion of Arizona, and one of the most incredibly picturesque stretches of interstate you have ever laid eyes on, these two ethically divergent municipalities share one thing in common: great golf.

Planning the trip: Travel recommendations

As you consider where to stay while in this area, your first pleasant surprise will be how economical and abundant accommodations are. For as little as $20 a night, it is possible to book a comfortable room in Mesquite, and in St. George most inns cost just a bit more. Food is also plentiful and inexpensive. In Mesquite, the greens fees are a bit inflated, so booking a "stay and play" package is the way to go. Each course has a partner hotel/casino that offers an exclusive package for a room and a round.

In St. George, they really have the "stay and play" concept down to a science. Every motel, big or small, offers golf packages for the major area courses, so your lodging choice will often depend on the motel's proximity to your preferred rota of courses. Inexpensive is also the rule for almost everything in Utah, including the golf. You won't find a triple-digit green fee anywhere in the state.

There are 18 courses of varying levels of quality in this area, most of these clustered around St. George, and the neighboring communities of Hurricane and Washington. Mesquite currently has four courses within its city limits, three of superior quality and one brand new course that may one day be considered among America's best.

While it would require more than a week (or a return trip) to fully enjoy the breadth of available golf courses in this area, what follows is a guide for a five-day trip - two days in Mesquite and three in St. George. This length of time may only prove sufficient to whet your appetite; trust me, you'll be back.

Golf in Mesquite, Nevada

Navigating between golf courses in Mesquite is a simple affair; two tracks are located on the east side of I-15, two on the west side. One way to spend two days golfing in Mesquite is to play a course on each side of the thoroughfare-of course, if you're a true golf lover, 36 holes a day is not out of the question.

On the east side you will find the Palms and Casablanca golf courses. Each provide a level of playability suitable for any level of handicap. Just make sure you play from the correct tees, as both of these courses stretch out to over 7,000 yards from the tips.

The Palms G.C. is a study in contrasts. The front nine is flat, dotted with palm trees and laced with water. The back nine features wild elevation changes and contains the course's best hole. Fifteen is a 555 yd. par five featuring an elevated tee box situated 114 feet above the fairway, offering some excellent views. The opportunity to reach in two is present, but danger lurks in the form of wetlands which extend down the entire right side of the hole.

Casablanca has a wide variety of holes, including two driveable par fours, and four challenging par threes. Five is a superior risk reward hole. A par four of 465 yards, this hole begs the golfer to attempt a carry of 200 yds. of desert wastes off the tee, which still leaves a long approach over a large bunker.

Thankfully, at around 4,000 ft. elevation, golf shots benefit from extra carry and roll. In fact, Casablanca is host to the annual Pinnacle Long Drive contest. Although it make take two of your drives to equal one of perennial champion Jason Zuback, you will get an extra 10% on all your shots here.

The west side courses, the Oasis Golf Club and the brand-new Wolf Creek at Paradise Canyon are the "must plays" in Mesquite. The Oasis Golf Club is one of Arnold Palmer's best designs, and it is this course that originally put Mesquite on the map, being named as a top ten new course by Golf Digest in 1996.

With the addition of the Vistas (one of the longest nine-hole courses in the nation at 3,549 yds), you'll have a full day's worth of challenge and beauty on your hands. The middle eleven holes at Oasis wind their way through a sandstone canyon, and are the course's best. Eight, a 541 yd. par five, is my favorite.

Standing on a tee elevated more than 150 ft. above the fairway, tall sandstone cliffs rise up on both sides, ready to collect errant tee shots. A sizable lake hugs the right side of the hole for the final 200 yds., requiring the golfer to hit a long cut shot to reach a rock-lined green in two.

While it was the Oasis Golf Club that established Mesquite as a golf destination, it is Wolf Creek that confirms it. A course of unbelievable beauty and challenge, nearly every hole is a jaw dropper.

A first time design of Dennis Rider and son, Jon (who assisted Mr. Palmer with Oasis), this course compares favorably with any desert course in the Southwest. If you have only one round to play in Mesquite, Wolf Creek should be it.

In order to get from Mesquite to St. George, you will pass through what is undeniably one of the most visually rich sections of interstate in the county. The Virgin River Gorge, carved out over the millennia by the waterway of the same name, is a colorful collection of cliffs and canyons bisected by Interstate 15. A word of caution: make sure the person driving keeps his/her attention firmly on the winding road.

Golf in St. George, Utah

Settled in 1861 by Mormon pioneers, St. George and the surrounding area enjoy temperate winter climates, making it a popular destination for snow-weary northern Utahns. A fortunate consequence of a growth explosion here in the past decade is a concurrent boom in golf course construction. In fact, there are more courses per capita in St. George than almost anywhere else in the country.

The key question then becomes, which courses to play? Although the four tracks I've included represent the area's best, most of the courses here are worthwhile. How you squeeze them into your travel schedule is up to you.

Sunbrook Golf Club is southwestern Utah's only 27-hole facility, and it has previously enjoyed the state's top ranking, courtesy of Golf Digest. Each nine is named after its most identifiable feature. The Point's fifth hole is a short par four teetering atop a sheer desert cliff. The Woodbridge Nine is also named after its fifth, a 441-yard par 4.

After teeing off from a bluff overlooking the island-green fourth hole, golfers must carry a lake traversed by a country-style wooden bridge. The Black Rock Nine features three holes carved out of an ancient lava flow. Seven, another 441 yd par four, is the most remarkable.

After hitting your first shot from a tee surrounded by petrified magma, your approach must carry more volcanic residue while avoiding a strategically placed lake right of the green.

About five miles from Sunbrook is arguably St. George's best track, Entrada at Snow Canyon. This could be considered Johnny Miller's most inspired design, as he allowed the natural lay of the land to dictate his course architecture.

The course really gets going on Nine, named "Prayermaker", a 630 yd. monster that is actually reachable in two, provided you can carry 250 yards of tree-studded desert wash on this sharply right-angled hole. It is the three holes routed through lava, 15 through 17, that are Entrada's most memorable. This is also southwestern Utah's most expensive course -- but it is worth every penny.

Four miles east of St. George lies the diminutive community of Washington. This town has only one course, but its a dandy. Green Spring G.C. is relatively short at only 6,629 yds from the tips, but don't let that fool you; you will earn every par you make out here. The key to playing this course is to survive the front nine, which plays a good four strokes harder than the back.

Green Spring is also home to the "toughest hole in Utah", the 449-yd sixth. Big hitters are limited to using a fairway wood in order to stay on a narrow fairway routed astride a yawning portside chasm, which can be successfully carried only with a terrifying 200 yd-plus approach to a tiny target. A birdie here is worthy fodder for coverage by CNN.

The newest member of the St. George golf course roster can be found in the tiny town of Hurricane. Coral Canyon G.C. was produced by the best course designer you've never heard of, Keith Foster, bearing his design trademark of seamless incorporation into the natural grandeur of the land.

With a backdrop of scenic red rock outcroppings and the Pine Valley (good golf name) Mountains, the course is routed through a labyrinth of dry washes and natural land formations. The conditioning here is superb for a course in its infancy.

Six is a true photo-op hole. While measuring only 122 yds, this beautiful par three has the power to distract, and those that fall under its spell will lose their tee shots in the deep ravine that fronts the green. A short drive from the entrance of Zion National Park, Coral Canyon is itself a natural wonder.

Non golf diversions

In Mesquite, non-golfers will likely spend their time plying the green felt in any of the four area casinos. There are also three full service spas in town. An interesting nature excursion can be found in a trip 32 miles southward on I-15 to the Valley of Fire State Park, which contains brilliant formations of eroded sandstone and sand dunes more than 150 million years old.

These features often appear to be on fire when reflecting the sun's rays. The kids will enjoy the "Family Fun Center" at Si Redd's Oasis. The best nightclub in town is the Redd Boot, also at the Oasis hotel.

It's all about nature in Southern Utah. An absolute must-see while in this area is Zion National Park, in nearby Springdale. Covering 229 square miles of spectacular cliff-and-canyon landscape and wilderness, Zion features the world's largest arch - Kolob Arch - with a span measuring 310 ft.

A simple journey down Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is itself worth the price of admission, but one could easily spend days here soaking in the natural wonders. Other outstanding state parks within this area include Snow Canyon and Quail Lake. Shopaholics will no doubt flock to St. George's outlet malls. As for nightlife, well, this is Utah, pal. Sorry.

There are few places in the world that combine such a diverse mix of golfing options and divinely wrought natural beauty. Generally inexpensive, friendly and placid, this area will satisfy the hunger of any golf enthusiast or nature lover. Most travelers come to this area via car from Las Vegas, although there is a small regional airport in St. George, serviced by Skywest airlines.

Being situated in the desert, you can expect brutally hot temperatures in thesummer, but an excellent fall through spring climate. Regardless of when you come or how you get here, you are sure to remember Mesquite and St. George as one of the top "secret golf meccas" in the country.

John Kensington, Contributor

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