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Roll the dice: A Las Vegas vacation is not complete without golf

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LAS VEGAS -- It happens in a flash, almost on a daily basis in celebrity-rich Las Vegas.

One minute you are unsuspecting, doing your rubber necking tourist thing. The next moment someone gets spotted. Even celebrities of the golf world can be victims.

Way down the eighth fairway two familiar specks appear and golfers having lunch stop, leave their tables, take their drinks out to the patio and watch Butch Harmon tutor a world-ranked golfer named Phil Mickelson. This time the scene is played out from Janelas Restaurant at Rio Secco Golf Club, where the seventh, eighth and ninth holes are within veranda view.

Mickelson has hit a high cut into the wind about 300 yards past a corner bunker on the 566-yard par 5. He makes birdie.

'The crowd that gathered was awe-struck witnessing how far and how flush he hit the ball,' recalled Charles Packard, formerly the head professional at Rio Secco. 'It was impressive.'

Impressive might also describe another gallery-like day at Rio Secco when Harmon's former pupil, Tiger Woods, set the course record of 64 just a week before his wire-to-wire, 15-stroke U.S. Open victory in 2000 at Pebble Beach. Tiger opened the day on the 10th, a 378-yard par 4, by holing his second shot from the fairway for an eagle.

These days your golf vacation to Las Vegas may never realize such celebrity-sighting stories to pass on -- The Rat Pack and Elvis are but distant memories. But you won't forget a visit to the city that is forever changing.

My family certainly remembers our first visit to Sin City. It was 1955, and the vision runs like an old black-and-white movie in my mind. Waves of mirage heat rolled over the asphalt, and a ribbon of hotels, casinos and colorful lights appeared. That Las Vegas Strip was nothing like today's full-color, upgraded glitz of carnival neon -- more like Xbox 360 or Apple's iPhone -- not the unpolished 16 mm film I first saw from a now-classic turquoise Buick Roadmaster. Golf never entered my mind.

Desert heat bakes today's irrigated golf courses in summer, when fees take a dip lower, but the game can be played all year. Weather reminds me of West Texas -- too hot, too cold, too windy -- but the golf courses are sculpted spectacularly and desert-rugged. In winter you can tee it up one day in snow showers and enjoy the rest of the week in 70-degree windless sunshine. You can be spoiled with $500 rounds at Cascata, Shadow Creek and Wynn Golf Club, or you can pay a lot less for numerous scenic layouts.

Here are some Las Vegas golf courses you might consider:

Rio Secco Golf Club

Rio Secco Golf Club, home to the Butch Harmon School of Golf (he's ranked No. 1 on Golf Digest's list of America's 50 Greatest Teachers), is an enviable start to a golf trip to Vegas, not only because it teams with Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, but it's the sister course to Cascata. Both are Rees Jones designs.

Play is fast and firm on this 7,332-yard par 72, with quick and undulating greens and six broad desert holes, six plateau holes and six diving into a steep canyon. This landscape rolls across 240 acres of craggy scenery, perched 800 feet above the Las Vegas Valley.

TPC Las Vegas

Formerly named TPC at The Canyons, this par-71, 7,063-yard adventure was designed by Raymond Floyd and Bobby Weed. TPC at Las Vegas is brawny and tawny, has striking views of Red Rock Canyon and was co-host to the PGA Tour's Open.

This is an Arizona-like desert golf course you will have to think your way around. It traverses canyons, rocky arroyos and has elevation changes.

The 12th hole -- a 145-yard par 3 -- plays to a canyon mesa island green. It is followed by a 423-yard, par-4 13th, called 'Death Valley.' It has a blind tee shot and arroyo trouble the length of the hole.

Bali Hai Golf Club

Just a minute from the vintage, famous 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign on The Strip, Bali Hai Golf Club was built to recreate a tropical, Indonesian land of golf fun.

Designed by Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley in 2000, Bali Hai is a lush seven acres of water and palm trees. It totals 4,000 trees with 2,500 stands of towering palms and 100,000 tropical plants. Transition and out-of-play areas are accented with Augusta white sand and black volcanic rock outcroppings.

The par-71 course measures 7,002 yards from the tips and opens up views of the Luxor pyramid and other hotels on The Strip.

Bali Hai's 16th is a a par-3 island green that frequently comes with an audience from the Cili Restaurant patio, and the third hole, which is a 468-yard par 4 with a creek running the entire right-side. Some call this hole 'Shipwreck.'

Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort

The Paiute Tribe thought big when imaging this complex that includes 54 holes of desert golf and lush conditions. The Resort is 25 minutes from the strip, and stars with its boondocks location. Golfers enjoy the only Pete Dye-designed golf courses in Nevada.

Select the Wolf, Sun Mountain, or Snow Mountain Courses, as well as some widely varied golf that includes water features, rolling terrain, and rugged mountain vistas.

Snow Mountain Course is the original at Paiute, and according to some, it's still the best. The 7,164-yard course features a progressive layout with wide rye grass fairways, traditional Dye railroad tie-decorated bunkers and dogleg finishing holes. Water plays on seven of the holes at Snow, from a peninsula green on the 16th hole to an 18th hole that seems to wrap itself around a lake.

Paiute's Sun Mountain Course is tamer, they say, and considered a 'kinder, gentler' Pete Dye course. Golfers will be by the natural rolling terrain, the course's isolated location within the resort and the mountain backdrop. Easily the most scenic of the three courses, Sun features blue lakes and Joshua trees.

The Wolf Course is the most difficult of the three, as well as the longest course in Nevada at 7,604 yards. Swales, bunkers, arroyos and undulating greens test you along with the fairways. The par-3 15th hole is an island green where half the challenge is simply getting on the green.

Wynn Golf Club

When you visit Las Vegas, you gotta splurge on one decadent round of golf. Wynn Golf Club's rack rate is $500 -- but that includes bunches of extras such as country club locker room amenities and attendants, no-charge rental clubs, shoes and forecaddies -- all included.

Wynn Golf Club occupies the land that was once the storied Desert Inn Golf Club. When it operated from 1952 until 2002 every celebrity golfer walked these fairways -- entertainers such as Bing Crosby, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and the Rat Pack.

Construction on Wynn Golf Club began on Feb. 11, 2003. The first day of operation for Wynn Golf Club was opening day of Wynn Las Vegas, April 28, 2005.

Wynn, a Tom Fazio design, is compact in acreage -- a par-70 course that is 7,042 yards in length with Tifway II Hybrid Bermuda grass on the fairways and tees.

Taking completely flat terrain, they moved more than 800,000 cubic yards of earth to create the elevation changes and a rolling landscape that includes 100,000 new shrubs to the 1,200 existing trees that were salvaged and relocated from the former Desert Inn Golf Course, some more than 50 years old and more than 60 feet tall.

Where to stay

On your golf trip to Las Vegas be sure and stay at Caesar's Palace. Request the resort's brand-new Octavius Tower, a 668-room hotel. It has a private entrance and easy access to the Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis and Gardens.

The Octavius Tower, with 550-square foot rooms, marks a major milestone in the two-year renaissance of Caesars Palace, which began in March 2011 with the return of Celine Dion and encompasses the recent launch of Rod Stewart at the Colosseum.

Other projects also include the return of Elton John, Old Homestead Steakhouse, Nobu Hotel, Restaurant and Lounge and Shania Twain's Colosseum headlining.