Scott Sutton made $2.84 per hour and had a PGA Tour player as a boss when he started maintaining Las Vegas-area golf courses in 1980. He also heard nary a mention about the resource affecting nearly every decision of his current work life.

“Water wasn’t an issue in those days,” Sutton says while navigating The Club at Sunrise in a utility vehicle on an 85-degree afternoon in early March. “Lake Mead was full, and we only had six golf courses in the Valley.”

The Club at Sunrise rests at the confluence of the Las Vegas Wash and Flamingo Wash, which siphon water from heavily populated areas and toward Lake Mead. The practice range features a 777 target (Vegas, baby!), yet sits at perhaps the unluckiest spot in the city. “This is the devil’s triangle right here,” says Sutton, stopping at a pumphouse behind the range.

The confluence of washes at The Club at Sunrise, a municipal course reimagined, renamed and reopened in 2016 as part of a massive public works and flood control project involving multiple government agencies, is where water and debris go when Las Vegas gets too much rain. Sutton has witnessed water from all parts of town submerging the range. The 7s aren’t discernible during and after a significant storm. “It looks like the Mississippi River is coming right through here,” Sutton says.

On most days, the 7s are targets for golfers — and The Club at Sunrise gets plenty of them. The Clark County-owned and KemperSports-managed course supported 66,000 rounds in 2021, according to Sutton. The Club at Sunrise likely boasts the largest golfers-to-inches-of-rain gap in the country. The property averaged 1.45 inches of rain the past two years.

Plenty has changed, including how golf courses are irrigated, since Sutton started working for Jim Colbert as a teenager. Dozens of Las Vegas courses now produce playable surfaces thanks to recycled water. But the recycled water quality at The Club at Sunrise is so rotten that Sutton and architect Randy Heckenkempfer used paspalum on greens, fairways and tees, making it the first Nevada course with the salt-tolerant species on all playing surfaces. Lake Mead, a giant reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam 30 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, is less than 30 percent full for the first time since being flooded in 1935.

Creativity is required to keep golf going on Las Vegas’s 51 courses. As the city’s entertainment business transitions from stale casinos to stadium-style pools and NFL weekends, the Las Vegas golf industry is evolving amid unprecedented water challenges.

Did anybody have a reverse overseed, continual turf reductions and paspalum on a golf course presentation and management parlay in 1980?

The par-3 seventh hole at Red Rock Country Club drops 85 feet. A panorama of the Las Vegas Strip lurks in the distance. The foreground view tells a story of agronomic ingenuity.

A pocket of brown fairway fronts the green. Green rough surrounds the putting surface and a trio of bunkers. Beyond the green is the eighth hole, a mid-length par 4, with brown in the center and green on the periphery. The aesthetic contrasts what golfers expect to see during the money portion (translation: late fall, winter and early spring) of the desert golf season.

The reverse overseed works. The 23-year-old private course has something to separate itself from competitors and superintendent George Folopoulos says members appreciate the winter playability of Red Rock Country Club’s 22 acres of dormant Bermudagrass fairways. “Once somebody plays it,” says Folopoulos, the club’s superintendent since 2013 and a Las Vegas resident since 2006, “they are impressed and surprised by it at the same time.”

The club opted for the reverse overseed on fairways a few years before Folopoulos arrived. “It’s one of the things that led me to this course,” he says. “I fell in love with it instantly. The fact that how it looks compared to everything else … I like that separation and I have always liked it.”

George Folopoulos
© zaurrahimov | adobe stock

Overseeded target greens within dormant turf is a common range aesthetic in the Southwest. But Red Rock Country Club is believed to be the only Nevada course utilizing a reverse overseed on fairways. When the course closes for overseeding in mid-September, Folopoulos’s team disperses ryegrass seed on four acres of tees and 31 acres of rough. They have honed the process over the years. Folopoulos was initially leery of dropping seed into fairways or landscape areas, so his team overseeded rough via walking spreaders. Broadcast spreaders are now used for the bulk of the overseed.

Red Rock Country Club is part of a master planned community that also includes The Arroyo Golf Club, which utilizes a traditional overseed. Divot bottles are checked to ensure fairway mix intended for Arroyo doesn’t creep onto a cart headed for Red Rock. Las Vegas-based Pro Turf International oversees the maintenance of both courses. The presence of a sister course with a traditional winter aesthetic means Folopoulos must educate skeptics.

“I try to describe it to people that don’t have a visual of it by telling them we are giving you a target area,” he says. “You want to aim toward the brown stuff. A lot of people, when they see the reverse overseed, they don’t even realize what it is. They think the fairways are dead, which creates conflict because you have to explain it to those people and stop them from spreading false rumors.”

The fairways are irrigated once per week during winter. “You would normally need to have to water daily if you are watering an overseeded course,” Folopoulos adds.

Numbers to knowaverage annual precipitation
4.18” Las Vegas30.28” United States
6.3 acre-feet: Annual irrigation permitted per acre on southern Nevada golf courses 4.14: Average acre of turf per hole in southern Nevada in 2019
5.09: Average acre of turf per hole in southern Nevada in 200035: Percentage of golf turf in Southwest agronomic region irrigated with recycled water Sources: National weather service, Nevada Golf Alliance and GCSAA

Closer to the Las Vegas strip and with intimate views of the city’s largest building, The Stratosphere, fellow Pro Turf International superintendent Nathan Shipley leads the maintenance at venerable Las Vegas National Golf Club. A former golf, libation, culinary and entertainment home of “The Rat Pack,” Las Vegas National presents customers with a common winter appearance: green down the middle, brown on the periphery. The Flamingo Wash flows through the course, although it’s filled with more debris than water because of the extended drought.

Las Vegas National operates on a block irrigation system and Shipley’s crew of 13 includes two employees dedicated to irrigation. Opened in 1961, the course is a patriarch of Las Vegas golf. It has endured through adapting. Shipley also has adapted, from being a corporate accountant for Mrs. Fields to launching a golf course maintenance career in his late 30s, to moving from his native Utah to Nevada, to shifting from superintendent at Siena Golf Club to turf leader at Las Vegas National. “I tell everybody that my best day as an accountant pales in comparison to my worst day as a superintendent,” he says. “I love this job.”

Surrounded by modern homes and unveiled in 1999 with 170 acres of wall-to-wall turfgrass, Siena Golf Club had been reduced to 65 maintained acres when Shipley was transferred to Las Vegas National last year. Nestled inside one of the city’s older neighborhoods less than three miles from the Strip, Shipley manages a cozy 120-acre site. Fifty-five acres of tees, fairways and greens are overseeded in winter, leaving more than half of the footprint brown. The black-and-white clubhouse photos from an era when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and friends held court at Las Vegas National demonstrate the green-or-bust golf aesthetic of yesteryear.

The past two years have provided one of the great paradoxes in Las Vegas National’s history. Golfer activity is surging as rainfall dwindles. An overabundance of green turf is no longer a prerequisite for desert golf survival. Shipley monitors water usage like the financial books he once exhaustively studied. “It’s not as easy as the people around here make it look,” he says.

Red Rock Country Club’s reverse overseed is popular with members.

Sometimes a solution originates via a walk.

TPC Summerlin director of golf course maintenance Dale Hahn strolled through natural landscapes surrounding his home following the unveiling of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s turf rebate program in the early 2000s. Toting a field guide and stakes, he noted plant species and soil varieties native to the surrounding desert. The studies positioned TPC Summerlin for turf removal success. Home of the PGA Tour’s annual Las Vegas stop, the private club has removed 21.3 acres of turf in 10 phases since 2003, replacing them with plants and soils that, in Hahn’s words, “mimic” what has been growing in the southern Nevada desert for centuries.

Grayish in appearance and filled with small rocks, the wayward areas support drought-tolerant plants such as creosote bush and Mormon tea. “I steal all my ideas,” Hahn jokes while driving along a cart path flanked on both sides by desertscape instead of turf.

Turf removal decisions are documented in a 3-inch binder stored above Hahn’s desk. Upon entering the administrative offices of the maintenance facility, visitors see a framed certificate promoting TPC Summerlin’s Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary status and a pair of irrigation computers. “This job is all about irrigation,” Hahn says.

TPC Summerlin contrasts many of its neighbors — the club paints its 25 acres of fairways, a practice implemented as colorant technology improved. Fairways are being converted from 419 Bermudagrass to Bandera Bermudagrass, with the revamped course scheduled to debut at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in October. Tees are overseeded with ryegrass while bentgrass greens are maintained year-round. Hahn insists that the ability to educate members about why a course looks and plays various ways at different periods yields superintendent longevity. “The reason I have been able to keep this job for so long is that I’m a pretty good communicator,” he says.

Hahn has been around Las Vegas long enough to know the less rain the city receives and the lower Lake Mead water levels dip, the more scrutiny turf-centric businesses will face. Hahn is representing the golf industry on a committee overseeing the removal of around 4,000 acres of “nonfunctional turf” from landscapes by Jan. 1, 2027, as part of a bill approved last year by the Nevada state assembly.

Precipitation in Las Vegas
InchesYear
Days
1.92021
23
2.42020
18
6.92019
36
3.42018
20
2.42017
21
4.82016
29
4.52015
36
1.82014
19
3.02013
24
5.3201217
Source: National Weather Service

 

Where the turf will be removed is to be determined. But Las Vegas golf will support less green and brown in five years. More than 900 acres of Southern Nevada golf turf have already been removed since 2000 and 366 completed projects have netted incentives exceeding $41 million, according to the Nevada Golf Alliance.

“You’re going to have to reduce acreage,” Hahn says. “It’s the cheapest way to go. The water district generally will incentivize you to do that. We have upgraded our irrigation satellites, we have done database audits, you can make sure your sprinklers are level, you can put in new nozzles … but that’s expensive.”

Sutton’s zest for tinkering and troubleshooting expanded as he helped build and maintain more golf courses. The Club at Sunrise was his seventh construction and grow-in project.

He played junior golf in the 1970s on the land he now maintains. The course was called The Winterwood Golf Club. He then returned to his golf home in the 1980s to work as a spray technician and assistant superintendent. The course was called Desert Rose Golf Club. While guiding visitors around the course, Sutton points to trees he installed nearly four decades ago. “All the big trees here,” he says, “I planted them in the mid-1980s. I’ll go by one and think, ‘That has come a long ways from when it was an itty-bitty tree.’”

Sutton’s biggest contribution to the site — and perhaps to Las Vegas golf — resides at ground level. Sutton unexpectedly lost a job following a management change on Jan. 1, 2015. Four days later, he received a phone call from Heckenkempfer about leading the maintenance efforts at what became known as The Club at Sunrise. The opportunity to help build another golf course and introduce paspalum to Las Vegas proved enticing.

Poor water and soil quality, leading to the continual resodding of the 17th fairway, perplexed Sutton during his stint at Wildhorse Golf Club in nearby Henderson. Flustered by the annual ordeal, Sutton called West Coast Turf’s John Marman to discuss turf options. Marman suggested sodding difficult plots with paspalum. The fairway improved and Sutton occasionally received visits from curiosity seekers, including Heckenkempfer.

“He wanted to see how the paspalum looked and how it was doing in the desert,” Sutton says. “He came over, I toured him around the golf course and he asked, ‘Well, what do you think of paspalum as a wall-to-wall turfgrass for a golf course? I said, ‘They are coming out with new varieties. I think it’s a great idea.’”

Six years into The Club at Sunrise era, the educated hunch has proved true. Paspalum, according to Sutton, works on a desert course. “I’m a big fan,” Sutton says. “If I’m ever doing anything in Las Vegas, it’s going to be all paspalum.” Sutton, though, has likely executed his final major construction project. Dealing with the volume contractors and engineers involved at The Club at Sunrise wasn’t for the meek and new golf courses aren’t being built in Las Vegas.

The Club at Sunrise is currently the only course in Las Vegas with paspalum playing surfaces.

Sutton’s mentor, Bill Rohret, remains the lone superintendent in the Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame. Plaques honoring inductees are displayed on a wall inside the Las Vegas National clubhouse. A lengthy résumé demonstrating a penchant for helping grow and, more important, preserve golf in a parched region suggests Sutton should be honored alongside Rohret.

“Bill Rohret taught me everything I know,” Sutton says. “He always thought of me as a kid that thought outside the box and tried different things. I have been trying new things here in Las Vegas for as long as I can remember.”

Tinkering guarantees evolution in dry times.

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief. He didn’t visit one casino during his time in Las Vegas reporting this story.