Friday, April 5, 2013 | 6 p.m.
Two years ago, Mark Brenneman sat with a visiting dignitary at a table in the clubhouse of Shadow Creek Golf Course. The two chatted casually, peering out a giant window at the course’s lush 18th green.
Brenneman has a great job, as the general manager of the gorgeous golf oasis. His guest was also used to being in charge of a vast operation, as he was former President George W. Bush.
This was five days after Osama bin Laden was killed, and Bush 43 was in town for a speaking engagement at a conference about global economics. As part of the deal that lured Bush to Las Vegas, he was offered a round of golf at Shadow Creek and a private flight to and from Dallas. Those perks do not include the $100,000 fee (at minimum) the former commander-in-chief received to speak at the event.
“They pay me a lot of money to do this,” Bush said to Brenneman, “and you might not have noticed this, Mark, but I’m not a great public speaker.”
“He was very self-deprecating and very funny,” Brenneman said Friday during the second round of the 12th annual Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational at Shadow Creek. Dozens of sports and entertainment stars, led by Jordan, play in the charity event through Sunday. Sports stars include Michael Phelps, Jerry Rice, Jonathan Ogden, Marcus Allen, Roger Clemens, Wayne Gretzky, Greg Maddux, Mario Lemieux and Ken Griffey. Other celebs include Wayne Brady, Jake Owen, Kevin Nealon and Chevy Chase.
Forgive Brenneman if he’s not starstruck by the list. He has hosted four presidents and played golf with three of them: Both Bushes and Bill Clinton. George H.W. Bush actually keeps a locker in the Shadow Creek clubhouse. Jimmy Carter also visited the course a few years ago, but did not play. Golf can link the most powerful men in the world, even if they disagree politically.
“I remember President Bush defending President Obama for his playing golf while in office,” Brenneman said. “He said, ‘I don’t mind that, because when you are president you need some kind of release.’ And he didn’t refer to Obama as Barack Obama, or Obama, but always as ‘the president.’ He had a great deal of respect for the office.”
Brenneman was hired at Shadow Creek 13 years ago, and the way he turned up at the course was somewhat atypical. A headhunter for Shadow Creek, developed by Steve Wynn for his high-roller guests at Mirage, contacted Brenneman while he was the director of golf at Spyglass Hill Golf Course in Monterey, Calif. When Brenneman asked by which course, specifically, he was being recruited, he was told it was a secret. He sent his resume anyway.
Until 2011, Brenneman’s brushes with celebrity have been in private. It wasn’t until Jordan moved his charity tournament to the course, carved into the hard desert in North Las Vegas, that the public was allowed to traipse through the gates of Shadow Creek.
The biggest challenge in managing the crowds has been deterring professional autograph collectors, who descended on the course in droves during the first year. Even last year, when collectors lugging giant packs and bags stuffed with items to be signed and sold were turned away, they found a way to circumvent security.
“We have a 12-foot-high fence on Pecos Road and Washburn, and there’s hardly any traffic out there,” Brenneman said. “We had guys throwing back packs full of memorabilia over the fence to guys who were already inside, trying to get them signed. It was unbelievable.”
For common fans at Shadow Creek, the results have been mixed, to put it charitably. Brenneman does not like to talk hard numbers when discussing the popularity of the Jordan event, but it is clear the crowds are thin around the course and have likely dipped since 2011.
“I don’t want to sound negative, because this tournament has done so much for charity over the years, but it’s just that there are so many more options in Las Vegas than in other locales,” Brenneman said. “This is entirely reflective of Las Vegas, because it has so many other entertainment options. Here we have delightful weather, an incredible venue where you get to be close to world-class athletes for hours at a time, but it’s competing with so many options.”
The celebs are certainly willing to make the trek to the course that sits just west of I-15 near the Craig Road exit. Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul played in the opening round Thursday, during an off night in the team’s schedule. He help lead the Clips to a 120-101 victory in Phoenix on Wednesday (the team’s record 50th win), flew to Vegas to play Shadow Creek, and will be in the lineup Sunday against the Lakers at Staples Center.
“He had never played the course before and brought his father and brother out here,” Brenneman said. “This is during the season, too. The athletes consider it an honor to play here.”
Whether the Jordan tournament returns is in question. This is the final year of a three-year contract. As Brenneman notes, the three charities benefit from the sponsorship money. More than $12 million has been raised over the years. This year’s charities — the James R. Jordan Foundation, Make-A-Wish and Opportunity Village — will benefit from increased partnerships from such companies as MasterCard and Jordan-endorsed Hanes.
Aria president Bobby Baldwin and Jordan will talk after the tournament to discuss a renewal of the contract, but right now, Sunday ends the current commitment.
And don’t count on a PGA or LPGA event being staged at Shadow Creek.
“This place exists as an amenity for hotel guests. That’s why it was built,” Brenneman said. “To be honest, to bring a pro event wouldn’t do anything for us. We have talked about it, but if you’re a tour event, you’re part of a traveling circus.”
As he said that, a group of guys wearing identical Edmonton Oilers jerseys with “Gretzky 99” stitched across the back walked past the clubhouse.
“Wow. I haven’t seen that out here before,” Brenneman said. “I’m just glad they’re not Michael Phelps fans.”
Funny line. If W ever needs someone to punch up a speech, he knows who to call.