Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Barnbougle in Tasmania, and Cabot in Nova Scotia are all world-class golf facilities developed by Chicago entrepreneur Mike Keiser since the mid-1990s and their dramatic Oceanside location plays a large part in their appeal.
The latest Keiser project in central Wisconsin, near the small town of Nekoosa, lies far from any Ocean but it does have sand, some of it hundreds of feet deep in places, and it’s here, on a massive 1,700-acre site that you’ll find the Sand Valley Golf Resort.
Two hundred Founders invested in the development and it was their decision to have Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design the first 18-hole course on the property, with David McLay Kidd selected to lay out the second course, Mammoth Dunes, which opened for play in 2018.
This course occupies a series of ridges and valleys, with one prominent dune formation known as “The Volcano” used as the start and end point for each nine, where visitors arriving can look out across the tumbling landscape and wonder at what lies ahead.
The shorter front nine lies across heavily contoured terrain, ending with a terrific short par four that brings the routing back to the foot of the Volcano, whilst the inward half is 500 yards longer, featuring strong opening and closing par fives at the 10th and 18th.
As a fan of Bill Coore, I could tell just from standing on the first tee box that this was going to be the bigger better challenge compared to Mammoth Dunes. It is tighter, it is much more demanding tee to green and consistently dares golfers to hit great shots or get rejected.
I loved the angles that Coore created into all the greens, and rarely will you find a hole that doesn’t move in one direction or the other across a piece of land that rises and falls 30-40 feet in spots. As the name of the resort suggests, there’s no shortage of sand, and the architects superbly demonstrated their skills with shaping, depth and positioning of the natural resource.
The more Coore/Crenshaw courses you play, the more you’ll hear the theory of letting the land dictate the flow of the course to create holes that feel wonderfully natural on the earthly canvas. This is where Sand Valley quickly distinguishes itself from the other 18-hole layout at the resort. There is a large-scale feel to the stunning location, but without question there is a sense of structure to each of the holes without getting lost at sea. I feel the exact same way about the Red course at Streamsong compared to the new Black course. At Sand Valley, Coore was most thoughtful to select the best parcel of land and delivered a top-notch product to complement their already globally celebrated portfolio.
Very good but not great is what comes to mind with SV. The location is stunning, the use of sand is amazing and the conditioning was top notch.
However, I felt the course was over tweaked for difficulty. Fairways and undulations shaved to go into the sand. Greens rock hard and barely holding wedges. The course is difficult but as it matures I think it will become a great course.
The last stretch is fantastic. 16 is a blind tee shot with a long and interesting second shot into the green. 17 is unreal being over 200 yards with swales in front of the green hiding the flag stick. 18 mirrors the 18th at Sand Valley and is a great trek up the hill to Craig's Porch and a good chance to get par before the round ends.
Make sure to have an ice cream sandwich on the porch after the round, nothing better!
Within the last 20 years there's little doubt that the most influential person regarding golf course development has been and remains Mike Keiser. It was his vision that brought Bandon Dunes into play. The mega-course facility along a desolate area of Oregon coastal area has become nothing less than a golfer's mecca -- a place to emerge oneself through classic architecture designed layouts where the playing of the game and having maximum fun is central to the time spent there.
Keiser sent a clear message with Bandon's arrival -- having courses where strategic calculations are centermost. Not slog golf with overemphasis on difficulty. Facilities where walking is the only way to play -- not power carts that whisk you on endless rides between holes stretched out endlessly. One of the really fine attributes at Sand Valley is a very active and capable caddie program. The facility has a range of caddies and the staff are most helpful in making sure your needs are addressed.
With the success of Bandon, Keiser has made it a point to look elsewhere for key land sites that fit his beliefs on what golf should be doing. The most recent comes with the opening in the last few months of Sand Valley -- located in north central Wisconsin in the town of Nekoosa just over 100 miles north of the State Capital Madison.
Once again Keiser enlisted the highly acclaimed tandem of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The duo has been succeeded immensely in creating layouts that harken to the times when classic architecture was at its zenith in the 1920's. The property is massive and there's clear opportunities for more golf to be developed. Six holes have already opened for the planned second 18 called Mammoth Dunes, a David McLay Kidd design, which will fully open sometime in early '18.
Sand Valley is what its name states. The layout features an array of blown out areas of sand that Mother Nature has shaped over many, many years. Coore and Crenshaw created a routing that incorporate these areas for a wide ensemble of different shotmaking situations. There is a heathland feel to the course but it is not completely similar to the vintage heathland courses found in the immediate area of London.
One of the real virtues in playing Sand Valley is the usage of fescue grass for the tees and fairways. The closely cropped surface allows for firm and fast conditions. The putting surfaces are also well done with pure bentgrass used.
Interestingly, Sand Valley provides no less than seven (7) teeing areas -- ranging from 3,883 to 7,161 yards. The tip distances are not widely disseminated and for good reason -- one's game had best be at a high quality level to tackle the requirements.
The most notable element of Sand Valley is the top tier routing -- the direction you play is always changing. The nature of each hole is completely dissimilar to the ones you've already played. Coore and Crenshaw have built a justifiable reputation in providing golf holes with maximum elasticity thereby keeping the golfer always on one's toes.
The opening hole is a short par-4 that maxes out at 335 yards. You commence from an elevated tee and a large area of sand dominates the left side on this slightly turning left hole. The risk is deciding how much of the corner to cut. The prudent play is to get into position for a perfect yardage for one's wedge shot. The green has enough pitch which features subtle movement hard to discern at first glance.
Given the course emphasizes walking the location of tees are always fairly near the previous greensite played. When you arrive at the 2nd the intensity meter ramps up considerably. The par-4 of 449 yards plays slightly down hill to a fairway pinched in by bunkers on the right side. Longer hitters may opt for less than driver and seek to position their approach shot on this dog-leg right hole. The green is set on a rise with falloffs on the sides included.
At the 3rd you face a demanding 226-yards long par-3. There's room to run the ball by using a right shoulder area provided. At the 4th you encounter a testing uphill par-5 of 620 yards. The fairway at the 4th is similar to others at Sand Valley - plenty of width but always with a preferred side to reach. As you walk the hole you can feel both sides of the fairway slowly pinch in so that the 2nd shot must be played smartly and with sensitivity to getting in the right position for the approach. The green is elevated above the fairway and it takes a fine shot to nestle near enough to the hole for a birdie try.
Brilliantly, Coore and Crenshaw opt to head in another direction. The dropshot par-3 5th plays 175 yards and it appears the green is relatively straightforward. Guess again. There are falloffs -- especially in the front -- and it's critical to gauge any wind issues when selecting one's club.
The long par-4 6th at 487 yards is equally well done. There's a left side bunker that can be carried for those who dare. Just be sure to execute. The green is massive and failure to be keen on the approach can quickly mean a fast three-putt.
The 599-yard 7th goes in a completely different direction. A large fairway slowly tapers to a more narrow area for the 2nd shot. The green is set to the left and is well contoured. Like the 4th -- the 7th is far from being a pedestrian par-5 hole.
Changing pace in a solid manner comes the uphill par-3 8th at 136 yards. The green is quite deep and while the hole appears to be nothing more than a flip shot it requires a deft touch to have a good try for birdie. The outward half concludes with a good short par-4 of 305 yards. The fairway narrows considerably as one gets nearer to the hole. Long hitters may take the bait and attempt to go for the green but the slightest push / pull will have one pay dearly for such aggressive play that fails to execute.
The inward half of holes measure out at 3,829 yards and features no less than three par-5 holes. The 10th is a striking hole visually. You tee off at Craig's Porch -- the starting point for the both sides where refreshments of all types are served. A center-placed bunker takes a hefty poke of 300+ yards to carry. The par-4 11th turns left in the drive zone and features another putting surface featuring subtle and hard to discern movements.
The split fairway par-5 12th at 499 yards is a hole that likely needs a few rounds to fully comprehend what's needed. The left fairway provides a better and easier approach -- but the drive must be played to a fairly narrow landing area that runs out at roughly 290 yards. The right fairway is set below the teeing area and is somewhat wider. There's plenty of risk/reward and birdie is certainly doable for those who realize to play within their capabilities. The par-4 13th plays in the opposite direction and is, in my mind, one of the most underrated holes at Sand Valley.
The par-3 14th is notable for its wonderful greensite. The hole is fairly similar to the 17th that C&C designed at Bandon Trails. The 15th and 16th are two quality long par-4's that are quite varied. The 15th turns left in the drive zone and provides a demanding green that behooves total respect when playing it. The 16th offers another center-placed bunker which can be driven with a fine play from the tee. The green is another C&C gem -- contoured sufficiently so that one's approach has to be gauged correctly.
I am a big fan of the final two holes at Sand Valley. Long par-3's are often avoided by many architects because they are often deemed as being not as user-friendly as shorter holes. The 17th at Sand Valley is magnificent. The green is set in a bowl but the tee is actually below the putting surface. There is an opening in which a ground game option can be tried. The green is masterful -- with a devilish front right location that will require Divine intervention to get near it. The long par-3 has a place in golf and the 17th at Sand Valley captures its essence so well.
The round concludes with an uphill par-5 that includes an angled green that is deep and well-protected. Yes, birdie is within range but a quick bogey is equally possible.
I've had the pleasure in playing numerous C&C courses and while the course is not at the Sand Hills or Friar's Head level -- it is clearly on par with the likes of Bandon Trails which is often vastly underrated by many who head to Bandon. I also see Sand Valley being more consistently good than Cabot Cliffs which gets too much mileage from the last several holes on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The site at Sand Valley is truly an eyeful. The land completely natural -- free of all clutter and anything not native to the environment.
Wisconsin has clearly made big time strides over the last several years. This year's US Open at Erin Hills just 35 miles from Milwaukee was well received and in '20 the Ryder Cup comes to the Badger State at Whistling Straits -- a facility which has already hosted three PGA Championships. With the planned Kidd course to open in '18 I would certainly recommend those thinking in attending the Ryder Cup to make plans to play several of the key courses in the State.
As I said at the outset -- Mike Keiser once again hits the right notes with his development at Sand Valley. Core golfers will feel the embrace of vintage Midwestern hospitality. C&C have once again shown a gifted touch in allowing the land to be the true story -- not forcing man's hand upon it -- but always keeping the player on one's toes because banal repetition is simply not present. For those wishing to stay for several days there's on-site lodging which is well done without being gaudy.
Golf development in the States is clearly stagnant -- but the opening of Sand Valley clearly demonstrates if a superior product does come forward there will be those eagerly searching to come and play it. Wisconsin is clearly making vast strides and if you see yourself as a core golfer who embraces classical golf elements then make plans to get there soon. Mike Keiser clearly is playing a song that will be music to your ears.
by M. James Ward