Prior to going to Sand Valley, I felt there to be five great public golf destinations in the USA – Bandon Dunes, Pebble Beach, Kohler, Streamsong, and Pinehurst. A few other public destinations fall just short of these such as Forest Dunes, Barton Creek, Sunriver, and French Lick. I have not been to Big Cedar Lodge. After my visit to Sand Valley, I would be inclined to put it in the first list, albeit in sixth place.
If one has driven through central Nebraska to play the best courses in Nebraska such as Sand Hills, Dismal River and The Prairie Club (soon to be joined by CapRock Ranch), one will recall gazing and seeing land where seemingly a near perfect golf course could be built anywhere. This goes on for hundreds of miles. I recall Tom Doak saying something like “yes, a golf course could be built anywhere here, but if you build them, then they would start to be indistinguishable, much like Scottsdale which started essentially with Desert Forest and now the place is overrun with courses that all look the same.” (I paraphrased that). After I spent the day playing Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes, I had a similar feeling to his statement.
I have been fortunate to play Bandon Dunes and Streamsong multiple times as well as multiple rounds at Cabot Links and Barnbougle Dunes. I have played most of Coore/Crenshaw’s more highly ranked courses at Old Sandwich, Sand Hills, Frair’s Head, and Hidden Creek. (Kapalua Plantation is very different and the two at Talking Stick are not worthy of mentioning in comparison). I walked away saying to myself that once again, Bill Coore did a marvelous routing for the land he was provided. Seriously, is there anyone today better at a routing than Mr. Coore? But I also found much of the course was very similar to what I had played before from their designs. Perhaps that is a good thing given the high regard I have for much of their other work. On the other hand, I walked away slightly disappointed that there was very little that seemed “new.”
Perhaps I was victimized by a slow pace of play. The two groups in front of us were a group of eight guys on a golf trip. They finished three holes behind the group ahead of them. One of the guys in the group ahead had the mannerisms of a tour pro, yet I do not think he broke 80 as he never made a putt no matter how many directions he looked at it. Our round took 4:45. Yet I did not mind the pace as much as usual as it gave me the chance to take more photos, make more notes and ask my caddie questions about how the course plays. Even with my slow round I had two hours before the round at Mammoth Dunes.
The course plays from a hill with the front and back nine starting and ending there. It is not the highest point on the course as this comes on the fifth tee but the small starting shed/snack bar does offer a compelling view of several holes, particularly the tenth. The course rises and falls often and Mr. Coore artfully plotted the holes to fit the land. The result is 5 par 5’s and 5 par 3’s, a bit non-traditional but it certainly works. I do not think a better routing could have been achieved despite the first hole being disappointing.
The fairways are generous at Sand Valley and one really should never lose a ball. While Mammoth Dunes’ fairways are even wider, there is ample room here off the tee if one does not try to overpower the course. In fact, there are only a few holes where there is any strategy to the tee shot on the non-par 3’s.
What one will also find is the normal features of the designs from Mr. Coore and Mr. Crenshaw: wild and irregular shaped bunkers, some false fronts, center-line bunkers, and greens with fall-offs and subtle internal movement. The greens are not as undulated as many of their more highly ranked courses. The end result is a course that is visually attractive and fun to play. One would always enjoy playing a round of golf at Sand Valley as long as the weather is good. They would likely have a different experience nearly every time they played it. That is high praise.
The course measures 6938 yards from the Black tees, par 72 rated 73.2/134. It is obvious from the teeing areas that they could add 400+ more yards should they desire. The Orange tees are 6535 yards rated 71.4/132. There are four sets of lesser tees going all the way down to 3883 yards. In addition, there are four sets of combination tees. The numerous tee options are a superb idea.
1. Par 4 – 335/325. This hole plays downhill to a very wide fairway out to the right. There are rolling hills that can add to the distance the ball will roll-out albeit too far right creates an awkward angle back to the green although the approach shot should be no longer than 130 yards. The left side of the fairway has sand down all of the side to the front left of the green. The “nastiest” bunker comes into the fairway about 60 yards from the green and is narrower with a raised face. The green has a false front and is sloped back to front with mounds on the corners. It is a relatively weak starting hole.
2. Par 4 – 431/395. The second hole is a good one, playing slightly down then dramatically up to a green that one cannot see its depth. In addition, there are roll-offs on all sides, more sharply on the right side where a ball can tumble down 20+ feet and 40 yards away to a taller grass area. Off the tee there is a long bunker left about 200 yards out while the right side has a continuous bunker. The fairway nearly is split by bunkers about 125 yards from the green that cross the fairway diagonally. The green is sloped back to front but with subtle fall-offs at it corners and edges.
3. Par 3 – 216/192. I thought this to be the second best par 3 on the course. There is a long bunker down the left side from essentially the tee to most of the front of the green that must be carried if the pin is on the left. There is a large mound off to the right of the green. Miss this mound on the right side and one’s ball will kick far right and likely have a blind recovery shot. The best line is just to the left of this mound. The green is large with subtle interior movement seemingly everywhere. On my round, this green played very slow.
4. Par 5 – 593/557. This hole plays much longer as it is substantially uphill with the sharpest rise as you near the green. The fairway is generous but one needs to avoid the sand that is on both sides all the way to the green. The smaller green has a substantial false front with sand on the sides and rear. At the back of these bunkers are rough land and tall grass so missing too far away from the green is a major mistake. The green is quick back to front. Par here is a good score on a good golf hole.
5. Par 3 – 175/164. Playing from the highest tee on the course (the highest point is walking from four to five), this hole plays downhill with flanking long bunkers. If one goes long their ball will travel quite a ways behind the green. The green was relatively uninteresting to me but perhaps it was due to a favorable pin location.
6. Par 4 – 455/445. For me, this is the second best hole on the front nine as sand is everywhere and decisions need to be made off the tee. The sand on the left creeps into the fairway requiring a tee shot of 210-220 yards to clear it. If you do clear it you can get a favorable roll out. If you play to the right of it you will likely not clear one of the hills and have a much longer shot into the green. The right side also has sand from nearly the tee to the green. Another bunker about 250 yards off the tee also comes into the fairway on the left. As you near the green a bunker comes in from the right starting about 30 yards short of the green and blocking the front half right of the green. The large green of 45+ yards has a lot of internal movement to it. This was my one double bogey of the round but I marveled at the hole.
7. Par 5 – 568/536. Only the longest of hitters need worry about the long bunker that sits inside the left half of the fairway as it begins at 310 yards off the tee. Yet this bunker dominates the second shot as it is nearly 140 yards long and ends in the middle of the fairway. One really needs to have the length to carry it on the second shot or play to a small area to the left of it where another long bunker snakes its way on the left and overlaps that central bunker by 20 yards and goes another 30 yards down the left side. At the green is a small, narrow bunker on the front right, one on the left front and one at the rear. The green is raised and has a substantial swale in the back right. This is another good golf hole.
8. Par 3 – 136/115. My favorite hole on the entire course was this uphill par 3 playing 25 high. There is an enormous deep bunker on the front right that has to be avoided. It is likely the nastiest bunker on the course. Behind this bunker on the right are two smaller, but also deep bunkers. The left side of the green offers mounding and one single deep bunker which is what I found. Choosing the wrong club and going long leads to a run-off area behind the green. The green is sloped towards the deep bunker fronting the green. It is both a visually attractive hole and one that plays very difficult despite its short length. I felt 6-8 to be the best stretch of golf on the course.
9. Par 4 – 305/290. My caddie said the lake to the right is the only water on the course but I did not see how anyone could reach it given the trees between the fairway and the water. Trees are thick on both sides of the fairway for the very downhill tee shot. The green sits back in a narrower land surrounded by those thick trees. There are bunkers everywhere around this green except at the front. The green has multiple tiers. I will never understand how I left my 3 feet birdie putt nearly 8 inches short from right below the hole. This is another hole that is visually more attractive than from a playing standpoint.
10. Par 5 – 563/541. Probably the best view on the course is standing on the tenth tee as this par 5 falls downhill to a broad fairway. There are two early bunkers not in play but the central bunker is about 250-275 yards from the tee and even shorter hitters can reach it. Balls hit to the left of it will find a speed slot and a better line to the tee but the safer play is to play to the right of it for those knowing they need three shots to reach the green. Sand and grass is on both sides of the fairway which narrows at 85 yards from the green as sand comes in from the right from a bunker set below the fairway. The green sits between long sandy areas and is somewhat thin, but long at nearly 50 yards. There are numerous mounds and smaller swales throughout this green. For me this is the best par 5 on the golf course as it maximizes visual appeal, strategy, and an interesting hole.
11. Par 4 – 405/387. This hole plays out to the right if one cannot hit a tee shot longer than 220 yards. If they can they should play a straighter tee shot. The green sits off to the left. Once again sand goes down both sides of the fairway but there are no real bunkers on the hole. The green has two defined spines as well as short grass to its right for recovery. It is another long green at 48 yards. It’s an okay hole.
12. Par 5 – 499/487. This is perhaps the easiest par 5 on the course where bigger hitters will play over the tree on the left off the tee in order to get a favorable run-out. For other players the tee shot plays out to the right but then the second shot needs to come back to the left. The green has a fall-off on the right and a slight false front with higher ground off to the left. The green seemed to play slow which minimized the effect of any movement.
13. Par 4 – 428/383. This is a fine golf hole that reminded me of the eighteenth at Harbour Town as there is a bulge in the fairway on the left after a long waste area. Bigger hitters will likely lay up as a drive of 250-270 can reach the bunker on the other end of this bulge. Or they have to have confidence they can find a channel to the right of the bunker at the end of the bulge. There is a well-placed right front bunker at the green as well as a rear right bunker. The green is raised with mounds on three of the corners and a front horizontal spine.
14. Par 3 – 200/175. The green is angled to the right and creates a thinner look than reality. Sand surrounds all but the front of this green. I did not find it to be a unique hole.
15. Par 4 – 419/392. The final four holes are pretty good at Sand Valley beginning with the fifteenth which bends out to the right than back to the left. Sand is down the left side while the right side offers a mixture of sand and trees. The green sits surrounded by trees on three sides with one small, deep bunker on the middle left. There is not a lot of room between the green and the surrounding trees.
16. Par 4 – 451/429. The best par 4 on the back nine is next as a somewhat blind shot due to a hill off to the left. Sand again is everywhere on both sides. There is another central bunker roughly 220-240 yards off the tee where the smart play is to play right of it. Further up on the left are two bunkers placed inside the fairway on the left starting at 70 yards from the green. The green sits slightly higher with a single front right bunker. The green itself is not as contoured as some others.
17. Par 3 – 236/215. The punchbowl green sits on much higher land with the left side offering an open look as the right side has a very tall mound. The left side of the green has a shorter rise creating the small opening for a view. Balls hit through the opening should kick right whereas balls hit over the rise on the right should come back onto the green to the right off the sharp hill. I stayed on the very top of the rise on the right. My caddie repeatedly told me to aim right, then more right, then still more right, then added another foot. My putt down the hill and well to the right of the green ended up 14” away. It is a fun hole.
18. Par 5 – 523/507. The finishing hole plays flat for the tee shot before the hole rises to its finish, with the sharpest rise at the end, although not as dramatic as the fourth hole. There is a central bunker about 190 yards off the tee. Bigger hitters will need to avoid an almost hidden bunker on the left side about 240 yards off the tee while a much larger and noticeable bunker on the right sits at 270 yards. A second central bunker is on the incline about 200 yards from the green. Following this second central bunker the fairway narrows with sand on both sides. The green sits above a final stretch of sand that eats into the green creating a back right small peninsula. I thought this sand to be weird even if overall the green is large at nearly 65 yards in depth. The green primarily tilts a bit back to front with the only real swale near that bunker coming in from the right.
Sand Valley is a fun golf course which is what one would expect from a resort course that needs to cater to golfers of all levels. The course features large greens and wide fairways with only a few of them offering a decision to be made off the tee due to a central bunker or a bend in the fairway where there is an encroaching bunker from one side. The greens are not overly done and are very fair. It is a course where one should score near their index or slightly better.
While I prefer Streamsong Red to Sand Valley, I could see where others would flip that order because of the higher visual appeal of Sand Valley from the many elevated tees. It is on a beautiful piece of property whereas Streamsong Red is not. I do think Streamsong Red has the superior par 3’s and par 4’s and offers more strategy whereas at Sand Valley the better holes are the par 5’s although the sixth and eight are also gems. I do not understand the comment that many make where they find it hard to believe that a course such as this is in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is filled with wonderful terrain and has become a golfing destination with at least fifteen noteworthy courses. Perhaps the comment is because of the amount of sand located there, but one often finds sand in out-of-the-way places in the USA such as at Ballyneal or Sand Hills. Certainly the sand enhances the experience of playing at Sand Valley.
What I will recall most about the course is the fine routing that takes prime advantage of the many rises and falls. But for me it lacks the strategy of Streamsong Red or there many other notable courses where the green complexes are better.
Date: May 30, 2021