Wisconsin - one of America’s best public access destinations
By Richard Smith, Knoxville, Tennessee
Wisconsin is fast becoming a go-to destination for golfers seeking high quality public access golf courses. The world-renowned resort at Kohler is home to the famous Straits course as well as three other excellent courses. My wife and I visited there three years ago and we were overwhelmed by the service and the quality of the golf. I was also able to play Erin Hills before it hosted the 2017 U.S. Open since it is in the same general area of Wisconsin. After visiting Bandon Dunes last year I was drawn to the latest offering from the Keiser family at Sand Valley. Located in Nekoosa, a remote part of Western Wisconsin, the resort opened to rave reviews and after the opening of Mammoth Dunes, a David McLay Kidd design, I thought it might be worth a trip to check out the new resort.
Sand Valley is definitely set in a wilderness. The drive is approximately three and a half hours from both Chicago and Minneapolis and slightly closer from Milwaukee. Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point are the two closest small towns with populations around 20,000-25,000 and both are located some 30 to 45 minutes away from the resort.
We decided to fly directly into Chicago and play Lawsonia’s Links course en route to Sand Valley. The Links is a 1930 design by Bill Langford and Ted Moreau. Langford and Moreau began designing courses in 1918 and they were based out of Chicago. They laid out over 200 courses, most of which were in the Midwest section of the United States. Although we don’t have any good information on their influences, after playing Lawsonia I believe they learned a good bit from the magnificent course at Chicago Golf Club.
Lawsonia is a delightful golf course that presents an almost perfect combination of challenge and playability. Most of the fairways present generous driving lines but the greens and approach areas are excellent. The holes are routed through lovely rolling hills but there is never a very severe uphill or downhill shot – by the same token there is almost never a completely level lie as well.
A number of angled fairway bunkers challenge the player to choose the correct line from the tee. Often a wide fairway proved to be deceiving because the ideal line off the tee offered a much easier shot into the green. The green complexes are defended by deep bunkers and severe slopes and run offs to the sides and back, however, most holes allow a run up approach to one side of the green or the other. The greens themselves have significant slopes and vexing internal contours. The course was in pristine condition and played firm and fast as well. I thought the course was reminiscent of some of the great heathland layouts around London, such as the three ‘Ws” of Woking, West Hill and Worplesdon.
There are expansive views from almost every point on the course. From the 1st tee a good portion of the front nine can be seen and from the 11th tee the entire back nine can also be taken in. With so many good holes, it’s difficult to pick out favorites. The 2nd is a dogleg right par four with a blind tee shot over a ridge guided by two bunkers at the crest. The green slopes sharply from back to front and from left to right and a deep left side bunker protects it. #4 is a long uphill par three guarded on all sides by deep bunkers and a sharp fall off to the right of the green. #7 is a downhill par three with probably a 15 to 20 feet drop off the right and behind the green which is divided by a large slope in the middle. We played to a back right pin and when my ball stayed on the top level to the left I had a 50-foot triple breaking putt that I was overjoyed to two putt.
Par on the back nine starts 3-5-3-5-3 and I think the par five 13th is the best of the lot. This is a long (585-yard) hole and the third shot is usually played from the bank of a steep hill that makes it difficult to judge the distance and get solid contact. The par four 15th plays to a green slightly hidden around a corner where trees come into play just enough to demand that the tee shot is kept to the left to allow an open shot in. The par five finishing hole plays downhill, allowing the longer hitter to go for the green, especially with a tailwind. The green is protected by a deep slope and bunker left and a large drop off right, but short and right offers an open approach and a chance at birdie.
The Links course measures around 6,900 yards from the back tees, but it is enough of a challenge to host the Wisconsin State Amateur championship, which was held two days after we played – the winner was only seven under par for 72 holes. It was a fun but difficult course for my wife – the deep bunkers are a challenge for the expert player and she certainly had her problems in them – however she enjoyed the beauty of the course and the open approaches to many of the greens. I simply loved playing Lawsonia and hole for hole I think it is a better course than the layouts at Kohler (except for the Straits) and a better course than Erin Hills. I think it would be a mistake of the highest order not to play the Links if you are in the area.
Sand Valley is about an hour and fifteen minutes from Lawsonia. The lodgings at the resort were fully booked so we stayed our first two nights up the road at Stevens Point before traveling to Sand Valley for the rest of the trip. Sand Valley has two full-length 18-hole courses and a 17-hole par three course. Coore and Crenshaw built Sand Valley in 2017 and David McLay Kidd followed with Mammoth Dunes which opened in 2018 along with The Sandbox, the par three course.
The vibe here definitely feels like Bandon except that you are on inland sand-based land versus the oceanside setting of Bandon. The course is walking only with caddies and trolleys available. Both courses here have the open look of the Bandon layouts and everything is set very close together. The 1st tee at Mammoth Dunes is right outside the clubhouse, and The Sandbox is a short walk from there. Sand Valley is a short ride up a hill serviced by a frequent bus shuttle service. The accommodations are all close by the clubhouse. Our room was spacious, well-maintained and we had a nice view of the Sandbox and Mammoth’s 18th green.
We played two rounds each at Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes and had a single round at the Sandbox. The courses are very different and a great complement to each other. Sand Valley has shot up in the rankings since it opened and I think this is well deserved. The sandy terrain has beautiful flow and the holes loop up and around a ridge on the front nine with somewhat flatter but no less interesting land on the back. As the name implies sand is everywhere. There is essentially no maintained rough but a combination of large sandy waste areas and natural grass that provides all the challenge you need.
Sand Valley has imposing fairway bunkering making driving intimidating. As you’d expect from a Coore and Crenshaw creation, the green complexes are magnificent. The par four 2nd is a great example of the design features of the course. The drive has a nice open area but deep bunkers surround the landing zone. The second shot plays uphill to a bunker-less green that has steep run offs to the sides and off the back. On the other hand a massive deep bunker to the right protects the short par three 8th.
There are fun holes as well, especially the downhill par four 9th, which is driveable for many golfers, but there’s a lake hidden to the right to capture the careless shot. There are also several half par holes such as the 455-yard par four 6th and the 475-yard par five 12th. Eighteen is a nice uphill par five dominated by a long bunker approaching the right of the large boomerang-shaped green.
Sand Valley was in great condition and played as fast and firm as any links or heathland course I have ever played. The fairways were tight and the putter could be used from almost anywhere the player felt comfortable pulling it out. Calculating the bounce and roll made this a great challenge and made thinking as much a component of the game as power. The open nature of the land and the rolling terrain really make this course a wonderful walk as well as a great challenge.
I have seen old pictures of some of the great heathland courses such as Sunningdale and Swinley Forest before the trees grew in and Sand Valley has the look of some of those classics when they were first built. In comparison to the courses at Bandon, I think Pacific Dunes is the best course of all, but Sand Valley can hold its own with any of the other three Bandon courses. It’s a world-class layout that will probably gain in stature with time.
After playing two rounds at Sand Valley we made our way to The Sandbox the next morning. The Sandbox is a 17-hole par three course, also designed by Coore and Crenshaw, and it’s loads of fun.
The majority of holes are from 75 to 100 yards long, but two of the holes stretch up to 150 yards and longer. The greens have all sorts of twists and turns and one hole even has a valley splitting the middle of the green from front to back. The bunkers are tight to the green edges and they are no bargain to get up and down from. It took us around two hours to play and the course is very easy to get around.
For those who have been to Bandon, The Sandbox is somewhere between The Preserve and Shorty’s par three course at the practice area. I would certainly play The Sandbox on a return trip, but if I were short on time I would skip The Sandbox and play one of the bigger courses again.
After playing The Sandbox and having lunch, we headed out to Mammoth Dunes. Mammoth is a wild ride. The fairways are very generous but there are great strategic options off the tee on many of the holes. Early in the round the huge greens are guarded by large mounds, so it’s possible to have a number of blind shots at the pins. In fact, the first time around Mammoth, I had blind shots on five of the first six holes, with my only clear look at the pin on the par three 4th. It turns out that there had been a tournament that morning and the pins had been placed in some diabolical locations. On my second time around the course I didn’t have a blind shot the whole way around.
The first six holes work across some rolling terrain, but for me the course really takes off after seven when the visual aspects of the holes open up and the challenges off the tee and into the greens becomes more apparent.
There are a number of memorable holes… The short dogleg left uphill 10th is a cracking hole. The tee shot can be played short of or between two large fairway bunkers, or a longer hitter can challenge the green. The putting surface has a significant back to front slope which adds to the challenge. #13 is a stellar par three that’s played over a chasm of sandy wasteland and the green has several large undulations that define several choice pin placements. The back of the green falls off sharply as well so the tee shot has to be played very thoughtfully and precisely.
#14 is a driveable par four that allows the player to use a speed slot down the right side to sling the ball to the green, which has a significant back to front slope that causes problems wherever your ball winds up. I also loved the downhill par three 16th hole where a bunker cuts in from the left. The tee shot has to be played to the right front of the green using the slope to work the ball close to any pin placement to the left. #18 is a fun par five that’s guarded by a long waste bunker almost the entire length of the hole’s left side. The angle of the hole begs the longer hitter to go for the green, but layup options are available to the right. It’s cool to finish underneath the patio behind the clubhouse.
I was very impressed by Mammoth and the design by David McLay Kidd. The greens were large but the contours were all reasonable and well thought out. This is a big, imaginative design that reminded my in some ways of Mike Strantz’s design at Tobacco Road in North Carolina. I think Mammoth is a better course than Tobacco Road but both courses are fun and have you wanting to come back for more.
Plans are in place for Tom Doak to design another course on the Sand Valley property. Sedge Valley will be a sub par 70 course and it sounds to me like this will be Tom’s tribute to Swinley Forest and some of the other great shorter heathland courses. Tom certainly has the ideal canvas to paint a masterpiece here, as the sandy ground is perfect to fashion a course that pays homage to the ground game – I hope Tom and his team do a great job. Once the third course is built Sand Valley is sure to become an even more popular port of call.
Sand Valley will certainly enter the conversation for golf destinations as word spreads. I preferred Sand Valley to Mammoth Dunes and I think Sand Valley will be a fixture in the USA Top 100 rankings for years to come. Mammoth is a fine course and probably on the edge of Top 100 status where opinions will probably fall along handicap lines. Players with 10 or less will likely prefer Sand Valley, while higher handicaps will probably go with Mammoth Dunes due to the easier driving lines and more generous approaches.
My wife preferred Mammoth and played some nice golf on both rounds, but she enjoyed Sand Valley as well. The resort has built a number of tees that enable players of all abilities to play a length that suits their talent. By modern standards, both courses are not that long (although hidden back tees not on the card are there to lengthen the courses if needed) and each course played even shorter due to the firm conditions. However, just about anyone will enjoy the golfing tests.
I’d like to briefly compare Sand Valley in Wisconsin with Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Streamsong in Florida. Cabot Cliffs is probably also in the conversation, but I haven’t played there yet so I’ll limit my comments to the three I have visited.
Bandon is the gold standard by which all golf resorts are measured. Four world-class golf courses and a tremendous par three course on the same property cannot be matched anywhere. The service and amenities at Bandon are tremendous as well. When you enter Bandon you are immersed in a world of golf that you really don’t want to leave.
Streamsong Resort has three very good courses but none of the three are quite up to the quality of the Bandon layouts. It's definitely easier to get to since it is reasonably close to Tampa and Orlando and the service/amenities are world-class, just like they are at Bandon.
Sand Valley is, like Bandon, set in a somewhat obscure location, but I think the reputation of the resort will grow over the years. The rooms are very nice but the food service has some work to do – I have no doubt the Keiser family will sort things out in no time.
I see Bandon as a worldwide destination that will only continue to grow with the planned addition of a fifth championship course. Streamsong will remain a preferred winter destination and will retain popularity due to the relative convenience of travel there. Sand Valley is, for now, mostly a regional destination for golfers from the Midwest. Obviously word about Sand Valley is spreading and after Doak’s new course is built I suspect more golfers will make the trip to Wisconsin to play the closest thing I’ve seen in America to firm heathland-style golf.
All photos courtesy of Richard Smith
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