Sand Valley’s Bold New Additions Shape a New Convention for Golf
How early is too early for a beer?
On this day, that question seemed logical since two older gentlemen substituted their morning coffee for a couple of barely pops. It may have been five o’clock somewhere, but it was 10 a.m. here and the location certainly seemed like an odd place to discuss current events over a couple of Spotted Cows in plastic cups.
This, after all, was a stylish golf shop – almost department store-like – at one of the hottest golf resorts in the country. It sports some of the best logoed merchandise and brands in the business. Food, let alone drink, should be outlawed. But that is clearly not the case. Instead, the shop offers a little Midwest flavor in the form of a beer station. This seems like tailgating on a different level.
Yes, on this visit, at the far end of the shop was indeed a tapper. Alongside it was a small wooden stump holding a sign that read: “Please enjoy a Spotted Cow as you browse in our golf shop. A member of our golf staff will be happy to pour you a beer to help enhance your shopping experience.”
Talk about making an impression.
Sand Valley Golf Resort, in the heart of Wisconsin, has certainly done that over the past two years uncovering the sand barrens of the region and adding to the Mike Keiser golf destination experience (see Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links among others in his portfolio). After the public opening of its original course (by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) in 2017, Sand Valley opened two new courses in 2018. It also announced that a fourth – projected as a par 68 on the scorecard – will soon be built by Tom Doak on a site already being hailed as one of the best inland for golf.
Beer offering aside, the energy emanating from Sand Valley is tough to deny. Perhaps that would explain why on this below average early October day – 50 degrees and overcast – the place is still packed and alive with a mix of peacefulness, care-free attitudes and unpretentious. Time seemingly has no boundaries at Sand Valley and nothing is traditional other than the flag sticks and cups.
The drive into Sand Valley should be enough to get the juices flowing. If not, another spot should set the stage. The walkway/entrance to the newest 18-hole course is like coming out of a football stadium tunnel. It is dark and covered – connecting the clubhouse to one of the lodging offerings on site – and then golfers come out the other side to a stunning landscape of sand and rolling terrain. At the start, just past the bag drop, a simple wooden sign above leads the way with a small arrow and these two words: MAMMOTH DUNES.
Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth
That statement with a depiction of the extinct species hangs in poster-like form above the tapper in the golf shop. Author Ben Mezrich makes a strong case in his fascinating true story “Woolly” that a cloning of the creature could save the world. At Sand Valley, it represents a scale easier to comprehend, yet still inspiring in its own right.
Scottish course designer David McLay Kidd (of Bandon Dunes and Gamble Sands fame) had the most dramatic parcel at Sand Valley to create Mammoth Dunes. A giant V-shaped sand ridge defines the routing making it bigger and bolder than the original course at Sand Valley. But like its companion, it plays firm and fast (on fescue) all around and is a lay-of-the land design. Kidd said his crew just had to “melt shapes” instead of move massive amounts of earth during construction.
That approach should give golfers an appreciation for the enormous fairway corridors – 100 yards wide in some spots – and the variety of shots that can be played at Mammoth. Kidd’s aim was to promote aggressive golf but limit the defensive feelings a golfer might have with numerous hazards and tight fairways. Instead of creating such “binary” hazards, he invokes uneven lies, a partially hidden view, putting around a “hummock” or chipping away from the hole and using the slopes of the green as the engaging elements.
The course, a par 73, was designed with fun and playability for all levels in mind. There are opportunities for creative shot-making and thinking on just about every shot. With firm conditions and the right set of tees, all the par-5s are reachable in two shots and even two par-4s are drivable including No. 14, a hole designed by an amateur in a Golf Digest contest. And though the fairway widths are wider than most, the trickiest part is navigating the fairway bunkers or sandy outlier areas which beg to be bit off. It is not uncommon, too, to face several shots from the fairway during a round where only the top of the flagstick can be seen.
Features golfers will not soon forget at Mammoth include the boomerang-shaped green the curls around a knob at the short par-4 No. 6. The backstop of that green resembles the pitch of a NASCAR track. The par-5 No. 7 also features a deep greenside bunker that has a unique, exposed face to it. Here, part of the foundation of an old settlement home from the early 1900s was found during construction.
On the inward nine, there is also a bar – yes, a bar – just off the 10th green headed to the 11th, which seems fitting since the uphill approach to No. 10 is one of the more exacting short shots on the course. And the par-3 No. 13 is probably the most dramatic hole on the course. It cuts through the large sand ridge that bottoms out just off the tee and rises as a backdrop behind the plateau green.
With mammoth greens – basically double the square footage per green at a regular course – Mammoth offers a great chance for golfers to pump up their greens-in-regulation stats while also testing inevitable lag putts. There is a real chance to post a great score in relation to par which may not necessarily be the case on the other course that opened at Sand Valley in 2018 – despite its significantly shorter yardage.