The Wisconsin Wonder
FOR GOLFERS, SAND VALLEY IS GOLF’S NEXT MUST-VISIT DESTINATION; FOR CENTRAL WISCONSIN, IT’S AN ECONOMIC LIFELINE
At South Wood County (Wis.) Airport, a 20-minute drive north of Sand Valley Golf Resort, airport manager Jeremy Sickler said local residents recently started swinging by the airport to look at the private aircraft parked on Alexander Field.
On a typical day, Sickler said, the tiny airport will receive three private aircraft, often more. That’s as many as he used to see in a month prior to August 2016, when Sand Valley opened its first course for preview play. Fuel sales, Sickler’s best gauge of traffic, have tripled in the past year. One day a couple of months ago, nine aircraft landed on the same day. Their passengers all were headed to Sand Valley.
“Up until last August, it was kind of a sleepy, stagnant airport,” Sickler said. “Sand Valley and their clients have put the paddles to this airport’s chest and revived it.”
For avid golfers, Sand Valley is the next must-play destination from the Keiser family, which created Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Ore., and Cabot Links on Canada’s remote Cape Breton Island. For locals in central Wisconsin, however, it’s a powerful booster shot for an economically depressed region.
“Sand Valley is easily the largest economic-impact development in our area in the last 50 years,” said Rick Bakovka, president of the Central Wisconsin Regional Economic Growth Initiative.
Adams County sits almost smack dab in the heart of Wisconsin, but in recent years it’s been on life support. As recently as the 1990s, Adams and neighboring Wood County to the north were home to a thriving paper industry. Bakovka said some 40 paper mills lined a 120- mile stretch of the Wisconsin River for nearly a century, undergirding a stable, middle-class existence. “We lived life well,” said Bakovka, who worked in the mills and built a home on Sherwood Lake when he was 23 years old.
But around the turn of the century, he said, a familiar story began to play out. Dozens of mills were shuttered and some 10,000 jobs were lost. Bakovka said only five paper mills remain in Wisconsin Rapids, a riverside town north of Sand Valley.
SAND VALLEY IS EASILY THE LARGEST ECONOMIC-IMPACT DEVELOPMENT IN OUR AREA IN THE LAST 50 YEARS.
“It was like the auto industry leaving Detroit,” Bakovka said. “When they left, we had nothing else to rebuild on.”
Adams County was devastated, and it remains one of the state’s poorest counties. The unemployment rate, less than 3 percent in 2000, ballooned to more than 14 percent in 2010. It was still 8 percent in February but dipped to 4.2 percent during the summer, thanks largely to seasonal jobs.
It was in that uncertain economic environment that the Keisers chose to build their newest destination resort. They didn’t have an ocean, or even a significant body of water bordering their land, as they did at Bandon Dunes or Cabot Links in Nova Scotia. (Petenwell Lake, Wisconsin’s second-largest lake, sits about a mile to the west of Sand Valley.) They didn’t have a large, captive audience in the immediate vicinity, though that’s never bothered the Keisers; if their experience in Oregon and Canada taught them anything, it was that people will travel long distances for a great golf experience.
What they did have was a unique piece of land – “the best inland site I’ve ever seen,” according to architect David McLay Kidd, who designed Sand Valley’s second course, Mammoth Dunes, which opens next summer.
Mike Keiser Sr. lined up the financing to launch Sand Valley, and its development is spearheaded by his son, Michael Jr., who is onsite almost daily, and brother Chris. They recruited Glen Murray, a Ritz-Carlton veteran, to serve as general manager.
Murray landed the Sand Valley job, in part, with what Keiser Jr. described as a 33- page “thesis ... that should be taught in business schools.” More than a résumé, it was Murray’s business plan for organizing and running every facet of Sand Valley’s business – from the lodging and marketing to the agronomy and caddie program.
“I didn’t necessarily agree with everything he said in it, but it was clear how passionate he was about his career and about the opportunity to lead Sand Valley. It just bled passion,” Keiser Jr. said.
Murray, a Milwaukee native, had opened four Ritz-Carlton properties and re-flagged two others in his hotel career, but the prospect of managing one of the Keisers’ properties, particularly in his home state, was too enticing to pass up. Murray and his wife spent their first wedding anniversary at Bandon Dunes, and it left a lasting impression.
“My wife shot the best round of her life on Bandon Dunes and I was blown away by the experience,” he recalled. The chance to manage Sand Valley, he added, “is really a dream job for me.”
His Ritz-Carlton experience is important, but he has modified his thinking, particularly in hiring and employee training. The Ritz customer-service experience was highly structured, to the point that staffers had certain phrases they were expected to use with guests. At Sand Valley, he wants Ritz-level execution, but with no pretenses and lots of local flavor. That’s evident in the server who is comfortable debating Brett Favre vs. Aaron Rodgers with guests from Minnesota or the waitress who enjoys swapping stories and the occasional racy joke with a raucous dinner group.
“We talk in training about telling your personal story – caddies, servers, all of the staff,” he said. “That was never part of the Ritz-Carlton training.”
Murray recently said he had more than 1,200 online applications and had hired 400 employees, half of whom are caddies. With the 2018 opening of Mammoth Dunes and a new 100-seat restaurant near the 18th green, Murray expects to add another 100-150 employees. Though Keiser Jr. is hedging, he hopes to start work on a third course by late 2018.
“This area is starved for new career opportunities,” Murray said. “There’s a hunger to be a part of a winning team.”
Sand Valley wouldn’t chalk up many W’s, of course, if the golf courses weren’t good enough to attract players from long distances. The Keisers always have understood that.
Over lunch one day in the restaurant behind Mammoth Dunes’ first tee, I asked Casey Krahenbuhl, Kidd’s longtime design collaborator, the secret of the Keisers’ success. He pointed toward the course and said simply, “They put that first.”
That already was evident at Sand Valley’s first course, via Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, which debuted at No. 15 on Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses list. Mammoth Dunes officially opens next summer and already has received heavy preview play this fall from curious golfers.
Kidd’s design is dominated by a dramatic, 80-foot-high, V-shaped ridge that golfers first encounter on the par-4 third, then spend the rest of the round playing over, down and around. The result is a succession of breathless golf experiences: the heart-pounding drive down the par- 4 fifth; the reachable sixth with its boomerang-shaped green that brings eagle into play; the par-3 seventh, Kidd and Krahenbuhl’s riff on Pine Valley; the list goes on, including par 3s on the back, at 13 and 16, that will have guests reaching for their cameras.
Kidd used to design some of golf’s most difficult courses, but over the past five years he has reinvented himself as the Preacher of Playability. He’s given to saying things such as, “Golf has lost its mercy. It all too often has lost the humanity of redemption.”
Hallelujah, Brother Kidd! Kidd’s renewed fervor for building more playable courses drew a hearty “Amen” from Keiser Sr., who had benched Kidd during the 2000s because of his unhappiness with some of the architect’s more punishing designs. Kidd’s more recent work at Gamble Sands in Brewster, Wash., and elsewhere convinced Keiser that Kidd had rediscovered the magic that marked his U.S. debut at Bandon Dunes 20 years ago.
“One of my best friends, a woman, called me after she played Gamble Sands and said, ‘It’s obvious you’re over your angry, divorced guy days,’” Kidd said. “My wife said, ‘See what a good effect I have on you.’”
What golfers will find when they play Mammoth Dunes is a course on which it is difficult for lesser players to lose balls – one of Kidd’s parameters for playability – but still requires better players to position their drives and control their approaches.
“It’s so cool to be broken free of these shackles where everything is about punishing the golfer,” Kidd said as we walked up the hill to the ninth green, a short par-4 that plays into a saddle-shaped green.
With the collapse of the paper industry in central Wisconsin, Bakovka sees Sand Valley as the cornerstone of a new service and hospitality industry, and he’s eager to speed that transition. He helped arrange a $13 million state loan, through the town of Rome, for Sand Valley’s expansion, with the resort’s property taxes earmarked to repaying that loan. (The land previously was a forest and no property taxes were paid on it.)
“That loan wasn’t so Sand Valley would succeed, it was so Rome, Adams and Wood counties succeeded,” Bakovka said.
The county collected $15,000 in room taxes over the past fiscal year, Bakovka said. He estimates that will balloon to $250,000 in 2018. “And I think that’s being conservative,” he added. That’s driven almost exclusively by Sand Valley, which by next year will have 75 rooms with 125 beds and five rental homes.
“It’s an amazing story,” Bakovka said, “and it’s just beginning to be written.”
Back at South Wood County Airport, Sickler has hired a part-time staffer to handle the increased traffic from Sand Valley customers, and plans to add at least one more person in 2018. The state recently appropriated $4 million to expand parking capacity and construct parallel taxiways to help traffic flow. Sickler said the shuttle service that transports visitors from the airport to Sand Valley is considering expanding, and for the first time the airport had to find a local catering service. None of that, he said, would have happened without Sand Valley.
The expansion of the airport can’t come soon enough. Sickler said that Murray recently told him 2018 bookings were 15 times higher than this year.
“If that implies 15 times the aircraft activity, we’ll be swamped,” Sickler said. “I don’t think that will be the case, but even if it’s two or three times more, we would be getting almost more than we could handle.
Martin Kaufmann, Golf Week