Town of Rome — The bald eagle circled lazily over the handful of people standing atop a sand dune, seemingly checking out the strange interlopers, then banked and disappeared over a stand of jack pine.
It was a fitting end to a spectacular day of "wilderness golf."
Last week, about a dozen founding members of Sand Valley got their first look at what could be the most ambitious golf project ever undertaken in Wisconsin.
If all goes according to Chicago developer Mike Keiser's plan, someday there will be five courses and lodging on 1,500 acres a few miles south of Wisconsin Rapids — a resort that would provide hundreds of jobs in depressed Adams County and further enhance Wisconsin's reputation as a world-class golf destination.
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, course architects who are widely praised for their minimalist, imaginative designs, have routed the first course at Sand Valley on topography that words can't adequately describe.
Hundreds of thousands of red pine have been harvested, revealing a wondrous sand barren — a prairie-like habitat that once formed the bed of a massive prehistoric lake. The sand is 100 to 200 feet deep here, and over eons the wind has created towering dunes and ridges.
The land tumbles and heaves to the horizon in all directions, leaving visitors awestruck by its rugged beauty. Who knew such a place existed in Wisconsin?
"It's a stunning visual landscape," said Michael Keiser Jr., the project manager and the son of the man who built the renowned Bandon Dunes resort on the Oregon coast. "It's as calming and as inspiring as an ocean. It's endless."
The small group of founding members — some 165 people have paid $50,000 each for lifetime playing privileges — played "wilderness golf" on seven holes of the Coore-Crenshaw routing and toured the other 11 holes by foot.
The golfers hit shots off mats they carried around with them, because the course has just been roughed out by heavy machinery and is a jumble of sand and brush. Wooden sticks marked tee boxes, "fairways" were all but indistinguishable and flags flew on "greens."
The site is still so hard to get to that the golfers had to park their cars at the property entrance and be driven in by four-wheel drive vehicles that fishtailed on a rutted path and through huge swaths of sand.
While they played, carrying their clubs and mats and picking their way slowly across the rugged terrain, ATVs and dirt bikes zipped past, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. A few riders slowed to stare at the golfers, no doubt wondering what on earth was going on.
The Coore-Crenshaw course is in its infancy and probably won't open until 2017, but it wasn't hard to imagine rumpled fairways carpeting dunes and greens perched atop exposed ridges, flagsticks bending in the wind. Perhaps the wolf that has been spotted on the property will hang around long enough to see the finished product.
Those with environmental concerns should know that the land is being returned to its natural state. This will be the biggest sand barrens restoration in Wisconsin history, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Initially, Keiser was hesitant about the site because it lacked an ocean or large body of water.
"For us the three ingredients a golf course needs are a brilliant architect, a sand site and an ocean," Keiser Jr. said. "We asked the Field Museum in Chicago to come out and assess the site and tell us what they thought.
"When they got back they called us and said, 'You do have an ocean.' We thought, 'What are they talking about?' They said, 'You have an ocean of sand and prairie and wildflowers. Its name is a jack pine sand barren.'
"Once we realized how unique this look is, we realized that an ocean of sand and prairie could compete with an ocean of water. That's when we were hooked and knew we could do this project."
Details such as the type of grasses to be used and whether the first course at Sand Valley will be walking-only have yet to be decided.
Plans already are in place for a second course, likely to be designed by Tom Doak, a name that resonates with architecture geeks. There is room for three more courses after that, but expansion will be dependent on the success of the first course.
"We're very deliberate and we're just focusing on making the first course as good as we can make it, because we know if the first one doesn't exceed your expectations, there won't be a second," Keiser Jr. said.
Fully realized, Sand Valley would join a redesigned SentryWorld in Stevens Point, two fine courses at nearby Lake Arrowhead in Nekoosa and Northern Bay in Arkdale to make north-central Wisconsin one of the best golf destinations in the Midwest, if not the nation.
Tiny Rome, population 2,720, would be at the epicenter.
"Wisconsin, we're finding, is very welcoming," Keiser Jr. said. "The Town of Rome has been so supportive. Day 1, they got it. They knew what this could mean for the poorest county (Adams) in Wisconsin."
This is just the beginning, so patience is required.
Rome, after all, wasn't built in a day.
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