The Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw layout in central Wisconsin opened all 18 holes Sept. 1.
The single-lane dirt road seemingly leads to nowhere. And the intersecting dirt roads only make it feel like one of those corn mazes. Except this man-made labyrinth is made of young pine trees.
There is little to no signage to indicate the destination is near. About a mile into the dusty voyage comes the realization that there has to be another way. Thankfully, there is.
A quick re-route and some help from the friendly staff at adjacent Lake Arrowhead (a fine 36-hole golf facility in its own right) eventually leads to the sandy promise land. In minutes, the surprising landscape that is Sand Valley Golf Resort comes into view – sort of.
The year 2016 is for preview play. There is still infrastructure work to be done – and a second course to be opened – so finding Sand Valley in its “soft opening” stage takes some work and confuses some GPS devices. After all, a 1,500-acre property undergoing a transformation to its more native state is going to have different points of entry.
Still, golfers have come out this fall in droves to play the first course on a property that seems uniquely un-Wisconsin. The Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw-design opened all 18 holes Sept. 1, and even in its infancy, it is easy to see why Sand Valley could become one of the top golf destinations in the Midwest, if not America.
Developer Mike Keiser of Bandon Dunes fame has once again struck gold where no one else was looking. This time he got word of a one-of-a-kind terrain from one of his associates and found it too good to pass up. It took some work and good fortune, however, to discover.
The massive acreage that Sand Valley is being created on was once a red pine plantation for many years in the middle of Wisconsin (13 miles from Wisconsin Rapids). But at the base of that forest was the “gold.” Sand. Lots of it. For miles. What once was left by a prehistoric lake bed became the vision for “Heathland golf in the Heartland.”
A large part of the tiny town of Rome (population 2,720) is now being restored to a sand barren state with the environment and biodiversity in mind. There is unique low-lying vegetation (cactus in Wisconsin?), a snake or two, and of course dunes, depressions, ridges and yes, valleys.
Golfers who take in their first view from Craig’s Porch atop a knoll overlooking the first, 10th, and 18th holes cannot help but feel like they have been transported to an imaginary land. But the wide, rolling fairways, encroached and framed by sand, and clusters of remaining trees offer a scruffy look that is real and looks like it belongs.
Sand, golf course designers say, is the perfect shaping medium. So Coore and Crenshaw, minimalist architects, had a great starting point. They finished it off with a look that reminds some of North Carolina’s Pinehurst or Nebraska’s Sand Hills (the uphill par-five 18th especially), two courses among America’s most cherished.
The first course at Sand Valley is really an anti-Pete Dye course. Sure, some who fear hitting out of sand may find scoring a challenge, but losing a ball at Sand Valley takes work. Forced carries hardly apply. Aiming lines off the tee and some hidden bunkers and landing areas are the nuances to master. Fortunately, Sand Valley has caddies who can help (the course is walking only).
Fun and imagination, really, is at the core of the experience. Keiser wants to build courses that last for centuries, and while Sand Valley can challenge the scratch player, the ability to play the ball along the ground is evident just about everywhere.
As a general design philosophy, Coore says that the back tees (6,901 yards at Sand Valley) are one of his last priorities. Sand Valley tailors more to buddies golf than tournament golf. So there are drivable par fours – like the first and ninth holes – for just about every level of golfer. From the front tees, the five par threes play from 77 to 121 yards.
The outward nine is a par 35 and the inward a par 37. From the back tees, there is a 503-yard difference between the nines and from the middle tees there is a 468-yard difference.
The fun to any round at Sand Valley, it could be said, starts at the slick practice putting green where, depending on hole location, a ball can easily roll onto one of the first tee hitting locations (Sand Valley has flat areas as teeing locations, not tee boxes per se). The course really blends together from there and sets the stage for risk-reward golf and creative shot-making opportunities from tee to green.
Observant visitors might also notice a grass tennis court, ala Wimbledon, just down from the putting green, too. And close by, there is an alternate hole to the 18-hole layout. The plan for Sand Valley is to have a six-hole routing where golfers can go out in the evening and play Holes No. 1-5 and the alternate hole which will take them back to the clubhouse/Craig’s Porch area. That alternate hole will also be used as a practice range in the morning, and if there are open tee times after 3 p.m., juniors can play the six-hole routing for just $5.
The only water feature on the course is a small lake named Leopold, mainly out of play to the right of the short par-four ninth. Instead of a hazard it serves as the base of a sandy pit where stories will be told around campfires. The Lake Leopold cottages (designed for 4-8 guests) sit on a ridge above as one of what will be many lodging options. In the fall, the Fairway Lodge (12 bedrooms) also opened with picture-frame views of the 18th hole and Sand Valley’s second course nearby.
Yes, the second course has been built and was growing in nicely near the end of the golf season in the Midwest. Scot David McLay Kidd’s design is routed through a dramatic sand ridge and will “tap into the soul of the game” according to the resort’s website (www.sandvalleygolfresort.com). Kidd designed the first course at Keiser’s Bandon Dunes in Oregon.
Like Bandon, Sand Valley could expand to even more courses. It has the real estate to do so and will also be available in the winter for familiar Wisconsin outdoor activities – snowmobile riding, cross-country skiing, and snow shoeing.
So, as great as the soft opening has been, the best could be yet to come.