Forget about a Tiger Woods great escape or a Phil Mickelson super flop. For the public golfer, this Central Wisconsin golf resort has a different type of hero shot opportunity in its DNA.
The tee shot soared like an eagle which was, coincidentally enough, the ambitious goal on the scorecard. As it reached its peak and then headed downward, past a menacing fairway bunker and towards a tumbling landing area, it was lost from sight. The level of the sun and the nature of the sweeping, downhill par-4 hole design made it difficult to follow all the way to a stop. But that only added to the suspense.
Moments later, after Nick Jahnke had retrieved his tee and headed towards his bag with his driver, there was a combination roar/groan that carried from the foursome on the next tee in the distance. “What happened?” Jahnke’s foursome quickly processed from the tee box of the 300-yard hole high above. “Could they have seen it just roll by the hole? My gosh, did it hit the flag stick!?”
With senses a little more heightened in the group, Jahnke grabbed his laser range finder to take a closer look. Yes. There it was. His ball finished just 10 feet behind the pin. The eagle (putt) had landed.
Sand Valley Golf Resort, in the heart of the Dairyland, has spots that can be eerily quiet and utterly serene. Yet the courses there frequently elicit a collective roar or a few groans or even laughs that reverberate. Such reactions are part of Sand Valley by design.
When Scottish-born David McLay Kidd laid out Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley (Nekoosa, Wisconsin) years ago, he set out to create something that could match the boldness of the landscape. He wanted players of all abilities not getting beat up, but rather having fun with the chance to hit shots and experience bounces not seen at many other courses this side of the Atlantic. With slopes, banks, hummocks and swales, creative shot making and aggressive play are encouraged at Mammoth. There are drivable par-4s (like the previously-described No. 14, actually designed by an amateur as part of a contest) and reachable par-5s. Firm and fast conditions play to long drives. Massive greens (100-foot lag putts anyone?) lead to many birdie putts if not 10-footers to save par. The ground is an ally, and as a walking only course with caddies, Sand Valley is “golf as it was meant to be played.” This is a phrase the famed Keiser family – with its continually developing portfolio of global bucket-list golf destinations over the past two decades – likes to promote.
What really adds to the experience, however, is the setting. The Sand Valley property is transformative from start to finish, not complying at all with traditional norms for Midwestern golf or ecology. The Sand Valley team, its associates and friends have brought to life topography left behind by prehistoric climate events. Acreage that was once covered in pine trees to serve the local economy is now exposed beach sand everywhere – even at the resort entrance.
“I like spy movies and books and all that,” started Sand Valley’s new general manager Michael Carbiener. “If you would have blindfolded me and said you were taking me to a CIA dark side or something – you drive around for two hours and then you take the blindfold off and you’re coming in this entrance – you would never guess you’re in Central Wisconsin. No way. As soon as I came down Archer Road and turned in I had a little bit of that experience of almost surreal, ‘Where am I?’ You start seeing these great sand barrens and dunes. It just doesn’t feel like the same climate and topography or what you’ve just travelled through for say the previous hours leading up. And then as you sort of go through the winding road and you start to see some golf holes and the large blow-out dunes. To me, it was very reminiscent of my time at Bandon (Dunes) and as a recreational leisure golfer my time in Scotland, Ireland and Europe. It just really felt like that.”
Some have called Sand Valley the Bandon Dunes of the Midwest. The biggest difference is that Bandon in Oregon has the ocean and Sand Valley has a sea of sand. As Carbiener further explains the regional difference, “Here you look out from one of the greatest points on property and you see a Nordic ski jump.”
Whereas Bandon has the Preserve, a 13-hole short course, Sand Valley has The Sandbox, a set of 17 “one-shotters” that engage as much as any golf challenge on the property (both courses are designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw). The Wisconsin State Golf Association (WSGA) even hosts a State Par-3 Championship there every summer. With many green complexes ill-suited for regulation courses, the Sandbox – with holes that can be played from 30-149 yards – requires some short-game wizardry. It also offers by design to have several holes played with a putter – from as much as 80 yards – for those so inclined. Imagine making a hole-in-one with a putter at the Sandbox! Or at the least going putter-putter for a birdie!
Also like Bandon did this past season with the opening of the Sheep Ranch (its fifth regulation course), Sand Valley has ample property to grow and soon will. The announcement of its third “regulation” course, Sedge Valley, will only add to the diverse fun. Course designer Tom Doak has already laid out the routing for what is being planned as a par-68 course (at just over 6,000 yards), similar to some of his favorite inland courses in England. It will offer several risk-reward holes, and though different than the other Sand Valley courses, it will fit nicely into the portfolio.
“It will have similar characteristics in the sense that it’s not all of a sudden going to be tree-lined fairways and a more traditional park-like course,” said Carbiener. “It will play fast and firm, it will be on fescue. It will have the feel of the environment and topography of Sand Valley.” (Note: With the uncertainly due to the pandemic in 2020, the construction on Sedge Valley was postponed indefinitely and will be resumed at later determined time).
Just three years ago, Sand Valley (www.sandvalley.com) opened to the public with the unveiling of its original course by the same name. A Coore and Crenshaw routing, it incorporates some of the same bold movement as Mammoth but is more of a shot-makers course with deceptive forgiveness. “There’s a precision element that has to be in play both off the tee and the best angles to approach into greens,” said Carbiener. “Green complexes have certain areas that are very desirable to where you want your shots to land.” The 18-hole layout also incorporates a six-hole loop that finishes to a different hole. That gives Sand Valley 54 total holes over the three courses even though the Sandbox is just 17 holes.
Such non-conformity is just part of the allure, a redefinition of sorts for “resort” golf in America. That extends to the types of shots, lag putts and the roll of the ball, elements that make Sand Valley so intriguing. So, forget about the great recovery shots PGA Tour stars seem to make on an almost weekly basis. For the public golfer, and as Nick Jahnke might attest, Sand Valley is creating hero moments of its own kind.
Sand Valley “Outside the Ropes”
The Food Truck – Sand Valley has a fantastic variety of succulent food and beverage choices. Included among those options is farm-to-table dining (Aldo’s), $1.50 tacos and ice cream sandwiches (Craig’s Porch) and thirst quenchers (check out the outdoor bar off No. 10 green on Mammoth Dunes or the beer canoe at the Sandbox). The new and trendy addition in 2020 was a food truck at the Sandbox short course and adjacent lodging. The chalkboard menu features a Rodeo burger – which includes an onion ring topping and other choices – and traditional Wisconsin Friday fish fry plates.
Grass Tennis – Wimbledon in Wisconsin? Maybe not, but Sand Valley certainly has a version of it. As not only one of the top golf resorts in the country, it also offers the rare experience of playing outdoor tennis on grass – 15 courts framed by the sand dunes. Five courts are fescue and 10 are ryegrass. Sand Valley is one of fewer than 10 public grass tennis facilities in the United States. Lessons, clinics and camps are available and even ball persons to add to the experience.
Fat-Tire Biking – The vast acreage at Sand Valley also offers miles of trails for hiking, running or walking for guests and visitors alike. The trails are set amongst sand dune blowouts, red pine plantations and oak savannahs. Fat-tire bikers have two options – the Quicksand Trail and Whitville Loop – with the latter being more advanced.
Sand Barrens Restoration – Part of Sand Valley’s mission is the environmental restoration of a portion of property that was once predominantly a pine tree plantation and nursery. It is now committed to encouraging the growth of native plants and other life unique to the sandy grounds. While trying to eradicate invasive species the summer months included restoring the lupine through seed collection and distribution. Lupine is critical for the survival of the endangered Karner blue butterfly.