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.
Play Nice in the Sandbox!
Among its full schedule of events this past summer, the Wisconsin State Golf Association (WSGA) added a new one. The Wisconsin State Par 3 Championship was created largely because it had a host – The Sandbox – worthy of such an event.
Of the current three courses at Sand Valley, the Sandbox might be the toughest in relation to par. It has no par-4s and no par-5s. The longest hole, No. 16, is just 149 yards from the “back” markers, which are simply garden trowels stuck into the ground. The trowels are marked with chalk to indicate the yardage to the hole that day. Whereas Bandon Dunes “short course,” the Preserve, is made up of 13 holes, the Sandbox (also a Coore and Crenshaw design) is 17.
At the WSGA event, open to amateurs with a handicap index of 9.4 or lower, only two of 66 players broke par. So what makes the Sandbox so difficult to make pars and birdies? Especially when holes generally play from 40 to 120 yards? That wedge play, chipping and putting make up most of the strokes during a round is one explanation. The other is the precision required on several shots in which missing the number by five yards can mean the difference between a birdie and a bogey or sometimes worse. It is not uncommon to chip or putt off a green or into a bunker.
The Sandbox is littered with engaging swales, slopes, humps and sharp run-offs that golfers might not see on a regulation course. The varied green designs accentuate these features. There is a double plateau, a Biarritz, a Redan and one with punchbowl effects. There is also a Road Hole-inspired bunker, a bunker the size of a kiddy pool and one which splits the front of a green into two sections.
Exacting wedge play to the small greens at the Sandbox is a must but non-conventional opportunities present themselves just the same. On the scorecard there is a “tee box” simply called PUTTING. Yes, the Sandbox was designed to play many of the holes with a putter, sometimes even from 70 yards! The novel concept feels like putt-putt on acid at times for those willing to test their skill in a creative manner. Surprisingly, a putter is often times the best play.
From the time it takes to play (two hours or less), to the carry bags Sand Valley supplies for just a few clubs, to the walk from the parking lot or the Dunes Lodge adjacent to the final green, everything is scaled down at the Sandbox. The nook that occupies the 17 holes is so cozy that conversations from the tee boxes can be heard from the green and vice-versa on a calm day. And the inevitable cheers or groans given the nature of the layout can be heard from just about any spot in the routing.
About the only thing missing at the Sandbox is stadium lighting to play at night, which raises another question…
How late is too late for another beer?
Where Did All That Sand at Sand Valley Come From?
There are few indicators on a drive through Central Wisconsin that suggest a sandy, rolling landscape exists. But Sand Valley in the heart of the State (Nekoosa, Wisconsin) has uncovered what had been hidden underneath a predominant pine plantation. Unlike the spectacularly manufactured Whistling Straits – where reportedly up to to 13,000 truckloads of sand were brought in to create a links-style look – the sand was already at Sand Valley to create its wonders. An information board just of the first tee at Mammoth Dunes – for the Ridge Trail on property – tells the story of Glacial Lake Wisconsin which helped shape the landforms and deposit the sandy soils. It reads, “Glacial Lake Wisconsin formed about 19,000 years ago when the Green Bay lobe of the Wisconsin glaciations damned the outflow of the ancient river channel now occupied by the Wisconsin River. The lake was in existence for about 5,000 years and was huge at its largest extent: approximately 70 miles long and 160 feet deep in places. When the climate warmed and the lake drained about 14,000 years ago, the sand remained.”
Another Major Award for Sand Valley Golf Resort
Just how impressive is this giant sandbox ? GOLF Magazine named Mammoth Dunes the Best New Course of 2018. With back-to-back Best New Course courses (Sand Valley by Coore & Crenshaw was named Best New in 2017), Sand Valley is the first property to receive the award in consecutive years.“On behalf of course architect David McLay Kidd and his talented design team, we are extremely honored for Mammoth Dunes to receive recognition of best new course from GOLF Magazine,” said managing partner Michael Keiser. “Receiving this award for the second consecutive year is truly humbling and we share this with the countless number of dedicated staff at the Resort.”