Few golf travelers likely would have thought of Wisconsin as a potential mecca for the game. Then again, Oregon was not a big part of golf’s lexicon until 1999, when Mike Keiser opened the first of five courses at Bandon Dunes.
Remote Bandon Dunes is a four-hour drive from Portland and requires a day’s travel from almost anywhere else in the lower 48, but what an experience upon arrival on the Pacific Coast.
Now Keiser’s sons, Chris and Michael, have taken that vision for a golf destination 3½ hours north of Chicago, opening the first of what could be five or more courses at Sand Valley Golf Resort in Rome, Wis.
Like Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley will build its reputation on the land, with two of golf’s top architects creating a golfing experience. On May 2, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw introduced their newest masterpiece, just east of the Wisconsin River in the central part of the state, with vast dunes that give Sand Valley its name.
Bandon Dunes features the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop, but Sand Valley benefits from a massive desert-like landscape. Civilization feels far away, with little more than sand and the occasional tree visible.
“It's kind of an old theme: If you keep the ball in front of you – meaning if you hit the ball just short, on the front edge – you're fine,” Crenshaw said of his design philosophy at Sand Valley. “If you start straying to the sides or long, you get in trouble that way. But, it's funny. I played so many Donald Ross golf courses, just for instance, but you hit the ball right in front, front third of the green, you're pretty good.”
Sand Valley has the potential to be another Bandon Dunes-type destination. The Keiser family has learned a lot during the past 18 years with its courses in Canada, Tasmania, Michigan and Oregon. Each property has been highly successful, mainly because of an attention to detail.
Take the food at Sand Valley. In the early stages, a small outdoor facility sitting above the first and 10th tees will serve golfers.The fare is simple but tasty, highlighted by the pulled-pork tacos, barbecue brisket and bratwurst sliders.
Another appeal: the prices. Sliders sell for $1.50. Nye’s ice-cream sandwiches, listed at $6 online by the North Carolina company that makes them, sell at Sand Valley for $4, which is below cost.
“I kept on hearing people say, ‘I went to Augusta and I spent $1.50 on this,’ and I'm like, ‘You spent $3,000 going to Augusta,’ ” Michael Keiser Jr. said of his strategy for low food prices. “All they would talk about is the meal they got for nothing. So, the perceived value, even though it cost a fortune to take that trip, the perceived value is tremendous.”
Sand Valley has exceeded the Keisers’ expectations. With Mammoth Dunes, a David McLay Kidd design set to open next summer, and Quicksand, a 17-hole par-3 course designed by Coore and Crenshaw also set to open next year, Sand Valley will be positioned as one of America’s great golf destinations – like Bandon Dunes, but vastly different.
Like Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes sits on a large canvas of about 350 acres. From the opening shot, around a massive bunker between the first and 18th holes, the golf experience proves to be unique and exciting.
“The first hole (at Sand Valley) is a drivable par 4, but that almost looks like it's a half-mile away because you lose your perspective,” Keiser Jr. said. “And David (McLay Kidd)'s is even more so that way. I mean, you just totally lose your sense of scale.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli