If the Keiser family's Bandon Dunes to the west and Cabot Links to the east are indicators, then Sand Valley, which sits smack dab in central Wisconsin, should continue to ascend as a premier destination for years to come
Brothers Michael and Chris Keiser, whose father’s Bandon Dunes resort proved the theorem “build it and they will come,” have replicated the concept at Sand Valley, a golf resort in rural Wisconsin where cranberry bushes outnumber people.
Now, the Keiser brothers appear bent on proving Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s axiom of “less is more.”
A third course, expected to open in 2022 and known by its working title, Sedge Valley, goes against the grain of the longer, harder mantra currently dominating the discussion in golf. It’s being built by Tom Doak. It will be par 68. There will be five par 3s and three par 5s.
And it will play 6,000 yards.
From the tips.
In an email q-and-a, Michael Keiser, managing partner and co-owner of Sand Valley with his brother Chris, explained the concept of Doak’s heathland-style design:
“The course is routed through ground with more internal bumps and hummocks. The green sites sit closer to the ground and there are several infinity greens.
“Tom's routing winds through a savannah, which has far less exposed sand and more low-lying prairie species. He's planning on exposing fewer bunkers and they will be smaller and sit below grade.
“Whereas our first two golf courses are expansive, Tom's routing is very intimate. He's planning a very elegant style, which I think will feel quite timeless.”
What Michael Keiser leaves out is that the courses at Sand Valley almost didn’t come about.
Covered with a non-native pine forest destined to be harvested for the paper mills, the terrain offered little beyond the chance to build an unremarkable golf resort in the woods. Michael's father, Mike Keiser, who has put Oregon's Bandon Dunes and Nova Scotia's Cabot Links squarely on the must-play desination list, soured on the idea and the plan for a resort in Wisconsin was nearly abandoned.
Then father and son read environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac, which vividly painted a picture of starkly beautiful prairie sand dunes that had existed before commercial pine plantations blanketed central Wisconsin.
Only then did they realize that returning the landscape to its natural state would create a canvas for the style of golf they envisioned.
The formula for Sand Valley, as it was at Bandon Dunes, might be boiled down to a purity of essence that appeals to the golf purist.
There are other attractions, including tennis, fishing and canoeing, but at Sand Valley it’s about the golf — as it should be if you’re asking people to drive 247 miles from Chicago or 193 miles from Minneapolis to a spot almost at the geographic center of Wisconsin.
Nekoosa, the nearest village, is little more than a wide spot in the road. The nearest major city is Madison, some 101 miles to the south. Green Bay lies 121 miles to the east. The nearest major airport is in Milwaukee, 167 miles away, although regional carriers have three flights a day into Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, 63 miles north of the resort.
Sand Valley encourages walking and draws on a corps of 300 experienced caddies. There are carts for those who need or who insist on them, but won't be seen are rows of carts being readied for the next double shotgun.
Now cleared of the non-native pines, Sand Valley features plenty of exposed reddish sand running along hills and rills and ridges. Turfed areas are broad ribbons of green that seem to flow around hillocks and into naturally occurring hollows.
Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes have been described variously as heathland or inland links courses, similar in style to England's Sunningdale and the Old Course at Walton Heath. Trees line the periphery but do not come into play. The rising and falling terrain favors chasing run-ups to firm greens. Hole design favors the smart player who plays to the proper side of the fairway.
Sand Valley, which plays 3,883-6,938 yards, was named the best new course to open in the U.S. in 2017. The more forgiving Mammoth Dunes, which plays 4,055-6,988 yards, and the resort’s 17-hole Coore-Crenshaw-designed short course, The Sandbox, were named “best new course” in their class when they opened in 2018.
As at Bandon, accommodations in the resort’s main lodge and in freestanding cabins are neither primitive nor opulent. Luxurious? Yes, but in a minimalist, utilitarian way.
Michael Keiser says he’s just getting started.
Once Sedge Valley opens, “We're going to continue to build golf courses in an ever-expanding restored habitat,” Keiser wrote. “My brother and I hope to build seven 18-hole courses, several short courses and restore 100,000 acres of habitat into a national park.”
And lest you think Sand Valley’s location in the middle of nowhere means quality golf courses are few and far between, you’d be wrong.
Courses that could be strung together into a two-week trip include the Links course at The Golf Courses of Lawsonia in Green Lake; SentryWorld Golf Course in Stevens Point; Erin Hills in Hartford; Lake Arrowhead just down the road in Nekoosa, and Herb Kohler Jr.’s Whistling Straits and the Black Wolf Run ensemble near Sheboygan.
The golf world is coming to central Wisconsin. It just doesn’t know it yet.
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