Golf Course Review: Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes

I have been very fortunate to take part in a handful of Sand Valley media events, and the recent May 1 media day for the opening of the Sandbox was a great one.

Along with playing Bill Coore and Ben Creshaw’s par three course on the day it debuted, we were also treated to a golfing experience that blew my mind: David McLay Kidd’s Mammoth Dunes.

A 6-hole loop was available for preview the last time I was on site, so having the opportunity to see the rest of the project was highly anticipated to say the least. 16 holes were made available to a few of us media guys, which was better than I expected considering the most recent snowfall (a blizzard) was just a week before.

The Wisconsin weather warmed up quickly, though, leaving playable albeit soft and slightly off-colored turf at Mammoth Dunes. I can tell you from experience that this course will green up nicely and will play fast. Really fast.

Growing up in Scotland, David McLay Kidd is the son of long-time Gleneagles course Superintendent, Jimmy Kidd, who taught him all about golf course architecture and conditioning. His fascination with great golf led him to the pursuit of a career in golf design, and things really took off when he partnered with Sand Valley developer Mike Keiser for the flagship course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in 1999.

Bandon was the development that changed everything for Keiser, for Kidd, and for the golf industry, and a resort like Sand Valley would never have been possible if it was not for the tremendous success they had there.

Mammoth Dunes is the third course at Sand Valley Golf Resort, and has now been open to the public since May 31. The first course, Sand Valley, debuted last year to great acclaim, paving the way for more championship golf in the prehistoric sand dunes of central Wisconsin.

The land at Mammoth Dunes is more rugged than at its sister course, Sand Valley. There are fewer clean lines and the scale of its features – the fairways, greens, sand blowouts and changes in elevation – are nothing short of mammoth. The scale of this course is staggering; every hole is memorable, every shot makes you think and typically provides at least a couple of options.

I caught myself constantly saying, “Oh wow,” and “Jeez, this is beautiful,” and other equally cheesy and obvious comments that I couldn’t hold back. Mammoth Dunes is an exhilarating, wonderfully pure golfing experience that will quickly take the world of golf by storm.

The opening tee shot is to one of the widest fairways I’ve ever seen – easily 100 yards in width. The green area is mostly without bunkering, but like the majority of the course features mounding that helps or hinders shots played along the ground.

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Hole 1: Par 4 (417/394/358/324/221/198)

A central blowout bunker dictates some of the ground game in the approach area:

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Hole 1: Par 4 (417/394/358/324/221/198)

Hole two is a spectacular par four. A sea of sand lies between the teeing grounds and fairway, lengthening the carry the further right you aim.

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Hole 2: Par 4 (405/402/360/330/286/236)

Keep in mind the fescue turf at Sand Valley plays very, very fast, so expect a lot of run-out when the ball hits the fairway. This should affect your aim as you won’t want to land your drive anywhere near traps like these ones:

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Hole 2: Par 4 (405/402/360/330/286/236)

Kidd’s green on two is all-world – massive in size with spines, valleys and a left-side mound that hides much of its contouring:

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The first par five on the course is a good one. Like on two, make sure to choose the right line over the sand – anything short will leave a tough recovery and a challenge to get to this green in regulation.

The fairway on three runs out downhill, especially the nearer the line hugs the left-side wasteland.

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Hole 3: Par 5 (523/489/468/425/403/330)

At just around 500 yards, this green is quite reachable in two. As my friend Glen Turk would say, “Just hit it where they mow,” which shouldn’t be too difficult considering the width of these fairways.

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Hole 3: Par 5 (523/489/468/425/403/330)

The first par three on the course, the fourth plays long and uphill. Take aim over the pot bunker that’s well short of the putting surface and if between clubs err on the long side to avoid the false front.

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Hole 4: Par 3 (192/181/164/146/138/124)

The view back downhill from the gigantic fourth hole green:

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Hole 4: Par 3 (192/181/164/146/138/124)

Like the second hole, the par four fifth has a flair that is unique and captivating. The fairway rolls beneath the elevated tees, and the further left the drive the more blind the approach.

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Hole 5: Par 4 (450/424/384/357/293/265)

From the sand tees:

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Hole 5: Par 4 (450/424/384/357/293/265)

Kidd created almost an Alps affect – the depressed terrain (still in the short grass) makes players find a line and trust it, hitting over mounds to a green that is completely blind from more than half of the fairway… And surrounded short and right by deep traps.

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Hole 5: Par 4 (450/424/384/357/293/265)

The par four sixth is one of the most talked about holes at Sand Valley, and for good reason: It’s unique!

The tee shot on six is a long drive away from the green, which is kidney bean shaped and hugs the outsides of a beastly sand blowout. The smart play is obviously to lay up, but what fun is that?

Depending on which side of the U-shaped green you’re on makes all the difference as hitting the side right of the blowout bunker could mean chipping from the green all the way over, and likewise from the left side.

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Walking to the sand tees on 6 from the 5th green

A view from the front of the tees on 6 toward the wraparound green:

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The green on six wraps all the way around a gnarly sand blowout

My tee shot came up short of the green, landing in the middle of the blowout. The only good news here is that the green is seriously canted on the back side to allow for incoming shots to hold, and even roll back toward the front.

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Not where you want to hit your second shot from – the pin is above the steps left-middle

And, finally, a panoramic photo of the view from behind the sixth green looking back toward the tee box – this green complex is massive!

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Hole 6: Par 4 (332/308/264/249/231/156)

The seventh is a fantastic par five. The tee shot is mostly blind, but have faith that pretty much anywhere out there is fairway. Tee shots will roll forever here – just a matter of where they roll to.

My tee shot was just left of my target, which was the lone tree in the middle of the set of trees on the horizon. It took a leftward slope down the unseen hill and was literally on the side of the perimeter wasteland. I would have much preferred it be in the sand as there was no way to get a stance, and although my first shot was well over 300 yards my second was no more than three. Fortunately, I hit a nice three-wood to the green and I believe saved par.

It’s funny how different folks treat blind tee shots. From what I hear, it’s a big part of golf across the pond. I think it got a bad rep here in the states when blind tee shots started being added to courses in the 1980’s and 90’s. A blind shot should allow players to succeed even if they don’t hit exactly their mark. It shouldn’t be blind for the point of being blind, but should inspire excitement about what will be found on the other side of the hill (for example). The tee shot on seven follows this theory beautifully, even if I got a bit unlucky with where my shot ended up.

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Hole 7: Par 5 (558/524/514/453/333/281)

When cresting the hill, players can see all the different ways tee shots can bound downward:

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Hole 7: Par 5 (558/524/514/453/333/281)

One of the pictures you should prepare to see a lot of from Mammoth Dunes involves the small but deep, rock-faced bunker that lies about 50 yards before the green in the middle of the seventh fairway: “The cellar.”

A sign has been put up since the course opened advising golfers to “enter at their own risk.” The cellar is the remnants of a dilapidated homestead still partially intact from the early 1900’s – the stone wall is nothing to mess with, I’m sure, especially when still covered in snow like it was during the May 1 media day.

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“The Cellar” fairway bunker on the 7th hole at Mammoth Dunes

A 100-plus yard wide fairway on seven gives way to a sea of sand on the par three 8th, which I will call the “Keiser Desert.”

There are always options at Sand Valley, and the teeing area on eight has as many options as any hole I’ve ever seen. Along the walk from the seventh green, for example, would provide an intimidating tee shot that I’m told will be used:

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Hole 8: Par 3 (191/175/150/126/124/92)

Moving slightly to the left allows for a tee shot with less carry:

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Hole 8: Par 3 (191/175/150/126/124/92)

The tees during our round were more in line with the grassed turf, as shown below:

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Hole 8: Par 3 (191/175/150/126/124/92)

My tee shot on eight – caught the front-right portion of the green:

 

While the eighth looks intimidating off the tee, the green – like most at Mammoth Dunes – is absolutely enormous. Kidd knew that winds will roar and swirl across this open terrain, and the large features he designed make it possible for golfers to get away with a lot of imperfect shots.

Duff one in to the sand or hit this steep-faced greenside bunker, though, and you’re on your own!

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A front-facing blowout bunker on the 8th hole at Mammoth Dunes

The ninth is quietly one of the most scenic holes on the golf course. Another partially blind tee shot, the line is just right of the central fairway bunker, which will push all tee shots further toward the right.

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Hole 9: Par 4 (450/423/393/366/314/260)

The treeline along the ninth hole fairway is probably out of play for all but the very worst of bad shots, but is a beautiful backdrop with its massive jack pines and wildly eroded sand base.

The hills on the right side of the fairway will box out views from there, making the approach shot blind to a knoll. The miss here is obviously right as anything left will make for a challenging sand shot.

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Hole 9: Par 4 (450/423/393/366/314/260)

… And whatever you do, don’t hit this little bunker:

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Hole 9: Par 4 (450/423/393/366/314/260)

The back nine starts out with a short risk/reward dogleg left, uphill par four. Just over 300 yards from the tee, it’s tempting to pull driver here – I did and duck-hooked it in to the hillside – but the prudent plays is a mid-iron to the fairway, leaving a short uphill approach.

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Hole 10: Par 4 (334/323/318/279/239/209)

This is not the area you want to be hitting your second shot from:

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Hole 10: Par 4 (334/323/318/279/239/209)

The eleventh and twelfth holes were the only ones off limits to us during our media preview, but are of course open now. This is the best I can show you of them – a long par five (right) and 400-yard par four (left) coming back:

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Holes 11 (right) & 12 (left) at Mammoth Dunes

The thirteenth might be my favorite par three on the course, which is saying a lot at Mammoth Dunes. Playing over a chasm of no-man’s land, this hole features what some might call “The great hazard.”

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Hole 13: Par 3 (128/126/112/107/103/85)

The hole is not over if you don’t carry the sand (far from it!), but big numbers loom. This picture of Brian’s recovery shot from below the green – this isn’t even in the sand – gives a little better perspective on how deep the space between the tees and green is:

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Hole 13: Par 3 (128/126/112/107/103/85)

The pin location on thirteen for our round would be an absolute beast with faster conditions, requiring a carry of the sand and holding a tiny ledge on the right side (you can make out the general qualities of this two tier-green above).

The fourteenth is a hole I was really excited to check out, and I really enjoyed the way it plays. Golf Digest readers will remember the fourteenth as the “Armchair Architect” hole.

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Hole 14: Par 4 (318/297/261/222/214/172)

Given a topographical map of the area to be used for the fourteenth, readers were asked to put together a layout for Kidd’s team to create. The panel of judges consisting of David McLay Kidd, Mike Keiser and Golf Digest Architecture Editor Ron Whitten awarded the submission of Brian Silvernail, a 46-year old graphic designer from Melbourne, Florida.

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Topo map for the Golf Digest Armchair Architect contest

Silvernail’s hole design features a drivable downhill par four where players are forced to make a decision off the tee: Take on the deep trap in the middle-right part of the fairway and potentially hit or get really near the lowland green, or take the safe shot left and leave a longer shot in that will potentially have to fly a sand trap.

I liked this hole a lot, and it might have something to do with my drive being steps from the green. The speed slot on the right side of the fairway bounds tee shots downhill and left, and it’s gratifying to watch when it works out.

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Hole 14: Par 4 (318/297/261/222/214/172)

Players face a choice off the tee on fifteen whether to aim for the upper or lower fairway. The upper fairway, right of the bunkers shown below, leaves a better angle and a downhill approach shot, while the long second shot can be partially blind from the left side.

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Hole 15: Par 5 (518/509/448/398/365/325)

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Hole 15: Par 5 (518/509/448/398/365/325)

The star of the fifteenth hole is the green complex, though, mounded sharply to require a precise approach shot:

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Hole 15: Par 5 (518/509/448/398/365/325)

Every magazine article you’ve seen or read about Mammoth Dunes in has probably featured a picture of the par three sixteenth. The vision of David McLay Kidd to use this terrain the way he did earns every penny he was paid.

It’s a great piece of land with a dramatic sand blowout and probably 30-40 total feet of elevation change. Most would use this land in a more predictable way, probably with a green situated just beyond the high side of the blowout. Kidd used the blowout to create misdirection, shrouding the entire right side of a massive punch bowl green and throwing depth perception out the window.

The sixteenth at Mammoth Dunes is a masterpiece.

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Hole 16: Par 3 (173/164/149/134/113/108)

A long par four, the seventeenth is probably the most straight-forward hole at Mammoth Dunes. A bit over 400 yards, the entire left side of the driving area is covered with sand. For seemingly forever to the right is a ton of short grass, as well as several craggy fairway bunkers.

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Hole 17: Par 4 (420/407/378/320/260/237)

The right side of the green is heavily guarded by a deep blowout bunker, while the left side allows for shots to be run on.

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Hole 17: Par 4 (420/407/378/320/260/237)

Heading back to the clubhouse, Mammoth Dunes finishes with a 500-plus yard par five with one of the most well guarded greens on the course.

A huge wasteland creates the left-edge border of the 18th, and to the right of it is fairway forever.

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Hole 18: Par 5 (553/511/488/464/405/360)

A walk up the fairway on eighteen:

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Hole 18: Par 5 (553/511/488/464/405/360)

With a good drive, the second shot on eighteen is one of the most demanding on the golf course as anything from the left side of the fairway will likely have to carry a massive sand trap to hit the putting surface.

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Hole 18: Par 5 (553/511/488/464/405/360)

The opening of Mammoth Dunes immediately solidifies Sand Valley Golf Resort’s position as one of the top ten golf destinations in the United States, and maybe in the world.

It’s interesting talking with other golf writers about the courses there. Some prefer the original Sand Valley course, and most prefer Mammoth Dunes. All seem to think it will settle in as a top 20 course in the country, with myself included.

The resort is basically booked solid for the entire season already, leaving us wonder: Is a third, then maybe fourth, fifth or sixth championship course in the future for Sand Valley? Early gossip is that Tom Doak and Mike DeVries are the leading contenders for a third course.

With the quality we’ve come to expect from Keiser’s developments, one thing is for sure: If he builds them, please will come from all over to experience some of the greatest golfing experiences in the world.

My question to you: What’s your favorite course at Sand Valley? Why?

 

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Rome, WI
Yardage: Black-6935, Orange-6563, Sand-6027, Green-5439, Silver-4699, Royal Blue-4010
Slope/Rating: Black-132/72.4, Orange-124/70.5, Sand-117/68, Green-110/65.7, Silver-104/62.2, Royal Blue-99/60.2
Par: 73
Weekend Rates: $225 (walking only)

Sand Valley Golf Resort, Mammoth Dunes Website

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