In just five short years, the Sand Valley Golf Resort has transformed the landscape of Wisconsin golf.
It all started with the vision of Oliphant Companies’ President of Golf Management, Craig Haltom, finding an extraordinary piece of land in remote Central Wisconsin. Haltom, knowing developer Mike Keiser was keen on finding a property for a Bandon Dunes-like resort within driving distance of Chicago, brought the former greeting card magnate and world-renowned golf visionary to Rome, Wisconsin.
Nearly invisible to the eye, the field of dreams was there, lying dormant beneath an endless forest of jack and red pines traversable only on ATV trails, winding through land that was otherwise unhospitable.
Its deep sand barrens, remnants of the Kettle Moraine glacier that dredged the Midwest 15,000 to 18,000 years ago, reach 200 feet deep in spots, representing limitless potential for golf course development.
The ATV trails have since given way to roads, the forests of pines are giving way to a more natural, rehabilitated “Midwest Desert” environment, and the vast chasms of sand are yielding golf courses that are out of this world good.
While the setting feels out of this world, it’s still in Wisconsin, and a 2-1/2 hour drive from Milwaukee or 3-1/2 to 4 hours from Chicago.
Keiser has built an empire around remote golf landscapes like this, starting of course with Bandon Dunes.
Nestled along the cliffs of Bandon, Oregon, the resort is like Disney Land for guys – a Mecca of golf a 4-plus hour drive from Portland (or via private jet to Coos Bay) to get to, but would still be well worth the drive if it was 10.
If you think Sand Valley is hard to find now, you should have seen it in 2015!
I’ve been fortunate to be a part of media days at the resort since the development started. From wilderness golf to pre-resort media days, our epic 2016 Wisconsin vs. Illinois Writer’s Cup, to opening days at Sand Valley and the Sandbox and so on, I’ve had an amazing front row seat and visibility in to the resort’s progress.
It’s come a long way. And it’s got a long way to go.
Since Sand Valley Golf Course opened in May 2017, the golfing world has taken notice. The original course was the obvious choice for everyone’s top new course in the world that year, the par three Sandbox was named Best New Short Course of the Year in 2018, and Mammoth Dunes was of course the top new course of 2018.
The par-68 Sedge Valley course, being designed by Tom Doak, is currently on hiatus during COVID-19, but will provide a third 18-hole championship track to the resort. And there’s room for more, both in the way of public and private layouts.
The Lido Golf Course is lauded as the greatest course you’ll never play. Viewers of Golf Channel during the 2019 PGA Championship will recall a 6-minute expose by Tim Rosaforte on the Lido, which was originally designed and built by CB Macdonald and Seth Raynor in 1914, then shut down by the Navy during World War II.
Experts at the time said it was every bit as good as Pine Valley, which – like now – was regarded as the world’s best course.
I have no idea how they’re planning on doing it, but word is Keiser plans on bringing the Lido to Wisconsin in the form of a private course near Sand Valley. Like the original, it will be highly manufactured. Unlike the original, the golf world now has all the technology and equipment in the world to move that land. There’s certainly plenty of sand to make just about anything possible.
Letters of interest have started going out to potential investors. I’ve heard it will not include reduced fees/membership at Sand Valley, and will not be reimbursed if/when the club becomes profitable the way the original $50K investment at Sand Valley was.
I’ve been keeping my ears peeled for any information that drops on that project and will I’m sure write more about it in the future.
David McLay Kidd has designed some of the most vast, fun-filled golf courses of the 21st Century. Beginning with the break-through of all break-throughs, Bandon Dunes in 1999, Kidd has led developments at Nanea Golf Club in Hawaii (2003), the Castle Course at St Andrews (2008), Tetherow in his now home town of Bend, Oregon (2008), Gamble Sands in Washington (2014), and a dozen or so others.
His philosophy on golf course design sits in perfect harmony with Keiser’s on resorts; David McLay Kidd was destined to play a part in Sand Valley.
Keiser works to appeal to the golf enthusiast, not the corporate client. Golf enthusiasts want to have a good time. They want to feel good about their golf game, enjoy a beautiful natural setting and feel away from everyday life.
Mammoth Dunes, as Kidd designed it, will give up pars and bogies all day. The course, much like Bandon Dunes, Gamble Sands and other high-profile projects of recent years, is designed to protect the course against low numbers by low-handicap players.
High-handicappers have a tendency to play their “best round ever” at Mammoth Dunes. They can bomb the ball just about anywhere on its massive fairways – some hundreds of yards wide, never lose a ball and if they putt reasonably well post a low number (for them).
Mammoth Dunes’ wide fairways and large, undulating greens evoke creativity, and Kidd’s philosophy on golf course design stands in stark contrast to the “Tiger-proofing” trend that dominated much of the early 21st Century.
Where other architects have made golf more challenging, Kidd’s focus has been on making them more fun.
The golf world is eating it up. Now ranked the #30 public course in the country by Golf Digest, and #27 modern course by GolfWeek, Mammoth Dunes’ enormous scale and player-friendly architectural elements have been a huge hit.
One of my favorite holes for its terrain is the par four 5th. Its wavy fairway yields no even lies, and anything to the left will leave a blind approach shot to one of Mammoth Dunes’ massive green surfaces.
There are a few layouts at Mammoth Dunes that are truly unique, or at least that I’ve never before seen. The sixth is one of those as a drivable par four with a U-shaped green complex that allows for a myriad of pin locations and shot strategies.
The “lower” part of the U has high banks that can be used as backstops to reach other hole locations if players hit the wrong half of the green.
The fairway on seven is one of the largest I’ve ever seen. It’s a blind tee shot from lower ground, but trust that as long as you hit the ball 100-300 yards within 45 degrees of the left side of the sand trap that chances are it’ll be in the fairway a long way away.
One of the most photographed areas at Sand Valley is the rock-ledged bunker short of the green on 7. Local rules now make it a free drop zone.
One of the most photographed holes on the property, the par three 8th is a beautiful mid-length one-shotter that puts the sand barrens of Central Wisconsin on full display:
Sand Valley has some terrific short par fours, including the 10th. While not necessarily drivable, a good drive can leave a really short wedge in. I think I had something like 20 yards in, which was ticklish uphill.
Another of the heavily photographed holes at Mammoth Dunes is the par three 13th. Playing over a cavernous sand canyon, it’s a short shot with a massive green.
The fourteenth was designed by Brian Silvernail, a graphic designer from Florida, who won the 2016 Golf Digest Armchair Architect competition.
This is a really fun hole, with a highly elevated tee shot that plays down a hillside. Driving the ball down the high right side of the fairway, with the sand trap on the right side as an aiming point, will send tee shots downhill sharply and to the left, greenward.
The 16th might be the best par three on the whole course. Mounding between the tees and green complex hides much of the green, making it look significantly smaller than it actually is. This is a beautifully designed golf hole.
The par five 18th is a strong finishing hole at Mammoth Dunes, with a wide fairway and sand wastelands providing a left-side border for much of the hole.
The approach shot is nervy, with the beautiful wooden Mammoth Dunes clubhouse looming on the horizon and sand short, long-right, left and right of the green complex.
Mammoth Dunes is a terrific example of new age golf architecture that overachieves: A thoughtful layout and design that golf enthusiasts are happy to pay top dollar for, it fits in harmoniously with the resort’s natural terrain and aesthetics and provides one of the most fun golfing experiences around.
Combined with the original Sand Valley course, the Sandbox and future courses to come, Mammoth Dunes more than holds down its end as an anchor of what’s quickly become one of the world’s top golfing destinations, Sand Valley.
6 thoughts on “Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes: McLay Kidd’s Midwest Masterpiece”
Beginner sets often don’t come with a sand wedge and you might like to have one for escaping the bunkers. In fact, I’d say if your set doesn’t have one, you must get one to have some fun chipping and pitching onto the greens.
Great article Paul! Those pictures are just gorgeous. I SO need to get out there!!!