Golf Course Review: Sand Valley

In 2013, President of Oliphant Golf Management Craig Haltom contacted Mike Keiser about a piece of land in remote Central Wisconsin that he just had to check out.

Keiser, the prolific developer behind Bandon Dunes, Cabot Cliffs and other ongoing international golf resort projects, has worked closely with the Wisconsin-based Haltom for years, and trusted his opinion enough to travel to Rome, Wisconsin to check out the can’t-miss property.

Keiser wanted to hate it. He wanted to give it a fair shake then dismiss it as a site incapable of housing one of America’s great golf destinations. He wanted a site on the water, and if in the Midwest then just outside Chicago.

Upon visiting he found densely forested sand barrens overrun by mature jack pines. Beyond its rolling topography and multitude of ATV trails, the land appeared useless. But it was what’s beneath that mattered, and under those millions of pines was sand that Haltom promised reached depths of 200-plus feet.

He wanted to walk away, but he couldn’t.

When Keiser and his team choose land for a golf destination, they traditionally look for three key elements:

  1. A significant sand foundation
  2. Great contours
  3. An ocean

“The last I remember, there is no ocean in Wisconsin,” golf course architect Bill Coore told him prior to seeing the land.

While Sand Valley does not have an ocean per se, it does have one of the deepest natural sand basins in the country – the result of the glacial Lake Wisconsin draining in a single catastrophic event many centuries ago. This land parcel has a sand foundation as substantial as any in the country.

An aerial view from above the Lido development, looking over Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes

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Great contours? The jack pine oak savannah that Sand Valley inhabits rises and falls like tides. The land looks and feels like it belongs thousands of miles from the Midwest – maybe in the mountain ranges of Montana, the deserts of Nevada or in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, but certainly not in Wisconsin. Fabulous contours? Absolutely.

While there’s no ocean in Central Wisconsin, it was immediately evident that Haltom introduced a site that is perfectly suited for golf course development, and that has all the room in the world to sprawl.

When it was time to hire a design team to make the best of this epic piece of land, Keiser approached his old friends at Coore & Crenshaw, golf’s preeminent design team with whom he worked at both Bandon Dunes and Cabot Cliffs.

Coore & Crenshaw’s portfolio includes some of the very best courses in the world, like The Sandbox [par three course] at Sand Valley, Sand Hills Golf Club (NE), Friar’s Head (NY), Old Sandwich (MA), The Sheep Ranch and Bandon Trails (OR), Streamsong Red (FL), Colorado Golf Club (CO), Kapalua Plantation (HI), Hidden Creek (NJ), Cuscowilla (GA), Clear Creek (NV), Austin Golf Club (TX), The Dormie Club (NC), Chechessee Creek (SC), We-Ko-Pa Saguaro (AZ), Barton Creek (TX), Ozarks National (MO), Talking Stick (AZ), Trinity Forest (TX), Lost Farm at Barnbougle Dunes (Tasmania, Australia), Shanqin Bay (Japan), Cabot Cliffs (Nova Scotia, Canada – also a Keiser project) and others.

Overhead view of the 17-hole Sandbox at Sand Valley Golf Resort

No architects in the golf industry today can stack up to their portfolio as Coore & Crenshaw have become the world’s finest design team at creating unique, memorable golf experiences that work with the land.

Keiser purchased 1,700 acres of land, Sand Valley was born and the entire golf world took notice.

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Location, Environment and Economic Impact

The Wisconsin state and local governments, along with the Department of Natural Resources, have worked hand in hand with Keiser’s team throughout the property’s development, and environmental agencies jumped on board quickly even when many argued the removal of so many red pines could have adverse affects on the region’s ecology.

What the DNR, Chicago Field Museum and others became enamored with, though, was not tree removal but a high-scale sand dune habitat restoration project.

The Chicago Field Museum, led by Jens Jensen, identified the project quickly as an opportunity to undertake one of the most expansive sand barren ecosystem restorations in modern history. They even surmised that, if successful, Wisconsin and the Midwest could see the return of animals like elk and lizards, cacti and other desert life that barely exist in the environment currently.

Environmental groups hope the Sand Valley project will be the first of many natural restorations of this type, which to date have gone largely untried.

Not only has Sand Valley been terrific for the environment, but it’s also made a significant economic impact on the local economies of Adams and Wood counties. In fact, when they first set out to develop Sand Valley, Project Manager Michael Keiser, Jr was unequivocal that the team’s number one goal was to become Adams County’s top employer, and in five short years it has.

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The impact of Sand Valley on the state and region

Sand Valley has quickly made a significant impact on the Wisconsin golf community.

SentryWorld, one of the state’s original golf destinations that opened in 1982 and will be hosting the 2023 US Senior Open, is just 45 minutes away, and Northern Bay is within 25. Lake Arrowhead’s Lakes and Pines courses are literally next door (their properties share a border), and the now semi-private Bullseye Golf Club is within a 20-minute drive in nearby Wisconsin Rapids.

When open for business (ahem, SentryWorld), these courses have all seen increased play, as have top-level golf destinations across the state.

Wisconsin’s proven to have plenty of capacity for the influx in out-of-state players, benefiting the entire golf community. In fact, spots like Sand Valley nearly sell out before the season even begins, making advanced planning essential for a successful visit.

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Design strategy and theory

“More than anything, we want to do something different. We don’t want to design the same style of course over and over on the same type of terrain.”
– Bill Coore at a 2015 Sand Valley media day at Bullseye Golf Club

Coore & Crenshaw have designed all kinds of golf courses, from coastal (ie: Cabot Cliffs) to inland links (ie: Sand Hills Golf Club), to woodlands (ie: Bandon Trails), desert (ie: The Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa) and tropical (ie: Kapalua’s Plantation course).

Variety is the spice of life, and for Coore & Crenshaw it’s about taking an incredible location and doing the best, most creative work they can.

There was significant pressure at Sand Hills, for example, as well as at Streamsong and Friar’s Head. The pieces of land they were entrusted with at these locations were so stunning that anything but their best would inevitably be met with disappointment.

While Sand Valley offered land that good, it also provided the x-factor Coore & Crenshaw desired: Uniqueness.

Sand Valley was never meant to be Sand Hills, Pine Valley, Pinehurst or even an 18-hole version of The Dunes Club. It was meant to be fast, unprecedented and spectacular, and the land dictated the opportunity for Coore & Crenshaw to design a style of course that alluded America: Heathland.

Heathland courses, primarily in Great Britain, are maybe a 75/25 to 95/5 mix between links and parkland styles, are typically flush with gorse and heather (vegetation that grows in open soil), are heavily contoured, and while they do have some trees are primarily open land that encourages golf to be played on the ground.

While Wisconsin does not have heather (hence, “Heath”land) or gorse (the Bandon Dunes complex in Oregon is the only known location in the United States where gorse is considered to be native) like traditional heathland courses, Sand Valley’s ecosystem is rife with pines and a variety of “Wisconsin Desert” vegetation unique to its property. Take, for example, the batches of prickly pear cacti found growing on four and nine. Who knew cactus can grow naturally in Wisconsin? As far as I know, it only does there.

Heathland courses have some trees – more than Erin Hills, the Links at Lawsonia or the Straits course at Whistling Straits – but do not smother with them. Their key defenses against par tend to be sprawling wastelands, deep sand traps, undulating green complexes, run-offs and green-side collection areas.

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Bill Coore values the partnership between Architect and Superintendent, and his relationship with Director of Agronomy Rob Duhm was at the heart of their design strategy at Sand Valley.

“How do you know when a green is right? Take, for example, the 18th on the Red course at Streamsong?” I asked Bill.

“When it feels right. The difference between a great green and a terrible green is very narrow. We (Coore and Ben Crenshaw) encourage our staff to be creative and ‘go with it.’ The result is a combination of artistry, strategy and of course drainage.”

Coore & Crenshaw’s role in course design is one of give and take. In the big picture, they provide conceptual vision and entrust the details to their team. Bill and Ben start by providing guidelines with a wide focus and broad concept, then let the land guide the process.

“What will the par be?” “Who knows?”

“What will the overall length of the course be?” “Who knows?”

The design gurus believe in and encourage two basic principles:

  1. “Know what you’ve got when you see it” – sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes random events and even mistakes lead to something truly amazing
  2. “Know when to quit” – sometimes Bill and Ben are the originators, and other times they are the editors

When something one of their employees is working on is coming together, and they like it, they’re encouraged to bring in Bill, Ben and others to identify the right way to complete it.

While they provide the conceptual foundation, help with the labor and of course have final approval on design/implementation, they also understand that sometimes the best things happen unexpectedly, and encourage their team to recognize when that is the case.

And the 18th at Streamsong, with it’s dramatic false front-right and right side? “I asked [the superintendent], ‘Can you and your team mow this?’” Bill told me. “We can mow this,” he heard back, and if it was anything different then that tremendous finishing green complex would not exist as it does today.

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Coore is not afraid to get his hands dirty. In fact, when we approached the sixth hole green during our “Wilderness walk” we found him on a Sand Pro Green Shaper shaving the putting surface closer to how he wanted it. “He’ll drive around on that thing for hours on end,” we were told, “Until he feels it’s just right.”

The Sand Pro cuts down centimeters of terrain at a time, and while it sounds like a painstakingly long and arduous task for someone as accomplished as Coore, it exemplifies his commitment to teamwork and providing his best efforts toward an outcome that will not just suffice, but will wow golf enthusiasts who experience it decades after.

With dedication like that during the course’s creation, it’s no wonder Sand Valley has experienced the incredible success it has. It opened as GolfWeek’s #61 ranked modern course in the country in 2017, and has since climbed to #32 with its companion course Mammoth Dunes at #29.

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The resort

The resort opened with Coore & Crenshaw’s flagship track in 2017, along with 40 rooms for lodging that’s since grown to about 100. The clubhouse and restaurant are adjacent to the first tee at David McLay Kidd’s Mammoth Dunes course, downhill from the Volcano and a free shuttle ride away.

Similar to the resort at Bandon Dunes, lodging at Sand Valley will be spread throughout the property to provide unique experiences for return golfers. Also similar to Bandon Dunes, the lodging is comfortable and welcoming, with everything guests need to wind down following a long day of walking the links.

A comfortable bed, oversized bar of soap and great water pressure are a few of the key elements that go in to “Dream Golf” lodging, and of course a variety of pubs and restaurants to spend down-time.

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Sand Valley Golf Resort has come a long way since 2015. From ATV trails and overgrown forests of junk trees that were never meant to be on this land in the first place, to two championship and one par three course, two highly anticipated active developments, an expansive practice facility, the area’s best dining, 15 grass tennis courts, a great variety of onsite lodging, world-class bike and hiking trails and a transition to a Winter wonderland in the off-season, it’s got something for everyone – golf enthusiast or not.

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The golf course

The Volcano is the alpha and omega of Sand Valley. As the highest point on property, it was the focal point for original development, where Keiser and Haltom first surveyed the plot of land together, and where the Coore & Crenshaw course tees off and putts out.

It provides an immediate “Wow” moment before the round, and again at the end of the day when players are left mournful upon averting their eyes from its magnificent views.

Aerial view of (clockwise, from 12:00) the 10th tee, 18th green and approach area, 9th green, practice range and 1st tee, all circling around Craig’s Porch

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My favorite spot at the resort to congregate, the Volcano features Craig’s Porch, a to-go restaurant with food, drinks and the property’s best values, including:

  • $2 domestic beers (same great price as on the course)
  • $1.50 tacos (the pork tacos are unbelievably good!)
  • $3 breakfast sandwiches
  • Nye’s Ice cream sandwiches in 9 flavors

Full menu for Craig’s Porch

Adjacent to Craig’s Porch, named of course after the man who discovered the property, atop the Volcano are Sand Valley’s first and tenth hole tee boxes.

The elevated tee shot on one is to a right-to-left fairway, offering an immediate risk/reward opportunity with a fringe-drivable par four. The hole design lets players get close to the green with driver, but penalizes by way of awkward shots from wastelands, when missed.

Long iron or hybrid is the right play here, but I can’t say I’ve ever tried that.

The opening tee shot from atop The Volcano at Coore/Crenshaw’s Sand Valley course (photo taken August 2016)

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The second hole should be played with less than driver off the tee to the elbow of a sharp left-to-right dogleg, leaving an uphill approach to a wild back-to-front green that falls off dramatically on the right side.

A dusky view from beyond the elevated green on 2

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The third hole is a long par three with mounding on the right that can help accelerate balls toward the middle of the green.

Just right of the putting surface is a barren sand site that was once inhabited by local settlers. This area, stripped of minerals and anything capable of growing vegetation, is like many areas on the property: Pure, unadulterated sand.

The challenging par three 3rd (photo taken May 2017)

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The first par five on the course, the fourth features a long, uphill climb with a forgiving fairway and elevated green complex backed by sand and wasteland. A steep false front protects the entire entrance.

The uphill par five 4th at Sand Valley – don’t be long!

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The fifth has one of the most dramatically elevated tee shots on the course, as is best viewed while looking back from the green. The front of this putting surface will not hold much, so aim for the middle but don’t go long, left or right – anything off-center will likely find sand or one of its depressed collection areas.

The downhill par three 5th at Sand Valley has one of the most challenging greens to hold on property
The 5th has one of the best look-backs on the course

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One of the largest greens on the entire property, the sixth is a long, exceptional par four. With a fairway that runs downhill from the tee, the right side is inviting to long hitters but the left provides the best run-out and approach shot. Waste bunkers are everywhere, forcing players to map their strategy prior to teeing off.

The sun rising over the long par four 6th at Sand Valley Golf Course
The left side of the sixth fairway, leading to a more open approach shot

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A long par five that meanders right-to-left, the seventh feels like a walk in the desert wilderness, with large sand dunes towering above the right side.

The left side looks tight, but most errant shots hit that way will be findable, and at least it’s not in the mammoth dunes (see what I did there?).

The approach area of 7 (right) and short, uphill par three 8th (left) from above

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Climb the path uphill and take in a view of my favorite par three on the Sand Valley course, the short uphill eighth. From just 112 yards from the next-to-back tees, the shot on eight is nervy, to say the least.

The par three 8th at Sand Valley, from the tee

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Miss short and you’re in one of the deepest traps at Sand Valley; miss long or left and face one of the property’s fastest downhill putts – or even worse have a sand shot straight down the same slope.

“On a short par three, everyone has the opportunity to beat even the best player in the world.”
– Bill Coore of Coore & Crenshaw at a 2015 Sand Valley media day

A look back at the 8th green at dawn, still being rolled

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Coore & Crenshaw did a terrific job of building variety in to the course design at Sand Valley, which is perhaps most evident in its collection of par threes on the front nine.

No two tee shots are the same.

The third is a long and creative, fairly level par three with a mound to the right that will both hide that side of the green and help run shots on and leftward. The fifth has a mid-range, dramatically downhill tee shot to a crowned green, and the eighth is a short hole with a tee shot significantly uphill to a heavily contoured putting complex.

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A tee shot that gives me nightmares, the ninth is a drivable par four with the property’s only water hazard: Lake Leopold. From ~ 300 yards from most tees, the elevation allows for long drives but plays to a target area that narrows as it nears a really well-guarded green. Four deep bunkers surround this elevated, two-tier green complex, and of course Lake Leopold lingers on the right side.

[A muted] sunrise over Lake Leopold and the 9th green at Sand Valley (5:45 am)

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The start of the back nine returns players to the bustling Volcano, where tacos and beers are waiting in short order.

The fairway is about a hundred yards wide on ten, so the only thing to watch out for while teeing off is that you’re not aimed directly at the central pot bunker.

The second shot requires a little more precision, as it’s played downhill and the fairway runs slightly right toward one of the deepest and nastiest traps on the entire course. Stay well left on your approach on ten if going for it.

Craig’s Porch atop The Volcano awaits players between rounds and nines, with the 10th tee box just beyond
10th tee at sunset (photo taken August 2016)
Looking back from the green on ten toward Craig’s Porch and a hazy sunrise

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Heading away from the Volcano, the eleventh is a short par four with sand on the left and one of the course’s least guarded green complexes save for its false front.

A look back from above eleven at Sand Valley

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One of my favorite holes on the back nine of the Sand Valley course, the twelfth features a split-fairway that’s sub-divided by a tall oak tree. The left side doesn’t provide a whole lot of advantage, but for a guy like me whose miss is hard left provides some fail-safe.

The smart shot here (off the tee) is to the right side, just short of the fairway bunker there.

I love the way they mow the green surrounds on twelve – a massive complex that’s well-risen with a kicker bank on the left side.

What’s your line from the tee on 12? (photo taken August 2016)

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Heading back west, the thirteenth plays uphill and runs slightly right to left. Enough club needs to be taken to land on the green as anything short will likely repel well down the fairway

The par four 13th at Sand Valley (photo taken August 2016)

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The fourteenth is a short par three playing softly downhill to a green complex surrounded by sand.

This hole has always reminded me a lot of the 8th on another terrific Coore & Crenshaw track: The Red course at Streamsong.

The 14th is a really good short par three

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Teeing off over wasteland, the fairway on fifteen runs right to left and its entrance to the green has several mounds that cleverly hide the putting surface and don’t allow players to run approach shots on. This is opposite the majority of the course, which beckons for low, wind-cheating shots that utilize Sand Valley’s fast and firm playing surfaces to advance the ball.

A view from above the left-side waste area on fifteen, toward the green

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Teeing off to the left of the fifteenth hole’s green, the sixteenth at Sand Valley features a sharp dogleg left and is heavily mounded on that side.

Find the fairway off the tee and have an uphill mid-iron in to a green guarded by drop-offs on all sides and a deep bunker front and center.

From the tee on sixteen at Sand Valley
The approach shot on sixteen

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Seventeen is one of the most unique and fun golf holes at Sand Valley. Its gargantuan, true punchbowl green requires a long tee shot – up to 236 yards uphill from the tips – to a green hidden between and beyond tall mounds.

The distance is all players have to worry about off the tee, as the punchbowl will bound shots from all directions toward the green’s center.

The humongous punch bowl 17th green (photo from August 2016)

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The Sand Valley course finishes on a high note, with a great three-shot par five that requires all kinds of accuracy.

The tee shot is innocent enough, with an incredibly wide fairway that’s hard to miss. Things can get a bit dicey from there, though, as waste bunkers litter the fairway and green surrounds.

The approach shot on 18 at Sand Valley
The beautiful view from beyond the 18th green on Coore & Crenshaw’s Sand Valley course

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Whether you’re that guy or you have a friend who’s been to Bandon, you’ve probably heard somebody rank the golf courses at Bandon Dunes.

For me, it’s #1 Pacific Dunes, #2 Bandon Dunes, #3 Old Macdonald, #4 Bandon Trails. I haven’t played the Sheep Ranch yet since my only visit there was in 2016, but I can see it jumping to the top of my list and can see Bandon Dunes and Old Macdonald growing on me. Who knows how my rankings will look after my next visit.

I don’t mention that to be an elitist bragging about having been to Bandon Dunes, but instead to highlight that WE will get to lead that conversation soon here in Wisconsin! Sand Valley is not done developing, and as long as we support them they’ll continue to grow. Just imagine the fun conversations we’ll be having ten years from now around “Rank the [6, 7, 8 or more!] courses at Sand Valley.”

The Keisers and their investment in Wisconsin have been an absolute blessing to the state and Midwest, and I know I’m not the only one excited about everything the future holds at Sand Valley.

As for Sand Valley Golf Course, I think it’s the best course currently on property (I can’t wait for The Lido).

While Mammoth Dunes might have a little more wow factor, I think Sand Valley is a better overall course, is more challenging and requires better shot-making.

Everyone seems to shoot the best round of their life at Mammoth Dunes. Its fairways are some of the widest in the world and their greens are among the largest. Players almost can’t lose a ball on that course, and if their short game is on they should score well.

Both courses are incredibly well designed and fun (what the resort was built around), but if I could play just one course on property, I think I’d go with Sand Valley.

From 1-3 [for now], how do you rank the courses at Sand Valley?

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Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Rome / Nekoosa, WI
Yardages: Black-6938, Orange-6535, Sand-6050
Slope/Rating: Black-134/73.2, Orange-130/71.4, Sand-127/69.6
Par: 72

Sand Valley Golf Resort, Sand Valley Course Website

Published by WiscoGolfAddict

Writer/Photographer/Content Creator for WiscoGolfAddict.com, and occasional contributor to other [mostly state and regional] golf publications. Healthcare/long-term care industry sales/strategy professional.

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