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.

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Golf Course Review: The Sandbox at Sand Valley Golf Resort

In Wisconsin, we’re lucky to be in a golf environment that is not just surviving, but thriving. Even though our seasons seem shorter every year, we live in one of the best golf states in the entire country.

2016 saw a record low ten new courses open across the United States. 2017 had several more, but not significantly. Highlighting 2017’s portfolio of new tracks were the flagship design at Sand Valley, Gil Hanse’s Black course at Streamsong Resort, the new AT&T Byron Nelson host Trinity Forest, and the reversible Silvies Valley Ranch in Seneca, Oregon (have you seen the CNN video about their Seamus Goat Division caddie program?).

2018 will see two new courses open in Wisconsin, both at Sand Valley. The first, which opened May 1 and I will be discussing now, is the 17-hole Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw designed Sandbox. The other new project, of course, will be David McLay Kidd’s massive masterpiece Mammoth Dunes (post upcoming), set to open tomorrow!

A fun and unique golfing experience, the Sandbox serves as an homage to the golden age of golf course design. Green styles that otherwise exist only at North Berwick, the National Golf Links of America, The Old Course at St. Andrews, Shoreacres, Fishers Island, Chicago Golf Club, Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (link shows their similar project, Bandon Preserve at BDGR), Lawsonia Links and other [mostly] pre-Depression Era gems can be found on this wonderful short course that measures under 1,700 total yards.

Biarritz, redan, double-plateau, short, Eden, lion’s mouth and other classic greens are not just old in age, but are generally very challenging for the everyday player to get access to. Golfers get to experience those classic designs in the Sandbox, though, neatly packaged in a fun, time-extensive journey that tests golfers’ metal on all manors of awkwardly-distanced tee shots.

Each hole has three sets of tees, sensibly marked by colored sand shovels. The back shovels stand perpendicular to the sandy turf with red handles (the Crenshaw tees – Ben has been long regarded as one of the greatest putters in the history of golf), followed by yellow- (Coore tees) and then blue-handled shovels. The blue tees are meant for putting and/or short chip-and-run opportunities.

Creativity abounds in the Sandbox. While distances max out around 165 yards – most are considerably shorter – many half- and three-quarter-club yardages mean you better have a lot of confidence in distance control… Or be ready to read every single piece of turf leading to the pin.

I will mercifully avoid giving my thoughts on strategy (remember: Those who can’t golf, write about it!). Because I think it’s such a unique golf experience, though, I do want to provide a little about the short course and some of its wonderful nuances.

The 17-hole Sandbox course starts with a fun little downhill par three, measuring 105 yards from the red shovels, 88 from the yellows and 57 from the blues. I was apparently too busy chatting with our hosts and friends to take a picture of it – sorry!

From 145 yards, the second hole is one heck of a test. The entrance to the green is narrow, and large traps pock the front-left and right sides.

As an entirely fescue facility, Sand Valley is built to play fast and furious, so if you ever don’t think you can fly sand traps on any of their courses… Get creative!

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Hole 2: 145/104/51

The third features a green design that is probably one of the most rare in all of golf: The double plateau.

The double plateau requires absolute precision off the tee to hold shots on the correct mound. Hit the opposite side and it’ll be like putting across a deep biarritz.

I love how the double plateau allows a single golf hole to play as many. This green can be set up an endless number of ways to create different par three experiences – from these tees, for example, a high-left pin requires flying the central sand trap while a high-right pin can be played in the air or on the ground.

There are always options at Sand Valley.

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Hole 3: 89/78/46

Walking off the third green, we crisscrossed between the 12th and 13th holes and noticed local legend and two-time US Open Champion, Andy North, playing the Sandbox with a couple of friends including Aaron Rodgers. No big deal.

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Golf Course Review: The Oconee at Reynolds Lake Oconee (GA)

One of the top golf destinations in the southeastern United States, Reynolds Lake Oconee is home to 117 golf holes. 18 of the best of those are on its Oconee course, designed by Rees Jones and originally unveiled in 2002.

Jones inherited some of the best terrain on the entire property to work with for the back nine of the Oconee course, meandering through inlets and setting up gorgeous tee shots over water on the par three 15th and closing par four 18th.

The 18th is one of the strongest finishing holes I’ve ever played, driving over Lake Oconee from 466 yards from the tips and still 426 from the third tees in.

What it lacks in lake frontage, the front nine makes up for with elevation. The fifth through ninth holes all have elevated tee shots, highlighted by a beautiful pair of par threes (5 and 8).

In addition to thousands of visitors, the Oconee course has played host to the annual Linger Longer Invitational college championship, the 2007 PGA Cup and the annual Chik-fil-A Bowl Challenge. Along with Great Waters, the Oconee helps put the premier in Reynolds Lake Oconee’s premier golfing destination.

The course begins with a long par five, measuring 538 yards from the first tees in. A small pond comes in to play about 450 yards down the fairway, and the green resides off a short dogleg left alongside the water.

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Hole 1: Par 5 (559/538/513/417)

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Hole 1: Par 5 (559/538/513/417)

Hole two at The Oconee is a mid-range par four with an interesting green complex. Heavily protected on all other sides, the pin while we were there was right in the front-right – the only area not bunkered.

You’ll see on the second hole that the Oconee course puts a premium on accurate driving. It’s heavily wooded but very fair – none of us had significant issues keeping our tee shots in play.

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Hole 2: Par 4 (397/377/367/315)

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America’s Best On-Site Non-Course Golf Facilities

One of the trends I’ve loved witnessing over the past few years has been the addition of non-course golf facilities at top-ranked resorts. These value-added venues give players fun options when they’re off the tee sheet to settle bets, enjoy the land, be social and bond especially during trips to remote golf destinations.

One of the first of these I ever had the pleasure of checking out is still my favorite: The Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford designed H-O-R-S-E Course at The Prairie Club in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

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One of an infinite number of potential tee boxes on the Horse Course at The Prairie Club

 

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“Routing” for the Horse Course – there are no actual teeing locations, and the next green can always be anywhere

 

Like in a game of basketball H-O-R-S-E, the player in charge calls a teeing location and green. From there, the competition usually goes one of two ways: Closest to the pin or fewest strokes to hole out.

Even with no official tee boxes or routing, the Horse Course at The Prairie Club was ranked the #10 Most Fun Course in America by Golf Digest in 2015.

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Golf Course Review: Medinah Country Club, Course No. 3 (IL)

Medinah CC No. 3 Course Rankings:
Golf Digest: #48 US, #3 Illinois
GolfWeek: #85 Classic
Golf.com: #44 US
Architect: Tom Bendelow; Rees Jones

This past May, I had the good fortune of being invited to the unveiling of Rees Jones’ newly renovated Course Two at Medinah Country Club. Since the course was not yet ready to be played, we were treated to a round on a championship course that I’ve dreamed of playing for years: Medinah No. 3.

Most recently the site of the 2012 Ryder Cup, No. 3 has played host to a plethora of golf championships, including that Ryder Cup, three Western Opens (now the BMW Championship), the 1988 US Senior Open, three US Opens (1949, 1975, 1990) and two PGA Championships (1999, 2006).

Currently ranked the 48th best golf course in the country (public or private), No. 3 has a heritage that is unmatched in the Midwest.

The course starts out with a relatively straight-forward par four. Tee it high and let it fly – anything that flies the hill should get a good roll forward down the hill, leaving a short iron or wedge in.

From the first green on, players are introduced to some terrific Tom Bendelow designed greens. The back-right pin location we had moved a ton.

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Hole 1: Par 4 (433/383/357/357)

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Hole 1: Par 4 (433/383/357/357)

The first in a fabulous set of par threes, the second hole plays entirely over water. While all the tee boxes are adjacent to the lake, the required carry and especially the angle in changes dramatically depending on tees.

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