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.

The fourth is a nice little par three with a tumultuous green:

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Hole 4: 78/60/42

The fifth is one of the most beautiful golf greens I’ve ever seen. The left-to-right spine is like a hog’s back – one would think the green going from the right side toward a left-side pin would curl that way, but it doesn’t… Both sides roll outward, meaning your “safe shot” to the right side to avoid that doozy of a front pot bunker can very well result in a 20- to 30-yard putt.

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Hole 5: 105/73/43

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Hole 5: 105/73/43

While the sixth may lull you to sleep with its short distance, be wary of all the bunkers surrounding this pin, and all the slopes that will lead you toward them:

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Hole 6: 80/67/40

The seventh might be the best of the run-up holes on the entire 17-hole course – a fairway that runs downhill to a narrow, angled green that runs uphill toward the left.

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Hole 7: 51/42/36

The front eight of the Sandbox ends in spectacular fashion, with a beautiful elevated biarritz green.

When asked to write a 100-word blurb on my favorite hole in the Sandbox, this is the one that dominated my thoughts. This green is absolutely spectacular. Watch for my little quote and photo(s) in the Sand Valley newsletter 😉

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Hole 8: 98/86/41

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Hole 8: 98/86/41

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Hole 8: 98/86/41

The back nine starts with what I would consider to be the course’s “Short” hole. At around 50 yards, the challenge here is the green that is one of the largest on the entire property.

The green on nine is the result of combining two different greens. Owner and Developer Mike Keiser told Coore and Crenshaw to build as many great golf holes as they could find on this property. If memory serves me correctly, they found 23, and then had to figure out a way to route it right. The two holes that were originally here were made better by combining them in to one.

Think 50 yards is too easy? Try landing a shot above the back ledge and holding this green.

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Hole 9: 57/52/42

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Hole 9: 57/52/42

The tenth is one of the smallest greens on the course, and a fun distance just over 100 yards.

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Hole 10: 107/83/45

The eleventh features a risen green with squirrely slopes, especially towards the edges. Taking on the trap almost seems like the safe play here.

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Hole 11: 74/48/30

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Hole 11: 74/48/30

The fifth longest hole on the course, the twelfth reminded me a lot of the sixth hole at Hidden Glen. A long green from front to back, the putting surface is risen and well defended by sand and swales.

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Hole 12: 115/96/52

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Hole 12: 115/96/52

To me, the tiny 13th is probably the hardest tee shot of all 17. Maxing out at 75 yards and slightly downhill, the lion’s mouth green leaves no room for error. The sand trap in front is the one golfers will try to avoid, but the ones left and past the green are just as penal if not more so.

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Hole 13: 75/54/36

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Hole 13: 75/54/36

Approaching the 14th, we saw a couple more familiar faces: Bill Coore and Jim Craig. Coore needs no introduction, and Jimmy has been Coore/Crenshaw’s Shaping Specialist for two decades. Both are wonderful people to run in to, and are always more than gracious with their time and thoughts.

The fourteenth is fairly long for the Sandbox, teeing up from a hearty 120 yards. A trap on the right side of the foreground shrouds a sizable right-side section of the green, giving the impression off the tee that the target area is much, much smaller than it is.

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Hole 14: 120/94/45

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Hole 14: 120/94/45

A similar distance to the previous hole, the fifteenth plays from 121 yards to a green that could not be more diametrically opposite. The putting complex on fifteen is wide open with all its curves and beauty on full display.

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Hole 15: 121/96/55

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Hole 15: 121/96/55

The 16th is the longest of the par threes in the Sandbox, and deservedly so as an awesome redan template:

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Hole 16: 149/96/43

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Hole 16: 149/96/43

A classic finishing hole, the 17th presents two options: Do or die. Hit that massive pot bunker at the front-middle entrance of the green and the prospects of winning your match will do the latter.

And a pot bunker of this magnitude needs to be aptly named, right? This one’s nickname is certainly befitting: It’s “the devil’s a@$hole.”

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Hole 17: 83/55/35

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Hole 17: 83/55/35

The Sandbox is the perfect complement to the world-class, championship golfing experience at Sand Valley. While stout in distance, the Sandbox lives up to its hype as providing the most extreme greens and some of the most thought-provoking holes on the property, making this short walk massive in enjoyment.

 

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Rome, WI
Yardage: Crenshaw-1652, Coore-1272, Putting-739
Slope/Rating: N/A
Par: 51
Weekend Rates: $75

Sand Valley Golf Resort, Sandbox Website

A [Small] Sneak Preview of Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley

This past May (therefore, a small sneak peak), I spent the weekend on Petenwell Lake in Adams County, Wisconsin, for my friend Scott’s bachelor party. Our buddy Kyle and I headed up to Sand Valley Golf Resort a few hours before our group’s scheduled tee times for a sneak preview of the second championship course on site, Mammoth Dunes.

I love Sand Valley. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed the original course there expertly: It’s fun, challenging, unique, FAST, rugged and tremendously beautiful. It also makes visitors feel as if they’re hundreds if not thousands of miles from what they know to be Wisconsin.

I’ve written quite a bit about Sand Valley, but have yet to post anything about David McLay Kidd’s upcoming Mammoth Dunes. We were able to walk six holes [with a guide and without clubs – it was still an active construction site], and they looked spectacular:

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Hole 1: Par 4 (413/394/358/324/221/198)

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1st hole green complex at Mammoth Dunes

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Hole 2: Par 4 (410/406/360/330/286/236)

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Target area off the tee on 2

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From the central fairway bunker on 2

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A look back toward the tees on 2

If you visited Golf Digest’s website any time during 2016, chances are you noticed an interesting reader competition: “The Armchair Architect.” 532 entries were received and reviewed by David McLay Kidd, Mike Keiser and Ron Whitten, and the winning entry was by computer gamer Brian Silvernail of Rockledge, Florida.

Silvernail’s proposed hole is a split-fairway downhill par four where flying three traps on the right side will propel tee shots downhill and left, making it a potentially drive-able par four.

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Brian Silvernail’s winning “Armchair Architect” entry (linked to Golf Digest article)

I never submitted my entry for the competition, but after working on it with the topographic map that was provided I can see in person that my hole design probably wouldn’t have worked. My concept was to have distinct risk/reward areas where the smartest shot is a shorter one to a plateaued fairway on the left.

The right side would lead to longer drives and shorter approach shots, but those approaches would be made more challenging by uneven and tight lies, a blowout trap that obstructs the player’s view on that right side, tricky green contours that would make holding those shots difficult, and a more rugged path, in general. Meanwhile, a downhill shot from the plateau to the left would allow the smart player to hit a wide open green from an even lie, unobstructed view and receptive putting surface.

In person, I don’t think the area allotted has enough space to make something like that happen, and plus there’s a distinct possibility that the concept would look gimmicky, contrived and probably not be considered anyway.

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The par four 14th – subject of Golf Digest’s Armchair Architect contest – being roughed in

 

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Hole 15: Par 5 (522/509/448/398/365/325)

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Hole 15: Par 5 (522/509/448/398/365/325)

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A beautiful, natural location for the 15th green complex

I had been drooling over pictures of the par three 16th for quite some time – it looks as good in person as it does online:

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Hole 16: Par 3 (180/164/134/134/113/113)

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The massive green complex for the par three 16th

The tee shot on seventeen brings players back out in to the wide open area used for the course’s first two holes:

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Hole 17: Par 4 (432/427/363/352/260/237)

The fairway on 18 is shared in parts by the first, 17th and 18th holes. Miss this fairway and you’ve got some real accuracy issues.

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Hole 18: Par 5 (536/511/488/473/438/360)

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The approach on 18 heading back to the Mammoth Dunes clubhouse

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A look back from the 18th hole green

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View from the patio of one of the suites in the Mammoth Lodge

The new clubhouse and lodge at Mammoth Dunes was done beautifully, featuring common spaces and private lodging in the rustic farmhouse design style that’s swept the nation stemming from HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.”

The Mammoth Bar and clubhouse are now finished and fully operational, but earlier this summer they looked like this:

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View of The Clubhouse from the first hole tee boxes – it has since been completed

One of my favorite things great golf resorts do is to add non-championship golf, golf-related facilities. Keiser created “The Punchbowl,” as well as the 13-hole Bandon Preserve par three course at Bandon Dunes; Paul Schock added the Gil Hanse designed “Horse Course” at The Prairie Club; World Woods has a wild, 2-acre putting green and practice holes; to a lesser degree, Streamsong has a fun par three bye hole.

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If Coore/Crenshaw’s design work on The Sand Box is comparable to their work on Bandon Preserve, visitors to Sand Valley will be in for a real treat

What do these things all have in common? They’re great places to spend extra time and especially initiate camaraderie through one-off competitions (aka gambling).

Sand Valley is finishing their first add-on golf facility: A 17-hole par three track designed by Coore/Crenshaw. The initial plan was to name it “Quick Sand,” but in conversation with Craig Haltom of Oliphant yesterday at Lawsonia it sounds like they’re now leaning toward “The Sand Box.” The short course is one of the things I’m most looking forward to checking out next season, and I don’t think they can go wrong with either name even though I love Quick Sand.

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The sandy area to the far left in this image is the site used for the Sand Box

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Sand Valley GM Glen Murray in the Mammoth Dunes pro shop, then still under construction

Preliminary plans are in the works for a weekend buddies trip to Sand Valley next Spring, and to say I’m looking forward to that trip is an understatement. Now we’ve just gotta make it through another long and cold Wisconsin winter…

Have you made your first pilgrimage to Sand Valley yet? If so, what were your impressions, where do you think the courses will stack up against the country’s best destinations, and what are you most excited for?

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Rome, WI

Sand Valley Golf Resort Website

Golf Course Review: Sand Valley Golf Course

This year’s Illinois vs. Wisconsin Writer’s Cup was a long-anticipated match-up for many reasons: To start, Illinois has had our number for a few years, but most importantly it was to be held at the world’s most exciting new golf resort project, Sand Valley Golf Resort in Rome, Wisconsin.

I put up a preview of the front nine at Sand Valley after last year’s Media Day event here, and was unbelievably excited to see how things have grown in and especially to check out the back nine and lodging.

The back nine was everything I’d hoped it would be: More fantastic par threes and one great golf hole after another. Strategically placed sand traps, tricky greens and conditions that far exceeded what can be expected of a course that was seeded this Spring blew away everyone at the event.

Sand Valley has been blessed with one of the best two growing seasons in recent history. Weather in the Midwest has been mild, the winters [relatively] short and all the ingredients to be well ahead of its time just sort of fell in to place.

The initial plans for the course, in fact, were to have 13-15 holes open for preview play by the end of 2016, and already all 18 are and will undoubtedly become even more spectacular for its public unveiling in June, 2017.

The David McLay Kidd course is coming along nicely, too, with a number of holes already seeded and growing in beautifully. I unfortunately did not have time to tour it during this trip, so I can’t wait for my first thorough look at it next season.

I reviewed the front nine at Sand Valley in my original article from last year’s media day, linked here, so I will just include updated photos this time around with minimal commentary.

New photos from the front nine of the Sand Valley Golf Course at Sand Valley Golf Resort:

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Panoramic view from “The Volcano” above the first, tenth and eighteenth holes at Sand Valley Golf Course

The par 4 first hole, bending right to left and downhill from “The Volcano”:

The par 4 second hole, bending left to right and uphill:

The par 3 third hole, a long par three best played running on from the right side:

The par 5 fourth hole, played steeply uphill:

The par 3 fifth hole, played downhill to a crowned green:

The par 4 sixth hole, with its “Speed slot” down the right side:

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2016 Wisconsin vs. Illinois Writers Cup at Sand Valley Golf Resort

Following a tour of the front nine at last year’s Sand Valley media day, a reference to the Wisconsin vs. Illinois Writers Cup was made to which Mike Keiser, Jr. immediately replied: “Can we host next year’s event here!?”

The Writers Cup alternates between Wisconsin and Illinois courses each year, with last year’s event played at the challenging Chicago Highlands Club.

Needless to say, everyone in attendance was thrilled with the offer, but the ultimate decision had to be made by Chuck Garbedian of “Garbedian on Golf.”

Team Illinois has had the best of Team Wisconsin for a few years straight, including a rout at the Chicago Highlands Club last year. This year, though, the red team was back on our own soil at the world’s most highly touted upcoming golf destination, and there was no way we were going to lose. Not there on what we were told was the first event to be played on all 18 holes of the Coore/Crenshaw masterpiece.

Sand Valley and KemperSports were fantastic hosts, and both teams made the pilgrimage to Rome, Wisconsin on Monday for practice rounds prior to the tournament teeing off at 7:45 Tuesday morning.

The contrast between where the Coore/Crenshaw course is now versus where it was last August is almost unbelievable, but with two of the greatest growing seasons ever it is almost unnecessary to say that Sand Valley’s progress is well ahead of schedule. At no time did they intend to open all 18 holes for preview play this season, but alas on September 1 it is happening.

My first ah-ha moment during my first trip to Sand Valley last year was arriving at the top of “The Volcano” and seeing the first hole below, seeded and beginning to grow in. It is fully developed at this point, as are the magnificent tenth and 18th holes. The start of a driving range is also coming in left of the first fairway, and most of the course’s holes are visible from this highest vantage point on the property. The vista here outside of “Craig’s Porch” is comparably as spectacular as the view from the porch at Pacific Dunes (at Mike Keiser’s original golf resort, Bandon Dunes, on the southwest coast of Oregon).

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Sunset from the Pacific Grille at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, OR

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Sunset from “Craig’s Porch” atop “The Volcano” at Sand Valley Golf Resort in Rome, WI

Glen Turk of Midwest Golfing Magazine and I met up on Monday to play the front nine before a dinner at Craig’s Porch (named after Craig Haltom of Oliphant, who originally discovered the land) that consisted of buffalo burgers, Johnsonville brats and sides.

After a couple of beers, Team Wisconsin met in the 4-bedroom cottage Coach Garbedian was staying in to get our team’s strategy together. Playing this year for Team Wisconsin included:

  • Gary D’Amato (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
  • Mike Duplaise (freelance writer and author)
  • Chuck Garbedian (captain, ESPN Garbedian on Golf)
  • Neal Kotlarek (GolfChicago – Wisconsin native)
  • Gabe Neitzel (ESPN 540)
  • Jay Royal (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
  • Jeff Royal (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
  • Rob Schultz (Wisconsin State Journal)
  • Paul Seifert (that’s me)
  • Matt Tevsh (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
  • Glen Turk (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
  • Brian Weis (GolfWisconsin, GolfTrips.com)

Accommodations in the Lake Leopold Cottages were everything I hoped for and was told to expect during last year’s Media Day with Mike Keiser, Jr. and Bill Coore: “A comfortable bed, nice shower and a big bar of soap” … And fantastic views.

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The Lake Leopold Cottages at Sand Valley Golf Resort

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The Lake Leopold Cottages with Lake Leopold in the background

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Room 112 at the Lake Leopold Cottages at Sand Valley Golf Resort

The rooms are very well appointed, and I am told by this time next year the color of the cottages should blend in perfectly with the color of the sand that surrounds it.

The morning match-ups got started at 7:45 and my first round match was with my partner for the first two rounds, Rob Schultz. Rob and I had a first round best ball match against Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune and Steve Schapiro of WGN-TV.

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Turk and Weis tee off on one to start the first round of the 2016 Writers Cup at Sand Valley

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Sand Valley: Preview Play Now Open!

Interest in the Sand Valley project in Rome, Wisconsin is palpable. The article I wrote on America’s next great golf destination following their August, 2015 media day has now become the most popular course review I have ever written, and I literally get asked several times a week about the resort’s progress.

That progress has been rolling along smoothly, and golf enthusiasts across the globe cannot wait to get their first look at Mike Keiser and Coore/Crenshaw’s newest masterpiece.

Sand Valley: The Next Big Thing, by Paul Seifert

In conversations today with the Director of Public Relations for KemperSports, it was revealed that preview play will not only be available to “Founding members” this season, but also to Sand Valley insiders, which you all can become by signing up for the resort’s newsletter:

Sand Valley Insider Newsletter Registration

There are currently nine holes open with the hopes of having the full eighteen ready for preview play by September.

Lodging is available to guests, and the newly finished Lake Leopold Cottages look wonderful and I am told compare favorably to rooming at Keiser’s Bandon Dunes Golf Resort:

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4-bedroom lodging in the Lake Leopold Cottages at Sand Valley Golf Resort

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Standard double-king room in the Lake Leopold Cottages at Sand Valley Golf Resort

Also like Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley will be all about the golf experience. While there are no bars or restaurants currently open, golfers will be able to grab beers, brats and burgers outside the temporary office that currently houses its operations.

It should be amazing to see how the resort comes along as it nears its June, 2017 opening to the public following the US Open at Erin Hills.

Have you made your first trip to Sand Valley yet? If so, I would love to know your thoughts. If not, make sure you join the Sand Valley Insider list and find time this season to be one of the exclusive few to play what is sure to become the country’s hottest new golf destination.