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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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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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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