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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MCC Takes Back #1 Spot

Even though I was very impressed with the course the first time I played Milwaukee Country Club, I then played Pine Hills a handful of times since then and in my mind moved Pine Hills ahead of Milwaukee.

It had been a few years since the last time I played Wisconsin’s most prestigious private golf club until last week. We had a beautiful Friday afternoon to enjoy the Colt and Alison gem, and I was excited to be invited out by my boss along with one of his MCC golf buddies, our co-worker Preston, and for nine holes his son.

The thing that hit me immediately was the conditions at Milwaukee Country Club. Everything near the greens is shaved to first-cut length, and there was not a blade of grass out of position.

Our caddies were attentive and enjoyable to spend the day with, and I loved the updates that have been made to the course over the past year. The added bunkers nearing the green on three and the remastered putting surface there fit beautifully, and I think having the opportunity to play it without photography enhanced my overall golfing experience.

The back nine is absolutely sensational over and along the Milwaukee River, and the front nine is an excellent test of golf, as well.

In addition, I think the ninth and eighteenth holes are two of the best finishing holes in the state – the ninth is quite simply a tremendous golf hole.

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Hole 9: Par 4 (332/300/262)

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Hole 18: Par 4 (444/391/362)

I played pretty well there, shooting an 83 that could have been considerably lower. I hit most fairways and greens and putted well. I just had a hard time getting out of the green-side bunkers that are a bit heavier than the ones I have become used to.

Another factor that enhances the MCC experience is the food and beverage. Their daily buffet in the beer hall-like men’s locker room is fantastic, featuring carving stations, brats, burgers, sides and desserts.

For the quality of the course and the overall golfing experience, I have decided to move Milwaukee Country Club back to the number one spot in my rankings of the top private golf clubs in Wisconsin.

Private Golf Club Review: Milwaukee Country Club (October 2013)

2015 Golf Season in Review

For the first couple of years I wrote my blog, I did a write-up at the end of each year to put the season in to words, and to commend the courses I felt were the best that year in multiple categories.

As my site has continued to grow, this has become less academic, especially since I joined a private club a few years back and am obviously playing a much smaller sample of different courses each season.

It doesn’t hurt to write a little review, though, especially for my own pleasure to look back at in the future at what was the golf season of 2015.

The winter of 2015 extended a little longer than normal, with most golf courses opening in early April. This was a couple weeks earlier than in 2014, but months behind some years. I am already praying that 2016 will see course openings back in the February timeline again… Fingers crossed.

With last night’s first snow of the Winter, I figure this is as good a time as any to wrap things up… Not that I won’t be out there if/when the weather warms up and the grounds are healthy enough to play!

Most of my rounds this year were played at my home course of North Hills Country Club, which under the tutelage of Randy DuPont was in exceptional shape again all year round. My season was a roller coaster of sorts, starting out with an index of 12.1 and getting down to 9.0, shooting consistently for a while in the low 80’s.

Then I became a bad nine, right around September first, shooting 87-89 and losing money in my Saturday games. In games where the total monetary payout ranges from $3-5, I actually lost $45 one day. Ouch.

That is enough about my game, though – what about the courses from 2015?

2015: Best Public Golf Course Played

1. Pacific Dunes (OR)

Rated the number two public course by Golf Digest, number two modern course by GolfWeek, and number one public course in the country by Golf.com, Pacific Dunes is coastal golf at its very best. Designed by Tom Doak and opened in 2001, Pacific Dunes blends perfectly rugged Bandon landscape with ingenious hole layouts and execution.

Pacific Dunes hole 4

Pacific Dunes hole 4

Pacific Dunes Website

2. Streamsong, Red Course (FL)

Just a few years old, the Red course at Streamsong has already amassed an incredible number of accolades, including the number 18 public course in the United States.

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Golf Destination: Streamsong Resort (FL)

Last week, my girlfriend Kelly and I had the opportunity to check out the hottest new golf destination in the world: Streamsong Resort near Bowling Green, Florida.

In their third year of operation, Streamsong became eligible this year for the semi-annual “Best-of” lists for both Golf Digest and GolfWeek. Their rankings in both, as well as in all other major golf publications, are where you would expect them – near the top!

  • Golf Digest 100 Greatest Public: Red Course #18 (link to list)
  • Golf Digest 100 Greatest Public: Blue Course #24 (link to list)
  • Golf Digest Best in State (FL): Red Course #4 (link to list)
  • Golf Digest Best in State (FL): Blue Course #6 (link to list)
  • Golf Digest Best Public in State (FL): Red Course #1 (link to list)
  • Golf Digest Best Public in State (FL): Blue Course #3 (link to list)
  • Golf Digest Top 100 Overall: Red Course #100 (link to list)
  • GolfWeek Top 100 Modern: Red Course #30 (link to list)
  • GolfWeek Top 100 Modern: Blue Course #43 (link to list)
  • GolfWeek Best in State (FL): Red Course #2 (link to list)
  • GolfWeek Best in State (FL): Blue Course #3 (link to list)
  • GolfWeek Best Resort Golf Course: Red Course #12 (link to list)
  • GolfWeek Best Resort Golf Course: Blue Course #14 (link to list)
  • 2014 Golf.com Top 100 You Can Play: Red Course #12 (link to list)
  • 2014 Golf.com Top 100 You Can Play: Blue Course #16 (link to list)
  • 2015 USA Today Best Top-Notch Warm Weather Golf Destination #1 (link to list)

Some of the best golf in the country tends to mean high prices, but Streamsong has created great promotions that make stay-and-play an easier decision for buddies’ golf trips. In fact, between May 26 and September 9, golf enthusiasts can walk 18 and stay the night at this instant classic golf resort for just $139 apiece per night (based on double occupancy).

Walk-and-stay rates at Streamsong, based on season:

  • April 16 – May 26: $269 per person
  • May 26 – September 9: $139 per person (make it happen!)
  • > September 10 (Winter rates): $349 per person

The golf courses at Streamsong are so good they should be on every enthusiast’s must-play list for 2015. On the same note, the lodging is so amazing that it would be silly to pay the $115-plus for golf and not take advantage of the stay-and-play packages to enjoy one of the most beautiful and luxurious resorts in the entire nation!

Min. golf rates at Streamsong, based on season:

  • April 16 – may 26: $165 (walking)
  • May 26 – September 9: $115 (walking)
  • > September 10 (Winter rates): $225 (walking)

While golf is well over $100 per round on its own, average room rates during the warm Florida summer are $149/night, and go up to $349/night during the spring when the central Florida weather is perfect for Midwesterners like me during our hard winters.

Average room rates at Streamsong Resort, based on season:

  • April 16 – May 26: $249-279/night
  • May 26 – September 9: $149/night
  • > September 10 (Winter rates): $349/night

To say that $139/person between May 26 and September 9 for both golf and lodging is an INCREDIBLE deal for both golf and lodging is an understatement! The other walk-and-stay rates they have are steals, too, when compared to the rates for lodging and/or golf, alone.

Bottom line: Do not fly to Tampa or Orlando and stay at some random hotel, then drive to the middle of nowhere to Streamsong for a round of golf and take off. The courses and resort at Streamsong go hand in hand, and neither should be experienced without the other. With as high-end as the golf courses are, the lodging one-ups them, if that is possible.

The resort offers free transfers between the lodge and the pro shop/courses, and Streamsong is best experienced on foot. While the courses are anything but flat, both Tom Doak and Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw designed them to be incredibly walker-friendly to best cater to high-end golfers who tend to be older in age.

Kelly and I were not the youngest people at Streamsong while we were there, but we were close. Kyle, who I golfed with on my second day on the Red course, and his wife were there from the Virginia area after he’d seen the resort in Golf Digest. His wife and Kelly both enjoyed the pool and all the amenities at the resort, and in fact I have been hearing from Kelly about how much she loved Streamsong since then.

The topography of the land is very un-Florida-like, but the tees are set in a way that the only major uphill climb is to the tee box of the first hole on the Blue course. The rest of the courses are quite walk-able, and carts would be very unnecessary and I personally believe would detract from the overall golfing experience.

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The uphill climb to the 1st tee box on the Blue course at Streamsong Resort – the only major uphill climb on otherwise very walker-friendly courses

Originally opened to the public in 2012, Streamsong is without a question the hottest golf resort in America. Its lodging, food and amenities are fantastic, but what brings droves of sportsmen and travelers to its remote piece of land in central Florida is the golf. The Red course, designed by one of the world’s hottest golf course architecture teams of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and the Blue course, designed by the world’s other hottest golf course architect Tom Doak, bill the destination as an instant classic, and neither disappoints.

Gil Hanse and his team are currently working on a third course on the property, the Black course, which is slated to open to the public in September, 2017. Hanse may not be as much of a household name as Coore/Crenshaw and Doak, but is a rising star in the golf course design industry and has recently been in the news for his work on the Rio De Janeiro Olympic course, as well as for his redesign work on Trump National Doral in Miami.

Controlled fire on the future site of Gil Hanse's Black course at Streamsong Resort

Controlled fire on the future site of Gil Hanse’s Black course at Streamsong Resort

The same general area hosts both the Red and Blue course’s signature par three holes, and I was fortunate to have my caddies film both of my shots on them and actually hit the green both times:

Streamsong, Blue Course #7 (3-putt bogey):

Streamsong, Red Course #16 (1-putt birdie):

Located an hour and 10 minutes from Tampa International Airport, and an hour and a half from the Orlando International Airport, the first thing visitors to Streamsong Resort will notice is that it is literally in the middle of nowhere. The drive from Tampa was easy, though, and brought us along numerous back roads in to an area of Florida that looks nothing like “Florida.”

I once read a golf blog by a guy from Florida, which I will share here:

Epic Golf’s Florida Golf Blog, 2012

The author, David, started out with great intentions, before coming to the conclusion that Florida golf is all the same – there are four different hole layouts and only a couple of courses in the state that differ. Writing his last post in 2012, he did not stick it out to review Streamsong, which breaks all of the rules of Florida golf!

There are no homes on the courses at Streamsong. In fact, I don’t think we saw a home within 5-10 miles of the resort. For 30-45 minutes leading up to the driveway, there are signs that tell drivers where to turn to get to Streamsong, but if this course was built pre-GPS then golfers would have almost no chance of finding it.

As it turned out, this is a big part of what makes the resort at Streamsong so amazing – the remoteness of the facilities and the feeling of being in a previously untouched area that has done an unbelievable job of leaving the area natural and remote, and providing a world-class golf destination that leaves the land entirely unspoiled and allows visitors to enjoy an area that can provide as much relaxation as desired. For this and so much more, Streamsong is quite possibly Heaven on Earth.

When turning left off the two-lane road that takes you to the resort, lower the car windows and enjoy the five-minute drive through the wilderness. The sounds of nature abound everywhere as the driveway meanders through swamps and forests on either side of the road.

Similar to the entrances at Erin Hills, Dismal River, etc., the entrance to the driveway at Streamsong is a simple unassuming thing of beauty

Similar to the entrances at Erin Hills, Dismal River, Whistling Straits, etc., the entrance to the driveway at Streamsong is a simple unassuming thing of beauty

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