By Dennis McCann
ROME, Wisconsin — Sand Valley Golf Resort opened for its first full season of golf in early May but delayed the official dedication ceremonies for June 19, the better to seize the attention of the golf world that would be in Wisconsin for the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
In truth, no such calculation was needed. The golf world’s attention has been focused like a laser on Sand Valley since the day it was announced that none other than Mike Keiser had acquired some 1,700 acres of sand dune-blessed, pine-covered land in Adams County for his latest golf resort. Keiser doesn’t build munis. He builds destination layouts like the celebrated golf courses at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes or Nova Scotia’s Cabot Cliffs, and if Keiser was coming to quiet little Adams County it would be to make big noise.
Keiser called in the design game’s big guns to work their magic in Wisconsin. For the first course, Sand Valley, he commissioned architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and for the second course, to be called Mammoth Dunes, he brought in David McLay Kidd, who had helped create Bandon Dunes. Of course, people in golf were watching what Keiser had in mind for Sand Valley, and when the first of what could ultimately be four courses opened for sneak-peek play last summer many found their way to the lightly-populated region of southern Wisconsin to see for themselves what was transpiring.
Reviews were uniformly positive, raves even. Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten’s first impression was that Sand Valley was “big, bold and pure sand.
“Could become a public Pine Valley.”
You’ll see that line in Sand Valley’s marketing. No, Keiser’s latest creation won’t lack for attention.
Keiser was not looking to build golf courses in Wisconsin when he was contacted a few years back by Craig Haltom of Oliphant Companies, a golf construction and management company. Haltom had been scouring overlooked pockets of Wisconsin searching for a site that offered the sandy conditions needed to support a superior golf course. His search eventually led him to Adams County, about an hour south of a rich agricultural region known as the Central Sands, where he discovered the dune-covered site then owned by a timber company. At the time its potential was obscured beneath the tens of thousands of scrub oak and red pines, but Haltom said he knew almost immediately the stunning sandy topography was what he had been looking for.
That was in 2007, just before the big recession brought the golf industry — along with much of the rest of the economy — to its knees. Still, he eventually reached out to Keiser, who agreed to send a representative of KemperSports, which manages Bandon Dunes, to take a look.
Keiser said later he didn’t want to like the site because, while it boasted the sandy conditions he favors for golf course con- struction, it was not on an ocean like his other resorts. But his representative’s report was in full accord with Haltom’s assessment — the site was spectacular and so would be golf courses built on it.
“Just what I didn’t want to hear,” Keiser said later. “I didn’t want (because there is no ocean in Wisconsin) to like it.” But when he saw it he, too, loved it. He bought the land from the timber company and began clearing the scrub oak and red pines to fully reveal the Lawrence of Arabia look that stuns visitors when they first see it, a vast sea of sand that soars skyward and tumbles up and down, creating the valleys through which Sand Valley winds.
In a sense, an ocean did contribute to Sand Valley. The site is part of Wisconsin that thousands of years ago was at the bottom of Glacial Lake Wisconsin. When that body of water receded it left behind the deep sand deposits and dunes Haltom discovered a decade ago and which Keiser’s crews have returned to what he called “appealing sand barrens.” In fact, during construction clumps of vegetation were planted among the dunes to help with the sand barren restoration.
Sand Valley’s development was greatly aided by the enthusiasm of “founders,” which is Keiser’s term for more than 150 founding members who signed on early and whose $7.5 million in membership fees financed the course. Founders were among the first to enjoy preview rounds when the first holes, aided by favorable growing conditions during construction, were deemed suitable for play. Founders will be allowed unlimited play at Sand Valley and even have their own concierge in Jacki Koll, whose vanity plate of SV 001 attests to her place as the first employee hired at Sand Valley. Her mission will be to see that during visits founders’ needs and wishes are met, even if it requires a bit of ingenuity. One founding member called on his way to Sand Valley last summer to say he would need a charging station for his Tesla electric car. It took some scrambling by an electrician, but it was waiting when he arrived.
Still, Keiser has said he wants Sand Valley to appeal to the everyday player as well, that the courses at Sand Valley would be a “bucket list” experience for Wisconsin golfers as well as destination players.
What everyone who plays Sand Valley will find is a layout with dramatic elevation changes and holes that will play fast, firm and fun. The Coore-Crenshaw design will not overpower with its length – from the back tees it stretches just 6,909 yards with a slope/rating of 72.6/128 – though vast sandy wasteland areas will demand accuracy off the tee. Sand Valley has five sets of tees, with the forward set measuring just under 4,600 yards.
Fourteen of the holes are what might be called natural, but Keiser has said the four shaped by Coore-Crenshaw are so similar as to mesh perfectly with the others. The signa- ture site on the course, perhaps the highest spot on the property, became known as “the Volcano,” where holes one, nine, 10 and 18 come together. That spot is also now called Craig’s Porch, after Haltom, and the nearby first tee boasts expansive views of the golf course and the challenges that await.
From the middle tees, the first hole is teasingly short at just under 300 yards. The second is a more daunting par 4 at 418 yards, and the par 5s on the front nine stretch more than 500 yards each. Yet on a preview round last year both played shorter than their advertised length because firm fairways offered abundant roll. The three par 3s on the front nine were simply fun, two of them calling for downhill shots to generous greens and the third, just 97 yards from the middle tees, straight up hill to an almost invisible green.
The entire course was open for preview play by last fall, while Kidd’s Mammoth Dunes design was taking shape as well. Six holes on that layout were seeded last fall and the rest this spring, and sometime in 2017 the first holes of Kidd’s course will also be available for preview play by guests. Michael Keiser Jr., the owner’s son and proj- ect manager, said recently that Mammoth Dunes, which will officially open in 2018, will have a completely different feel from Sand Valley, just as the courses at Bandon Dunes have their own look and playing style. Kidd’s design takes on the largest dune on the property and includes holes that wind through an Oak Savannah.
The resort is already a boon for Adams County, which has traditionally ranked among Wisconsin’s poorest counties, and officials have eagerly embraced Sand Valley for the jobs it will create and economic activity it will generate. Wisconsin Rapids, 13 miles to the north, has long been known for paper making — an industry in decline — and cranberry production, but the city’s convention and visitors bureau chose a photo of Sand Valley for the cover of its 2017 visitor guide. The Town of Rome, in which Sand Valley is located, created a special tax district to support construction of the second course and Mike Keiser Jr. has said by the time Mammoth Dunes opens the resort expects to be the largest employer in Adams County. (Mike Keiser’s other son, Christopher, is also involved in the golf operation now.)
By mid-summer the resort expects to have as many as 300 employees. Many of those newly created jobs come from the resort’s caddie staff. The golf courses at Sand Valley will be walking only, so the resort began a caddie training program for juniors last year to introduce the duties and expectations of the job to area youths. The resort hopes that local caddies will not only be able to share their knowledge of the course with players from out of the region but also their knowledge of the area. While some caddies will be professionals who come from other private courses or resorts, many more will be juniors, Koll said. She added that by the end of the second year some junior caddies will be eligible for Evans Scholars scholarships. Caddie fees will range from $90 for a pro or honor caddie to $50 for a B caddie.
It is expected that some golfers who play Sand Valley will stay in Wisconsin Rapids, just to the north, or in Wisconsin Dells, less than an hour to the south. But many will also stay at Sand Valley, where construction of lodging has been underway since last summer and continued this spring. Twelve Fairway Lodge units will be available for one to two guests, while cottages overlook- ing little Lake Leopold on the Sand Valley course feature four guest rooms with king beds and a common space in the middle. On a recent tour Koll said such units will appeal to groups who want evening socializing after golf during the day. Lodging will also be available in the clubhouse, including a Wisconsin Suite with king bed, soaking tub and generous space. Casual dining is already offered at Craig’s Porch and will be available in the clubhouse at the Mammoth Bar and Lounge as well. A more formal dining room will be added later. Guests also will find a fire pit on the Warbler Terrace, an outdoor gathering space with views of Mammoth Dunes’ first and 18th holes.
Eventually guests will also be able to enjoy a 20-hole short course that is being designed by Coore and Crenshaw, along with a generous practice area. Koll said some hiking trails already can be found on the property, and eventually Sand Valley may offer cross country skiing in winter, birding and other non-golf activities. Guests will also be able to paddle on or swim in the four-acre, man- made Lake Leopold.
Given the retrenchment in golf, new course construction has been anything but a growth industry. And while there is ample room for more courses on the Sand Valley property, Keiser Jr. said the immediate focus is on making visitors’ experiences at the first course as enjoyable as possible. Still, he told Wisconsin Golfer magazine recently, they are already evaluating routings for a possible third course because “it’s hard not to dream about the future.”
In the Wisconsin Rapids visitor guide he expanded on the dream when asked what Sand Valley might look like in the future.
“In 10 years Sand Valley could be a large village with hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors from around the world,” he said. “There will be thousands of acres of trails for non-golfers and we hope to have at least four golf courses, several restaurants and a variety of overnight accommodations for our guests to choose from.”
Expect the golf world to keep watching.
Green fees during the peak season of June 12 through Oct. 1 will be $150 for resort guests on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and $195 Thursday-Sunday. Fees for day guests will be $175 early in the week and $215 Thursday-Sunday. Lower fees will apply in early spring and late fall.
Visit www.sandvallygolfresort.com for more information.