With the U.S. Open set for this sum- mer at Erin Hills, Wisconsin suddenly finds itself at the center of the golf universe in 2017. But the buzz in the state this year goes beyond hosting golf’s greatest benchmark. Wisconsin is also home to the year’s most hotly anticipated new golf course opening, the simply stunning Sand Valley Golf Resort.
Sand Valley, built by golf’s very own King Midas, Mike Keiser, is an incredible new resort development set to make a big impact in the little town of Rome, Wisconsin. Spread across 2,000 acres of a former timber farm, the resort will open May 2 with a new course by the dynamic design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, with another course by David McLay Kidd waiting in the wings for 2018.
The Coore & Crenshaw course is already garnering rave reviews — and even com- parisons to Pine Valley — due to its vast sandscape, rolling hills and pine forests.
We caught up with Mike Keiser Jr., who is managing the development, to check in on the project:
GolfTime Magazine: So, with about six months before your opening now, are you wearing out the carpet in your office from pacing back and forth?
Mike Keiser Jr.: (Laughs) The carpet’s already worn out. There’s a lot to do before next year, it’ll be a busy winter. But the course looks great and it’ll be ready for next year. Getting the clubhouse and all the lodging set up to be ready to open as early as possible next year, and then on the operations side, Glen Murray, our operations manager, we’re going to need to do a lot of hiring. So as a resort, we really need to staff up. We’ve created a great experience for a small number of people during (fall 2016’s) sneak preview play, now we need to scale that.
Another big part is getting staff trained and ready, so May 2, when our doors are opened, they’ll feel they’ve been there a lifetime. These are the big challenges over the winter — getting the infrastructure complete and getting the team off the ground.
GT: The course itself is about ready, correct? You had a sneak preview this fall.
MK: The last two falls have just been so fabulous, and the grass has grown and grown, and Bill Coore and his team have just finished cleaning out all the bunkers, so the course is complete, and the grass is … ready to go. We hope we come out of the winter in good shape, and you never know. Ice is something (to worry about), but snow is great, and we hope we have a good blanket over the winter.
The golf course is ready, I have no doubt. It’s fast, it’s firm, and if anything, I was asking our superintendent in September to slow the greens down a little bit.
And the second golf course is under construction, so at some point in 2017 guests that are staying on the property with us will have a six-hole, sneak preview play available. So we’re excited to show people what David Kidd’s team is working on, which is very different from Bill’s and just as fun and exciting to play.
GT: Can’t wait to see it. When do you plan on that one being open?
MK: Probably July-August of 2018, depend- ing on weather this coming year. Bill’s course is big, and David’s is even bigger — there’s over 120 acres of turf. So there’s a lot to do this year, and we’ll see when the ground thaws out, and keep going on it.
It’s challenging, because we have so much room. When you only have 180 acres to play with, there’s only so many choices you can make. When we give these architects 2,000 acres — or in David’s case because he went second, 1,500 acres — there’s just so many directions you can go. Bill was talking about how it reminded him, there are 2,000 holes out there, that could go in any direction. We’re blessed.
GT: You’re part of a pretty special year coming up in Wisconsin.
MK: It’s pretty incredible to be joining this (golf) community. Whistling Straits has had such a great history with the Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship — and more to come — and now to have the U.S. Open in Wisconsin at Erin Hills, which is just a fabulous golf course. … They’re a great neighbor of ours, and we’re so excited for them. They’re going to continue to help put Wisconsin on the map. And those are just two great championship courses, but Wisconsin is really just dotted with just great, great public golf courses. You know Lawsonia down the road is a gem. There are so many great golf courses in Wisconsin and we’re just thrilled to be a part of that.
We’re really excited for Erin Hills, they’ve worked so hard to get here, and they’re going to knock it out of the park.
GT: How long have you been working with your dad?
MK: I grew up downtown, in Lincoln Park, and went to school in California, and then moved to Australia to work on Barnbougle Dunes, before moving back to Chicago.
But really Sand Valley was the first project (he worked closely with his father on). I’ve been involved in Oregon (at the famous Bandon Dunes) in some real estate projects outside of the resort, but I’ve spent my career at Structure Development, which is a real estate development company out of Chicago, we built medical office space, and schools, and retail space, and mixed-use development. My dad always encouraged me to go out on my own and be successful, and if the right project came along then we’d talk about working together. But you know, it encouraged me to get that confidence of working on my own.
Building a medical office space, believe it or not, is very similar to building a golf course, it’s just a different end product. But it’s the same skill set of working with a dynamic team of really smart individuals and just leading them toward a common vision.
GT: So has the experience working with your dad now been everything you thought it’d be?
MK: I would say my dad and my brother Christopher are my two best friends, so it’s been great. He gives us all a lot of space, and I appreciate it, to have space to be creative and to do my thing. And at those right, seminal moments in history, he steps in and gives a little nudge. He’s really there when I have questions. He’s sort of a brilliant macro-manager, distills things down to their simplest points, and gives people space to take ownership and be creative. So it’s ideal for me, because I get to lead the project, but I always know he’s there if I have questions or need his eye. It’s a great balance.
Now that my younger brother has joined us, it’s a real pleasure. The three of us are just having a lot of fun.
GT: Are you still based in Chicago? Or are you living there now?
MK: I’m living on site during the season, and right now I’m based in Madison, which is a terrific city.
We hope to bring attention to Wisconsin. And to the town of Rome, which long before we got there, was this recreational mecca. The permanent residents, I think there are 800. And it has an Olympic long jump and Olympic trap shooting facility, a national champion waterskiing team, great cross country skiing and fishing, and snowmobiling, and some of the best deer hunting in the country … it’s just one thing after another. And our goal is to bring a spotlight onto the region which is already a leader in outdoor recreation.
GT: That’s something your dad has spoken much about, the transformative element to the areas you bring resorts to, whether Bandon, or certainly, Cabot. Is that something you foresee happening here as well?
MK: Oh, absolutely it is. Adams County, where Sand Valley is, is the poorest county in the state of Wisconsin. So the potential to transform is huge. And we do that in a lot of ways. First, one thing that’s different with Sand Valley than Bandon, is we’re really going to focus on the junior caddie program, and when the school year’s out, have as many junior high and high school caddies as possible.
And just with employment. In Adams County, the number one employer is the county — 162 full-time employees. Our goal is, by the time we open the second course, to be the largest employer in the county.
And the rest is on our guests. When our guests come and they spend their money and that money flows through our payroll or to our caddies, that money stays in the county. And those people rent homes, and they eat out at restaurants and they shop at local grocery stores. It really does make a huge impact not just on the people who are employed at Bandon, or at Cabot, or now at Sand Valley, but also on the entire region. And then hopefully, bring additional attention to other areas of tourism, like the trap shooting, or the water skiing. So it’s absolutely a mission. It’s a responsibility, and we take it really seriously.
The community is so strongly behind us and have supported us so much at Sand Valley, we owe it to them to make sure the entire area thrives — and not just be an island in the desert.
Sand Valley is set for a grand opening May 2. Look for a full review in the 2017 Summer Edition of GolfTime Magazine. for more information visit www.sandvalleygolfresort.com.