By Art Stricklin
For a state roughly the size of noted golf hotbeds England and Scotland, Wisconsin has done a remarkably good job of producing special public golf resorts for its brief, but spectacular golf season, running from late April to October, possibly early November.
First came the Whistling Straits Resort, the Herb Kohler owned, four-course property and five-star American Club lodging which will host the 2020 Ryder Cup. Then Erin Hills Golf Resort, the site of the 2017 US Open, but the latest addition, the Sand Valley Resort in Central Wisconsin, might be the closest to the Scottish Idea.
Because when the Scots invented golf more than 500 years ago, the idea was to get outside with your mates, practice your aim and direction for upcoming archery drills and just see how many swigs of Whiskey you could get from the bottle you brought with you. (18, if you believe the legend of how they came up with the number of holes in a complete round). But mainly the game was invented to have fun with friends, in the often challenging conditions, but enjoy the challenge and the time together in various layouts. Over the last century or two, golf has often drifted from fun to struggle to labor or a sweaty effort to just keep up with the ever increasing length and challenge. Well, the earliest of Scots would indeed enjoy the new Sand Valley Resort in the Central Wisconsin sandy wilderness.
Because if asked to describe this new 36-hole facility, with a 17 hole par 3 course, lodging and food, and you weren’t allow to use the word “sand”, of which there is plenty, the word would be “fun”.
Fun to play, fun to challenge, fun to be with friends and fun to discover developer Mike Keiser has not lost his magic golf resort touch which has made Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links on both the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts respectively, equally fun.
Sand Valley is a drivable par 4, pitch and putt, on-course Kielbasa sausage eating, Wisconsin -brewed beer drinking fun, for amateur and serious golfers and all who love getting together with friends, family and associates.
Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, true lovers of fun links golf, opened the first course, Sand Valley, in May of 2017 and it was quickly named best new public course in the U.S. by Golf Digest Magazine. The 17-hole Sand Box Par 3 course, another fun short game tribute also designed by Crenshaw and Coore came next, and in May of this year Scotsman architect David McLay Kidd opened the Mammoth Dunes course at the resort.
It’s always a matter of personal opinion on which of the two courses at any resort is the best. Both use the same hilly, sandy landscape here, but the original Sand Valley boasts faster greens, more settled into the surroundings, but judging on the fun factor only, Mammoth Dunes is the clear early winner.
Because Keiser and his architect Kidd have built a course not to host a U.S. Open or challenge the best players in the world, (Dustin Johnson and friends might laugh at the wide fairways and short distances) but to provide maximum fun, there’s that word again, for all who play there.
The par 73 course boasts wide sloping greens forcing players to aim totally away from the hole at times to be able to roll it back into close position of the pin placement.
There is little on course water on either of the two courses, but wide expanses of sand to hit over and wide canyon gaps on several of the par 3s, notably the par 3 16th at Mammoth Dunes.
The course name itself comes from several of the greens which look like Woolly Mammoth Elephants were buried beneath. Perhaps bad for the single figure purist looking to win golf’s national championship, but perfect for a friendly foursome looking for maximum enjoyment.
The hole you’ll go home talking about here is the par 4 14th which tees off from a huge vista overlooking the entire property and slopes hugely downhill with the green protected by large mounds on the right side of the putting surface.
At only 318 yards from the very back tees and considerably shorter for most golfers, it’s set up to be drivable for many players and gives you a rare chance of putting for eagle. On these sloping greens, good luck, but still a fun and potentially confidence-building experience.
Mammoth Dunes is a rare course with five Par 5s, there is a chance to be putting for eagle or birdie on several of the longer holes depending on the many combinations of tees you choose.
Sand Valley is par 72, but with a unique 35-37 combination including 5 par 3s and 5 par 5s. The fascinating way Coore and Crenshaw put the varied sandy holes together in the natural surrounding are most interesting to play.
The Sand Box Par 3 is a 17 hole short hole challenge with most of the holes less than 100 yards and only 3-4 clubs maximum needed. In fact, the resort offers small quiver golf bags to each guest, just large enough to carry your clubs and a sleeve of balls for your Sand Box round. Oh, and why 17 holes rather than 18? Just to be fun and different
The final par 3 hole plays alongside the Fairway lodging rooms, meaning you can step from your room onto the 17th ‘fairway,’ and watch fellow golfers or practice a few chip shots or putts yourself.
The unique drink station is contained in a huge metal canoe, which looks like it has served duty in a summer camp before, completely filled with ice and loaded with all kinds or beverages and snacks.
Back at the wooden planked clubhouse, there is lots more local foods and drink, including the Wisconsin Walleye, the massive Sand Valley Burger and homemade ice cream sandwiches, with flat screen TVs everywhere you look to watch golfers who likely aren’t having as much fun as you are right now.
Many golfers still consider the original upscale golf destination in the Badger State among the best, and professional golfers and golf organizations may agree as Whistling Straits has already hosted 3 PGA Championships, along with a U.S. Senior Open, a U.S. Women’s Open, plus the Ryder Cup in two years.
The Straits Course, designed by Pete Dye, juts dramatically out into Lake Michigan and has served as the grand stage for previous and future highlighted golf events.
The par 72 course rambles and rolls all over the shoreline with hardily a flat lie anywhere and more than 100 bunkers of all shapes and sizes. An experienced caddy, of which there are plenty, or a very sharp eye are need to come home from here without buying extra golf balls.
Among the most dramatic holes are those that come closest to the massive lake, eight in all. Perhaps the best is the par 3 17th hole at the Straits Course, 249 yards from the back tees with a massive drop off all along the left side of the hole.
It’s not hard to see a key Ryder Cup match being decided on this short piece of real estate plus when combined with the dramatic downhill par 4 finishing hole it packs quite a closing 1-2 punch to the Straits layout.
Included at the facility is the Irish Course where sheep serve as unpaid greenskeepers along with the River Course, with plenty of water as its name would imply and the Meadow Course, part of the Blackwolf Run facility, the site of a past Women’s US Open.
Of course, all courses end in the luminous American Club which has 241 rooms and suites in a peaceful garden setting with old photos of life among the original Kohler Plumbing headquarters which is adjacent to these grounds.
Less than an hour west of the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, you’ll find Erin Hills Golf Resort, where Brooks Koepka captured golf’s national championship last June. It offers a tremendous 18 hole challenge with wide fairways, hilly terrain and stellar on-site lodging with a huge fire pit to celebrate your good fortune.
There is a massive putting green between the first tee and the on-site wooden lodge. An outdoor café overlooks the sweeping landscape and caps the perfect golfing day.
Another bonus in the small state is that everything located within a couple of hours of each other making for easy travel on the roadways within the state or anywhere in the Midwest.
Around here Fun is the new F word and is thankfully spoken in wide circulation.