When in Rome…
I’m not channeling “Anchorman.” That’s a phrase you’ll hear with a Midwestern wink-and-nod of corniness at Sand Valley Golf Resort. It’s an easy running joke, what with the resort located in the town of Rome in just about the dead middle of Wisconsin.
Darin Bunch texted me in July about coming up to Sand Valley, a place I had heard and read about plenty since it was announced. I knew Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw had designed the eponymous course there, which opened for preview play in 2016. Thanks to his great Twitter feed, David McLay Kidd, who is working on the second course known as Mammoth Dunes, has kept me and thousands abreast of what’s happening on the property. I was more than psyched about going, even though, despite all my reading about the property, I wasn’t really sure exactly where in Wisconsin the resort was located.
So, like any person, I got out Google Maps and checked out the drive from the airport in Milwaukee, an underrated city. It was about two-and-a-half hours, right through Dairy Country before going into Lake Country, an area where Wisconsinites vacation on smaller bodies of water than the sea-sized Lake Michigan, which I drove away from leaving MKE.
It’s a gorgeous area, but it’s not one outsiders probably think of when they conjure Wisconsin. You’re thinking Milwaukee, Green Bay and Madison, not Rome. Maybe Sheboygan. I was a little surprised driving through Rome to find one sign telling me to turn left onto the road where I could get into Sand Valley. I was even more surprised when I drove past a 36-hole resort on that same, otherwise-empty road heading into Sand Valley. Mike Keiser had some guts in fashioning Sand Valley, basically betting that his resort would have no problem competing. That’s perhaps a safe assumption. The guy did Bandon, after all.
Driving into Sand Valley and getting out the car is kind of fascinating in and of itself. You’re driving, right now at least, through a resort in development. The Coore-Crenshaw course isn’t visible in the ride in, but instead you’ll see an in-progress build of a full-fledged practice facility on your right and glimpses of a par-3 short course on the left. And you’ll see sand, lots of sand.
Sand Valley is not a misnomer, but the ironic thing is that Wisconsin logging has turned much of this surrounding acreage from a sand barren into line-planted red pine and other harvestable trees. Keiser said in 2013 that restoring the 1,500-acre property back to its natural look was a focus alongside developing the resort. That aim is carried out through the entire landscape, from parking lot to lodging to the golf courses. If grass, asphalt or a structure isn’t needed, it’s not there. It’s daunting at first, coming from an overdeveloped place like the D.C. suburbs, but it’s easy to embrace.
The lodging at Sand Valley is also a thing somewhat still in progress, too. I don’t mean that you’re staying in buildings while mitre saws are in action 24/7. What I mean is that the final room count at the resort hasn’t been decided yet. There are three buildings of accommodations right now, with views of the first and 18th at Mammoth, overlooking a lake near the ninth at the Coore-Crenshaw or looking down the par-5 18th from the other building. More will be built as is needed, but just one full season in, that’s naturally TBD. The rooms are beautifully designed, mixing in various types of wood furniture and paneling with modern amenities. The details matter, down to the carpet that, as you might image, is plush enough to be comfortable but stiff enough to let sand from your golf trek each day sink down to stay out of the way.
At night, the clubhouse restaurant and bar has a good vibe, with plenty of TVs to catch up on sports and news. The food menu isn’t deep, but it’s good. The bison chili and corn chowder are dynamite, and the entrees will cover pretty much any taste. Spotted Cow flows constantly, and there are several other locals on tap, too. The best part of the clubhouse’s night-time ambiance, however, is being able to step outside onto the patio and drink alongside Mammoth Dunes’ putting green. When it gets dark, staff come out and replace the cup with lighted cups so you can putt in the dark. It’s a different challenge lagging in total darkness, then trying not to get blinded as you stare down a 2-footer, but it’s just another example of Keiser’s commitment to total golf, day and night, when on one of his properties.
With an abundance of lakes in the area around Sand Valley, fog is a definite possibility most mornings. Sometimes it lingers, like it did for us on our second day, and sometimes it burns off quickly to give way to a golf-bucolic view from the clubhouse rooms’ patios, complete with Adirondack chairs to serve as the perfect place to sip on some coffee before getting the day started.
It’s a short bus ride up a hill and parallel to the 18th hole to get to Craig’s Porch, which is the hub for all of the action on the Sand Valley course. It’s where very reasonably-price food is served pre-, mid- and post-round (get the ice-cream sandwiches, they’re life changing), and it’s the de facto on-course clubhouse area. The first and 10th hole tee off into a valley, so it makes sense to have a porch, modeled after Ben’s Porch at Sand Hills, as a gathering place.
If you haven’t been to a Second Golden Age golf resort before, you’re in for an immediate shock standing on the first tee. You can pretty much hit it anywhere at Sand Valley and not lose a ball. I brought two dozen balls for four rounds and used just one ball the entire time. Odds are, you’re going to either find fescue fairway or sand. Maybe some scrub — watch out for the prickly pear cacti! — if you hit an especially bad drive. The holes are playable beyond belief, and it makes the golf as much fun for a higher-handicap player happy not to be digging out of rough all the time as it is for a better player who can create their own angles into these fascinating green complexes.
The tee shots at Sand Valley can range in difficulty from demanding to seemingly nonchalant, usually on the same hole. There’s a safe route, and there’s an aggressive route, which typically invites finding semi-penal bunkers if the shot isn’t executed. The player decides how hard to make the hole from the get-go. But make no mistake, Sand Valley is a second-shot golf course all the way. A lot of the green complexes are elevated, and they have false fronts that can still welcome a rolled-up shot. The putting surfaces are large, and there’s plenty of room to land the ball, but making birdies and eagles require precision. There are not many flat, straight putts on these greens, and good-enough approach shots can roll out to places where a two-putt seems daunting. There are plenty of easy pars and bogeys at Sand Valley. Despite the abundant green space, however, there are not many easy birdies.
Take the par-4 first for example. It’s about 325 yards from the second set of tees, and it curves to the left and uphill after the tee shot. It also invites a big driver to go for the green. A safe play leaves a semi-blind wedge shot up the hill, turning what seemed to be an easy hole on the tee into a challenging approach. For the long hitter, a collection area and greenside bunkers to the right attract tee shots that are hard-pressed to hold the green anyhow, making for a testy second shot. Making birdie on that green means making a quick, curvy putt. And by quick, I mean greens that run close to 13 or 14 on the Stimp. If you can see the line, you can make the putt confidently. If you can’t, you’re playing defense. And that’s how birdie opportunities turn into easy pars or bogeys.
The Redan homage on the par-3 third is the first of a set of brilliant 3s. Playing about 185 yards, the green complex is semi-shrouded by mounding front and right of the putting surface. A semi-hidden bunker catches tee shots trying to hard to sling the ball in from right to left. Missing out right means a touch-testing chip away to a hole location that isn’t really as receptive as it might seem on the tee.
After a walk through a grove of pines, you get to the first of maybe the finest set of par 5s I’ve ever played on a golf course. The fourth is an uphill fiver, playing about 530. However, if a longer hitting is willing to take on the right side of the hole with a leap-of-faith draw, the rollout reward can lead to a reasonable chance at eagle. The green has a false front, yes, but a well-executed shot leads to a putt on one of the more easy-to-decipher green complexes. A third shot requires a precise short iron or wedge to avoid having the ball roll back to your feet.
The seventh hole is one of the great risk-reward par 5s I’ve ever seen. Off the tee, it looks like the proper play is a drive to the wide-open fairway left. However, if the player is willing to take on the deep bunkering parallel to the fairway and hit a drive about 280 yards in the air, the sloping run-out leads to a mid- to long iron into the green set beneath the player’s view in the fairway. Missing the green wildly can easily lead to a frustrating par or bogey, but a good-looking draw that takes on the bunkering, which catches craven, chunked approaches, can lead to an eagle.
The front nine ends on a 280-yard par 4 that is simultaneously a joy and a source of frustration for a confident driver. Yeah, go for the green, but you’re most likely to find a deep bunker left or right that isn’t an easy up-and-in. Or you could nut one and land in the back bunker left, which seems to have no purpose until you find yourself in it with a shot that has to barely get out to have any chance of winding up where you want it.
The 10th is my favorite hole on the course. It’s a wide-open par 5 with an aiming bunker in the middle about 270 out that requires a decision. Play right and have a safe landing area leading to a more demanding second shot. Play right and long with a draw to leave a mid- to long iron approach, but bring the bunker into play. Or go left of the bunker, leaving less room for error to find short grass that, if pulled off, opens up the best angle to the green…but with a blind approach. If a player fails in going for the green or executing the layoff, their ball will roll into a deep, long collection bunker that suddenly brings 6 into play. The green complex is almost like having two bowls sitting next to each other, making any kind of first putt a challenge and entertaining.
The par-5 12th features a split fairway, with framing bunkers at around 300 yards to challenge the longer, aggressive player. The green complex falls off short left and long, but a well-struck approach shot still leads to a tricky putt.
The par-4 15th is a super risk-reward hole, too, for a longer player. With a dramatically narrower fairway at about 280 yards, the tee shot has to be precise with driver in hand to open up a wedge to a three-tiered green. Otherwise, the longer approach could be subject to the two mounds blocking the front of the green, as well the possibility that a miss to the right could lead to a very touchy chip shot. No greenside bunkering needed to create a dynamic hole.
The 17th is a long par 3, playing about 220 yards from the second-to-back Orange boxes. The hole location is mostly concealed by a huge mound right and short of the green, which is a bowl with some rim to the right. Hit a little short with some run, and you’ll find the green with a nice surprise to see where the curvature left your ball.
Sand Valley closes on a par 5, an uphill hole that doesn’t really play all that much longer than the scorecard. The same concept as No. 10 is in play. There are aiming bunkers, plural, to challenge all players coming home. And there’s a catch-all bunker for lazy layups and bad second shots alike. The putting surface is deep and requires a great second or third to even sniff a makeable first putt.
The final putt disappears typically with a small gallery sitting in Adirondacks at Craig’s Porch, enjoying a beverage and a snack. Not going to lie, getting a little applause is never a bad thing.