A lot of people are still trying to get their heads around the idea that the golf world’s most celebrated new destination is in Middle of Nowhere, Wisconsin, right next to taxidermy shops and ma and pa restaurants.
There really is a Ma and Pa’s Family Restaurant just a few miles from Sand Valley, the Adams County golf resort that has golf pilgrims squinting at their GPS devices. We passed the restaurant driving to Sand Valley from Madison last week.
Sand Valley is a lot easier to find than it was when I first visited more than a year ago. At that time you drove up on a twisting gravel road and paid your greens fee in a trailer. Only nine holes were open.
Now there’s a sign, a paved road, a comfortably rustic clubhouse and a recent rave from The New York Times.
There’s also a full 18 holes and a second course, called Mammoth Dunes, under construction. A six-hole loop of the new course is open now. It’s a sprawling property, ruggedly beautiful, with vast sand dunes the defining characteristic.
“When I stood on the first tee,” wrote Tom Redburn in the Times, “the endless landscape of rolling hills and emerald green fairways, interlaced with waving grasses and ripples of sand, seemed to be dancing in the wind. I was thrilled.”
Do not forget to bring your wallet. Our round on Sand Valley was $175—walking only, caddies available —and our six-hole preview of Mammoth Dunes another $60.
Is it worth it? The man betting yes is Mike Keiser, a Chicago greeting card entrepreneur who strode onto the golf stage two decades ago when he opened the first of four courses at the Bandon Dunes resort on the remote coast of Oregon.
Many knowledgeable observers predicted doom. An expensive, walking-only golf course, four hours by car from the Portland airport?
Bandon today is a triumph, ranked by many as the number one golf destination in the United States (some say the world), with all four courses highly regarded, and Pacific Dunes, with numerous holes hard against the ocean, regularly ranked among the world’s top five.
In 2013 Keiser bought 1,700 acres in Adams County and announced plans to make Sand Valley the Bandon of the Midwest.
The new clubhouse at Sand Valley has one wall devoted to a list of the “founding members,” individuals who paid $50,000 for lifetime playing privileges. There are several recognizable Madison names on the list, including University of Wisconsin-Madison athletics director Barry Alvarez; former Badgers basketball coach Bo Ryan; pro golfer Jerry Kelly; and Madison attorney Mark Burish and his hockey star son, Adam.
Ryan once told me that having experienced Bandon Dunes, he felt anything Mike Keiser put his mind to would be worth being part of.
Our group last week was slightly less distinguished, just four public links (Odana Hills) players who in 2013 dusted off their credit cards and flew out to Bandon.
On the first leg from Madison to Denver I recall being seated next to Jason, a nine-year-old boy from Elroy who was making his first flight. Jason’s parents were seated elsewhere.
He immediately reached into the seat pocket.
“Is this the barf bag?”
When I replied in the affirmative, Jason said, “If the plane crashes, does everybody die?”
But that 2013 trip was a glorious experience. We lucked out on the October weather and the scenery was spectacular. I remember there was buzz around the resort that Keiser either had purchased or was close to buying the property in Wisconsin.
Once Sand Valley opened, we knew we wanted to reunite our Madison Bandon group, even though one member had retired to Massachusetts. He flew in last week.
We had a fine day at Sand Valley. One of our group took a caddy, a young man named Theo who will enroll this fall at UW-Madison.
Our golf was, if not exactly inspired, at least a lot of fun. Part of Keiser’s genius—in tandem with the top architects he hires—is that the courses (this holds for Bandon and Sand Valley), while challenging, are not impossible for the average golfer. You don’t feel foolish. (OK, in a couple of those mammoth bunkers, I felt foolish.) But the courses are fair and playable. The first fairway at Mammoth Dunes must be 100 yards wide.
Does Sand Valley match Bandon Dunes? My answer is it comes as close as a course can that doesn’t allow you stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
But that wasn’t what I was thinking about last week. I was remembering back to 1988, when I was one of a half dozen “travel writers” invited to the opening of a new course in Kohler called Blackwolf Run.
I was excited, and recall writing that Wisconsin now had a golf course the world might come to see.
That was nearly 30 years ago. Today there are four great courses under the Kohler umbrella, including Whistling Straits. A U.S. Open was just played at Erin Hills. Now Sand Valley beckons. You’d better believe the golf world has found Wisconsin.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.