Geeked on Golf

A Celebration of the People & Places that Make Golf the Greatest Game


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Ain’t It Grand – Opening Day at Sand Valley

Since my last Sand Valley post, I have had the privilege of making two more visits.  The first, in November of last year was a special non-playing treat.  I was invited by Michael Keiser to walk a routing on a parcel of land that is being considered for a future course with the architect, his associate, several Superintendents, and my good buddy Charlie.

SandValley-BenCrenshaw1.jpegThe day started brilliantly, as I ran into one of my favorite players, who is also half of my favorite modern architecture team – Ben Crenshaw.  Everything you have heard about Mr. Crenshaw’s kindness and generosity is true.  Although he had work to do that day on the Sand Valley’s short course, he graciously talked golf courses, architecture and history with Charlie and me for much longer than he needed to.  Truly, a class act.

It got even better from there, as I got a chance to try and understand what strikes me as the most magical part of golf course architecture – routing.  Truth be told, I am still mystified by how an architect can look at land covered with trees and vegetation, and with only a topographical map to guide them, find golf holes.  These pros patiently explained the holes and answered our questions, and I loved every minute of it.

What struck me most on this visit to Sand Valley was the pace of progress that Michael, Craig, and the team are achieving.  It is staggering, with no evidence of a sacrifice in quality.  By the time Charlie and I hit the road back to Chicago, I was counting the moments until the Grand Opening in the spring.


OPENING DAY

For what has become an annual spring pilgrimage for us, Peter K. and I set out early so that we could make a critical pit stop on the way to Sand Valley for opening day.  As I have said before, going into central Wisconsin without visiting Lawsonia Links is a mistake as big as Lawsonia’s massive features.  The loss of sleep is a small price to pay for the opportunity to walk the fairways of the most underrated golf course in America.

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After a chilly but joyful morning on the Links, we made our way to Sand Valley and upon arrival, I was immediately struck again by the progress that has been achieved since autumn.  Infrastructure, lodging, Mammoth Dunes…everything continues to move forward at an astounding pace.

We made our way to the first tee and were given a warm welcome by Michael, Chris, Glen, and Michael.  As an aside, if there is a person working at that resort who is not friendly and happy, I have yet to meet them.  The cold and blustery weather did nothing to diminish the excitement as group after group went off the first tee with a warm thank you and handshake from the Keisers.

It was fun to see members of the media like Andy North, Ashley Mayo, and Adam Lawrence having their Sand Valley experiences.  It was even more fun to meet Bill Coore, Jim Craig, and Ryan Farrow and quickly chat about their progress on the 17-hole short course.  But the most fun of all was undoubtedly heading out to hike Mammoth Dunes, and then play around and around on Sand Valley with my geek buddies Peter, Charlie and Vaughn.

SAND VALLEY

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Photo by Jon Cavalier

Although I have made several previous visits to Sand Valley, this was the first time that I played the entire course.  Superintendent Rob Duhm and his crew have done an outstanding job with the grow-in, getting the course ready to be on display for the event.  Some areas are farther along than others, which makes me even more excited to go back and play the course as it matures over the years to come.  Jens Jensen and his team are also doing exciting work on the ecological restoration.  Although Sand Valley is largely two-tone right now, it promises to have additional explosions of color throughout the seasons as the native plantings establish.

Having played quite a few Coore & Crenshaw courses to date, there are familiar stylistic and visual themes evident on the course.  These themes are tried and true, and they never get old for me.  Beyond the familiar though, Sand Valley also possesses holes like the 7th and 17th that are so unique, that even the most well-traveled of golf geeks will be surprised and astounded.

And finally, the variability of the wind direction and speed, coupled with multiple teeing options on every hole, mean that the thoughtful player can play one version of the course in the morning, and an entirely different version in the afternoon.  As my buddy Peter says, it is the perfect course to just go around and around and around.  Following are my first set of hole-by-hole photos of the entire course, with a little help from Peter and Jon Cavalier.  The current plan is to head back for an autumn visit to catch another look.  Enjoy, and stay tuned for more to come.

(click on images to enlarge)

Hole 1 – Par 4 – 325 yards

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The dramatic sand barren terrain with a ribbon of Coore & Crenshaw sculpted green invites the player to begin anew the adventure of this greatest of games.  The 1st is a gentle handshake from the tee – shortish, with ample area to land that first nervous drive of the day.  Gentility goes right out the window on the uphill approach to a small tiered green flanked by nasty bunkers.  Sand Valley’s opener gives the player a full preview of the look, feel, and strategic demands to come.

Hole 2 – Par 4 – 395 yards

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Word around the campfire is that this two-shotter is inspired by the opener at Pine Valley.  The player must choose off the tee – angle of approach or shorter approach distance.  Can’t have both.  Classic strategy.  The approach on the 2nd plays uphill over two large cross-bunkers to an outstanding green that slopes from high back right to low front left.  Awkward approach angles and whipping winds can lead to a missed green. Steep slopes left, right, and back require creativity and deft touch for any chance at an up-and-down.

Hole 3 – Par 3 – 192 yards

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Guarded front-right by a large mound and left by a bunker, the third requires a solidly struck tee ball to find the green.  A miss right on the 3rd bounds into a collection area.  The mound comes into play again as the player must decide how to use it or avoid it to cozy up a recovery.  The bunker left begins short of the green and runs the full length.  All manner of awkward bunker shots are possible for tee shots that stray left.  The 3rd is the first of an outstanding set of Coore-Crenshaw one-shotters.

Hole 4 – Par 5 – 557 yards

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The first of Sand Valley’s three-shotters plays uphill over rumpled ground to a green set just below one of the high points on the course.  A steady and visually arresting climb.  The subtly contoured green is surrounded by artful bunkers and playable slopes.  Approach through the air or along the ground are both options.  Just enough choice to add the mental confusion to the mix that C&C prize so highly.  Climbing the hill to the 5th tee, a glance back provides another reminder of the grand scale of this magnificent land that was underneath a glacial lake for thousands of years.

Hole 5 – Par 3 – 164 yards

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A dramatic reveal awaits the player upon reaching the hilltop.  The domed green lies below, with the 6th hole to the right, the alternate 6th to the left, and an expanse of sand barren beyond.  Breathtaking and pulse quickening, all at once.  There are no easy putts on the 5th green, and par is a good score.  One final look back at the tee above reinforces just how exciting the golf adventure at Sand Valley is.  No ocean necessary.

Hole 6 – Par 4 – 445 yards

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Photo by Jon Cavalier

The subtle brilliance of this hole begins in the rumpled fairway, and the angles created by its staggered bunkers.  Line and distance options abound, demanding thought and execution.  The 6th culminates with a large, outstanding green, fronted right by a bunker and surrounded by slopes and runoffs. Use the contours skillfully, and access to all pins is available.  Miss your mark, and a tough up-and-down awaits.

Hole 7 – Par 5 – 536 yards

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The player is confronted on the 7th tee with a massive sand dune running down the right and an angled uphill fairway that obscures the landing area for longer hitters.  The fairway is split by a long angular bunker.  Players not able to reach the green in two must decide which route to take.  That decision is based on pin position and considerations of sight line vs proximity.  The mind is fully engaged at this point.  The green is protected front right by a large mound and bunker that makes a back right pin difficult to access from the lower right fairway, even from shorter distances.  A brilliant hole, the 7th is visually arresting and rich in strategy.  It is playable at all skill levels, providing options for conservative or aggressive play.  Birdie and double bogey are equally possible.  One of my all-time favorite C&C five pars.

Hole 8 – Par 3 – 115 yards

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This shortie plays dramatically up to a skyline green, and brings to mind thoughts of Sand Hills.  The green is guarded short right by a bunker that could more accurately be described as a sandy chasm of doom.  The tee shot might be short, but the penalty for a weak flare is LONG.  The 8th green is deceptively deep and contoured into sections.  Well placed shots gather into birdie range.  End up in the wrong section, and a putting adventure awaits.  MacKenzie and Maxwell would approve of this hole, I am sure.

Hole 9 – Par 4 – 290 yards

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This short-four is driveable, but also offers two flat spots left and right amidst the heaving fairway that the thoughtful player can use to optimize approach position.  Hug the fairway bunker right to access left pin positions, or press a bit further up the left to get the perfect angle to the back right.  As with all great golf holes, strategy unfolds from the green backward, and the 9th fits that bill.  Bill Coore personally poured every ounce of his art and craftsmanship into this wonderful green, fine tuning for hours on end to give it the fullest flavor.  How fortunate we are for his dedication to the pursuit of perfection.

Hole 10 – Par 5 – 541 yards

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Playing downhill to a fairway divided by a large centerline bunker, C&C again confront the player with a choice on this five-par.  High right for better visibility, or low left for better angle.  The fairway right is bordered by a large bunker that connects to the sand barren.  An imposing look, and even more imposing recovery for shots that don’t make the carry.  The large green on the 10th sits in a bowl and has several distinct sections. Getting home in two is no guarantee of a birdie.  Flatstick game must be on point.

Hole 11 – Par 4 – 387 yards

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Photo by Jon Cavalier

This cape style hole narrows as it approaches the green, tempting the player to bite off more than may be advisable.  The right side of the green runs off sharply.  An approach that misses by a foot can end up 20+ paces down the hill, leaving the player with endless options for getting back up to the green.  Simple brilliance.

Hole 12 – Par 5 – 452 yards

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This half-par hole was apparently the source of lively debate during construction.  Oh to be a fly on that wall.  Big hitters can take their drives over the center trees leaving the green very much in reach.  The bunker front center was a late addition to give players a moment of pause on the approach to this elevated green.  The high left slope can be used to feed balls into the center of the green.  But get too cute and overshoot your mark and you might find yourself in the deep runoff behind the green.  Played smartly, the 12th is an easy par with a solid chance for birdie.  If only this game were that simple.

Hole 13 – Par 4 – 383 yards

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This simple little hole bends gently left and heads uphill to a killer skyline green.  It is a moment of pause before the player takes on the thrill-ride closing stretch.

Hole 14 – Par 3 – 175 yards

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This one-shotter is one of my all-time Coore-Crenshaw favorites.  It plays downhill to a slightly angled and canted green that sits in an intimate spot among the sand barrens and trees.  The green is surrounded on three sides by sand, with those glorious C&C bunker edges that their expert shapers never fail to deliver.  Perhaps it’s just me, but the shaping artistry seems to come out ideally with fescue.  I heart fescue.  The elevated tee is exposed to the wind, but the green is set down where the wind swirls.  Judging the wind properly is as much luck as it is skill.  The cant and subtle internal contours of this green conspire to make holing putts a second guessing game.  Par here is a good score, and birdies a big bonus.

Hole 15 – Par 4 – 392 yards

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The 15th is a gentle dogleg left that plays along relatively flat ground to a wonderful green site.  The green is fronted by two humps.  In a double-play on this familiar theme, strategy on the hole is dictated all the way back to the tee based on where the pin is in relation to these features.  Complexity born of simplicity.  The green on the 15th features some of the most interesting contours on the course, especially taking into account the surrounds.  Feel like getting creative with the flat stick?  This is your spot.

Hole 16 – Par 4 – 429 yards

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The strategy on this terrific hole is defined by two centerline bunkers.  The first, in the drive zone, can be challenged or skirted, depending on the day’s wind.  The second stands guard in front of the skyline green.  Savvy players can access certain pins by playing long and using the back left slope.  A stellar hole that rewards confident and creative shot-making.

Hole 17 – Par 3 – 215 yards

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Photo by Jon Cavalier

The final of Sand Valley’s first rate one-shotters is its most impressive.  It can play anywhere from 150-250 yards, up a rise and then back down into a massive punchbowl.  The bowl will accept all shapes and types of shots.  Cresting the hill does not ensure a favorable outcome though.  The huge green is divided into plateaus and hollows, leaving open to the player the possibility of a lag putt more daunting than the tee shot.  Pictures don’t do justice to the awe that the 17th green inspires.  It is nothing short of jaw-dropping and I dare say that this hole is the coolest long par-3 in America that is not on the Monterey Peninsula.

Hole 18 – Par 5 – 507 yards

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A hair-raising ascent back to the high point of the property, the closer offers a final legitimate opportunity for birdie (and double).  The 18th fairway is littered with signature Coore-Crenshaw bunkers, each beautiful and terrible in their own right.  The massive final green is multi-tiered and wraps around the large bunker right.  The variety of pin locations makes the hole play drastically differently from one loop to the next.  A strong close to an outstanding golf course.

Circling back to my initial point about the maturation process – Sand Valley is already a great course.  From both a playability perspective and visually, it still has upside as vast as the land on which it sits.  I will be a regular visitor, no doubt.

MAMMOTH DUNES

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A 6-hole preview loop was open and ready for play on Opening Day.  Peter and I decided to leave the clubs in the car and instead got permission to walk the entire Mammoth Dunes routing.  The holes were in various stages of completion – some growing in, some in finished shaping and seeding, some getting irrigation, and some still only rough shaped.

Much of the preliminary talk from David McLay Kidd about Mammoth Dunes has been about the dramatic scale of the land and the course.  Stepping onto the first tee, that scale is evident, and it is indeed breathtaking.  What I was keen to find out by walking the rest of the routing though was, would the course have more than just drama?  Would it have the strategic intricacy and attention to detail that separates good courses from the truly great?  Going big is fine, and it makes an impression, but I find that the courses that leaving a lasting imprint on me also get the little things right.

Even in its current state of construction, I feel comfortable sharing my impression that the DMK is getting the details right, and that Mammoth Dunes promises to be a special golf course.  More importantly for the resort, the second course has a distinct style from the first, which is great news for lovers of variety.  I can already imagine the golf geeks debating which course is the best.

A few photos from our walk…

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There are huge greens on the course that will challenge creative shot-making and lag putting, but they are not all big.  David has thrown surprises into the mix.

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As it matures, the par-3 16th continues to blow me away.  We saw evidence of other one-shotters in the mix that will be equally fantastic.

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Case in point.

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Creative flourishes can be found throughout, including this bunker built from an old homestead cellar.

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The course has the feel of an adventure hike.  When David said that he felt that his job was to get the player to explore the property, on Mammoth Dunes he has done his job well with the routing.  It is going to be a wonderful place to get lost for a few hours.


CONCLUSION

Sand Valley, the course and the resort, are already receiving heaps of praise and accolades.  Some argue that it is premature to draw such conclusions.  I agree – not because of running the risk of overrating what Sand Valley is, but rather because of the risk of underrating what it will become.  Instead of rushing to conclusions, it seems best to me to continue watching the evolution of this special place, playing its wide and winding fairways, and perhaps taking a moment to sit back and feel grateful for what the Keiser family is attempting to accomplish.

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This much is now certain.  It is a wonderful time to be a Midwest golfer.  The public has access to championship venues like Whistling Straights and Erin Hills, as well as brilliant under-the-radar gems like Lawsonia Links, Belvedere and Ravisloe.  On both sides of lake, resort owners continue to push forward to offer architecturally exciting courses – Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes, The Loop, Arcadia Bluffs South, Stoatin Brae…the hits just keep on coming.

In order to have a golf geeky adventure of the first order, a player needs only hop in the car and hit the road.