Golf exploded in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, and with a COVID-19 vaccine now readily available, golf travel is ready to take off. The best of golf travel is a red-hot category for those looking to combine the best accommodations, hospitality, food and other activities with the perfect outdoor social recreation, golf.
So what makes a place one of the best in the world, while so many golf resorts are simply mediocre? First, a destination resort requires, which means one worth traveling specifically for golf, more than one course and more than one good course. There are many spots with a tent course and a few other blasé options, and if you are not excited about your second or third round, they might as well just have one. The food and accommodation must be good, because even if you play 36 holes a day, it leaves about 15 of your 24 hours for non-golf activities – including a well-deserved rest. Caddies are a big plus, and extras like a great spa, fun outdoor recreation in addition to golf and of course value are all bonuses that will push a resort’s dignity up. But when I explore this topic for the golf traveler after the pandemic, the first criteria will always be several high quality golf courses, which is why I start with one of the best – and one of the least known – golf resorts in the United States, Wisconsin Sand Valley. It is also one of the only with several top 30 ranked courses under one roof.
Sand Valley comes from the brain trust behind Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, the project that forever changed the nature of golf and golf travel when it opened in 1999. Developer Mike Keizer took a Field of Dreams “Build it and they will come” approach based on finding the very best physical location for golf, one with all the qualities that the largest British Isles connect courses, and building there, no matter where it was or how difficult it would be to to it (not so easy). His philosophy was that if golf was really big, people would make an effort, and he was proven quite a thousand times. For many golfers around the world, Bandon Dunes is now the leading golf tour on the Bucket List.
But Keizer did not stop there and continued to search the globe for similar sandy, link-like terrain perfect for building the very best kind of golf courses and found one in central Wisconsin minus the ocean. Sand Valley is very similar to Bandon Dunes, but also very different. It looks like the whole project was driven by Mother Nature, climate and topography, and he used the same tent golf course architects who are considered the best of the best living today. But it’s easier to get to, cheaper, more organized and more inviting for those looking for more than just golf. Both are casual, but Bandon is more for serious golfers, Sand Valley all about fun, with the Midwest’s famous friendly hospitality. While it’s still something off the beaten path, it’s less than two hours from Madison airport, two and a half from Milwaukee, and less than four from O’Hare. These centrally located airports, in turn, are typically during a three-hour non-stop flight from almost anywhere in Lower 48.
But it’s what you find when you get here that counts, and in this case, the big show is Mammoth Dunes by David McLay Kidd. The Emperor wisely went back to the well when Kidd made the very first paradigm-shifting and still highly praised Bandon design, Bandon Dunes. One is ranked as 7th Best you can play in the nation by Golf Digest, and his design here, Mammoth Dunes, jumped on the list as a new actor at number 27. It deserves to be higher.
Before I played it, I visited a couple of other world-class Wisconsin resorts with Top 100 courses that are great venues, and staff from the competition told me that Mammoth would be “the funniest round of golf I’ve ever played.” They were pretty spot on. Interestingly, fun and golf do not often go hand in hand as frustration, anger, gang and golf do, and I can only think of a handful of courses around the world that I consider really fun to play no matter how you swing it, like Ireland’s Waterville, South Africa’s Links at Fancourt or Las Vegas’ Shadow Creek. Mammoth is in the elite group and I would say that it is also different from any other course I have seen and I have played most of what is considered the best courses in the world on every inhabited continent .
Mammoth differs from its massive – you could say “mammoth” – fairways and greens. It is almost impossible to miss these goals, which may make it sound easy until you are over a hundred plus foot putt not possible on most courses, on very solid, very fast, very undulating greens. It’s awe inspiring from the tee and has two par-5s that can be reached and very drivable par-4, all of which gave me a rare two eagle putt round, but putters don’t fall out easily here – still fun. Several holes have power slots, where if you hit your drive on a certain line, it goes forever – more fun. The dramatic landscape is truly cohesive with large raw scraped waste areas and fast fairways where spheres run a mile, often until they reach cumbersome sand or fall greens into sharp abysses. Very fun, very different, neither easy nor punishing, and one of the very few examples of a great course that is great for any player.
The second course here, Sand Valley, is by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who did Bandon Trails, the third course in Bandon Dunes. Golf Digest has this ranked 18th in the nation, but it should realistically be a notch behind Mammoth Dunes. Sand Valley is a more “traditional” course on the same kind of terrain, which means that there are clearer lines from the tee, more bunkers compared to simple waste area – many are reached with easily stray tee shots – and more precise approach shots are required. The smaller greens are not small, they are normal, but with the steady fast links-style conditions they can be hard to keep, and both courses favor the British Isles’ running shot and landing method, although they are Coore and Crenshaw, they added a few false fronts that force you to fly the entire distance. Both courses are typically windy, which increases interest, and both have a wide and varied range of tee options, including composites to increase the choice with reasonable options for any ability. Nevertheless, poor handicappers will like Sand Valley more than anyone else. In any case, it is an excellent course.
Golf Magazine also has both courses in its top 30 you can play in North America, against tougher competition from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. These lists can always be hotly debated, and on both I can cite several tracks that are placed higher that are clearly no better than these (like Bandon Trails), but it splits hair. Top 20, Top 30, whatever you undeniably have here are two world-class must-play courses under one roof. Like Bandon Dunes, this is hiking trails, such as golf should be with an excellent caddy program, a great bonus – and more fun. And that’s not all.
As it’s new, the resort is on point with golf’s latest trends, which include having a short course, 17-hole sandbox that mixes pitch and putt and par-3 holes in full length. It’s an excellent tune for the kind of approach pictures needed here. It takes about 90 minutes or less and I can highly recommend playing it before your rounds on both major courses if you only play 18. They also have a grazing course, the other big new trend which is more fun in the evening with drinks in the hand.
A third eighteen by Tom Doak – another architect from Bandon Dunes – is being built across the street, and this one is weird, and not just because it’s a recreation of the Lido Club. Lido was a legendary 1917 Long Island course by the legendary “Golden Age of Golf” architects Seth Raynor and CB MacDonald, which was in the ranks of the world’s best until it was closed during World War II and never reopened. This is extra strange because it is one of two “new” Lidos currently under construction by top architects, the other in Thailand. It’s still odd, as it’s rumored to be not technically a part of the resort, but rather a semi-private club with members that resort guests will still be able to play. There are many similar examples of golf trips, and if this is the case, it will still give guests 54 holes (in addition to the short course), probably all unusual.
While many golf resorts have other sports facilities, Sand Valley went unique in a big way. In keeping with the recurring nature of golf, they did the same with tennis and chose the oldest surface, grass, so you can channel your inner Wimbledon. This is extremely rare, less than one percent of America’s courts, and they have not one or two, but fifteen, with an even more unusual rarity that is ball boys / girls available. World-class golf and world-class tennis in one place.
What else? There are hikes with several marked trails of varying length and difficulty, guided strength and stretch classes, a few real bocce tracks, cool tire bikes, three lakes for fishing and swimming and a modern complete gym. Accommodation is in a range of lodges, suites and cottages with four and eight bedrooms, most with private decks and outdoor living areas. The style is kind of spartan Scandinavian with blond wood, modern lines, minimal art and decor and large bathrooms with walk in rain showers. The whole resort is the kind of place you smoke a cigar and sip a drink outside when the sun goes down and look back on your round (s).
The main restaurant, Aldo’s Farm & Table, was excellent, with lots of local flair and everything from Wisconsin’s beloved curd to tender pork with spaetzle to homemade pasta and indoor and outdoor dining. There is a separate bar with its own menu, a food truck, on course grill racks and a shockingly good taco stand, better than most gourmet attempts you will find in big cities. The food is fun, very varied and incredibly affordable.
Although that’s not the reason to go for Sand Valley, where green fee fees are $ 225, a caddy can add more than a hundred on top of that, and room rates typically run $ 300 plus per. person pr. night, I can not let these F & B prices slip by without comment. I have never been to a golf resort, world class or run-down muni with such cheap beer and food options, period. How cheap? The excellent tacos are $ 1.50 each. Brats and Italian sausages at the train stations cost three dollars or less. Beer? 16 ounce oversized PBR cans are two dollars, and other more advanced options start at three. Not a typo. Two dollars. A favorite of Wisconsin craftsmen, Spotted Cow, runs three dollars for a deep console on the inside bar. Considering that you can easily pay four times as much at a resort with golf half as good and just as expensive, the crazy pricing of food and drink here is just one more thing that puts the fun in one of America’s funniest golf resorts.
The golf season generally runs from late April to October, and Sand Valley, which opened at 20-18, recently added winter programming for the non-golf season.