World’s Best Golf Resorts: Sand Valley Is America’s Newest Hidden Gem
Golf exploded in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, and with a COVID-19 vaccine now readily available, golf travel is poised to skyrocket. The best of golf travel is a red-hot category for those seeking to combine the top accommodations, hospitality, food, and other activities with the perfect outdoor socially distance recreation, golf.
So, what makes a place one of the world’s best, while so many golf resorts are simply mediocre? For starters, a destination resort, meaning one worth traveling to specifically for the golf, requires more than one course, and more than one good course. There are a lot of spots with a marquee course and a couple other blasé options, and if you aren’t excited about your second or third rounds they might as well just have one. The food and lodging should be good, because even if you play 36-holes a day, that leaves about 15 of your 24 hours for non-golf activities – including a well-earned rest. Caddies are a big plus, and extras like a great spa, fun outdoor recreation besides golf and of course, value, are all bonuses which will push up a resort’s worthiness. But as I explore this topic for the post-pandemic golf traveler, the first criteria will always be quality multiple golf courses, which is why I am starting with one of the best – and one of the least well-known – golf resorts in the U.S., Wisconsin’s Sand Valley. It is also one of the only ones with multiple 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 Keiser took a Field of Dreams “Build it and they will come” approach based on seeking out the very best physical site for golf, one with all the qualities of the greatest British Isles links courses, and building there, regardless of where it was or how hard it would be to get there (not so easy). His philosophy was if the golf were truly great, people would make the effort, and he was proven right a thousand times over. For many golfers around the world, Bandon Dunes is now the number one Bucket List golf trip.
But Keiser did not stop there, and continued to scour the globe for similarly sandy, links-like terrain perfect for building the very best kinds 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 is similar in that the entire project was driven by Mother Nature, climate and topography, and he used the same marquee golf course architects, considered the best of the best living today. But it is easier to get to, cheaper, more amenitized, and more welcoming to those seeking more than just golf. Both are laid back, but Bandon is more for serious golfers, Sand Valley all about fun, with the Midwest’s famously friendly hospitality. While still somewhat off the beaten path, it is under two hours from the airport in Madison, two and a half from Milwaukee and under four from O’Hare. These centrally located airports in turn are typically under a three-hour non-stop flight from just about everywhere in the Lower 48.
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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. Keiser wisely went back to the well, as Kidd did the very first paradigm changing and still highly lauded Bandon design, Bandon Dunes. That one is ranked the 7th Best You Can Play in the nation by Golf Digest, and his design here, Mammoth Dunes, jumped onto the list as a new entrant at Number 27. It deserves to be higher.
Before playing it I visited a couple of other world class Wisconsin resorts with Top 100 courses that are Major venues, and staffers from the competition told me that Mammoth would be “the most fun round of golf I ever played.” They were pretty spot on. Interestingly, fun and golf don’t often go hand in hand the way frustration, anger, swearing and golf do, and I can think of just a handful of courses around the globe that I consider truly fun to play regardless of how you are swinging it, like Ireland’s Waterville, South Africa’s Links at Fancourt, or Las Vegas’ Shadow Creek. Mammoth is in that elite group, and I will say it is also different from any other course I have seen, and I have played the majority of what are considered the top courses in the world, on every inhabited continent.
Mammoth is differentiated by its massive – you might say “mammoth” – fairways and greens. It is almost impossible to miss these targets, which might make it sound easy until you stand over a hundred plus foot putt not possible on most courses, on very firm, very fast, very undulating greens. It is awe inspiring off the tee and features two reachable par-5s and very drivable par-4, all of which gave me a rare two eagle putt round, but putts don’t drop easily out here – still fun. Several holes feature power slots where if you hit your drive on a particular line it goes forever – more fun. The dramatic landscape is truly links-esque, with large raw scraped up waste areas and fast fairways on which balls run a mile, often until they reach troublesome sand or drop off 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 every caliber of player.
The other course here, Sand Valley, is by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who did Bandon Trails, the third course at Bandon Dunes. Golf Digest has this one 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, meaning there are clearer lines off the tee, more bunkers versus simple waste area – many reachable with slightly errant tee shots – and more precise approach shots called for. The smaller greens are not small, they are normal, but with the links-style firm fast conditions they can be hard to hold, and both courses favor the running shot and landing short methodology of the British Isles, though being Coore and Crenshaw, they added a few false fronts that force you to fly the full distance. Both courses are typically windy, adding to the interest, and both have a wide and varied assortment of tee options, including composites to increase the choice, with fair options for every ability. Nonetheless, low handicappers will like Sand Valley more than everyone else. By any measure it is an excellent course.
Golf Magazine also has both courses in its Top 30 You Can Play in North America, against stiffer competition from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean as well. Those lists are always hotly debatable and on both I can cite several courses ranked higher that are clearly not better than these (like Bandon Trails) but that’s splitting hairs. Top 20, Top 30, whatever, what you inarguably have here are two world-class, must-play courses under one roof. Like Bandon Dunes these are walking courses, the way golf should be, with an excellent caddie program, a great bonus – and more fun. And that’s not all.
Being new, the resort is on point with golf’s latest trends, which include having a short course, the 17-hole Sandbox, which mixes pitch and putt and full-length par-3 holes. It is an excellent tune up for the kinds of approach shots needed here. It takes about 90 minutes or less, and I highly recommend playing it before your rounds on either big course if you are only playing 18. They also have a grass putting course, the other big new trend, which is more fun in the evening with drink in hand.
A third eighteen by Tom Doak – another architect from Bandon Dunes – is being built across the street and this one is odd, and not just because it is a recreation of the Lido Club. Lido was a legendary 1917 Long Island course by fabled “Golden Age of Golf” architects Seth Raynor and C.B. MacDonald that was in the ranks of the world’s best until it was shuttered during World War II and never reopened. It’s extra odd because it is one of two “new” Lidos currently under construction by top architects, the other in Thailand. It’s even odder in that it is rumored to be not technically 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 in golf travel, and if this is the case it will still give guests 54-holes (in addition to the short course), likely all exceptional.
While many golf resorts have other sporting amenities, Sand Valley went unique in a big way. Fitting the throwback nature of the 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, ball boys/girls available. World-class golf and world-class tennis in one spot.
What else? Well, there is hiking, with several well marked trails of varying length and difficulty, guided strength and stretching classes, a couple of real bocce courts, fat tire bikes, three lakes for fishing and swimming, and a modern full fitness center. Lodging is in a variety of lodge rooms, suites and four- and eight-bedroom cottages, most with private decks and outdoor living spaces. The style is sort of spartan Scandinavian with blonde wood, contemporary lines, minimal art and décor and large bathrooms with walk in rain showers. The entire resort is the kind of place you smoke a cigar and sip a drink outside as the sun sets, looking 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 cheese curds to tender pork shank with spaetzle to homemade pasta, and indoor and outdoor dining. There’s a separate bar with its own menu, a food truck, on course grill stands, and a shockingly good taco stand, better than most gourmet attempts you find in big cities. The food is fun, very varied and amazingly affordable.
While it is not the reason to go to Sand Valley, where greens fees top out at $225, a caddie can add more than a hundred on top of that, and room rates typically run $300-plus per person per night, I can’t 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 on-course stations are three bucks or less. Beer? 16-ounce oversized PBR cans are two dollars and other fancier options start at three. Not a typo. Two dollars. A Wisconsin craft favorite, Spotted Cow, runs three dollars for a draft pint at the inside bar. Given that you can easily pay four times as much at a resort with golf half as good and just as expensive, the crazy pricing on food and beverage here is just one more thing that puts the fun in one of America’s most fun golf resorts.
Golf season generally runs from late April to October, and Sand Valley, which opened in 20-18, recently added winter programming for the non-golf season.