Fun is the First Resort at Sand Valley
Story by: Steve Donahue
Photos Provided by Sand Valley
Golfers who have made pilgrimages to Oregon’s Bandon Dunes and Nova Scotia’s Cabot Links — both plunked on far-flung coastlines — know that the Keiser family knows how to attract golfers to wayward golf resorts.
Sand Valley’s first (above) and 10th holes get the action going.
The newest Keiser golf wonderland — Sand Valley, in Nekoosa, Wisconsin — also fits the bill.
My non-golfer wife, Debbie, and I visited Sand Valley recently. Thankfully, after making our room reservations and tee times well ahead, the resort strongly suggested using its exact street address and a GPS. Great idea. Once we exited I-39, all that separated us from the final 14 miles to the resort were endless trees, very few homes and not one human.
We let out sighs of relief once we reached the resort, finally spied other humans, then checked in for our four-day, three-night stay in our very comfortable, convenient Clubhouse Queen, ground-floor guestroom. I might add that after a cold, rainy spring in the northeast we also appreciated our warm, Sand Valley blue-sky-weather during our entire trip.
Throughout our stay, we were impressed with the hopping bar’s food and drink quality — especially the local craft-beer selections— as well as the superb, friendly wait-staff service.
The only minor quibble in the food area was that the bar menu was exactly the same each day, and that same bar menu was also used for the one dinner we had at Aldo’s Farm & Table, adjacent on the left side of Mammoth Bar & Lounge, and advertised as the resort’s fine-dining establishment, so we expected a different, more upscale menu.
Sand Valley Golf Course’s par-3 holes are memorable, including the 17th Punchbowl (above).
However, exciting plans are already in the works to give Aldo’s its own identity,says Michael Keiser, Jr., who is managing the development of Sand Valley Golf Resort.
“Right now, we're designing a restaurant and brewpub with an open-fire BBQ restaurant and beer hall,” says Keiser.  “We'll have live music every night and the restaurant will overlook a three-acre putting course.”
The new food-and-beverage setup will be perfect timing, as the resort’s two existing 18-hole courses —the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw-designed Sand Valley, David McLay Kidd’s Mammoth Dunes, and Coore and Crenshaw’s 17-hole, par-51 Sandbox pitch-and-putt course will soon be joined by a par-68 course designed by Tom Doak, with five par 3s and one par 5. There is also a putting course that got plenty of usage by individuals and buddy groups on the deck outside the Golf Shop and adjacent to our guest room.
“We will begin building Tom’s course at Sand Valley in the next couple of years,” says Keiser, “provided that we can obtain financing from the Town of Rome as we did for Mammoth Dunes. Tom's routing is more intimate than the first two. Its fairways twist and turn, through bumbling hummocks and dunes. The course plays through a sedge savannah which looks very different than the ground cover on the first two courses. The routing will stretch out at 6,000 yards.”
Keiser says there aren’t any specific plans to build more courses at Sand Valley beyond Doak’s course.
“However,” Keiser adds, “we have several great routings which we hope we're lucky enough to introduce to our guests. If golfers keep visiting, we'll keep building! Gil Hanse and Mike Devries have routed two courses that are very different from the first three, and just as spectacular.”
For now, Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes and the Sandbox are luring golfers from all over the nation and beyond. Sand Valley was named Best New Golf Course 2017 by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, Mammoth Dunes was named Best New Golf Course 2018 by Golf Magazine and the Sandbox is the Best New Short Course 2018 by Golf Magazine. Sand Valley is also ranked 18th and Mammoth Dunes 27th in Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest Public Courses 2019/2020 ranking.
My first round was at the Sand Valley course. A shuttle bus took me to the top of the hill and the course. There was a one-hour frost delay but Craig’s Porch, a popular, walk-up food stand that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner up at Sand Valley’s course was already open. I considered ordering its famous Sand Valley Breakfast Sandwich, which includes egg and cheese with bacon or sausage on a biscuit or a Brioche bun and is served all day.
However, I opted to order one later in the day since the starter informed me, as the first tee time of the day, to be ready to tee off at any time since it was warming quickly. I was introduced to my caddie, Richard, a who turned out to be so proficient and amiable that I procured his services for my Mammoth Dunes round the following morning.
Clubhouse hosts post-run activity.
As the starter led Richard and me to my set of tees, another much younger golfer — probably in his early 30s —stopped at the Black tees. The tips. Our starter asked me if I minded if Jeff joined me as another single as all the groups until the afternoon were foursomes. Of course, I didn’t mind and Jeff was a fun playing companion.
Jeff used a driving iron on every non-par-3 hole. He was a player. It turned out he had played at golf powerhouse Oklahoma State University. He almost drove the 335-yard first green. Despite teeing off 36 yards ahead of him and crushing my drive I was still about 20 yards behind him.
That’s the beauty of Sand Valley, and Mammoth Dunes, for that matter. He and I were never that far apart as we played the course because of the unique tee-box options. Each course has 10 tee-box options for various handicaps. Happily, there’s no sexism at Sand Valley Resort. The fact that there are 10 tee options for each hole is awesome, but each tee is also labeled by various colors, not “Men and Women.” That may be a little thing that will go unnoticed by many, but for many others it may be a huge reason to return. Kudos to the Keisers.
Another novelty is many holes on both courses allow players the option to fly approaches into the green or putt their approaches from the fairway onto the green. The fun factor is off the charts, as between being able to putt from many fairways and some pin positions that invite ace possibilities, you can play shots you can’t anywhere else.
Sand rules at Mammoth Dunes.
For instance, on two par-3 greens that tilted back to front, where the hole was cut on the left side near the front, my tee shots were long but trickled down the left side and both edged the cup and just missed being aces.
Sand Valley’s finish is tough to beat. The very uphill 195-yard, par-3 17th hole, nicknamed “Punchbowl,” requires a perfect tee shot —for me, a choke-up driver, for Jeff a mid-iron. His iron stopped two feet from the hole for birdie. I smoked my best drive of the day, just left of the flag. But when we reached the green my ball was half on the green and half in the rough, so I tapped it out and made par.
The final hole was very unique. I sliced my drive on the 475-yard hole despite Richard’s orders to keep everything left on the par-5 hole. I smoked my second shot toward the left side, but about 40 yards short of the green. The pin was the middle-right of the green. My first thought was to whack a putt onto the middle of the green and two putt. Then I second-guessed myself and asked Richard for my 52-degree wedge. He told me to keep the putter and aim 10 yards farther left than I planned to. I did, the ball took a sharp 90-degree right-hand turn, rolled close to the hole and I made birdie. Caddies are essential.
Two more holes of the Mammoth Dunes Golf Course.
Keeping shots in fairways is key.
I rode down to the hotel and let Deb know I was finished playing. We hopped back on another shuttle and ascended to Craig’s Porch for lunch. We both ordered Pulled Pork Tacos—I had three, Deb had one. For dessert, we each ordered a Nye’s Coconut Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwich. They usually start the day with a dozen or so flavors and that number depletes as the day goes on.
We ate our lunch on wooden lawn chairs that are lined up overlooking the course, then we walked off some calories on the Songbird Walking Trail, one of three such sandy flora- and fauna-lined trails at the resort. This one starts behind Craig’s Porch and Sand Valley’s practice putting green. We heard plenty of birds during our wak. The only problem was the lack of an exit sign pointing out the direction of the trail’s conclusion. We ended up lost and walking across Sand Valley’s fairway. Mind you, this was after I walked 71/2 miles over Sand Valley’s 18 holes, according to Richard.
When we returned to our room this didn’t stop Deb from asking two women at the front desk where the other two walking trails started, because it looked like they began outside of the main building, right behind the front desk and outside our room. But despite walking outside with us women couldn’t pinpoint the trails for us, while admitting the trails were out there somewhere.
The next morning Richard and I were the first group off the tee on another stunning morning. Since checking in to our room, I had been looking forward to teeing off as the tee boxes were right outside of our window. Directly on the right of the tee boxes is a monstrous — or mammoth — sand dune that requires keeping drives as left as possible to avoid the Sahara Desert-like tract. I managed solid drives on the first three holes, with pars on the first two, but a shank-fest double-bogey seven on No. 3 came out of nowhere. An even 37 on the back gave me a one-over 78. That included a par on the drivable 261-yard 14th hole, the winning design in Golf Digest’2019’s annual armchair architect contest.
Parring the final six holes in various ways was unique. A couple came via approach shots with wedges, one with hybrids and a couple were made with putter fairway approach shots. Fun city.
Sand Valley hole #14.
After walking another 7 1/2 miles up and down Mammoth’s hilly landscape —not to mention spraining my right knee while climbing out of a bunker on my shank-fest hole — the last thing I wanted to do was play the Sandbox, the 17-hole short course, even though I had been looking forward to it. So, I soldiered on.
This is definitely not your run-of-the-mill pitch-and-putt course. I was told I would need only two or three wedges and a putter. However, with holes ranging from 51 to 149 yards, I could have also used an 8- or 9-iron on a few holes. On several longer holes where I came up short because I didn’t have enough club I used putter from the fairway, which was fun. Shame on me for not checking the scorecard more carefully beforehand. It denotes each hole has a specific putting tee and distance to the hole, so if you prefer, you can play the entire course as a 17-hole putting course and leave your wedges in your room.
Golf is obviously the main attraction at Sand Valley, so non-golfers accompanying golfers to the resort expecting fancy non-golf extras such as spas, etc., might be disappointed.
“We are planning some soaking tubs and massage rooms for our guests,” says Keiser.  “We offer lots of outdoor activities for non-golfers, but don't expect a full-service spa anytime soon.”
Sand Valley does offer a number of outdoor activities besides the walking trails, including grass tennis courts, fat-tire biking, bocce and rustic yoga.
A handful of amenities seems to work at Sand Valley’s sister golf resorts. In the end, like at its sister resorts, Sand Valley’s golf courses will do the talking.
Sand Valley
1697 Leopold Way
Nekoosa, WI 54457
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Steve Donahue is a veteran freelance writer and editor who has played nearly 1,200 golf courses in all 50 states and 10 countries. He is based in Watertown, Conn.  He can be reached at