Can Sand Valley Make Wisconsin the Next Golfing Destination?
Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” is an environmental classic. First published in 1949, a year after Leopold’s death, it chronicled and celebrated the natural life amid the changing seasons around his scruffy weekend retreat and family farm, in a dirt-poor region of Wisconsin that starts an hour’s drive north of Madison, the state capital.
The area is still dirt-poor, particularly once you get away from the honky-tonk tourist attractions and water parks surrounding the Wisconsin Dells. The nearest big city is Milwaukee, more than 150 miles away. O’Hare airport, in Chicago, is four hours by car; so are the Twin Cities. It’s not exactly the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of building a world-class golf resort.
But nestled near the tiny towns of Rome and Nekoosa, about 100 miles from Madison, hidden away for decades under vast rows of red pine trees planted to produce pulp, was something extraordinary: a stunning section of the exposed sandy bottom of a prehistoric glacial lake that, geologists say, flooded a large area of central Wisconsin about 18,000 years ago, when an ancient ice dam collapsed.
Mike Keiser, who made a fortune in the greeting card business, is known to avid players for creating the golf mecca Bandon Dunes on the Oregon coast, a long 250-mile drive from Portland. He found his way to this equally far-off-the-beaten-path spot in Wisconsin in 2013. It lacked the year-round playing possibilities of places like Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Scottsdale, Ariz., and the picturesque seaside locale that Mr. Keiser had considered essential to luring golfers away from home, but he fell in love with the place anyway.
What the land had, in spades, was immense tumbling dunes, some 50 feet high or more. And the potential, once the nonnative trees were cleared, of becoming home to not just one but four or five spectacular courses. The firm, sandy fairways, long open views, and exposure to strong winds would evoke the famous links of Scotland and Ireland and pay direct homage to the less well-known but well-loved “heathland” courses outside London. Mr. Keiser bought 1,700 acres from a tree plantation owner. He commissioned the golf design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, a former touring pro, to create a new course, to be known as Sand Valley. It opened last week.
I’ve managed to play at some of Wisconsin’s better known public-access golf courses, including Erin Hills outside Milwaukee, where the United States Open will be held in June, and Whistling Straits, along Lake Michigan, which anchors the Kohler luxury resort complex. It is one of four courses, all designed by Pete Dye, that offer a rare combination of links-style and parkland golf within proximity of one another.
Last year I learned about the ambitions of Sand Valley, and that it would be open for limited preview play that summer. As it turned out, my wife, Lisa, and I were planning to drive to Minneapolis from our home outside New York last fall so that I could attend the Ryder Cup golf tournament and we could visit Lisa’s sister and her partner. Sand Valley was not far off our route.
When we drove toward the course, on the last Monday morning of September, I didn’t know what to expect. A couple months earlier, I had made a reservation by email to play that afternoon, spend the night at one of the new rooms that were supposed to have opened, and then play again the next morning before moving on to Minneapolis. Where we would go for dinner was an open question.
Our GPS device led us astray, and as we wandered around the countryside of farms, cottages, cranberry bogs and lakes, we came upon a roadside bar with an original Pabst Blue Ribbon logo, passing numerous lawn signs for the Trump campaign. Eventually, having stopped to call for directions, we found a small sign directing us onto a gravel road, and entered what looked a lot more like a sprawling construction site than a golf resort.
In the strong wind, sand was blowing everywhere across an unpaved parking area. The future clubhouse was a hole in the ground, with a foundation in place and not much else. We found the check-in desk and golf shop, in a nearly windowless converted 40-foot shipping container. However, as soon as we saw the immense landscape of wide green fairways, golden-colored prairie grasses, low shrubs and acres of washboard sand dunes, we knew we had come to someplace special.
At first blush, though, this didn’t look like Aldo Leopold’s vision. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” Leopold wrote in one of his most famous passages. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Could a sprawling golf development really reflect his conservation ethic? Maybe it could.
Mr. Keiser’s son Michael lives in Madison and is responsible for carrying out the project. In an email after our visit, he said that Leopold’s words “inspired us to rebuild a forgotten world in Adams County,” where Sand Valley is located. “The pine barrens of central Wisconsin are as rare as they are beautiful — we’d like to help them flourish.”
Last year, the Keisers bought another 7,000 acres, setting it aside in a land conservation easement. Ultimately they hope to return at least 100,000 acres to their natural state. “Golf and restoration will have a symbiotic relationship at Sand Valley,” he said. “The success of the golf resort will feed the expansion of the restored landscape.”
That afternoon, when I stood on the first tee, at a high point that the developers call the “Volcano,” 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.
The course is for walkers, except for those with disabilities that require a cart. My caddie, Mark Schroeder, a retired teacher, urged me to play from the middle “Sand” tees, which made the length of the course a modest 6,100 yards. He pointed to a distant spot on the right side of the first fairway and we were off. I don’t remember that much of the individual holes, perhaps because I rarely got into too much trouble and I was having too much fun. I almost never break 80, but that day, despite the wind, I shot a 77, with one birdie (on the fourth hole, a par 5) and no double bogies.
There are five par 3s, all of different lengths and styles. The 17th was one of my favorites; a mound partially blocked a view of the punch bowl green but my slightly wayward shot nonetheless funneled onto the surface, where I managed to two-putt from 60 feet away.
The par-5 18th, which had a bent elbow green just below Craig’s Porch (the food stand, named for the Wisconsin golf contractor who found the site), plays back up to the Volcano. My second shot had to find an opening between a steep dune on the left that pinched the fairway and a tremendous trap on the right that stretched at least 120 yards. I finished with a nifty par and rewarded myself with a mouthwatering chocolate peanut butter Nye’s ice cream sandwich.
Despite the nearby construction, wildlife was thriving. Birds were everywhere, and we saw two foxes and a family of deer.
That evening was the first presidential debate. We were offered an excellent dinner, served in a common room with a big-screen TV, shared with other guests. Bill Coore, the course co-designer, was staying there, too, with his wife and two friends from France.
Mr. Coore, in a later telephone conversation, said Sand Valley was one of those relatively rare sites that “feels like golf in a natural state. You can lay it out pretty quietly on the land to bring the golf course to life.”
The course, he said, is intended to appeal to players of any caliber, particularly those with average skills. When he and Mr. Crenshaw started designing golf courses decades ago, “everybody was trying to build courses to test the best players.
“That’s fine in a limited edition,” he added, “but we are more interested, like Mike, in making a golf course that is extremely enjoyable to play on a repeated basis, and naturally spectacular in terms of visual presentation.”
After the resort’s opening, the Coore/Crenshaw layout will be the only course fully available for play. But a second design, by David McLay Kidd, who created the first links at Bandon Dunes, is already well underway. A six-hole loop named Mammoth Dunes is expected to open for preview play this summer, and the full 18 holes might be ready as early as September.
Lisa and I walked the first hole and a couple others as the sun was setting, and the course looks like it will be as beautiful, and even more wide open, than Sand Valley. Mr. Coore and Mr. Crenshaw are also designing a short par-3 course, which should be ready in 2018.
“There’s already great golf in Wisconsin,” said Josh Lesnik, an executive at KemperSports, which will manage Sand Valley for the Keisers. “But soon golfers will look to Wisconsin as a place like Scotland or western Ireland, where they can go for a week and, within a short drive, play someplace special every day.”
The next morning, I couldn’t wait to play a second round. With Mr. Schroeder as my caddie again, I teed off early from some longer tees. It was tougher, and the best I could manage was an 85. If anything it was even more exciting, and I was able to truly appreciate the natural features of the land.
“Mike gave us a great gift, a really spectacular site for golf,” Mr. Coore said. “And I remember he told us, ‘If the first course is not very good, there won’t be a second or third course, so don’t mess it up.’”
Correction: May 21, 2017
An article on May 7 about the new Sand Valley golf resort in Wisconsin misidentified the location of a home owned by the environmentalist Aldo Leopold that is now a historic landmark. It is in Sauk County, not in nearby Adams County.
A version of this article appears in print on May 7, 2017, on Page TR7 of the New York edition with the headline: Dairy Farms, Cheese Curds and Now World-Class Golf.