What do you say about a 3,300-yard, nine-hole course in rural Tennessee with a prefabricated shed for a clubhouse, a port-a-john for a locker room, and a practice green the size of a coffee table? For starters, it’s the most enjoyable golf experience I’ve had in years.
Sweetens Cove isn’t the kind of course where you can say, “Well, it’s like a little bit of this course and that one put together.” It will never be called “a classic so-and-so design.” I’ve played everything from munis to tour stops all the way to the Old Course, and I can promise you it’s not like anything else you’ve ever played.
Picture a world-class, challenging, and ridiculously fun golf course. Now strip off the 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, the pro shop, the driving range, the short game area, and even the superfluous nine holes you can’t remember anyway. Now, go ahead and shave another 300 yards off the tips. That may sound sacrilegious, but once you’ve distilled the experience into only what is necessary, you’re left with something that takes you back to when you first fell in love with golf. Maybe even something that takes you back to the birth of golf itself.
Rob Collins is the man behind the course’s creation. When he started the project, it was May 2011 and golf was in a full recession. Courses were closing their doors, companies were struggling to make ends meet, and Rob was betting everything he had on his brand new company (King Collins Golf Course Design, a partnership with Tad King) and their first project of turning a forgettable muni called Sequatchie Valley G&CC into something memorable.
“I was inspired by my favorite courses in Great Britain and Ireland along with Pinehurst No. 2 and Tobacco Road, to name a few domestic courses that provided inspiration,” Rob said. “Additionally, the 1932 version of Augusta National was a huge inspiration for the architecture. The overall goal was to create a great strategic course that places a premium on approach and recovery shots. Hazards, angles, and green contours all work in concert with one another, laying the foundation for a course where there are no weak or indifferent shots during one’s round.”
Happily, Rob and Tad’s endeavor fared much better than many of their contemporaries’ projects in the wake of the 2008 recession, though it did have many twists and turns along the way. Chief among them was in 2013, roughly a year after construction was completed, when the ownership group disbanded and left the course for dead.
“I was desperate to do anything that I could to get the course open,” Rob said. “The course was my baby, and I believed that what we had created out there was architecturally significant and deserved to see the light of day. As it turned out, my client [the original ownership] approached me and asked if I would like to take the course over on a long-term lease. I said yes to that proposition and set about trying to find a partner for the venture. I was introduced to Ari Techner through the former superintendent at Lookout Mountain, Mark Stovall. Ari and I hit it off and partnered in a venture to take over operations of the course. Since that time, our partnership has expanded and includes Patrick Boyd as General Manager as well as a few others.”
Once securing new ownership, Sweetens Cove took off on a consistent upward trajectory that even has it ranked above some major championship venues in certain publications.
Admittedly, arriving at Sweetens Cove for the first time can be a disorienting experience for the recovering country clubber. Meandering through a town of 3,000 people in the East Tennessee foothills, you find a wooden sign marking the entrance that guides you to a gravel parking lot with no marked spaces. Stumbling out of the car, you find a curious hunter green shed for a clubhouse that might lead you to question all the buzz you’ve seen on social media. The walk from your car to the clubhouse, though, provides the perfect perch to gaze out on the King Collins creation… and you start to realize that maybe there’s really something to this place.
When you embark on your journey, you encounter absolutely no resemblance to the mechanical, formulaic assembly of a typical, rubber-stamped golf course design. Instead, you’ll find massive waste areas, perfectly placed pot bunkers, and a movement to the land that captures the imagination. The greens are equally receptive to flop shots and bump-and-runs, but they demand a precise execution of either choice.
The bermudagrass fairways are relatively firm and generously-sized, but uneven lies are a common occurrence. Should you find yourself outside those fairways, prepare to take your medicine. Waiting for you there are those waste areas, as well as tall fescue and even clover and thistle in some areas. While some may scoff at such a notion, this is a microcosm of Sweetens Cove’s ethos. It’s a palace for the golfing purist: a minimalist, essential experience that harkens back to when golf geniuses like Old Tom Morris knew exactly where (and where not) to focus their energy. If something adds to the golfing experience, Sweetens Cove has it in spades. If it doesn’t add to the golfing experience, the folks at Sweetens Cove don’t bother.
The opening hole (pictured to the far left of the above image) is a par-5 of 563 yards. It’s a three-shot hole for most mortals, but your best chance of getting home in two is to start by carrying the bunker on the left about 270 yards off the tee. Be very careful about how you approach the green. It’s guarded by a gnarly pot bunker bordered by vertical railroad ties. The green on this hole is a foreshadowing of what’s to come on the next eight with bounding ridges and multiple potential pin locations that each provide a totally different perspective.
The second hole is a par-4 of 375 yards, and the star of the show is the nastiest little pot bunker. It’s placed squarely in the middle of the fairway about 260 yards from the tee. If you miss it, you’re likely fine, but if you don’t… well, good luck. The smart play is hybrid off the tee to stay short of the bunker, leaving yourself a short iron into the green.
No. 3 is a par-5 of 582 yards. Feel free to let fly with the driver off the tee, but beware how you approach the green. The green is perched high above the fairway and guarded by a massive tree in front and a waste area to the left. If the pin is located on the left side of the green, you’re in for a surprise when you walk up to the flag. The ideal landing area isn’t much larger than a couple hundred square feet.
No. 4, King, is the only hole with a name. It’s a 169-yard par-3 according to the card, but the green is 90 yards long. The shot can play anywhere from 120-200 yards depending on pin location and the direction of the swirling winds. And did I mention the tee shot is blind from the tips?
No. 5 is a 293-yard par-4. For longer hitters, it’s reachable from the tee with the right wind, but be careful where you miss. Short right of the green is all waste area that is relatively escapable, though your second shot will likely be to a blind pin. Short left is another nasty pot bunker.
No. 6 is a massive 456-yard par-4 with a sweeping dogleg left that tempts you to hit a hard draw. What you are likely to find out after the fact is that a good portion of the fairway slopes to the left and into a water hazard that runs the length of the hole. This will be one of the hardest holes on the course for most golfers. The only way to miss this green and still be in play is to be short and/or right of it, but getting up and down from there will definitely test your nerves, skill, and imagination.
No. 7 is a 328-yard par-4. It’s all about what club you select off the tee. Driver straight at the flag (which must carry a bunker on the right) is aggressive but likely safe. A driver left will leave you with that dreaded 60-yard bunker shot, and driver right could be behind a tree. Be smart and hit a hybrid. If you miss the green left or right, you may waste a shot or two going back and forth due to the steep drop off on either side.
No. 8 was my personal nemesis. It’s a 387-yard par-4 that, in retrospect, places an emphasis on an accurately planned tee shot (notice a theme here?). By that I mean at the tee, you need to evaluate where the pin is and pick the club and line that will give you the best angle — while keeping in mind the location of the bunkers and trees that could impact your intended path.
No. 9 is an uphill, 148-yard par-3 with a massive waste area in front, another bunker beyond, and a back-right to front-left sloping green. Matt Cardis’ photo below from his @golfinyourstate Instagram account is taken from the No. 9 tee box.
A course with virtually no excess is a challenging proposition. Everything has to be in exactly the right place, as there’s nothing to divert your attention away from anything that doesn’t meet expectations. Sweetens Cove is definitely up to the task, forcing you to constantly zoom in and out mentally to evaluate the macro and micro of every single shot. There are no less than three shots that can be played from any given situation on the course, but you had better commit to the strategy you’ve chosen and execute or you will pay the price.
The entire journey is spent on the razor-thin edge between heroism and disappointment. Sure, there are elements of this designer and that designer; of links golf and American golf, but Sweetens Cove is truly a golf course without a parallel. It’s a place that serves as a refreshing counter-culture to the vast majority of 21st-century golf courses and, frankly, to the American lifestyle in general. In a world with so much excess, Sweetens Cove will remind you that if all you had left was just a fantastic golf course, all would still be very much right with the world.
Jack’s back! A first look at Reynolds Great Waters reopening
I was happy to accept a recent invitation to attend the grand reopening of the Great Waters course at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Over the last five years, I have come to know Reynolds Lake Oconee quite well. It is a gated community that is cozied up next to a man-made lake halfway between Augusta and Atlanta, Georgia (fun fact: almost all of the lakes in Georgia are man-made) and is populated by a lot of people who have that increasingly rare ability to be well-off and well-behaved, which makes it a really pleasant place to reside.
Reynolds Lake Oconee also has a Ritz-Carlton hotel for those that want to soak up some southern-style luxury; one of the things that I like most about RLO is that the place is golf-centric without having that “golf monastery” feel of some of the newer multi-course golf destinations. It is a prime location for Masters ticket holders to stay during tournament week, and I have been there a couple of times myself for their version of Monday after the Masters.
Over the years, Reynolds Lake Oconee has very quietly become one of the country’s great golf destinations, kind of a Georgia peach-flavored version of Pinehurst. The property boasts six championship golf courses, including designs by Nicklaus, Bob Cupp, Tom Fazio, Rees Jones. Great Waters (Nicklaus) and The Oconee (Jones) are ranked it the Top 100 public courses in America, with Great Waters at #2 in the state. And to top it off, the Kingdom of Golf by TaylorMade is located at RLO. Gearheads will know that The Kingdom is one of the highest-regarded instruction and club fitting facilities in the country. Make an appointment to try it out and you can tell your friends that you got fitted for a new driver or set of irons at the same place Jason Day and Rory McIlroy tweak their bags during Masters Week.
Great Waters was the first course that I had played there—five years ago I was invited to play in the Big Break Invitational. It was very cool to hang out with Tommy “Two-Gloves” Gainey, Don Donatello and the rest of the gang that I had watched on TV for years. I got to play a few holes with Tony Finau right before he jumped to the PGA Tour (you forgot he was a Big Break-er didn’t you?). I knew he was going to do OK when I saw him dismantle a short par-4 with a 290-yard 3-wood to the front of the green that led to a tap-in birdie and a big ‘ole Finau grin. Great Waters’ credentials also included hosting the WGC Match Play in its early days, as well as a slew of local and regional championships.
But after almost 30 years of play, Great Waters was in need of maintenance, repair, and upgrades to some infrastructure, so the word was that Nicklaus and the owners would do the maintenance and also take the opportunity to apply the wisdom and the advancements gained since the original launch and make some structural changes to the layout.
I flew into Atlanta and picked up my ride to Greene County, a 2020 Mercedes-Benz AMG C63, a 500-horsepower SUV coupe that made the ride to RLO infinitely more comfortable and considerably shorter than the same trip in the hotel shuttle. As I cruised the satellite radio bands and dodged state troopers on I-20, I was thinking about how Jack might have changed the course. Nicklaus is nothing if not prolific as a golf course designer; he has over 260 course designs to his name and if you include co- and re-designs that number gets to 300. But the honest truth is that while every Nicklaus course is a challenge, they can take on an air of the familiar.
It’s not all his fault; a developer from Argentina plays your track in Florida and then wants to pay you a million dollars to do roughly the same thing in Caracas, you do it. And many of the Nicklaus tracks can be extremely penal, especially for resort courses. For that reason, I have developed a shortlist of favorite Bear tracks that, in my humble opinion, got the balance of challenge, opportunity, beauty and fun exactly right. The Manele Golf Course at the Four Seasons Lanai is my absolute favorite Nicklaus course, and Great Waters was just behind it. I was hoping that Jack wasn’t going to respond to the advances that had been made in club design and the ever-expanding length of the golf ball to fortify the layout to the detriment of playability. Great Waters was great fun to play, and I selfishly wanted it to stay that way.
As I arrived at the practice facility before the opening round at Great Waters, the first thing that struck me was the practice facility itself. It was opening day for that facility too, and it was immaculate. I noticed that there were a lot of thin shots being hit because no one wanted to take a divot from the immaculate turf on the practice tee. I went to the practice green to roll a couple of putts; the TIFF Eagle surface was rolling at a speed roughly equivalent to a gym floor. Not a good sign for scoring on the potato chip greens that I remembered from my previous trip around Great Waters.
The first and most predictable difference was the length of the course. It was expanded with the addition of “Golden Bear” back tees that play a robust 7,400 yards; to put that in perspective, on the first hole, they actually had to place the Golden Bear tees on the practice green! But there were also new tees placed at 4,500 yards to increase playability, pace-of-play and birdie opportunities for the less prodigious. I was playing with three 30-somethings, so I swallowed hard and played from 6,900-plus, all but assuring that most of the birdies I’d see that day would be perched in the Georgia pines.
The opening holes are classic Georgia golf, meandering through the pines with glimpses of the lake As I went through the front nine, the changes I saw were mostly technical. Extensive tree clearing took place to reduce shade and improve overall turf quality. Speaking of turf, the grasses that were used for the renovation are state of the art, with Zeon zoysia for the fairways and TifTuf Bermuda rough, both of which should hold up well with minimal water and chemical treatment in the sweltering heat of Georgia summers.
I was hitting driver well that day and was loving the way that zoysia “tees” the ball up for approach shots. The greens complexes are all new and have also been converted to TifEagle Bermuda, a grass that performs better in the shade and holds color in the fall. That, along with the lowering of some embankments allow for wider fairways and more views of the lake. The fairway bunkers, somewhat surprisingly, had not been moved, but they were in perfect condition, as were the greenside bunkers. The greens, as expected, were table-top hard, but they will definitely soften as they mature and settle after the rebuild.
As I was making the turn, I was pleased; the course so far had been improved without fundamentally changing an already exceptional experience. But if the front nine is a sonata, the back nine is a rock anthem. Perhaps the most stunning hole is the 11th, a gorgeous 311-yard par-4 that is the dictionary definition of “risk-reward” (and the hole where Tony Finau had given me a look into his future). Lowering the hillside on the left side of the hole allows the players to see much more of the lake that frames it. Deciding to go hero mode and hit driver is a common mistake on the hole; if you dunk it in the lake on the left you’ll probably find at least a sleeve of Pro V1s left by previous victims waiting for you in the grass near your drop.
Great Waters saves the best for last, as every hole except No. 10 has Lake Oconee either visible or in play, and on a perfect fall day like we had it is a lovely sight indeed. The final four holes are a chorus line of beauties that offer some of the best views in American golf, and the par-3 17th and the massive par-5 18th rank as one of the best finishing combinations in the Nicklaus portfolio. I went par/bogey on the finish, but from the distance I was playing, I couldn’t complain. On the contrary, I walked off with the same feeling that I had when I played the first time: ”I’d love to play it again tomorrow.”
The great man of Great Waters gave a press conference the day after the opening round, and he was reflective when speaking about the project in terms of his life and career.
“I think that I have learned some things over the years, and you see that [at Great Waters],” Nicklaus noted. “But the members and residents here have always wanted a property they can be proud of, and I think that’s what we gave them.”
In all, Great Waters is just as challenging and just as much fun, if not more, than before. The aesthetic changes to the course have made it more picturesque than ever, but if you want to want to score well, you’ll need to spend more time lining up your putts than your pictures.
“The thing a course designer wants to hear from golfers when they see a hole is, “Wow,” said Nicklaus.
For sure, Great Waters has provided its share of “wow” moments, and with this project completed, it is sure to be providing them for years to come.
I played nearly 150 courses last year. Here are my 6 favorite
Summer is most definitely here! After a brutal winter, many of us are looking to use the coming summer to play A LOT of golf. For those looking for recommendations, I wanted to list a couple of my favorite courses from this past year. These courses were selected from the nearly 150 different courses that I played in 2018. So why did these make the cut? Simple: playability, course condition, and overall experience.
Here’s my list, in no particular order
Much has been written about the course based on its length; almost 8000 yards from the backs but to me, the beauty of the course is the combination of breath-taking views of nearby mountains, as well as the reservoir with comes into play on several holes. Beyond the scenery, TPC Colorado offers generous landing areas and large greens. Whereas many modern greens have significant undulation, these are subtle allowing for a lot of makeable putts! Really fun to play!
Owned and operated by the outdoor life brand company, Mossy Oak is located near Starkville, MS. The course is a Hanse design that is forgiving off the tee but requires strong approach shots to a melee of different sized targets, from different distances, allowing you to hit every club in the bag. When you get the pleasure of playing here, make sure to listen to your caddy and stop in after for a bite in the clubhouse….food is wonderful!
Turning Stone Resort
This casino resort, located in upstate New York, offers golfers a great combination of upscale golf and nightlife in one location. Perfect for a guys trip, the hotel rooms are luxurious and the golf is amazing; boosting three different golf by famed designers Fazio (Atunyote), Jones (Kaluhyat) and Smith (Shenandoah). My personal favorite is the newly resigned Shenandoah; a beautiful parkland course with generous landing areas off the tees and nice big greens, but you cannot go wrong with any of the courses!
Sand Creek Station
This course has a well-deserved reputation as the best low-cost golf course in the world. At about $30 per round, you will not find a finer experience. Don’t let the price tag fool you, Sand Creek Station is meticulously maintained. The course treats people to two different sides; the front is a little more links, with the back a little more parkland. The front can be demanding off the tee, especially if the wind is up. A true gem and certainly worth the trip to play!
Half Moon Bay Links
Located just south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean with a wonderful golf experience. With generous fairways, nuanced elevation changes and a wonderful variation of holes with my favorite finishing holes in golf; a par 3 on the ocean (17th) and a reachable par 5 to finish. If you are lucky to finish around dusk, you will play up the last to the sounds of bagpipes. Brilliant end!
TPC San Antonio
Home to a PGA Tour event, TPC San Antonio boasts two excellent golf courses; the Oaks and Canyons. While the tour event is played on the Oaks, my preference is for the Canyons; I think it has more variation and is less demanding, which made it more fun to play. Family-friendly, the course is located footsteps from a Marriott with an amazing water park that will quickly become a favorite for kids of all ages!
As a keen golfer, I am always looking for new places to play. So let’s hear from you GolfWRX fans…where did I miss? Have you played these places, what did you think?
The Whistling Straits & Sand Valley Experience
I’d never been to Wisconsin. Neither had my dad. It might not be on the top of mind as a golf destination, but perhaps it should be. Ever since I heard about Mike Keiser (of Bandon Dunes fame) opening his new project at Sand Valley, I was interested. As a Bandon Dunes devotee, I knew I needed to get to Sand Valley sooner rather than later. No better time than the present.
And as I started planning this little weekend excursion to the Northern Midwest, another course quickly came to mind. Whistling Straits…host of the 2020 Ryder Cup and the PGA Championships in 2004, 2010 and 2014. I’d seen the layout and watched the course on TV countless times, and pairing the Straits with Sand Valley seemed like a perfect combination for 3 days of summer Wisconsin golf. And you know what…it was.
We flew into Milwaukee, which turned out to be a shockingly easy place to navigate and rent a car for a city of its size. No shuttle ride required, which means a ton when you are lugging around travel golf bags. From there, it’s an hour-or-so drive due north to the city of Kohler. That’s where you’ll find Whistling Straits…in all her glory.
We checked into the American Club hotel, a bigger-than-it looks building that once served as the dormitories for the workers at the nearby Kohler company factory. The entire town of Kohler revolves around the history of the Kohler Manufacturing Co., famous for its plumbing products. Destination Kohler is the hospitality arm of the company and it handles the tourism activities within the village of Kohler. The town and company trace back to John Michael Kohler, an Austrian Immigrant who began the family business in 1873 by making farm equipment. Since then, the family has operated the company and created what we see today. Herbert Kohler, grandson of the founder and avid golfer, was responsible for bringing golf to the area. The Kohler name owns both courses at Whistling Straits, The Straits and The Irish, as well as two courses at Blackwolf Run, the River Course and Meadow’s Valley. Interestingly, the Kohler family also owns and operates The Old Course Hotel, which borders the Road Hole at St. Andrews. Just an incredible family and company.
The American Club opened in 1918 and the charm has survived all of these years. The rooms are spacious, decor is dark wood and antiquitous, and several great dining options are under one roof. To be honest, I was surprised at how nice everything was. Not just the hotel or the restaurants and shops on-site, but also the town itself. Every yard and garden was perfectly maintained. It felt like the whole town took a great deal of pride it itself. It made you feel good just being there.
My dad and I got in late on our first night but we still had time for dinner at the Horse and Plow, a casual tavern type restaurant with a sizable beer menu. The food was very much Wisconsin–cheesy and meaty and tasty. They had Spotted Cow beer, from New Glarus Brewing, on tap at the bar. I’d never tasted it before but apparently you can only get it in Wisconsin. It was pretty dang good and would serve as my beer of choice for the rest of the trip. It pairs well with the schnitzel. Pro tip.
We woke up and had coffee in the greenhouse, a coffee shop on-site in the back gardens of The American Club. The weather was perfect and everyone was sitting outside, enjoying the morning sun. We had a few hours before our round at Whistling Straights and we used it walking around the town of Kohler. This is something I highly recommend. The American Club is surrounded on two sides by Victorian-style neighborhoods. Street after street of American charm. And the stroll can take you to a nearby shopping center that is built around Wood Lake. There’s additional restaurants, shops and activities to enjoy here…including yoga on the lake and the Kohler Swing Studio and Golf Shop, full of local course merchandise. Also, this is the location of The Inn on Woodlake, another lodging option within the Kohler family.
We got back to the hotel and enjoyed the full breakfast buffet at the Wisconsin room inside the American Club. Once our legs were sufficiently stretched and our bellies full, we grabbed our clubs and waited for the shuttle to Whistling Straits, which runs on the top of the hour every hour.
Whistling Straits is a Pete Dye designed monster that tips out at 7,790 yards with a rating of 77.2 and a slope of 152. Par is a traditional 72 but that’s just a number. The course plays tough. The clubhouse was built in an Irish castle style, with Celtic cross windows that peer over the majestic (and somewhat frightening) 18th hole. Three flag poles frame the front entrance with the American, Irish, and Ryder Cup Flags waving proudly. There was to be no mistake that this course was a tribute to Irish links golf. The inside of the clubhouse is full of memories from the 2004, 2010, 2015 PGA Championships, the 2007 US Senior Open, and with reminders all around that the 2020 Ryder Cup is on its way as well. The pro shop is professional and first-class. Everything you’d want, they have.
A round at Whistling Straits will cost you north of $400 but twilight and super twilight rates are available for nearly half off. And the sun doesn’t go down in Wisconsin in July until 8:30 pm. So the smart play is to book a late afternoon round at a major discount. That being said, this course is a bucket lister. It ranks as the #3 public course in America in Gold Digest’s latest rankings. Sometimes you just have to pay up for one of those. And the rest of the courses out at Kohler are much more reasonably priced to complete your visit. We played on the 4th of July and honestly, the course wasn’t overly crowded at all.
Upstairs in the Straits clubhouse is the Irish Pub, a neat bar/lunch spot that opens at 11. My dad and I had a pre-round meal ahead of our late afternoon tee-time. The bratwurst sandwich was outstanding and just thinking about it now, my mouth is watering as I write this. Do yourself a favor and make this a must-order item. We sat next to a window overlooking that 18th fairway, preparing ourselves for what lay ahead.
We hired a caddie for this round, and I’m thankful we did. The course is as difficult as you’ve probably heard. In fact, I’d put it up there with the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island as the toughest track I’ve ever played. The wind will inevitably be blowing off Lake Michigan, which is a big deal since 14 or so holes are on the water. And thousands, literally thousands of bunkers surround this course. Pete Dye even put bunkers parallel and eye level with many of the tee boxes, certainly not in play but just a subtle reminder that there is danger to be found around every turn.
But as difficult as this course plays, it is equally beautiful. We were blessed with a clear day and the water on the lake was as blue as the Caribbean. That isn’t an exaggeration. The course felt like we were playing alongside the ocean and only the absence of seagulls and saltwater in the air reminded us that we were, in fact, in Wisconsin.
The course meanders along the shore with the internal holes often sitting a few feet higher than the coastline. The views from there hide the holes in between and create a shoreline feeling even though you are a couple hundred yards from the water. Its a brilliant architectural design by Dye. The four par 3s all resemble one another…a long carry over beach, sand and tall grass with the lake either on your right or left. Two holes play north, and two play south, making the wind different for each pair. And while my description might sound repetitious, obvious, and dull, the par 3s at Straits were probably my favorite set of “short” holes on any course I’ve ever played. The holes are similar but that’s a great thing because they are all gorgeous and perfect. Obviously, each green complex is unique and the distances on each hole vary (188, 221, 163, 249!) but the theme remains the same…you stand on the tee, admire the view, figure out the wind, build up your courage and swing. I wish I could play them again right now.
Some of the internal holes are also quite scenic. It’s tough to beat the tall grass waving in the wind as a backdrop to all that green space and all those bunkers. The par-5 fifth hole is a bit too quirky for my tastes. A double bending, 600-yard hole that forces the longer hitters to either hit driver over a pond on the right to a narrow fairway, or hitting something less than a driver straight away, making it a guaranteed three-shot hole. But even that hole is beautiful.
But the best hole on the course is 18. Nicknamed “Dyeabolical” as a hat tip to the designer, the par 4 plays 520 yards from the tips. And it’s so much better from back there. A creek splits the fairway in two towards the hole and, though scenic in front of the clubhouse, 18 is the hardest finishing hole I’ve ever played. You have to keep your ball right and hope long iron is enough to find the sloping green in regulation. I was fortunate enough to walk off the green with a four on the scorecard…something I will always remember.
We finished off our day at Whistling with dinner on the back patio of the clubhouse. The restaurant there is high quality and several tables were full of non-golfing patrons who came just for the food. My dad and I were exhausted. Walking Whistling Straits (no carts allowed) is a tiring experience…both mentally and physically. But a glass of wine and a nice cut of meat was just what the Irish doctor ordered. A great finish to a truly world-class round of golf.
My overall takeaway: Whistling Straits is a must-play for the true golf fan. High handicappers will struggle mightily, but the experience of simply being there is worth the money once in your life. And when you pair it with the fantastic accommodations at nearby Kohler and the American Club, this place is a must visit. I’m excited to come back and see the other three courses someday….and maybe try to tame The Straits again.
Now it was time to get some sleep and then head to Sand Valley in the morning.
SAND VALLEY RESORT
The drive to Sand Valley is a bit longer this time…taking us every bit of 2 1/2 hours. But, we got to see a ton of the countryside along the way. Each road was lined with black and white dairy cows and red barns and silos. Of course, dairy farming is the state’s claim to fame and they don’t let you forget it. Cheese shops and advertisements are around every corner. My personal favorite was, of course, the “Mousehouse Cheesehaus.”
It was neat to see the state transition from cornfields and farming to pine woods and sandy soil the further we headed west. And as the pine trees grew thicker and thicker, I knew we were getting closer to the spot Mike Keiser picked out for his next great golf mecca.
Sand Valley is home to three (so far) golf courses, each one full of uniqueness and fun. The first course, Sand Valley, was built in 2017 by the design team of Coore/Crenshaw and immediately won “Best New Course of the Year” by Golf Magazine. Not to be outdone, that same award was given one year later to Mammoth Dunes, the David McLay Kidd designed course which sits just behind the main clubhouse and bar. Coore/Crenshaw were back again in May of 2018 to open The Sandbox, a 17-hole par-3 course. And you guessed it…the short course took home the “Best New Short Course of 2018” Award. Three new courses. Three awards. All within the friendly confines of Sand Valley Golf Resort.
The Sand Valley clubhouse and lodging are built in a modern farmhouse style, complete with the sleek and attractive necessities only. The rooms are spacious, the windows are large and the golf is just off the back patio. Sand Valley has several different room options but they all are within walking distance of the main clubhouse. And within that clubhouse, you’ll find the pro shop, the caddie shack, Aldo’s restaurant and the Mammoth Bar. Our room was large and on the second floor of the main building’s lodging. Our window overlooked the No. 1 teebox at Mammoth Dunes and the putting green behind the lodge, which had action on both days from 6 am to 9 pm.
Summer green fee rates are $215 for Mammoth and Sand Valley, but your second round of the day is 50 percent off. Sandbox costs $65. That’s not exactly cheap, but if you don’t mind walking 36 each day (I recommend it) then the price per hole goes down dramatically. And with the limited alternative options at Sand Valley Resort, playing as much golf as possible seems to be the thing to do. There is, obviously, the bar and restaurant to spend your time…and grass tennis courts are available as well if that’s your thing. But lets face it, we come for the golf. Might as well take advantage of that discounted rate for round 2 and get a couple rounds in per day.
The town of Rome, Wisconsin is near the resort and I heard several golfers make plans to travel there for dinner on some nights. As Sand Valley continues to grow, I am sure more dining options will become available but for now, you are left with only Aldo’s and Mammoth Bar as your traditional dining options. Craig’s Porch, on the top of the hill near Sand Valley’s first tee, does serve breakfast and tacos at lunch as well. But it is more or less a halfway snack house with really good tacos and an even better view.
Our first round of the visit to Sand Valley was at Mammoth Dunes. The first tee is steps off the Mammoth Bar patio and putting green, providing entertainment for all to view. The first hole really paints the picture of what to expect with this course, too. The fairway is monstrous and inviting, a slight bend up the hill surrounded by impressive sand dunes and little else. Wiry fescue does provide some natural backdrop between fairway and pine trees, but if you aren’t finding the short grass of these ginormous fairways at Mammoth, you might need to invest in a new driver. Keiser and McLay Kidd share the desire to return public golf to its Scottish roots…beautiful landscapes and strategic, yet fair golf courses. Mammoth Dunes is incredibly beautiful…and also incredibly fun.
The sheer scale of Mammoth Dunes can be a bit overwhelming. The fairways are so large, you’re tempted to swing as hard as you can and send it. But there is a course within the course at Mammoth. The ground contours are as important here as any course I’ve played, and each hole provides you with options to take the tight, aggressive line, or the safe play to a not so good angle to the green. The greens are just as big as the fairways, which only helps the confidence grow. Especially after playing a course like Whistling Straits.
Mammoth offers tremendous playability and options. It’s one of those courses I would be happy to play every day for the rest of my life. Fairways and greens, sure…but options, aggressive angles when desired and always the chance for recovery after a miss. Golf as it was meant to be, indeed.
There’s a hot dog/sandwich stand after the 10th hole…serving beer, water, and liquor as well. And after the climb to 10 green, it was a welcome sight. The course offers more undulation than I imagined it would. There are some tremendous elevation changes on the front 9 that provide remarkable views all the way back to the clubhouse. The course offers six different tee boxes, ranging from 6,988 yards from the tips all the way to 4,055 yards from the royal blue tees. It’s a par 73 from all tees, with three par 5s on the back nine, including the gorgeous 536-yard finishing hole to the green just below the patio tables of Aldo’s Farm & Table Restaurant.
The par-3 13th hole might be the best on the course. Only 130 yards from the back tees, the entire hole carries over one of the most dramatic dune complexes on the course. The green, as you might expect, is large but tricky, giving protection to any pin placement on the surface. A tree creates a fear of the miss left. It’s one of those holes that widen your eyes as soon as you step on the tee.
The finishing stretch at Mammoth Dunes has some good opportunities to score. The 14th hole is only 325 yards from the elevated back tees, but the hole plays much shorter than that. Aim your ball well right of the green and allow the shape of the fairway to funnel your ball towards the hole. I hit my best drive of the week here but luckily missed right of my target. I walked up to the green and the group on the next tee box were applauding me. My “miss” right ended up 15 feet from the hole for eagle. Looking back towards the tee box, the hole shape really reveals itself. I am not sure it’s possible to be too far right on the fairway on this hole, as everything is going to funnel towards the green. You just need to know where to hit it…or get lucky like I did. Oh, and I missed the putt.
SAND VALLEY GOLF
I knew Sand Valley was going to be a different test than Mammoth Dunes. Having played several Coore/Crenshaw designs in the past, I was well aware that the “send it” mentality wasn’t going to work on this course. The fairways, while still bigger than most, are littered with dangerous slopes, pot bunkers and awkward distances that require thinking off the tee rather than reaching for the one wood on every hole.
The first tee is a long walk or a short shuttle ride from the main clubhouse, up the hill toward’s Craig’s Porch, the cabin bar/restaurant/starter’s shack. From the porch’s patio, you can see half the holes on Sand Valley, as well as a beautiful view back down towards Mammoth Dunes and the main clubhouse. The tacos at Craig’s Porch are $1.50 and the beers are $2.00. Life is good at Sand Valley.
The course itself plays 6,938 yards from the tips and is a par 72 (35/37) layout with three par 3s on the front and three par 5s on the back. The first hole is a short par 4 at 335 yards where longer hitters can vie for the green in one. Smart play is to lay your spoon out on the right for the best angle into this green with a wedge. Danger all down the left side and and a push with the big dog will get you in trouble through the slight dogleg left fairway. And that, in a nutshell, is Sand Valley. Pick the right club off the tee first…and then make sure you hit it to the right spot.
The second hole is no different. A 431-yard par 4 with an intersection midway through the fairway created by large bunkers and an elevated second half of the hole. Driver will get you in trouble with a very narrow landing zone. But iron off the tee creates a very long approach uphill. Choose wisely. Coore/Crenshaw make you think.
The green complexes at Sand Valley are still very much epic in size. Even on this course, which I believe is the tougher of the two Sand Valley layouts, the playability and fairness is still ever-present. Not a ton of lost balls on the property. Greens can be hit in regulation from pretty much anywhere on the hole. The bunkers are prevalent but playable. The true test is in the angles and I have a feeling it would be a much better track the second and third time you play it because you can begin to see what the choices the architects were wanting you to grapple with on each hole. If I had more time at Sand Valley, I would devote my extra rounds to this course rather than Mammoth Dunes. Use Mammoth as your “fun” round and Sand Valley as your true test of golf.
And finally, the short course. The other Coore/Crenshaw design on site, the Sandbox is simply 17 holes of uninterrupted fun. And that is evident as soon as you walk to the first tee, a hop-skip-and-a-jump from the main clubhouse, and see a giant canoe filled with ice and $2 beer waiting for you. You only need three or four clubs, as the shortest holes are 50 yards and the longest is 150. Most players grab their wedges and a putter and then use the Seamus carry bags that are provided to you on the first tee.
The Sandbox allows tee times right up until sunset, with many golfers using it as a third round of the day. You can get around the course in less than two hours and the beer canoe is accessible about five times during your round. It’s a great place to unwind, hit some fun shots and get a few swings in before sunset and dinner at Aldo’s. The greens also are just as tricky as the ones you’ll find on both courses, so it’s a pretty solid place to tune your short game, too.
This was our last round of the trip. In fact, my last full swing was a 100-yard sand wedge to 12 feet on 17 at the Sandbox. I didn’t even attempt the putt. The ball was purely struck and it was a ton of fun watching it land close to the hole and stay there. And that’s what golf at Sand Valley is supposed to be…fun. It’s not just about scoring well or making birdies…even though that’s always fun, too. It’s about enjoying the walk. Drinking a beer and then hitting your shot. Taking a look around at the beauty of the land and being thankful for a wonderful game. Golf, as it was meant to be, is about enjoyment. And if you are a true golf fan, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself at Sand Valley.
Three days of golf in Wisconsin and we played one of the toughest, most beautiful courses in the world at Whistling Straits. Then we followed that up with three rounds of pure enjoyment golf at Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes and the Sandbox. If I didn’t believe it before, I believe it now…Wisconsin is a golfer’s paradise.
If you want to hear more about my experience, have questions, or want help planning an experience of your own, tweet at me here @FWTXGolfer or message me on Instagram here! I look forward to hearing from you!
Best irons in golf of 2019
Best irons in golf of 2019: Top overall performers
Chris DiMarco calls Patrick Reed a cheater and a “d*ck” in social media rant
Cam Smith claims his friendship with Patrick Reed is finished as tensions rise at Presidents Cup
Greg Norman reveals that he contacted an on-site official immediately after watching Patrick Reed bunker incident at Hero
Best irons in golf of 2019: Most technology packed
“Old Man Golf Media”? Barstool Sports and some of golf’s leading journalists involved in bitter online feud
Best irons in golf of 2019: The shotmakers
Presidents Cup WITBs: U.S. Team
Best irons in golf of 2019: Pure enjoyment
The 6 best #GolfWRX photos on Instagram today (1.17.20)
In this segment, we’ll be taking a look at some of the best #GolfWRX tagged photos on Instagram. In case...
Brooks Koepka drops mic on Bryson’s trash talking
What started last year as a call out for “overcalculations” by Brooks Koepka on Bryson DeChambeau’s slow play during a...
The 6 best #GolfWRX photos on Instagram today (1.15.20)
In this segment, we’ll be taking a look at some of the best #GolfWRX tagged photos on Instagram. In case...
The 6 best #GolfWRX photos on Instagram today (1.13.20)
In this segment, we’ll be taking a look at some of the best #GolfWRX tagged photos on Instagram. In case...
19th Hole2 weeks ago
Chris DiMarco calls Patrick Reed a cheater and a “d*ck” in social media rant
Equipment3 weeks ago
WRX Spotted: TaylorMade SIM Drivers on USGA Conforming list
Equipment2 weeks ago
Full details of the TaylorMade SIM changes made by Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Matthew Wolff, and Collin Morikawa at the Sentry TOC
Equipment2 weeks ago
2020 TaylorMade SIM and SIM Max drivers: “Shape in Motion”
Whats in the Bag2 weeks ago
Xander Schauffele WITB: 2020 Sentry Tournament of Champions
Equipment3 days ago
Nike Golf unveils new Nike Air Zoom Infinity Tour golf shoe in collaboration with Brooks Koepka
Equipment3 weeks ago
Dustin Johnson, Matthew Wolff spotted with TaylorMade SIM drivers at Sentry Tournament of Champions
Equipment2 weeks ago
New 2020 PXG 0311 Gen 3 P, T, and XP irons