World Class Golf in Rome
|Golf course architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, best known for designing Sand Hills in Mullen,
Nebraska (No. 9 on Golf Digest magazine's latest ranking of America's 100 greatest golf courses and
No. 12 on Golf magazine's top 100 courses in the world) have been selected by developer Mike Keiser to
design the first course at Sand Valley in central Wisconsin, Keiser's new multi-course layout near Lake
Arrowhead in the Town of Rome.
Sand Valley could be Wisconsin's next golf mecca
Chicagoan Keiser hopes to turn remote property into Midwest version of Bandon Dunes
|The story of Sand Valley begins with an apology.
While on a weekend hike with his wife, a construction executive named Craig Haltom came upon an area in central
Wisconsin with giant sand dunes. He thought: This would make for a great golf course.
He contacted Mike Keiser, the Chicago greeting-card magnate who had turned a remote stretch of Oregon coastland
into one of the world's great golf destinations by celebrating the origins of the game — walking with caddies,
links play affected by the elements.
But with Keiser continuing to add to the Bandon Dunes properties in Oregon, plus developing Cabot Links in Nova
Scotia, he had little appetite to build. Plus, as he put it, "I couldn't believe a site in central Wisconsin, with no
ocean or lake, would be anything but mediocre."
In the fall of 2012, he sent business partner Josh Lesnik to scout the property. The president of KemperSports promised,
"I'll try to make it something you are not interested in."
So much for that.
"I'm very sorry to tell you this," Lesnik told Keiser, "but you are going to love it."
So much so that Keiser purchased about 1,500 acres, closing the deal Dec. 17. And this week he
announced the hiring of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to design the first course, projected to be open for play in 2016.
If successful, Keiser will build a second course. And a third. And a fourth. And thus attempt to create America's next golf
mecca fewer than 250 miles from Chicago.
Already 120 "founders," mainly from Chicago and Milwaukee, have committed $50,000 each to finance the property, and they will
help make up a membership of about 200.
But Keiser is a firm believer in public-access golf, noting that nearly every great course in Scotland and Ireland is open
to people of various means. So while founders will have a concierge to steer them to certain select tee times, the property
will be open to all, with green fees in the $150 range.
"It's going to be the public's chance to play a Pine Valley," said Chicagoan Jim Murphy, Sand Valley founder No. 1. "The property
is so cool, with natural sand areas and elevation changes. It's very different from many we see in the Midwest."
Pine Valley, in New Jersey, ranks as the nation's greatest course on the Golf Digest list. Sand Hills, a 1994 Coore-Crenshaw
masterpiece in the rolling terrain of central Nebraska, is ninth.
Put them together and you have Sand Valley.
It's a name Keiser said he wanted to bestow on the Oregon course that became Pacific Dunes.
"It turns out," Keiser said, "that an area near Wisconsin Rapids has the ultimate Sand Valley dunes."
Most of the world's great courses are built on sand, which drains well and is easy to move, allowing for
creativity among course architects.
"The (property) is beautiful," Lesnik said, "whether you are someone who carries 14 clubs or likes to hike."
Murphy visited the area in May. Asked how quickly he knew it would make for great golf, he replied: "I wasn't even out
of the car yet. And I've walked a lot of golf properties. Just driving the car onto the dunes was amazing. For
golfers it will be a 'wow' experience."
Unlike most Keiser properties, golf carts will be permitted. Like Sand Hills, Sand Valley is so remote that it
would be difficult to find enough caddies for every player. Walking will be encouraged, though.
The Coore-Crenshaw team, which renovated Pinehurst No. 2 for the men's and women's U.S. Opens this year,
will begin design work as soon as the snow melts.
The plan is not only to construct multiple courses, but also for founders to build housing in the area to
supplement the plethora of vacation rentals along or near Lake Arrowhead.
The property will join Erin Hills and Kohler courses such as Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run to cement
Wisconsin as the Midwest's top high-end golf destination.
Keiser's four 18-hole Bandon Dunes layouts rank in the top 16 on Golf Digest's list of the nation's top public courses,
and the man whose Chicago apartment overlooks the Diversey Harbor Lagoon sees vast potential in Sand Valley.
And to think, it all started with the words "I'm very sorry."
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Team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have designed acclaimed courses worldwide
Golf course architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, whose portfolio includes some of the most highly
acclaimed courses in the world, have been selected by developer Mike Keiser to design the first course at
Sand Valley in central Wisconsin.
Coore and Crenshaw, known for their minimalist designs and spectacular routings on sand dunes in Nebraska,
Oregon and on Long Island, have never worked in Wisconsin.
Their course, the first of what could ultimately be a four- or five-course resort about 15 miles south of Wisconsin
Rapids, would tentatively open to founding members in 2016 and to the public in 2017.
Sand Valley would join the Kohler Co. golf properties near Sheboygan and Erin Hills near Hartford to make
Wisconsin a top destination for traveling golfers.
Keiser, who in mid-December finalized the purchase of 1,500 acres from the Plum Tree Timber Co., picked
Coore and Crenshaw from a short list that included David Kidd and Tom Doak. All designed courses for Keiser
previously at Bandon Dunes in Bandon, Ore.
Keiser said he also talked to Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus, "both of whom would love to be involved in Wisconsin and
both of whom I respect greatly. They're on the broad list. They've both done amazing courses and we will consider
them (for future courses at Sand Valley)."
Nicklaus designed The Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan Falls.
Keiser said he picked Coore-Crenshaw over Doak and Kidd for a couple reasons.
"Two things broke for Coore-Crenshaw," Keiser said. "No. 1, Coore-Crenshaw went last at Bandon Dunes. Kidd went
first (and designed Bandon Dunes), Doak second (Pacific Dunes). Coore-Crenshaw got what many considered to be the
least spectacular piece of ground and did a remarkable job with Bandon Trails. So maybe in fairness we pick
Coore-Crenshaw to go first at Sand Valley.
"No. 2 and very persuasive was the founders we have at Sand Valley now number 120 and I asked them who they preferred
as they signed up and it was pretty overwhelming. I'd say Coore-Crenshaw received 80% of the votes."
Founding members pay $50,000 for what is essentially a lifetime membership that is fully refundable and can be passed down to an heir.
Coore and Crenshaw, the two-time Masters champion, are best known for Sand Hills in Mullen, Neb., which opened in 1995 and was
No. 9 on Golf Digest magazine's latest ranking of America's 100 greatest golf course and No. 12 on Golf magazine's top 100 courses
in the world.
"If you were at Sand Hills you would see they laid in their 18 holes on the natural landscape just as the Scottish
did starting with the Old Course at St. Andrews," Keiser said. "They identified natural holes and built the holes on top of the
sand locations. That's what they will do almost exactly at Sand Valley.
"My model for them is a combination of Pine Valley, Sand Hills and National Golf Links on the dunes of Long Island. Those
three are my models – not to duplicate but just to be inspired by."
Among the other courses designed by Coore and Crenshaw are Friar's Head in Baiting Hollow, N.Y.; Barton Creek Resort &
Spa in Austin Texas, and Lost Farm at Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania. Their first course, the Kapalua Plantation Course on Maui,
has played host to the PGA Tour's Hyundai Tournament of Champions since 1999. Zach Johnson won the tournament on Monday.
They also have been praised for their renovation of Pinehurst No. 2, which will play host to the men's and women's U.S. Opens this year.
Keiser said Coore and Crenshaw limit themselves to two projects a year. They currently are working on Cabot Cliffs on
Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. That course will be the second at a resort co-owned by Keiser and Ben Cowan-Dewar.
"One of their big concerns was that if I picked them they would have to begin construction immediately in Wisconsin,"
Keiser said. "They are very patient in terms of their routing. I am, too, especially at a site like Sand Valley. Deciding where
to start, where to end and the best routing on 1,500 acres is a huge question."
Keiser said Coore and Crenshaw would make multiple visits to Sand Valley this summer and that construction likely would begin in
"They will make numerous exploratory trips," Keiser said. "Their first goal is to get comfortable with the entire 1,500 acres.
They will consider routing A, routing B and routing C.
"In September, we can begin rough grading. We'll know where the clubhouse likely goes, where the first tee goes and in what
direction. Will it be two nine hole-loops or one 18-hole loop? There will be two, three or four additional courses, we hope,
and they will take that into consideration."
The Oliphant Companies of Madison will construct the courses.
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Golf course visionary plans resort near Rome, Wisconsin
Town of Rome — A Chicago businessman who turned the tiny coastal town of Bandon, Ore., into one of the world's premier golf
destinations is planning to build a similar multi-course resort on sand dunes that formed the bottom of a prehistoric lake in what is now Adams County.
Mike Keiser's project, named Sand Valley, could include up to four courses and lodging spread over 1,500 acres of remote sand
barren about 15 miles south of Wisconsin Rapids.
If successful — and Keiser's track record suggests it will be — Sand Valley would join the Kohler Co. golf properties near Sheboygan
and Erin Hills near Hartford to make Wisconsin a top destination for traveling golfers.
"It would make Wisconsin the best summertime place for golf in the world," Keiser said.
Keiser, who made his fortune in greeting cards, has signed an agreement to purchase about 2.4 square miles of land from
Plum Creek Timber Co. The closing is set for Dec. 17, at which time Keiser is expected to name the architect for the first course.
If all goes according to plan, construction would begin in 2014 and the first course would open in late 2016 or early 2017. The Oliphant
Companies, a Madison-based golf construction and management firm, will build the courses.
Sand Valley, if fully realized, would create hundreds of jobs. The unemployment rate in Wisconsin Rapids (pop. 18,367) is about 8%,
according to Mayor Zach Vruwink, and the region is still struggling in the wake of the 2008 closing of the Port Edwards paper mill.
"There is no question this would be a significant positive contributor to the local economy and to the state," Vruwink
said. "Personally, I'm in favor of it. Absolutely."
For months, golf bloggers and course architect buffs have been buzzing about Keiser's interest in the site and
what it could mean. He is considered a visionary, a man who has turned desolate locations into acclaimed golf
resorts with a daring "build it and they will come" philosophy.
Keiser is founder and owner of Bandon Dunes, a five-course, 85-hole complex on a remote stretch of southern Oregon
coastline that is regarded by many purists as the finest resort in the world. All four 18-hole courses at Bandon
Dunes are ranked among the top 11 resort courses in America by Golfweek magazine, including No. 1 Pacific
Dunes (Kohler-owned Whistling Straits is No. 4).
Those who play the minimalist Bandon courses, which are unencumbered by real-estate development and reminiscent
of the ancient seaside links in the British Isles, almost universally rave about the experience.
Bandon is on every serious golfer's must-play list.
Keiser also is involved in acclaimed multi-course developments in central Florida, Nova Scotia and
He said the location in Wisconsin reminded him of Pine Valley, the ultra-private club in New Jersey and a fixture
atop the annual magazine rankings of best courses in the world. That speaks to the quality of the sandy site two
miles east of Petenwell Lake, where bald eagles soar, gray wolves roam — and where bullet indentations riddle
the stop sign at the dirt-road entrance.
Sand 100 feet deep
Sand is considered the ideal substructure for golf courses because it drains well and many strains of grass thrive in it.
Herbert Kohler Jr. trucked in thousands of truckloads of sand to build Whistling Straits. At Sand Valley, the
sand is 100 feet deep.
Keiser plans to harvest tens of thousands of red pine trees on the site, expose the sand and native ground cover
and integrate it into the golf course designs.
"What this wants to be is a dunes system," said Craig Haltom, vice president of The Oliphant Companies.
"We're going to restore it to sand barren. Globally, that's a rare ecosystem."
Keiser is considering three architects for the first course: Tom Doak, David McLay Kidd and the team of Bill Coore
and Ben Crenshaw, all of whom designed minimalist, links-type courses at Bandon Dunes. Routing would start in May,
rough grading would begin in the summer and the course would be completed in 2015.
Following a one-year grow-in period, it would open to the public in late 2016 or early 2017.
Green fees would be $125 to $150. Keiser is undecided about whether it will be a walking-only course or whether
motorized carts will be allowed. That decision will determine the type of turfgrass used. In any case, walking will
be encouraged and there will be a caddie program.
The success of the first course, which will include a modest clubhouse and cost between $5 million and $6.5
million to build, will determine whether more courses follow.
"We won't find out until the golfers come or do not come and then return or do not return," Keiser said. "If they
don't like Pine Valley in Wisconsin, there will be one course."
Haltom said the site was big enough to accommodate seven 18-hole courses, though a more realistic number would be three
or four. Almost no one thinks Keiser will stop at one course unless it is an abject failure, which isn't likely
given his history of success.
At Bandon Dunes, Keiser's first course generated $4 million in annual revenue. When he added a second course and lodging,
revenue tripled to $12 million.
"Or, one plus one equals three," he told a group of potential investors during a recent presentation at the University Club
in Milwaukee. "I've tried that same formula in Tasmania, at Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm. It has tracked exactly the way
Bandon Dunes has done."
What's remarkable about Keiser's approach is that it seemingly flies in the face of what makes financial sense. Golf course
development in the U.S. has largely dried up in recent years, a victim of the economic downturn. Course closures have
outnumbered openings, and many architects have moved to Asia, the only place they can find jobs.
Such is Keiser's reputation, however, that nearly 100 investors have paid $50,000 each to be founding members of Sand Valley.
Few have seen the site, other than in photos in the prospectus and a computer-generated video that imagines what the
courses would look like.
Vruwink said he had not heard of any local opposition to Sand Valley.
"No, not publicly. Not anything directed to me," the Wisconsin Rapids mayor said. "Again, if the numbers pan
out, that really could be a significant employer, no question. And there would be entrepreneurial opportunities
for other businesses, restaurants and hotels."
Welcome from competitors
Darryl Sorbo, the head golf professional at Lake Arrowhead, a 36-hole public facility that is adjacent to the
Sand Valley site, said he had no problem with a huge golf complex going up one mile down the road.
"We think it's going to be great for the area," he said. "It will be a great asset. I've got to believe
it will help us all."
Sorbo said Sand Valley likely would bring more business to the area's existing courses: Lake Arrowhead, Northern
Bay in Arkdale, private Bull's Eye Country Club in Wisconsin Rapids (which Oliphant manages) and SentryWorld in
Stevens Point, which is undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation and is scheduled to re-open in late 2014.
"We're embracing it," Sorbo said. "We'll get people who have never come to this part of the country. (Keiser) has
the Midas touch. Obviously, he knows how to market his courses."
Keiser said environmental groups should be pleased that the Sand Valley site will be returned to its natural state.
There are no wetlands on the property, and it has never been farmed.
"The DNR visited and said this will be the biggest restoration of a sand barren ever tried," he said. "Picture 1,500 acres
of sand with some scrub oak and jack pine. You'll see a lot of sand with natural ground cover. It's important that it look
the way it should, which means removing all vestiges of the red pine and restoring the sand barren.
"That will make conservationists happy, and it will make golfers happy."
An endangered bird, the Kirtland's warbler, has been observed nesting in Adams County but not on the Sand Valley site.
Kim Grveles, an avian ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources, has walked the property and said she had no concerns.
"It's a few miles from where the Kirtland's is currently nesting," Grveles said. "It's not an area where Kirtland's are
likely to occur. It's one of the last remaining big blocks of forest in Adams County and I don't like to see it developed
for that reason, but the project itself is not going to impact the Kirtland's."
Keiser's friends told him he was crazy when he built Bandon Dunes, insisting that golfers would never travel to such a
remote site. He held his breath and hoped the initial course would generate 10,000 rounds in its first year (1999),
which would represent break-even. Instead, it generated 24,000 rounds and unprecedented reviews.
Still, he wasn't looking for another place to build courses when Haltom contacted him about the land he'd discovered in
2007 while scouting for potential golf sites. Keiser sent Josh Lesnik, the president of KemperSports, which manages
Bandon Dunes, to give the land a cursory look.
"I said, 'Josh, I do not want to like this but let's be nice to Craig,' " Keiser recalled. "Josh came up and was
stunned to find 60- to 80-foot sand dunes. You would never know driving by. And he concluded, correctly, that this was a
wonderful site for golf in a minimalist, classical way.
"Basically everyone who has seen it has said, 'This is a lot like Pine Valley and Sand Hills and National
Golf Links' — a lot of the old, great courses. I decided that even though I didn't need another site,
I would build Sand Valley."
His history suggests that if he builds it, they will come.
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