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.

WHISTLING STRAITS

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.

Lobby bar at The American Club

Horse and Plow Restaurant

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.

Wisconsin Room Breakfast

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.

View from Irish Pub

Clubhouse Restaurant

Straits Pro Shop

18th At Whistling Straits from back patio

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.

Nice drive.

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.

5 green

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.

18 Tee – Straits

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.

Mammoth Bar

Aldo’s Farm & Table

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.

MAMMOTH DUNES

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.

Mammoth Bar Patio. First Tee far left.

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.

#1 Green

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.

18th green just off back patio

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.

Par-3 13th hole

13th green

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.

14th green towards tee box

18 fairway

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.

Number One Tee. Green is behind my head.

Driveable 9th hole from tee box.

View of 18 Green from Craig’s Porch.

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.

Drive-able 9th green

THE SANDBOX

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!

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