As those who play our great game are aware, one of the many things that separate golf from other individual sports are ranking lists and those lively course comparison debates that most of us enjoy post round. There is perhaps no more common grillroom topic of conversation, than the “which course is better” discussion. Virtually the moment Mike Keiser opened Pacific Dunes in 2001, golfers started comparing his two Bandon courses and arguing the merits of one over the other. The same happened in 2018, when the Sand Valley Resort in central Wisconsin debuted its second course, the remarkable Mammoth Dunes.
-- This course review of Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley appears in the new edition of Planet Golf USA (2020) --
Designed by Keiser favorite David McLay Kidd, Mammoth Dunes is, as branded, built upon an enormous landscape dominated by a series of powerful sand ridges. Kidd was awarded the design contract here after impressing Keiser with his work at Gamble Sands, a similarly gigantic course in Washington State that proved such a welcome contrast to the punitive monsters Kidd had created in the years post–Bandon Dunes. Aside from the audacity of a course like Gamble, Keiser was also clearly taken by the forgiveness of the design and the fact that such generosity would present his resort guests with a realistic, if not probable, shot at their best ever score.
As with Gamble Sands, at Mammoth Dunes there is an almost unbelievable scale to the fairways, greens and the sculptured sand hazards. Many of the holes have only one or two formal bunkers, but acres and acres of surrounding sand trouble. Importantly, it’s possible to hit away from danger all day and not necessarily be left in awkward or unplayable positions. This was a deliberate tactic from Kidd, who wanted golfers to swing with confidence knowing that however badly they hit their tee shot, they would still be in play.
Aside from an almost overwhelming landscape of sand and turf, the opening tee at Mammoth Dunes provides golfers with a sense of what to expect throughout their round. Played across the corner of a giant windblown dune, the heaving fairway is so vast that it’s almost impossible to miss with any sort of solid strike. The next is even wider, but more strategic as those able to fire up the right-hand side are favored with a clearer view of an otherwise hidden green. The short par five 3rd bends left and then right into another large, lay-of-the-land target with a range of accessible pin areas. Each of these opening greens are designed to collect balls rather than repel them, which was a common criticism of Kidd’s work between Keiser projects. Those who have played Tetherow in central Oregon, for example, may find it hard to believe that this is the same designer.
Interestingly, despite huge greens, 120 acres of maintained turf and an enormous overall footprint, it’s the small holes and the shortest par threes and par fours that provide golfers with the most obvious thrills and highlights. Perhaps the most charming hole anywhere at Sand Valley, the par four 6th is memorable for a semi-punchbowl, boomerang–shaped green that is set beyond a gentle spur and tantalizingly within reach for many off the tee. The sideways saddle approach into the mid-length 10th hole is another stunner. As is the tiny 13th, which feels more intimidating than the other par threes here because of what appears to be a shallow ridgeline green, and the fact that the target is sandwiched somewhat precariously between a wasteland and a massive dune.
Designer Kidd has spoken in recent times about ultimate forgiveness and his desire to create a course that is almost impossible to score poorly on. Visual deception is a long established design tool and critics might suggest that shunning holes that look more intimidating than they really are, for holes that are not intimidating at all, lessens the challenge. Such a description ignores the undeniable beauty of this site and this routing, and the fact that holes like the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 10th, 13th and 14th are enjoyable regardless of whether the threat of a double bogey looms or not.
For some guests Mammoth Dunes will be the most fun they ever have on a golf course, and for that reason alone it deserves our praise and attention. How it compares to other large-scale courses of this large-scale era, or even Sand Valley next door, is almost entirely dependent upon your own personal tastes and golfing preferences. Whether you favor this course or the earlier Coore and Crenshaw design, with their pure-golf focus and continued commitment to the “retail” golfer, the Keiser family has yet again hit a home run at Sand Valley. Long may they continue to invest in golf development.
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