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Sand Valley Touted as a One-of-a-Kind Golf Resort

Sand Valley touted as a one-of-a-kind golf resort

Town of Rome—Sand Valley might be the most ambitious golf development project ever undertaken in Wisconsin, and not just because well-heeled clients will someday fly in to play as many as four courses at the destination resort.

That's all well and good. It is, after all, a commercial enterprise.

What makes Sand Valley special, though, is that it's also a habitat restoration project of immense size and scope. What was once a sprawling red pine plantation — a monoculture not unlike a cornfield — will be returned to a 1,700-acre sand barren, home to native plants such as prickly pear cactus and wild lupine, and endangered species such as the Karner blue butterfly and Kirtland's warbler.

"Restoring that jack pine sand barren was one of our main goals," said Michael Keiser Jr., the project manager at Sand Valley. "We've cleared 800 acres of pine. We are seeding with native species, but one thing I've been amazed by is the seed bank in the ground. They have been dormant for 90 years, and they have popped up on their own.

"It's been incredible to experience that. It's a huge part of our mission."

The first course at Sand Valley, designed by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, is under construction. Thirteen holes will be seeded by mid-September and the other five will be seeded next spring. Founding members will be able to play nine holes by the summer and the full 18 will open to the public in 2017.

The second course, designed by David McLay Kidd, is scheduled to open in 2018. By then, Sand Valley likely will be the biggest employer in Adams County, where 11.6% of the population lived below the poverty rate in 2009.

Over the last 10 years, the number of unemployed Town of Rome residents increased by 125%, according to the town's 2015 comprehensive plan.

"In Adams County, sadly, the No. 1 employer is Adams County," Keiser said. "The county employs 160 people. So goal No. 1 is to be the biggest employer in Adams County and that's achievable by 2018. That's something we take extremely seriously. It's a responsibility that we're blessed with and we don't take that lightly."

The town's belief in the project, which could grow to as many as four courses if the first two are successful, was underscored by the fact that it created a tax increment financing district to construct the second course (the first was financed by 200 founding members). Only property taxes generated by the incremental increase in value of the TIF district are available for TIF projects.

In June, Gov. Scott Walker signed into law Assembly Bill 123, giving the Town of Rome the authority to make cash grants or loan subsidies through a TIF district to the developers, led by Keiser's father, Mike Keiser, a Chicago businessman who has built acclaimed golf resorts in Oregon and Nova Scotia.

"Generally, TIF is most often used for business parks or industrial parks," Keiser said. "I'm sure it's happened before (with a golf course) but it's not common. It's a pretty big deal for a town this small to put a deal like this together. I can't imagine any other town being able to pull something like this off."

Considering the habitat restoration and what Sand Valley will mean to the local economy, the resort is destined to join SentryWorld (1982), Blackwolf Run (1988), Whistling Straits (1998) and Erin Hills (2006) as the most important golf course developments in Wisconsin in the last half-century.

But what about the golf experience itself?

Two words come to mind: Fabulous and memorable.

I toured Sand Valley for a third time last week — Coore was out on a Toro Sand Pro, shaping a green — and the transformation of the land is difficult to describe.

The rough grading uncovered expanses of sand as far as the eye can see; a massive lake covered central Wisconsin in prehistoric times and the sand goes down 200 feet here. With the red pines removed, only scraggly jack pines and specimen oaks remain and the rolling terrain is exposed.

There is no sign of civilization and wind whistles across the desolate landscape. The place looks and feels like eastern Montana.

Coore has designed golf courses all over the world — on the Oregon coast, in the sand hills of Nebraska, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia and in exotic locations such as Tasmania and Hainan Island in China.

He has never seen a site quite like Sand Valley.

"It really doesn't remind me of anything," Coore said. "Everybody wants to make the comparisons. It's like this, it's like that. Sand Valley, no, it doesn't remind me of anything. That's what's so neat about it. It's Sand Valley. It's not trying to be Pine Valley or Pinehurst. It's itself."

The Coore-Crenshaw course will be walking only, with firm fescue fairways and bentgrass greens. Because of the sand underlay and vegetation, it will be similar in style to the famed heathland courses around London such as Swinley Forest and Sunningdale.

Heathland courses aren't quite parkland, nor are they true links. They have a character all their own and there are very few pure examples in the United States.

"They're fantastic golf courses," Coore said. "They are sand-based, but there are the heaths, which is a vegetation that grows in (England). Sand Valley has some of that type of vegetation, particularly with the false heather.

"Heathland is up and down and rolling but not quite as big, probably, as what's at Sand Valley. Because of the sand and the vegetation I could see some people making that connection."

The Keisers have long demonstrated a commitment to amateur golf, but the courses at Sand Valley won't be the types that would attract, say, a U.S. Open. They'll be challenging from the back tees for the low handicapper, but more importantly will be playable for the masses.

"Now, do you want Jason Day to have fun if he came to Sand Valley? Absolutely," Coore said. "You want him to say, 'That was fantastic. I had so much fun I'd like to do it again.' But he's not the person we're concentrating on most. We're concentrating as much as we can on a broad spectrum of people.

"The back tees are the last thing we do. The majority of people are playing somewhere off the middle ground area (on the tee). And have you given them hope and reasonable expectations to succeed without dumbing down the golf course or making it so easy it just has no interest?

"Michael's dad, he has the greatest description of a fantastic golf course. He simply says, 'When I walk off the 18th green I want to turn around and go straight to the first tee and do it again.' That's without question what we're hoping will happen here."

Send email to gdamato@journalsentinel.com

Chris Keiser