January 09, 2014|By Teddy Greenstein, Chicago Tribune reporter
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 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."