Sand Valley Golf Resort: Where classic heathland golf design meets new-world tech.
Superintendent Rob Duhm’s largest challenge has been managing time. The time of his 75-employee crew. Time spent walking the course with developers and designers. And time spent molding a highly-playable resort course out of a 14,000-year-old sand dune that seemed to be calling for heathland golf.
Duhm had never managed a staff this large, or a property this vast. Few have. The first course at Sand Valley measures some 700 acres, however the course itself only accounts for 100 acres. The remaining “dunescapes” are native and natural and provide a challenge nothing short of monumental.
Sand Valley shares a scenic surprise at every turn, but it was Duhm’s experience at The Kingsley Club in Northern Michigan — that gave him the multifaceted skillset needed to take on the task of growing and maintaining what was essentially a rolling, barren ATV track. Truly nothing could have prepared Duhm and his team for the challenges they’d face molding the towering dunes into the versatile, playable vision set out for Sand Valley by designers Coore & Crenshaw. In an interview, Duhm revealed that Sand Valley’s key ingredient turned out to be his biggest obstacle.
“The site is as near-perfect as you’re going to find,
short of being on an ocean,”
“The sand here drains really well,” Duhm said. “Combined with strong winds, it can dry out quickly.”
If you haven’t heard the history of Sand Valley by now, you likely will soon. The central Wisconsin sugar-sand landmass formed eons ago under The Laurentide Ice Sheet, a massive glacier that eventually melted to create a lake four times the size of Lake Winnebago. Sand Valley hid in plain site for a few Millennia until Craig Haltom from Oliphant golf discovered the property, and along with the help of course designers, shapers (and, yes, Reinders’ quality suppliers and support staff) created the first and now second (Mammoth Dunes) courses at Sand Valley Resort in rural Rome, Wisconsin.
“The site is as near-perfect as you’re going to find, short of being on an ocean,” Mammoth Dunes architect David McLay-Kidd told Golf Course Architecture in January 2017.
Sand Valley is a resort course, first and foremost. However, you won’t see any homes pop up along the course’s fairways. They dare not build any more than is absolutely necessary over its rustic landscape. From all sides — developers (Keisers), Designers (Coore & Crenshaw), resort managers (KemperSports), the 350 employees and 200 caddies responsible for guiding guests provide a fun, unforgettable experience. But it is Duhm’s grounds crew that have worked tirelessly to create a green swath in a sea of sand dunes with a commitment to conservation. Therefore, Duhm has an additional 10 “floating” grounds crew members dedicated to maintaining the 600+ acres of native landscape that doesn’t have par attached to it.
The sprawling property was, and clearly still is, picture perfect. But for all of its awe-inspiring beauty, Sand Valley creates some idiosyncratic maintenance challenges.
“(During the construction ) there are times you question if you can maintain certain design features of a hole,” Duhm said. “But it’s not until you get turf on it that you realize you can.”
Duhm said his favorite times during construction consisted of walks – with the Keisers and Sand Valley co-creators. “(Architect Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) as they explain the design intent of the different golf holes. I’ve walked the course 8 times with him and now David Mclay Kidd on Mammoth Dunes. You get insight into their philosophy And what is expected for course maintenance.
It’s on these walks that he no doubt finds ways around Sand Valley’s natural maintenance barriers. These include:
- An expansive “waste” area to the left of the first tee at Sand Valley. (It’s still in play as long as you can find your ball.)
- A 120-foot bunker guarding 18 green.
- No marked OB.
- No water hazards.
- At least six tee boxes on each hole at the Coore & Crenshaw course.
- A bunker has been created out of the remnants of a bohemian homestead on the Mammoth Course.Beyond golf, Sand Valley will be a multi-use recreation facility – with trails for walking, snowshoeing, snowmobiles and horseback riding planned for in the future.
And it’s impossible to discuss the natural environment without mentioning the regenerated native cacti. Yes, you read that right. They’re real, and they’re spectacular.
Softgoods (Seed & Fertilizer)
Building Fast & Firm
Course Developer Mike Keiser, Sr. purchased 1,480 acres of the Jack Pine Barren – a cross-pollination of Jack Pines, Red Pines, Oaks and tufts of prairie grasses — from Plum Creek Forest Products and reportedly another 7,000 acres for an eco-park with ultimate hopes of expanding beyond the two courses (Mammoth Dunes, Sand Valley’s second course featuring scenic vistas, is slated to open for play in 2018) to include 3, 4 maybe even 5 courses.
Shortly thereafter, Keiser, Jr. tapped Duhm, who arrived on site in 2015 with a deep understanding and successful track record of growing fescue grass. And fescue loves sand.
“Fescue likes to be kept dry,” Duhm said. “And at Sand Valley, our fine fescue and native sand work really well together, producing firm and fast conditions.”
Reinders golf course sales specialist Scott Gilbertson first saw Sand Valley’s Martian-like landscape not long after Duhm. Gilbertson was awestruck by the challenge ahead, but quickly saw what Duhm was talking about.
“It’s not in the middle of nowhere, but you can see the middle of nowhere from there,” Gilbertson quipped. “But you could not create a better environment for fine fescue.”
Superintendent Duhm knew he’d need a unique breed of fine fescue that would stand up to the arid microclimate, gusty winds and 20,000 rounds of play each season.
So, Duhm, Dr. Leah Brilman from Seed Research of Oregon, and Gilbertson settled on a custom mix of 7 fescues (chewings, slender, creepers, hard fescue among them) on the tees, fairways and roughs. The greens on both courses were lain with a 50/50 combo of SR 007 and SR 1119. The post-glacial native sands allow Duhm ‘s crew to manage moisture (for the most part) and provide optimal conditions for a linksy, firm and fast golf experience.
“The whole goal here at Sand Valley is playability,” Duhm said. “We want the fescue to be slightly greener in the center of the golf holes. And as you get to the outside edges of each hole we want it to bleed out to brown.”
As players venture into Sand Valley’s abundant native areas, they can find their ball because the fescue is kept thin and wispy.
“The goal is to play all 18 and hopefully never hit it where you can’t find it,” Duhm said.
From the moment buzz around Sand Valley’s development began in 2013, golfers wanted to walk and play on it. That meant little to no down time between construction and seeding. Working against a deadline, Duhm and his crews were faced with an interesting challenge: They had to seed as soon as each tee, fairway or green had been shaped, rather than wait for all 18 to be complete.
Seed-as-you-go. Duhm and crews drop-seeded the bent grass greens and hydro-seeded the fescue fairways. The first course was ready for preview play by August 2016 and opened for full play in May 2017.
Specs and Specifics:
Duhm, Dr. Leah Brilman from Seed Research of Oregon, and Gilbertson settled on a custom mix of 7 fescues (chewings, slender, creepers, hard fescue among them) on the tees, fairways and roughs. The greens were laid with a 50/50 combo of SR 007 and SR 1119 (Providence strain) for both courses.
Central Irrigation Control in a Central Location
On a map, Sand Valley is almost the perfect geocentric location for Upper Midwest golf – no more than three hour drive from Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago. It’s familiar territory for Aaron Goninen – Reinders’ regional irrigation sales rep assigned to Sand Valley.
When he and other team members from Reinders first stepped foot on the emerging land of the first course in Fall 2014, tree removal was in progress. For Goninen — who calls on some of the greatest courses in the Midwest — Sand Valley had a distinctly different feel.
“You feel like there’s an ocean right over the corner,” Goninen (pronounced Go-nin-in) said. “When it started happening – shaping holes, installing irrigation, and then seeding – there were no buildings, so there was no option of using central control for quite some time,” Goninen said.
By Spring 2015, the Toro Infinity system was going in. It was not your typical install. Because of the expeditious timeline, Goninen was admittedly more hands-on than a normal build out. From the beginning Goninen was focused on delivering quality service from Toro and Reinders. If that meant getting his hands dirty, or his boots sandy on a pretty regular basis (he’s been on site more than 20 times), he did what he had to do to ensure the course was and crews had what they needed.
For Goninen, a fanatical golfer in his own right, it was a passion project from the beginning. “I’m on the job and in the industry because I’m a golfer,” he said. “I initially thought ‘Wow this is cool. This is so unique. I was pretty pumped to be a part of it.”
He quickly got to work, establishing a series of standalone irrigation controllers, and fixing a collection of antenna 100 feet from a computer. The antennas’ radio signal initially sent commands to the individual, disparate controllers. But it wasn’t until a structure was built around the site’s pump station in Fall 2016 that Goninen could set up the irrigation computer and VP antenna to run a unified system without going through 26 individual irrigation control boxes on the first course, alone. Much needed radio repeaters were also installed to boost signal strength across the property.
Goninen had never really been part of an irrigation control system install quite like this.
“A large project for Wisconsin is around 1,000 sprinklers,” Goninen said, teeing up his next set of facts with a grin. “Most of the new (golf courses) recently have been around 900 sprinklers, which is a pretty good size for a Wisconsin course. There are more than 2,500 sprinklers at Sand Valley right now.” And they’re seemingly just getting started. Nowhere is the irrigation challenge more prevalent than Hole 18 at Mammoth Dunes, where 130 irrigation heads line the fairway, and the 20,000-square-foot green requires not one but two Toro Infinity Stealth Kits hid seamlessly inside the green.
How to make an irrigation controller work in atypical conditions. “There’s really nothing we can compare it to,” Goninen said. “The landscape is really unique. It wasn’t bulletproof, but anytime we had problems I was there and we got it going.”
On site every three weeks, he was admittedly more hands-on than a normal golf project. “I certainly have a month’s worth of work in on the project. I’ve been there 30+ times.”
Specs and Specifics:
Sand Valley’s irrigation relies on Toro Lynx Central software and more than 50 Network VP radio controllers on both courses to direct the 2,500+ Infinity sprinkler heads (average course in Wisconsin is about 900).
A Range of Efficiencies
As there are no golf carts allowed on the first course, no one knew if the property would be truly traversable. At first, it really wasn’t.
“Getting around the sugar sand is very difficult – it’s very easy to get stuck,” Superintendent Duhm said.
Reinders Commercial Equipment Salesman Derek Kastenschmidt calls Sand Valley the most unique course he’s ever worked on. In 2015, Kastenschmidt began venturing to the job site – three times a week.
“Early on it was challenging getting to and from the property,” Kastenschmidt said. “I worried about the big delivery trucks getting stuck going in and out.”
Initially, 3 Reinders box trucks served as the “maintenance area.” It was easy to see that the biggest challenge for the commercial equipment team was also going to be one of the property’s smallest, most abundant elements: Sand.
“Sand affects different parts of the vehicles: starters, engines, traction and mobility,” Kastenschmidt said. “It plays a part in determining which equipment works best in their conditions. Sand eats at equipment. It won’t last as long.”
At Sand Valley, the sand isn’t reserved for the bunkers. Crews had to drag a brush over the entire fairway in the spring to remove sand before they could even mow. In turn, that affects the reels on mowers making them more dull, more quickly.
“Wind is continually moving sand around – it drifts like snow,” Kastenschmidt said. “There is green grass underneath but you cannot see it at all.”
From the time Keiser, Sr. eyed the windswept 50-plus-foot dunes in 2013, to its soft opening in 2016 and official opening on May 2, 2017, the build out of the first Sand Valley course was fraught with challenges from Mother Nature, herself.
“(It has) incredible landscape,” Keiser, Sr. said. “I have never seen any other place like it in the world.”
And they needed commercial equipment to match.
Running both hybrid Triplex greens mowers and the 5010 Hybrids – the true hybrid mower – Sand Valley’s crew benefits from the low horsepower (running as low at 15 horses, up to 49). “It’s more about putting the power to what really needs to be happening,” Reinders Commercial Equipment Sales Manager John Jensen said. “That equates to fuel consumption. If all it takes to cut a fairway that day is 24 horses, then it knows to do that. It’s about having a range of efficiencies.”
Efficiencies that’ll come in handy. Reinders delivered new commercial equipment to Sand Valley in late summer 2017, including:
- 40 Utility vehicles
- 11 Fairway mowers
- 10 Riding Greensmowers
- 12 Walking Greensmowers
While perfectly formed for golf, the transitioning landscape of Sand Valley proved challenging to traverse. In October 2014 an intrepid collection of initial investors made their way to Sand Valley. Reports have them parking their cars near the complex’s “entrance” and were driven to the “first tee” by a phalanx of modified Toro Workmen, carving the first paths while fishtailing through breaks in the dunes.
Sand Valley/KemperSports by partnering with Reinders, have said they are at the forefront of implementing innovative equipment and technology to produce an unmatched golf experience. After initially use, the Toro Workman MD gave way to the GTX – the more versatile work vehicle, proving lighter and more maneuverable in the sand than the larger MD. And the 4-Wheel drive of the workhorse Workman HDX has also proven to be impressive in the slick sugar sand.
Specs and Specifics:
Technically speaking, the GTX features coil-over shocks on all four wheels, which helps create a smooth ride from grounds to turf. The split frame and gimbal joint also allow the vehicle to articulate on uneven terrain, keeping both wheels on the ground. Even the tires are special — the extra smooth tires were made for the fine fescue fairways that don’t take kindly to rough riders. In fact, only two Reinders customers use these smooth tires to reduce impact on their fine fescue turf: Sand Valley and Erin Hills.
After 14,000 years the waiting game is now over, and one of the game’s natural gems has been revealed.