How to run a golf resort in the age of social distancing

golfers look out over sand valley

Sand Valley is maneuvering how to reopen safely in the age of social distancing.

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Michael Keiser Jr. reopened Sand Valley, his family’s golf resort in Nekoosa, Wisc., on May 1, thanks to the governor’s decree. In addition to opening the original Sand Valley course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and Mammoth Dunes designed by David McLay Kidd — plus the property’s short course — Keiser is moving ahead with work on a third course, designed by Tom Doak.

I spoke with Keiser in March when some of America’s great golf resorts were closing. Streamsong is closed until May 15. Bandon Dunes, the original resort in the Keiser family golf empire, closed all seven of its courses and will reopen on May 11. Pebble reopened for play on Monday. A few resorts, like Pinehurst, never closed.

An overhead shot of a golf course.

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But overall the health and economic crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has been tough for the golf resorts that exist to fulfill a dream of friends escaping for a few days before returning to their lives.

When will resorts be back in full swing? Big dollars rest on the answer to that question. Keiser, who spoke to me several times over the past month, remains bullish.

Here are excerpts from our conversations.

On March 23, the day the shelter in place ruling was issued for Wisconsin, I asked Keiser what it meant the new mandate meant for the resort. 

Michael Keiser Jr.: We’re getting reservations for the entire year. Pace has changed and we have had some cancelations. But our policy is why cancel today if you can cancel it closer to the time? But the food and beverage are adapting a lot. This forces us to be better. 

The Doak course continues to be built. We’re working on the 3rd hole today. That’s hopeful. We’re still preparing for the course to open in 2022. Today we’re out there building the same as we were two weeks ago.

The future site of the 2nd green on the Tom Doak course at Sand Valley.

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On April 2, we spoke again about how his plan was evolving and what the deepening Coronavirus epidemic meant for opening the course this year and continuing work on the Doak course.

How has this crisis affected plans made last year? 

We’re coming up with three to four scenarios. Every day our plans are evolving.

Has your sense of the golfing life changed since the coronavirus pandemic began?

Our awareness was like a hockey stick. Three weeks ago, when it became shelter in place, that was when we came to understand what was happening. In March we had more new reservations than we lost in cancellations, which was pretty remarkable. But that uptick was less than we had planned. Looking at our policy and thinking about our guests’ fears, we liberalized the cancellation process, to be completely accommodating. We tried to steer people to wait and see. People are getting excited to get out and play golf. They need hopeful things. 

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What are you changing now? 

I asked the team to reverse engineer the entire experience in light of the health and safety of our guests. What if you can’t have more than 10 people in the restaurant? What about the check-in experience? The food truck concept is one that we’re moving forward with. It’s amazing how much eight-somes like dinners in their cottages, so we said, let’s double down on that. We’re going to drop off the sides and the proteins because guys like to put steaks on grills, but they don’t like to clean up. [Ed note: In an effort to keep the property sanitary, the resort has since instituted more safety measures.]

If there are restrictions, what are the most integral parts of the experience that need to be preserved?

Memories on a golf course. Still hooting, hollering and bantering, having fun. You get up in the morning, and most of our golfers go with a grab-and-go breakfast. That’s not changing a lot. Most people at Sand Valley continue to play golf until you run out of daylight. Let’s say you’re eating in the living room or spaced out on the porch or at the fireplaces — you were already 6 feet away from each other. The one thing we need to figure out is that caddie interaction.

People walk at Sand Valley. What will the caddie program look like this year?

Caddies are a huge part of our secret sauce. Our caddies cultivate relationships. It’s a very special bond. We’re working out details on doing this safely. If people aren’t comfortable with a caddie, we’ll give them a pushcart free of charge.

What are the plans for the Doak course as uncertainty increases?

Our next step was the same as it was two months ago: If the town funds the course, we’re going to put the irrigation into the ground. 

Clubhouse traditions like cornhole are being reimagined under social distancing rules.

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We spoke again on April 17 after Wisconsin’s governor allowed courses to open a week later.

What’s changed? 

A lot has changed. Last night the town board approved our term sheet for funding of the Doak course. It doesn’t finalize it, but we had a great meeting. The goal is six holes seeded by the end of this year, with the possibility of nine holes. The goal was originally 13 holes and the rest next year. It’s still going to be completed next year and open in 2022.

How important was the town’s funding?

For the golf course, it’s about 90 percent of the cost. Then there are additional expenditures we will pay for — like a main building, a year of being open without play. Then with our partners and investors, there’s the pro shop, more rooms, the restaurant. It’s a big amount. The golf course is 60 percent of the cost so the town is giving 54 percent to get it going. Construction is moving forward. We’re feeling excited about that.

As courses reopen, do you think people will come?

Most of our business historically is drive-in business. People come from around the world, but most are between Minneapolis and Chicago. May is also our shoulder season, so it’s even more regional. There are 55 million people who live within a five-hour drive of Sand Valley and that’s 85 percent of our business. I don’t think people are getting onto planes right now to go play golf.

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