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At Sand Valley in Wisconsin, everything is friendly — except for the sand

Sand Valley

“You gotta try this coffee.”

On this late July morning, the bearded, early 30-something cook was particularly proud of his iced coffee, which was simply the hot coffee from a nearby pot poured over ice. A morning caffeine pop always charges up the soul, so it would be hard to say no here anyways, but the recommendation was coming from the man behind the counter, so we grabbed a cup.

“That is good,” my friend said. 

And that was our first minute at Sand Valley.

The theme would continue at the celebrated three-course, multi-room, multi-restaurant resort in Nekoosa, Wis. They wanted you to be there. The course attendants. The restaurant staff. The bartender. The woman who worked in one of the restaurants, but was off one afternoon and sitting with us with her dog. The bearded, early-30 something cook at the food truck yards away from a 17-hole short course, where a canoe sits on a tee box about midway through. I admit that I’m a sucker for good hospitality, but this was more than a smile and a mint on your pillow. It was a fistbump and a beer. 

Oh, and we played great golf, too.     

This author, a very average golfer, and two of his longtime friends, also very average golfers (sorry, guys) drove the two-and-a-half hours from Milwaukee for a two-day, one-night buddies trip (to the resort ranked fourth on GOLFs’ list of the best golf resorts for buddies). Ahead of the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits next month, or anytime after, you may consider making a similar hike. Here’s how it went for us:

The golf 

“You can take one of these bags,” said the attendant at the Sand Box, the aforementioned short course, which is among our list of the 25 best par-3 courses in the world

“Go ahead.”

Now, it’s not as if we pulled up holding our 14 clubs in one hand and a box of X-outs in the other. We had our own bags. But Sand Valley offered quiver bags, which held just the three or four clubs you needed and made for a lighter lug. Again, the small things. 

From there, we teed off on No. 1. Though we could have easily putted, both from designated tee boxes for just the flatstick, and from the regulation tees, as several holes were less than 100 yards. The defense, though, was not from the tees, but from on and around the greens. Hit them, and you could score — I made seven pars and a birdie. Miss them, and, well, be prepared to keep hitting — I also made a 7 and an 8. Designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw went wild with their green shapes, and the Sand Box, believe it or not, had sand. Deep, deep sand. 

It’s here! GOLF’s 2020-21 ranking of the Top 100 Courses in the U.S.
By: GOLF’s Course Ratings Panel & Ran Morrissett, Architecture Editor

On day two, we played Sand Valley, ranked 91st on GOLF’s list of the Top 100 Courses in the U.S., and also designed by Coore and Crenshaw With six sets of tees, ranging in total distance from 6,938 yards from the back, black set, to 3,883 yards from the front, royal blue set, it’s playable, but certainly no pushover. With, yes, sand from tee to green on most holes, it’s difficult, but not diabolical. My handicap is floating in the teens at the moment, and I shot a 90 on the par-72.

Which included a lovely eight on the 8th. Which is a par-3. And only 97 yards from the middle tees. I hit a perfect wedge — on the screws, center of the face, as perfect as the brat I had for lunch the day before (more on that later) — and my ball went maybe 93 yards, then trickled off and into a trap so deep I couldn’t see my laughing friends on the green. Still, this hole sums up Sand Valley well for me. Ninety-seven yards ain’t really nothing. But the 10 yards all around the green really were something. Despite the 8 on 8, the hole went down as my second favorite on the course, right behind the par-5 12th, which offers you the option off the tee to hit to a fairway left, to a fairway right, or straight to the fairway right as it doglegs, but requires a carry over a tree. It had me thinking, no doubt. 

The Sand Box at Sand Valley in Nekoosa, Wis.

Nick Piastowski

The atmosphere 

“How did ya like it,” asked the 60-something driver of the shuttle bus after our 18 at Sand Valley. 

“Tough,” we all repeated. “But fun.”

“It’s a lot,” he said. “The Mammoth is a little easier to me, if you get the chance.”

A pretty simple conversation. Twenty-four words. But they’re doing a lot of work. 

First, the shuttle itself. You can get to most places at the resort by foot — the three courses (Sand Valley, Sand Box and Mammoth), the range, the lodging and the restaurants. Or by the air-conditioned vans. Second, the driver. You wouldn’t blink twice if our man either didn’t say a word, or said empty ones. Instead, he was himself, and that says a lot. And he wasn’t alone. 

There was the bartender who took the time to tell us a little about Sand Valley’s history. The aforementioned woman who worked in the restaurant but had the day off and sat with us with her dog on adirondack chairs near the food truck. (Her mini pinscher was named — Penny Pinscher!) She told us that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers held the course record at the Sand Box for a while. There was the woman in the food truck whose husband had played the Sand Box the day we did. Earlier that day, it had hosted the state par-3 tournament, and she said she was told that the pins that day were “by far the hardest he has ever seen.” 

My 7 and 8 felt a little better then. 

For a late July Wednesday and Thursday, Sand Valley was buzzing. But never was there trouble to find a spot to stretch our legs out. Could we take a pint down to the chairs overlooking Mammoth’s 18? Yep. Could we take a few cans from the bar to have a drink on the chairs outside our rooms? Yep. 

Oh, and wait till we talk about the price of those beers. 

The Sand Valley Course in Nekoosa, Wis.

Nick Piastowski

The food, the rooms — and lip balm?

Four bucks. And that was for a healthy 22-ounce glass. A 16-ouncer was three bucks. (On tap, too, were New Glarus Brewery, for Wisconsin craft beer fans, and Cigar City, for Florida fans.) Cans were three and two. Sorry, I couldn’t wait any longer. When you come in expecting to pay golf-resort prices and instead get charged like you’re at the corner bar, you get a little buzzed. 

There are four restaurants on the property — Aldo’s Farm & Table, Mammoth Bar, Craig’s Porch and the food truck — and we ate or drank at each. I’m a burger-brat-and-beer guy and that’s what I had at the latter three, while at Aldo’s, we had the breakfast buffet. While there’s never truly a bad burger, brat or beer, know that: a) I’m son of a meat butcher who also grew up a couple miles from Miller brewery; b) I take my meat and suds as seriously as Tiger would a 10-foot putt at Augusta; and c) each was great at Sand Valley.   

Also on property are four options for lodging, and we opted for two lodge rooms. “Rooms are utilitarian and functional, and that is OK,” one of my friends texted when I asked (begged) for their review. I agree. You’re there to sleep, and then you won’t be back in the room until you sleep again. But still even here, there are nuances with you in mind, including lip balm in the shape of a golf ball, a packet of bug spray and sunscreen, and a bag of chips.

They wanted you to be there. 

All the way down to a cup of iced coffee in your first minute. 

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