ROME, WISCONSIN | The day before his Mammoth Dunes course at Sand Valley officially opened to the public, David McLay Kidd hosted something of a preview party for a few dozen friends. And in welcoming them to the affair, the designer was not at all shy about sharing his feelings about his latest creation, describing it as his best work in a career that has produced such gems as Bandon Dunes in southwest Oregon (1999), Nanea on the Big Island of Hawaii (2003) and Gamble Sands in the apple orchard country of eastern Washington (2014).
My first reaction was to deem his words as hyperbole and exactly the sort of thing a proud parent might utter in the emotion of the moment. But then I played the course, which is routed on prehistoric sand dunes and is indeed mammoth in size, scope and feel.
Mammoth Dunes is the second of two 18-hole courses now operating at Sand Valley, the central Wisconsin resort established by Mike Keiser of Bandon Dunes fame and his sons Michael and Chris. The first track, known simply as Sand Valley and designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, opened to stellar reviews last May, including one I wrote for The Post after making my first trip to this rustic retreat.
Kidd’s course is located nearby, and he constructed it in and around a pair of massive sand ridges that form a vast “V.” It features multiple teeing areas on each hole and huge landing areas on the par-4s and par-5s. In fact, the fairway on the seventh is as wide as 175 yards in some places, and the well-contoured ground rises and falls throughout the property like grassy waves, sometimes sending golf balls skittering in different directions once they land (as a good links layout should) and putting premiums on a player’s ability to hit shots from uneven lies.
Sweeping sandy waste areas also endow Mammoth Dunes with an Old World ethos, and so do the rugged, blowout bunkers and devilish pot bunkers the native Scot has fashioned in places. His greens, many of which are cut on top of dunes or tucked in natural bowls are big and quite receptive to approach shots. They also boast plenty of spice, in the form of subtle yet occasionally sinister undulations, and you need to be a good lag putter to score well.
Par is 73, and there are six different markers, ranging from the Blacks, at 6,935 yards, to the ones designated as Royal Blue, at 4,010. In addition, Kidd offers three different “combo tees,” which means that golfers have a total of nine options when it comes to deciding how long a course they want. I opted for the Orange markers, and at 6,563 yards, they provided a near perfect melding of challenge and fun as they compelled me to hit all but two clubs in my bag.
The first thing that struck me about the course was its size, and I quickly came to appreciate that Mammoth Dunes is a very apt appellation (even if Kidd and his senior design associate Casey Krahenbuhl did not find any skeletal remains of those long extinct proboscideans during their work on the property). I felt it as I stood on the first tee, and the sensation stayed with me throughout the round. Big fairways. Big greens. Big waste areas. Mammoth ones, really.
Then there were the angles, and Kidd employs them brilliantly. On the par-4 second, for example, the tee runs almost perpendicular to the fairway, which can only be reached by hitting over a waste area, and the green. The shortish, par-3 13th was a gas as well, with a narrow, diagonal green that runs from front-right to back-left and is set at the base of a dune. The hole called for a 8-iron to be hit with a slight draw the morning I played it, and I chortled with delight as I watched my golf ball climb into the slate gray sky, arcing slightly to the left, and then land on the putting surface some 20 feet from the pin.
The terrain at Mammoth Dunes is full of character, and Kidd made good use of its many elevation changes. The ninth, for example, is a meaty par-4 that plays uphill to a triangular-shaped green built into the base of one of those ridges and backed on the left by swathes of sand. The 10th requires an uphill approach as well, but a much shorter one and only after a golfer gets to hit a downhill drive to an ample landing that is as welcoming as a kitchen that smells of freshly baked pumpkin pie.
A round here ends with a brawny par-5, and as I walked onto the angled green of that finisher, my first thought was of how soon I could play the course again. And my second was that what Kidd had said the night before was exactly right. This is better than anything he has done before.