NEKOOSA, Wis. – When Bandon Dunes founder Mike Keiser announced plans in 2014 to build Sand Valley Golf Resort smack dab in the middle of Wisconsin, I’ll admit that I wondered whether Keiser finally had jumped the shark.
After Keiser’s triumphs at Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links and elsewhere, it probably was presumptuous to doubt him. But doubt I did.
I wondered whether Keiser’s formula would work on an inland site as opposed to the seaside settings where he had succeeded in the past. I wondered whether it made sense to build a new resort in a remote area, with limited air access and a five-month offseason. I wondered how the fescue turf that Keiser favors would fare in that climate. I wondered where he would find enough high-quality employees in such a rural area.
More broadly, I wondered if Keiser, like many successful entrepreneurs, had lost sight of his own fallibility. Maybe, I wondered, the old man, metaphorically speaking, had just wandered into a hazard and didn’t know how to get his ball back into play.
Having visited Sand Valley twice – in August 2016 and again this month – I’ve stopped wondering and come to this conclusion: I’m done doubting Keiser. He has some sort of Vulcan-like mind-meld with serious golfers that goes far beyond any traditional business plan or marketing analysis.
In fairness, even Keiser acknowledged in 2014 that he had his doubts about getting involved in the Sand Valley project – until he spent 30 minutes on site. “I was hooked,” he told Golfweek at the time. “It is a thrilling dunescape – a cross between Pine Valley and Sand Hills.”
The development of Sand Valley seems to be going exactly as Keiser had anticipated.
It was one thing to show up one weekend last summer, before Sand Valley’s eponymous first course had officially opened, and see golfers streaming up the makeshift entryway to the sandy parking lot, going into a trailer to pay $75 to “preview” the course, walking 18 holes, then returning to the trailer to buy their hats and shirts. (Those stylish mementos, among other things, were verification that they were among golf’s “in” crowd, not unlike those to whom Keiser granted a sneak peek at Bandon Dunes before its 1999 opening.) Last year’s visit should have told me everything I needed to know. But no, I still privately harbored some doubts.
It was quite another thing to make a midweek visit this month to get an early look at Mammoth Dunes, Sand Valley’s second course, which is open for preview play leading up to a mid-2018 opening. The rooms were booked solid and golfers again were paying $75 to tour nine holes, and more to buy apparel with the wooly mammoth-style logo.
Much of that apparel bears the colors of sports teams from nearby markets – Packers, Badgers, Cubs, Twins, etc.
“We’re very aware of where our customer is coming from,” said Glen Murray, Sand Valley’s general manager.
The business premise for Sand Valley is that it has a ready-made drive-in clientele from surrounding cities, including Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison. That seems to be playing out. Murray said Minneapolis and Chicago are the resort’s biggest markets, and already this year he’s seeing customers return two or three times.
Murray said the resort’s 2017 revenues are 40 percent higher than projected – “and we thought we projected pretty aggressively,” he said. Sand Valley’s first course will do some 20,000 rounds this year.
More importantly, advance bookings for 2018 are 12 times higher than 2017, as golf groups try to lock in dates.
“Some people last year didn’t get the date they wanted, so they’re realizing they’re going to have to book (well in advance) to get the date they want,” he said. Gwk