Golf nirvana

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Chicago businessman who turned the tiny coastal town of Bandon, Ore., into one of the world's premier golf destinations is planning to build a similar multi-course resort on sand dunes that formed the bottom of a prehistoric lake in what is now Adams County.

Mike Keiser's project, named Sand Valley, could include up to four courses and lodging spread over 1,500 acres of remote sand barren about 15 miles south of Wisconsin Rapids.

If successful—and Keiser's track record suggests it will be—Sand Valley would join the Kohler Co. golf properties near Sheboygan and Erin Hills near Hartford to make Wisconsin a top destination for traveling golfers.

“It would make Wisconsin the best summertime place for golf in the world,” Keiser said.

Keiser, who made his fortune in greeting cards, has signed an agreement to purchase about 2.4 square miles of land from Plum Creek Timber Co. The closing is set for Dec. 17, at which time Keiser is expected to name the architect for the first course.

If all goes according to plan, construction would begin in 2014 and the first course would open in late 2016 or early 2017. The Oliphant Companies, a Madison-based golf construction and management firm, will build the courses.

Sand Valley, if fully realized, would create hundreds of jobs. The unemployment rate in Wisconsin Rapids (pop. 18,367) is about 8 percent, according to Mayor Zach Vruwink, and the region is still struggling in the wake of the 2008 closing of the Port Edwards paper mill.

“There is no question this would be a significant positive contributor to the local economy and to the state,” Vruwink said. “Personally, I'm in favor of it. Absolutely.”

For months, golf bloggers and course architect buffs have been buzzing about Keiser's interest in the site and what it could mean. He is considered a visionary, a man who has turned desolate locations into acclaimed golf resorts with a daring “build it and they will come” philosophy.

Keiser is founder and owner of Bandon Dunes, a five-course, 85-hole complex on a remote stretch of southern Oregon coastline that is regarded by many purists as the finest resort in the world. All four 18-hole courses at Bandon Dunes are ranked among the top 11 resort courses in America by Golfweek magazine, including No. 1 Pacific Dunes (Kohler-owned Whistling Straits is No. 4).

Those who play the minimalist Bandon courses, which are unencumbered by real-estate development and reminiscent of the ancient seaside links in the British Isles, almost universally rave about the experience. Bandon is on every serious golfer's must-play list.

Keiser also is involved in acclaimed multi-course developments in central Florida, Nova Scotia and Tasmania.

He said the location in Wisconsin reminded him of Pine Valley, the ultra-private club in New Jersey and a fixture atop the annual magazine rankings of best courses in the world. That speaks to the quality of the sandy site two miles east of Petenwell Lake, where bald eagles soar, gray wolves roam—and where bullet indentations riddle the stop sign at the dirt-road entrance.

Sand is considered the ideal substructure for golf courses because it drains well and many strains of grass thrive in it. Herbert Kohler Jr. trucked in thousands of truckloads of sand to build Whistling Straits. At Sand Valley, the sand is 100 feet deep.

Keiser plans to harvest tens of thousands of red pine trees on the site, expose the sand and native ground cover and integrate it into the golf course designs.

“What this wants to be is a dunes system,” said Craig Haltom, vice president of The Oliphant Companies. “We're going to restore it to sand barren. Globally, that's a rare ecosystem.”

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