Since the inception of Herb Kohler’s first golf course at Blackwolf Run in 1987, public access ulra-golf has been synonymous with the small village an hour north of Milwaukee. However, with the recent introduction of Sand Valley near Wisconsin Rapids, Mike Keiser is seeking to establish a presence in the Badger State similar to the one he etched in the Oregon coastline at Bandon Dunes. Golfers now have great choices to consider — Keiser or Kohler. Can’t decide? I’ll help you out.
To be fair, I want to set the record straight. I have worked for Herb Kohler. I have never met Mike Keiser. Until a recent trip to Sand Valley, I had not played a Keiser layout except for his first effort in New Buffalo, MI, the Dunes Club. It is an exceptional nine hole layout carved through sandy terrain about a mile from the Lake Michigan shoreline. Naturally I’ve played all four Dye courses in Kohler, the two at Blackwolf Run and the duo at Whistling Straits.
To make a comparison of the two men and their properties is like explaining the difference between bent grass and fescue – both surfaces are very playable but there are nuances to each one. Herb Kohler never really played much golf. Keiser, on the other hand, admits he found a school (Amherst College) with a bad enough golf team he could make. Whereas Herb has learned much about the game through his relationship with Pete Dye and the development of his golf business, Keiser gained perspective through the eyes of being a competitive player earlier in his life.
The courses at Kohler came about as the last puzzle piece to complete the Five Diamond resort facilities in eastern Wisconsin. Keiser’s Sand Valley came about because a friend of his stumbled upon an incredible parcel of sand in the middle of northern Wisconsin. It is claimed the sand goes down more than a hundred feet, thus the name Sand Valley. Sand is the best medium for a golf course. Keiser has plenty of it. It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
In building Whistling Straits on a defunct Army training base along Lake Michigan, Herb Kohler purchased truckloads (reports claim 105,000 cubic yards) of sand to allow Pete Dye to shape the flat terrain into a memorable course. The resulting layout has hosted three PGA Championships and looks forward to welcoming the Ryder Cup in 2020. Keiser, on the other hand, didn’t pay a dime for his stockpile of sand. It came with the site.
If your primary question is which courses should you play, the answer is easy. Play them all. Sand Valley will open it’s first course this spring, the Coore & Crenshaw design. David McLay Kidd is in the process of building the second course as I write. He designed Keiser’s first layout at Bandon Dunes. There is still room for more golf at Sand Valley but it appears Keiser would like to get the two initial layouts established before committing to more.
Here are some other differences between the two developers:
Herb Kohler selected only one designer for his courses — Pete Dye. Keiser has recruited several top designers, Coore & Crenshaw, Tom Doak, McLay Kidd and has even mentioned Gil Hanse, the Olympic Course designer, getting a crack at a future site.
Perhaps the main reason Kohler has stuck with Dye is because the two have grown on each other over the years. I liken them to the old New York Yankee baseball brain trust of George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin. At the outset there were several confrontations between the two. Dye has probably been fired as many times as Martin during the span of his career. Of course it is well known that working for Kohler is no easy task. It’s likely out of a foursome of different designers one or two of them would walk away from the controlling eccentricities of Herb Kohler.
Keiser appears to be a 180 from the plumbing magnate. Each one of his courses at Bandon Dunes are included in someone’s Top 100 Listing. Is it just luck or simply an ideal working relationship between owner and designer? I would say it is the experience of building courses in four different locales with various designers that has brought about the best work. Keiser has developed courses in Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nova Scotia and Tasmania. His reach is much broader than Kohler’s. While any golf course project demands intense oversight, Keiser seems to loosen the leash a bit more with his design teams. He trusts their vision will meet his.
Another divergence between the two men lies in the presentation. Imagine you have a world class painting no one has seen. It is not framed. With Kohler, nobody would be allowed to see it until the perfect frame is selected (by you know who) and it can be properly displayed in a stunning arena.
Keiser follows a different drummer. He wants those who will appreciate the work to see it as soon as possible, regardless if it is framed or not. The painting on grass stands on its own merit, not on its surroundings. In order to be appreciated it doesn’t have to be polished.
Go see Sand Valley. When it opened last year players meandered down an entrance road of compacted sand. A graveled area defined the parking lot. A couple of shipping containers served as the golf headquarters. Bare bones amenities greeted players for sure. But after playing the course you felt privileged to have walked the collection of holes in their infancy. Knowledgeable players can see how the layout will mature into another terrific effort by Coore and Crenshaw. This will truly become a great golf destination much like Keiser’s other projects.
Golf in Wisconsin is now garnering an international spotlight. Thanks to Herb Kohler’s collection of fine courses, everyone who loves to play (amateurs and professionals) can come to the Badger State to tee it up. The 2017 US Open will be contested at Erin Hills, just west of Milwaukee. SentryWorld recently completed a fabulous renovation with new holes and turf conditions that rival any top ranked course. Wisconsin Dells has always been deserving of a quality facility and Wild Rock has found its place on a “Must Play” list. Taking a week out of your summer to tour the state’s best courses is an inviting proposition. Anyone choosing to do so will not be disappointed.
It looks as if a fifth Kohler course may be built along the shores of Lake Michigan just south of Sheboygan. Dye will do the construction. Herb Kohler will control the process. Will it be another gem in his golf treasure chest? However there are still some hoops to jump through with regards to permits and environmental concerns. At this time the project is still on hold.
Finally, I can’t resist “comparing cards” between the two men and the incredible facilities they’ve already created. In January I ventured out to Oregon to see what all the fuss was about regarding Keiser’s premier property, Bandon Dunes. During my stay I played the four 18 hole layouts but missed the par three course, Bandon Preserve. Two days of great weather (55, sunny) greeted us the first two rounds. Day three was rough with wind, rain and colder temps buffeting our foursome around the Bandon Dunes layout. The final day at Bandon Trails featured a bit of rain but the majority of the round was played in overcast conditions, much like you’d find in Scotland. It was an enjoyable walk through a great routing orchestrated by Coore and Crenshaw.
There were a few distinct traits I found at Bandon Dunes. Number one, the golf courses weren’t as penal as those in Kohler. Secondly, the courses played much firmer than what you would experience in Wisconsin due to the sandy loam along the Oregon coast. Third, Bandon Dunes, at least in January, has the feel of an adult golf camp. The after-golf amenities are less formal, which is good when you’re traveling with a bunch of buddies. Despite the weather, all of the tee times were booked during our stay. Folks coming to Bandon in January were die-hards, willing to match their games and rain gear against whatever elements might prevail.
Accommodations differ between the two. Kohler’s lodging is more on a grand scale while Bandon offers comfortable options that are a bit more homey. You won’t find a spa at Keiser’s resort but in Kohler there is a full service facility that will rub you down and cover your face with mud, for a price mind you. The other difference is you’re apt to find a more diverse guest population at Kohler. They cater to weddings, corporate retreats, hunters, and couples getaways. Bandon is all golf 24/7. The banter (usually loud) in Oregon often gravitates to disasters on #4 at Pacific, triumphs at #16 Dunes, or an incredible 2 putt on Old Mac #8.
Just for the fun of it let’s look at a golf trip scorecard of Bandon Dunes vs. Destination Kohler. In a few years we might be able to plug in Sand Valley for Bandon Dunes and preview a “home” game.
Bandon Dunes Destination Kohler
Ocean views Lake views
Ultimate buddies trip Ultimate couples getaway
Different designers One designer
Tough to get to Relatively accessible
Open 12 months Open 6 months
Easier on the pocketbook off-season Expensive all year
Comfortable lodging Exceptional lodging
No professional majors Five professional majors
5 courses 4 courses
Par 3 course No par 3 course
Limited non-golf activities More non-golf activities
The ocean is louder The lake is quieter
Airport in North Bend Airport in Sheboygan
Introduced 1999 Introduced 1988
You make the call. Add your own criteria. Either way you can’t lose. Herb Kohler and Mike Keiser have introduced some exceptional courses to the world of golf and the state of Wisconsin. It’s now up to us to go play them and thank them for the opportunity.