NEKOOSA, Wis. — In a world of same, unique often is hard to find, especially in the world of golf course architecture.
At times, a course is shunned based on the presumption of what a golf course should be or simply is dismissed because it might be regarded as unusual.
In 1995, Sand Hills Golf Club opened in the Nebraska Sandhills. There was plenty of praise to go around for the rugged design and its architects, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.
Crenshaw and Coore had pushed past presumptions, and the 18 holes outside of Mullen, Neb., became a destination for golf purists on a pilgrimage to locate courses new and different.
The masterpiece became a precursor to another treasure in Oregon’s southwest corner. Mike Keiser, a Chicago businessman, took the Sand Hills concept and built Bandon Dunes.
In designing Bandon, Keiser not only took a big gamble in its location —four-plus hours by car from Portland — but whom he engaged as the architect.
Scotsman David McLay Kidd, then 26, was a relative unknown, yet he was picked to design Keiser’s course on a remote bluff overlooking the Pacific. The site was chosen because of its sand dunes, although Sand Hills had been a successful test case.
The trust and respect that Keiser displayed for Kidd cannot be discounted as Bandon Dunes opened to rave reviews in 1999.
Bandon’s success story would continue as Keiser later added Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails, Old MacDonald and — perhaps the best of them all — Preserve Course, a 13-hole, par-3 layout.
Yet, Kidd seemed to revert into a blue period. The acclaim that Kidd gained from Bandon faded.
“I understood that golf had to be fun and playable early in my career, but somehow lost my way for the better part of a decade,” Kidd said of his evolving design philosophy. “It's only been in the last decade that I’ve discovered what I instinctively knew in my 20s when I did Bandon Dunes … that golf was meant to be fun.
“It's not that much fun standing on a golf hole and thinking am I ever going to see this golf ball again. It's much more fun to be aggressive knowing that the penalty for not completing the stroke is that you have a chance of redemption. And that's what Mammoth Dunes tries to do. That's what Gamble Sands does in spades. I'm still asking you to play a very precise shot, but I'm just giving you the opportunity for redemption should you not pull it off. Too many courses in the last 30 years ask you to play a certain shot, and for anything less than that the penalty far outweighs the crime. And you're dead. And that's no fun.”
Kidd began to reemerge in 2009 with the opening of Machrihanish Dunes on the Mull of Kintyre along Scotland’s western shore and Huntsman Springs in Idaho’s Teton Valley. Then came Guacalito De La Isla on the Nicaraguian Pacific coast.
Kidd completed his comeback with Gamble Sands, near Brewster in central Washington, in summer 2014. Working with a former apple orchard instead of the ocean shorelines as he did at Bandon and Machrihanish, Kidd left designs that drew further praise.
The result in Washington was enough to put Kidd back on Keiser’s radar screen. Last Thursday, Kidd’s second design for a Keiser resort opened.
Mammoth Dunes, the second course at Sand Valley, is three hours north of Chicago, in another remote setting, but is sure to become another mecca for golf pilgrims.
Sand Hills started the revolution of golf minimalism, and it could be argued that nothing has topped its design. When Bandon Dunes matured, the debate among visitors was which of the resort’s four 18-hole courses was best.
With the creation of Mammoth Dunes, the question now becomes: Is there a North American course designed in the past 30 years better than the current Kidd tour de force?
The answer is a resounding no. In comparison to Mammoth Dunes, Sand Valley and Bandon — and even Cabot in Nova Scotia — pale.
Overwhelming to the eye, Mammoth Dunes is one of the few golf courses in the world with no weak links. That is heavy praise considering the likes of Cypress Point (the 18th hole) and Augusta (the fifth or seventh holes, take your pick) have their blemishes.
Fun, enjoyment, playability and artistic splendor rank as the takeaways from Mammoth Dunes. The only negative: mosquitoes.
A trip to Bandon is an experience, but an excursion to Mammoth Dunes is a calling for any golfer who wants to revel in something extraordinary.
When Sand Valley’s third course is announced, the architect had better have thick skin, because any praise for the design will likely not live up to Mammorth Dunes’ hype.
Sand Valley Golf Resort
Location: Nekoosa, Wis.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read.