50 Words or Less
Mammoth Dunes – the second course at Wisconsin’s Sand Valley – is the most fun golf course I’ve ever played. Massive scale. Tons of opportunities to hit memorable shots.
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Mammoth Dunes opened this spring with massive fanfare and even bigger expectations. Expectations are part of the deal when you’re operating next to the successful Coore & Crenshaw Sand Valley course, never mind the shadow of developer Mike Keiser’s “other” resort – Bandon Dunes.
Architect David McLay Kidd seems unfazed by the pressure, having created a 500 acre thrill ride of a golf course. If a course can be judged by the looks of the players coming off the 18th green, Mammoth Dunes is already a success.
My round at Mammoth Dunes came just a week after the opening of Sand Valley’s new practice facility. As you can see below, the scale of the range fits with everything else about this place. There’s ample room for a couple dozen golfers to swat brand new TaylorMade TP5 golf balls before or after their round.
Behind the range, there are two huge short game greens. Given the amount of sand on the course and the tight lies that surround every green, it’s a good idea to spend some time there before you play. Both the range and short game area are a short shuttle ride from the clubhouse.
Directly behind the clubhouse is the massive putting green. It’s located adjacent to the first tee, so you can get your speed dialed in right up to the moment that you tee off. The best aspect of the practice green is that it simulates the kind of putts you’ll see on the course in both speed and severity of break.
Customer Service & Amenities
The last time I was at Sand Valley, everything was being run out of shipping containers. Things are a little different now. The Mammoth Dunes clubhouse is perfect – big enough to house a restaurant, pro shop, and some lodging, but no bigger. Inside the pro shop, you can sip a complementary Spotted Cow (a wonderful beer unique to Wisconsin) while you browse for souvenirs.
What deserves special mention is the snack tent at the turn. I expect a more permanent structure will eventually replace it, but the rugged, unfussy look fits Mammoth Dunes well. Even better than the aesthetics are the prices. $2 beer and $3 half-pound hamburgers are a delicious way to refuel.
Beauty & Scenery
What you’ll be struck by most at Mammoth Dunes is the scale. In every direction, you have boundless vistas – miles of sky, turf, sand, and trees. When you get a perfect blue sky, the effect is breathtaking.
The rugged aesthetic of Mammoth Dunes pairs perfectly with the ambient noise. You’re in the middle of nowhere with only the sounds of nature as your company.
The first tee shot sets the tone for your day. There’s a mile of width, but staying to the elevated right side confers a substantial advantage on the approach shot. Virtually every hole is like this: most drives will be in the fairway, but accurate drivers will get big rewards.
Whether you hit it accurately or not, there’s a substantial advantage to driving it far (relative to your tees). Many fairways crest and run downhill, creating opportunities to get extra yardage. Mammoth Dunes has six sets of tees, plus three combo sets, and picking the right yardage will be key to your enjoyment.
My one small complaint is that – especially for the first time golfer – the best side of the fairway is not always evident. Mammoth Dunes does have a strong caddie program, and if you want to score your best, getting their guidance will help. That said, there are few, if any, situations where a lack of knowledge will get you into trouble.
Outside of the tee, you won’t hit many shots from flat lies at Mammoth Dunes. The fairways swell and roll, leaving you to calculate the impact of the terrain on your approach shots.
To the player’s benefit, however, is that almost every approach will be played from a good lie. There is very little rough, and the rough that exists is thin and wispy. It should only impact play in the early morning when it imparts more moisture on the ball and club face.
The firm, tight fairways invite you to use creative shot making to get to the green. There are countless mounds and slopes you can use to your benefit – or that can work to your detriment if you’re not careful.
One of the best things about Mammoth Dunes is that it allows you to play the game in a variety of ways. You can play a modern game and fly the ball to your target if you have enough height and spin, but an old school approach can be just as successful.
Greens & Surrounds
The firm fairways at Mammoth Dunes lead to tightly-mowed surrounds with tons of character. Your short game will get a workout from the variety of situations you find yourself in if you miss the green.
The fact that there’s virtually no rough means that you have the full range of club and shot options. Putting everything is a smart play, assuming you can master the breaks. You can also take the modern approach and hit high wedges, but you’ll need to give these greens a lot of respect. They’re not too fast, but they’re very firm.
While the greens at Mammoth Dunes certainly aren’t small, they’re not as enormous as the fairways. The size and shape of the greens varies significantly from hole to hole and shapes the strategy. Similarly, there are greens that are relatively flat and some – like the boomerang 6th – that have massive slopes.
From an aesthetic standpoint, David McLay-Kidd did a beautiful job setting the greens into the dunes. So often throughout my round, I was awed by the way the green fit into the landscape as if it was meant to be there.
What didn’t get conveyed as I described each aspect of the course is Mammoth Dunes’ greatest strength: the fact that every hole begs you to take on the big shot. There’s so much width from the tee that you’ll want to hit driver on every hole – particularly the driveable par 4s. Even when the hazards are evident, they never seem to discourage the bold play.
Mammoth Dunes isn’t an easy course – there are plenty of tough hazards – but it invites you to make memorable shots and have fun.
As I’m playing a course, I take notes on my scorecard and mark stars on holes that could be potential favorites. My Mammoth Dunes card has seven stars, and would have had more if I hadn’t censored myself. I could easily write a love letter about every hole on this course, but I’m limiting myself to these three.
#6 – Par 4, 332 yards
I didn’t want to pick this hole because it’s going to be everyone’s favorite, but it’s too much fun to ignore. At 332 from the tips, this is the first of the driveable par 4s. The signature feature is the boomerang green that’s bracketed by two dunes. Pin placement can change this hole completely, but the slopes of the green allow you to get to the flag no matter where you are – if you have the skill.
#14 – Par 4, 318 yards
Of the driveable par 4s, this one may be my favorite because playing for the green carries more risk. If you hit a strong drive to the right, the downhill fairway can carry you all the way to the green. If you end up too far left, you’ll be swallowed up by the waste area. Players who want to lay up have ample space to do so…but why would you?
#8 – Par 3, 191 yards
Is it still an island green if there’s no water?
The eighth hole makes the cut for me because of how well it illustrates smart, inclusive design. For the back two tees, the green appears completely surrounding by sand, a huge forced carry. As you move forward the holes not only gets shorter, the angle changes and allows for a shot that runs onto the green. Plenty of challenge for those that want it, less for those that don’t. Perfect.
As someone who has been fortunate enough to play a lot of great courses, I’m often asked, “What’s your favorite course?” Prior to playing Mammoth Dunes, I would hem and haw and rattle off a list of names. Now I simply reply, “Mammoth Dunes.” Is that the afterglow of one great experience? Maybe. I guess I’ll have to go back soon, and often, to validate the choice. I strongly recommend that you do the same.