"He walked off what would be the 18th green and liked it so much, he went in, grabbed a few friends and went right back out and walked it again." - Michael Keiser on what his father, Mike Keiser, thought of the Tom Doak routing at Sand Valley in Nekoosa, Wisc.
Around and around it goes, where the Midwestern merry-go-round of modern minimalist golf architects stops, only the developer knows.
Herb Kohler, Lew Thompson and what was Mike Keiser - now the Keisers - are all hiring. Who they choose from is a stable of horses, with the biggest names continuing to emerge from the Kentucky Derby sized pack.
Let’s start with Mike Keiser, who in two decades has built 15 courses: 10 18-hole courses, three par-3 courses, a 9-holer and a putting course.
Mike, with sons Michael and Chris, will be building a third 18-hole course at Sand Valley and as of last night, confirmed Doak has been hired to build it.
"I keep trying to slow them down," says Keiser, in reference to his sons and the pace of new courses they are setting in Wisconsin. "But I’m not winning this battle."
The Keisers opened the first course at Sand Valley, built by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, in 2017. This summer, they opened Mammoth Dunes by David McLay Kidd, and the Sand Box, a par-3 course by Coore and Crenshaw (with significant input from Jim Craig and the Keiser boys). They had routings for a third 18-hole course from Doak, Gil Hanse and Mike DeVries, and there were votes for all of the above within the extended Keiser camp—Josh Lesnik of Kemper Sports included.
Doak came out as the leader of this smaller pack with the proposal of a shorter course. Which is to say, it will be just over 6,000 yards and par will be 67 or 68. The complete opposite to what is aptly named Mammoth Dunes.
"We are excited to build what Tom has wanted to build his entire career, which is a course that throws par and distance out the window," says Michael Keiser, 37, and who has lived in the Nekoosa area now for three years. "My dad has always focused on fun and playability, and this routing expands upon that theme."
Inspired by the likes of Swinley Forest, a Harry Colt design in England (1909), which is 6,400 yards and a par 69 (five par 3s and two par 5s), Michael Keiser says the collective group involved in this decision is excited to shine light on fabulous routings that don’t conform to the preconceptions about what the length and par of a course should be or needs to be.
"We all feel responsibility to give back to this game, and this type of course is an important part of the game’s history," says Michael Keiser. What’s being referred to as Sedge Valley at Sand Valley—because of the sedge that dominates the land cover—will potentially have five par 3s, several drivable par 4s and then some longer par 4s, with one of those potentially being a par 5.
"We’re not going to rush this," says Michael Keiser. "We may start it next year, or the year after, but with this one, we really want to spread out the construction timeline."
Even spreading out the timeline on Sedge Valley at Sand Valley, by June 1, 2019 the Keisers will have built three courses, three dining options, 15 tennis courts and 191 beds of lodging in five years.
Why so much, so fast in a Midwestern destination with no ocean or lakefront views?
Mike Keiser told me they will get as many as 40,000 rounds this year at Sand Valley. And that’s with Mammoth Dunes opening late in an already short season. Michael Keiser expects 50,000 rounds next year, and 60,000 rounds if you include the par-3 course. The Keiser formula starts with good land, followed closely by demand, which is why there has been 20 years of discussion about the supply.
When asked how and why he gravitates to certain horses for his courses, Mike Keiser told me, "Trust. I trust Bill (Coore) and Ben (Crenshaw) more than the rest. And then it’s David (McLay Kidd). After what he did at Gamble Sands and now Mammoth Dunes, he’s next. Then it’s Tom (Doak)."
According to Keiser, Doak dropped down the list due to some extreme greens, which would include a few at Streamsong Blue in Florida.
So third on the trust list wins the race for the first medium-sized course at Sand Valley.
But hold all tickets! There was a late entry.
For years, Herb Kohler, 79, has been getting permits and bulldozing through red tape to build what was always going to be a fifth course by Pete Dye. But unfortunately, as Alice Dye told me at the beginning of the year, Dye, 92, has yielded his Hall of Fame impact on architecture to Father Time. Alice says he’s still physically strong, even playing a little golf every week, but his mind is going.
Which is where Doak came in. Although they have a stark contrast in styles, Doak worked for Dye. And Kohler has always respected Dye for his dogged determination to stay true to his ideas and ideals, which is exactly what he’d get from Doak.
The potential problem for Doak is that he recently told a small gathering at Forest Dunes and others that if he agreed to do a course for the Keisers at Sand Valley, he’d be out at Kohler.
To scratch a horse from a race is to withdraw a horse from a race.
At his core, Kohler is a fierce competitor and looks at anything remotely close to Destination Kohler as competition. That’s the way he has always felt about Erin Hills, and apparently how he now looks at Keiser, and especially the Sand Valley development.
I was told Doak said he would be going back to the Keisers to see if they could give him any indication of the timing on the decisions as to when the third course would be built, but more importantly, who would build it.
Mike Keiser was at Sand Valley over the weekend, which is when he walked the current form of the Doak routing, not once, but twice. And as of Tuesday night, Keisers committed to Doak, but didn’t release the news until they had spoken to Hanse and DeVries first (I’m told Doak also informed Kohler of his decision to commit to Sand Valley).
The Keisers also made it clear that they’d have no issues with Doak building a course for Kohler.
"If we both opened new Doak designs in 2020, I’d be fine with that," says Mike Keiser. "That’s good for golf. Especially in Wisconsin."
It sounds like Doak had the Kohler job, but he would have needed to be patient. Kohler told me he probably wouldn’t break ground on the fifth course until after the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in 2020. “We’re probably five years from playing golf on that property,” says Kohler.
Prior to the news of Doak signing the deal at Sand Valley, Kohler told me: "As we move down the line and get close to construction, there’s no question Tom (Doak) would be a great complement to what Pete (Dye) has done here."
Doak didn’t make himself available for comment on either project. And I made several attempts to get a comment from Kohler about the news Doak has signed at Sand Valley, but based on what I’ve been told by several sources who spoke to Doak, Kohler will most likely move on to a plan B and get someone to execute something close to what Pete Dye was going to build all along.
Meanwhile, at Forest Dunes, where Doak built The Loop for owner Lew Thompson, there’s another small pack of horses vying for the job to build a third course and a short course. Thompson says they’ve had a very successful summer, which justifies the idea of more golf.
Since 2011, when Thompson bought Forest Dunes, he has added 70 rooms, which includes a lodge, some houses and 10 four-bedroom cottages. Last summer he opened The Loop, which is a reversible routing, so it counts as two courses. This summer, he added a 100,000-square-foot putting course, a second fire pit and an outdoor bar.
"We want the ones who come to see us to stay a few days," says Thompson. "For the ones who stay for four days, we want them to be able to play four different courses, have a putting course and a par-3 course."
On what Doak considers the best 500 acres Thompson has for golf, which is saying something, Forest Dunes could start clearing land for a lot more golf as soon as this fall. "We’ve received routings and phone calls from several architects," says Thompson. "Long term we have a goal of another big course and a short course, and we’ll probably build both at the same time. Gil Hanse is the front-runner as of right now."
Hanse was on site last week and on a scale of 1 to 10, he gave the land he’d have to work with at Forest Dunes an 8.5. Hanse is in the process of preparing a budget, and if the numbers line up, the job is most likely his to keep. That would mean Hanse is in Michigan in 2019 restoring Oakland Hills and building at least 27 holes at Forest Dunes at the same time.
If, for some reason, Hanse can’t make it happen, Thompson says he has a routing from Doak and a short course routing from Rick Smith. He’s also waiting on a routing from DeVries, another Michigan native, who walked the land and would love the opportunity to build something so close to his home. Thompson says he also fielded a recent call from King-Collins, based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and are trying to capitalize on the onslaught of positive energy and reviews around Sweetens Cove, a nine-hole course in South Pittsburg, Tenn.
"We are extremely interested," says Rob Collins. "Our big selling point as a firm is that Tad (King) and I are in the stages of our careers in which we could throw ourselves into our work. Let’s say a Forest Dunes, Sand Valley or The Buck Club, the Zac Blair project in Utah, were to happen for us, we’ll hit a home run on the big stage. Someone will pull the trigger, and when they do, we’ll be ready."
But for now, Hanse is holding the high hand at Forest Dunes. And continues to have the hot hand within an active industry. What Hanse can’t seem to get is a job working for the Keisers, who also recently made the decision to hire Coore and Crenshaw to build the fifth big course at Bandon Dunes.
Sheep Ranch and Coul Links
What is now the Sheep Ranch, a 13-green choose-your-own-routing by Doak will soon be an 18-hole Coore and Crenshaw design.
"We have agreed to do the job," says Coore. "We’ve done a layout. The portion of the land we have permitted for golf isn’t very big, so when we do get the go ahead, it won’t take long to build."
Coore and Crenshaw are also waiting for the green light to build Coul Links in Scotland, which is another Keiser project. "Both the Sheep Ranch and Coul Links are in a holding pattern," says Coore. "My guess is that Sheep Ranch will happen first, but I just don’t know. We’re circling for now."
Planes circle. So do racehorses just before getting loaded into the starting gate. Now it’s time to lean on the railing near the finish line and feel the thundering herd of minimalists as they try to maximize their opportunities.