A couple of years ago, I remember talking to the great golf architect Bill Coore about the way his industry was changing.
Ever the courteous gentleman, Coore noted the excellent work being done by a wide range of designers, most of which, though he was far too modest to point it out, he had influenced in one way or another.
But Bill was conflicted. He was pleased that architects had re-embraced the Golden Age trend of wide fairways, making their courses more playable for golfers of all standards and, when the design was done properly, more strategic for better players (it is well to note that without width there can be no strategy). Yet, on the flipside, he was a little worried that the three highest-profile new course projects in America at the time – his and Ben Crenshaw’s first eighteen holes at Sand Valley, Gil Hanse’s Black course at Streamsong in Florida, and David McLay Kidd’s second Sand Valley track – were all quite so huge in scale. “Are we setting a trend towards enormous courses, and if so is it the right thing for golf?” Bill wondered aloud, concerned about the amount of land that those courses occupied, and the maintenance requirements that were built in to them by virtue of their size.
Coore’s course at Sand Valley has now been fully open for most of the 2017 season, and Kidd’s course has begun to come on stream. Available for partial preview play for part of 2017, it will have its official opening on May 31. I was among a number of journalists lucky enough to get a full view of the course last October; we were able to play sixteen holes and walk the other two, which had only been fairly recently planted, and so the grass was not yet ready to be played upon. When I tell you – if you didn’t already know – that the course is named Mammoth Dunes, you might start to get a feel for where Bill is coming from.
Mammoth Dunes is huge. It occupies 500 acres of land, and has 107 acres of maintained grass. The dune ridge which forms the dominant feature of the property is close on 100 feet high (this explains why the course’s footprint is so large). And, visually, it is simply off the charts. I do not believe I have ever seen a larger-looking golf course. Even standing on the first tee, one is simply blown away by the scale, in this case of a huge dune that has been cleared of trees and replanted with ‘chunked’ vegetation, a process that must have taken many weeks.
Partly, as I mentioned above, this is simply a reaction to the scale of the property. The whole Sand Valley site, now that most of the planted trees have been cleared from large parts of it, is vast, and Kidd’s portion of the site, given the enormous dune ridge, is the biggest part of it. There is no pressure on land usage in this remote part of central Wisconsin. And Kidd, famously, has reinvented himself over the last seven or eight years. After getting a very public kicking over the difficulty of his courses, such as the Castle at St Andrews, Tetherow in Oregon and the TPC Stonebrae in the Bay Area, he has started to build courses on which golfers of all standards will have fun, not lose balls and have a chance to make a score. And, well… some golfers are pretty bad. Preventing them from losing balls needs a lot of width!
And Mammoth does indeed have a lot of width. Some commentators – presumably mostly good golfers – have criticised new-look Kidd for his use of width, because they, claim, it is meaningless width, there only to cosset the golfer rather than enabling him to set up holes that have strategic value. That is emphatically not the case at Mammoth Dunes; the course is stuffed full of holes where one side of the fairway, or a particular slot on the fairway, or differing parts of the fairway depending on the location of the hole that day, offer the best line in.
The ridge, as mentioned above, is the dominant feature on the site, and Kidd’s routing moves round, up and down it in a creative fashion. The course doesn’t return to the clubhouse after nine holes; to be honest, I suspect that to have found a routing that did would have been next to impossible given the scale of the dune ridge. Golfers first encounter the ridge at the par three fourth, an extremely attractive uphill hole (developer Mike Keiser Sr is renowned for his dislike of uphill one shotters; that this one got past him suggests it must be good!). The threes are a pretty outstanding set actually; there’s that fourth, the eighth – a take on the island green theme, but using sand instead of water to create the ‘island’, the very beautiful short thirteenth, fronted by an incredibly deep sand blowout (I know; my tee shot failed to carry this sandy area by about a yard before running all the way down to the bottom, surely thirty feet below) and, my pick of the bunch, the sixteenth, which requires golfers to hit over a sand dune that pokes in on the right side.
For my money, the course’s outstanding stretch of holes run from the sixth to the tenth, on the far side of the dune ridge. The sixth, a short par four that will live long in the memory, features a U-shaped green, contoured so it resembles nothing so much as a motor speedway. A dune sits in the middle of the U, and faces play. The player’s only real view of the green is the left side; but when the pin is on the right, the play is to catch the slope of the motor speedway and swing the ball right round. The hole, at 264 yards from the middle ‘Sand’ tees, will be drivable for many; to walk up to the green and find that your ball has taken the slope and lies close will be a buzz indeed. About the only thing I can dislike about it is that while holes in one are quite possible, a golfer who makes one will not see his ball go in.
Read More: Sand Valley’s par three course – The Sandbox, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw – opened in May
Seven, a gigantic in scale par five, though it is only medium length at 558 yards from the back tee, has 8.75 acres of grass and a green of 11,000 sq ft (1,020 sq m). Eight is the island green par three I mentioned earlier, and nine is another massive hole, a long par four made intensely strategic by some enormous undulations in the fairway. That, along with the tenth, another short four that crosses back over the dune ridge by way of a brilliantly-placed green in a notch atop it, get my votes for the best holes on the golf course.
So, returning to where we started; yes, Mammoth is an enormous course. I don’t think I have seen one that appears bigger in visual scale. And yes, it, Sand Valley itself and Streamsong Black, probably don’t set a trend that the rest of the golf industry should be following. But these are courses built in remote places where land is cheap (and in the case of Wisconsin, where water is plentiful). I don’t think David Kidd and his crew will be getting calls to build Mammoth Desert in Arizona any time soon, but does that really matter?
This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.