Everyone likes Mammoth Dunes. It’s hard not to fall for the course at first sight. It is big, laid across stunning terrain and just plain cool. Players come off the 18th green with smiles on their faces having thoroughly enjoyed themselves, often beaming with the pride of posting their best number in years. We don’t blame them. We had the same reaction.
Once the afterglow has worn off though, we have noticed an interesting pattern. When asked which course at Sand Valley Resort is their favorite, higher handicappers and casual golfers favor Mammoth. Lower handicappers and architecture nuts favor Sand Valley. This is great news for the resort and the Keisers as they now have lovable offerings for all players. But it does make us wonder, how could it be that a man who was accused in the not-so-distant past of designing courses that are too difficult create one that consistently delights the average player? What is it about Mammoth Dunes that produces that effect?
By now, most followers of golf course development know David McLay Kidd’s story. The son of a famed Scottish greenkeeper, the then 30-year old Scotsman was an unknown designer who was tapped by an unknown developer to build a course in a place nobody had ever heard of. Bandon Dunes, the course and the resort, were smash hits for both men. Mike Keiser went on to build more courses in more far flung locations, and so did Kidd, but they did not work together again until David won the competition to build the second course at Sand Valley. He was not even under consideration for that opportunity due to Mr. Keiser’s distaste for the Castle Course and other DMK designs. The tide turned on the wide fairways and large greens of Gamble Sands. The Keiser team made the trip to play this layout that David has described as a course correction for his career:
“I started out knowing that golf in the UK is played for fun, as a past-time by most. Few play competitive golf and keep stroke play score, most don’t. When I created Bandon Dunes I knew that, but as my career developed I was convinced that golf courses needed to be tough challenges and my job was to defend the honor of the course. Golfers would have to show respect, or else be punished. I have returned to what I know golf needs to be – fun, playable, entertaining, engaging, relaxing, enduring. It should not be punishing. Who wants to decide to do something that’s punishing? I can make a course that’s challenging and alluring, while simultaneously making it playable.”
Gone were the extreme contours and penal hazards, replaced by features designed to maximize the joy of the game for all players. Gamble Sands opened the Keisers’ minds to Kidd as an option, and his dramatic routing for course number two at the resort sealed the deal. The prodigal son would be returning, to Nekoosa, WI.
Prior to Sand Hills and the minimalist movement led by Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak, American architects were typically designing courses with narrow playing corridors. The Jones family design influence was partly to blame, as was the unfortunate real estate development model that drove the construction of many courses. If the developer wants to sell the maximum possible number of homes with a golf course view, the end result is necessarily a course comprised of holes lined on both sides with housing. Not much room for width in that paradigm, and the designs suffered from a lack of strategy and interest. Mercifully, that era ended, and the minimalists gave us width back, along with strategic questions to answer.
Trends being what they are, successful wide courses have given rise to wider courses. Among the golf architecture intelligentsia, murmurs of “How wide is too wide?” have been heard. The scant few critics of Mammoth Dunes level the charge that Kidd has gone too far in serving the “retail golfer” with fairways that are essentially unmissable. It is true that one needs to try hard to lose a ball out there. DMK counters that although there is ample room to play, each hole does have a preferred position for scoring. That concept is illustrated by this strategy breakdown video for the 5th hole from the resort.
Wide fairways are an easy target, for tee shots and criticism, but we think that knocking the Kidd-Keiser generosity in this dimension is a lazy analysis and doesn’t get to the root cause of why better golfers gravitate toward Sand Valley.
All about the greens
An examination of the architectural merits of any course ultimately leads the examiner to the greens. No truly great course has uninteresting or poorly conceived greens. The greens and surrounds at Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes are all very well done. They are varied in size, contain interesting internal contours, and reward smart strategic play. There is a key difference between the courses though, and we surmise that the preference dynamic can be linked to it. That difference lies in the ratio for each course of green complexes that predominantly gather to those that predominantly repel. This gather vs. repel distinction is particularly relevant to approach shots at the green margins, and can be summed up with this simple question – if a player’s approach shot lands on the edge of the green, is it more likely to feed on to the putting surface, or run away? Obviously, on average, putting will be easier for all players compared to chipping from a tight lie up or over a tricky slope.
The 2nd at Sand Valley repels approaches to the edges
Mammoth Dunes has 12 holes with greens that gather (1-3,5-7,9,11,12,14,16,17) and 6 that repel (4,8,10,13,15,18). Sand Valley has 6 that gather (3,9,10,15,17,18) and 12 that repel (1,2,4-8,11-14,16). The end result of this difference is that Sand Valley produces just enough marginal challenge to give players a sense that good scores have been earned, which is deeply satisfying, especially to low handicappers and those who tend to get deep in the weeds of golf course design. Mammoth Dunes gives just enough help at the margins to allow most players to score well and have fun, especially if they are wise enough not to overthink it.
The drivable 14th at Mammoth Dunes with its gathering green and surrounds
Different architects have different approaches to striking a balance between helping vs. challenging players. No particular approach is the “right” one. At Mammoth Dunes, Kidd takes us on a journey around a dramatic landscape, and along the way his design skews toward helping, which increases enjoyment. Whether by conscious design or the intuitive sense that the Keisers have developed over years of successfully serving the retail golfer, Mammoth is a perfect complement to Sand Valley, and further guarantees that every visitor will want to return.