NEKOOSA — When famed golf course developer Mike Keiser and his two sons decided in 2013 to buy 1,700 acres in central Wisconsin, the idea was to take advantage of the massive amount of sand left behind thousands of years ago from receding glaciers.
Their Sand Valley Golf Resort now has three courses, and a fourth is under development. Last year, the resort drew golfers from all 50 states and 20 countries, some arriving via private jet at Alexander Field in nearby Wisconsin Rapids. The resort has been praised by national golf publications and has become part of golf vacation tours that include other prime Wisconsin destinations like Whistling Straits north of Sheboygan, Blackwolf Run in Kohler and Erin Hills near Hartford, which hosted the U.S. Open in 2017 and will host the U.S. Women’s Open in 2025.
Now the Keisers are touting a new amenity that’s creating a buzz not in golf circles but those who use a racquet and dream of Wimbledon.
Sand Valley has built one of the largest collections of grass tennis courts in the country. There are no fences, only dunes of sand and pine trees surrounding the 15 courts that are grouped in threes on five pitches next to the golf practice range.
But for those wanting to check their lawn game skills at the facility, which is open to the public, be aware. The ball reacts differently when hit on a grass surface cut like a golf green. Primarily, the ball doesn’t bounce as high, meaning those who shun hustle may find themselves at love more than not.
“You really can’t overrun a ball here,” said Kate Carroll, of Hartford, who last week played for the first time on a grass court. “If you don’t come up on it you’re dead in the water.”
Frank Meier, of Monroe, took a vacation day last Wednesday from his job at a stone company and had a similar experience, but one he truly relished.
“This is really cool,” Meier said in between points. “The ball does not come up much. It kind of goes forward but it does not come up.”
No special shoes are required but the resort recommends players wear shoes with a flatter sole. Regular cans of tennis balls can be used but the resort’s pro shop also sells, for $4, cans of special balls that are white and better suited to the grass game. And the cost to play is reasonable — $20 per hour per court. So a group of four playing doubles can play three hours of tennis for just $15 each, although the resort recommends a ball boy or ball girl for $10 an hour.
Meier was with a group of adult students with the Lyle Schaefer Tennis Academy in Madison. Schaefer, a veteran tennis coach who has been teaching tennis for over 50 years and has played in state and national tournaments, made his first visit to Sand Valley last week. He’s played on grass courts over the years and said one of the advantages to grass for older players is that it’s easier on the body.
“You can do six or seven hours out here and you’re not feeling too bad,” said Schaefer. “I love this setup.”
While there are some private clubs around the country with grass courts, those open to the public are a rarity, with most located in Florida, New York and California. The exceptions include The All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club — which has a single court built in 2003 on a family farm near Charles City, Iowa — and four in Baker City, Oregon, built by Don McClure, a local jeweler, and dubbed WimbleDon Grass Courts.
Sand Valley opened three courts last July and the rest earlier this month. It now rivals the Newport Casino Lawn Tennis Club at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, which has 13 grass courts and since 1881 has been hosting the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championships.
Rob Wright will be the teaching pro at Sand Valley beginning next month and is working for Cliff Drysdale Tennis, which manages some of the most well-know tennis destinations in the country. Wisconsin is now on that list and Wright, 29, not only brings grass court playing and teaching experience to the resort but also an English accent. He grew up just north of London and has been playing tennis since he was 10 years old.
“Most people haven’t played on grass and the style is completely different,” said Wright. “The location of the courts is kind of out of the blue but the fact they have 15 is just unbelievable. I think it’s going to be a great program.”
But it’s also a work in progress for the resort as it learns how to care for grass that takes a pounding, especially at the baseline, where it can quickly become worn. That’s why each pitch has lines for five courts but only three nets which can be picked up and moved. The resort also only allows nine courts to be used at a time so the grass has a chance to heal.
Jimmy Humston is the resort’s agronomist who is monitoring the courts and trying to determine which will hold up better in Wisconsin, those with fescue, common on golf fairways, or those with ryegrass, which is used at Wimbledon. Humston grew up in eastern Tennessee and worked for a time at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia but this is his first experience with grass tennis.
“This is kind of a year of trial and error,” said Humston. “After every day of play you have to come out and monitor and see what kind of damage you have and adjust from there. Any traffic, even walking on it or mowing it, is considered a stress. It’s how much stress can it take and what can we do to combat that.”
The addition of grass courts to the Sand Valley experience is keeping true to the Keisers’ plan to encourage more people to use what is now a 9,000-acre property for more than just golf. Fat tire bike trails are being developed, there’s bocce ball, hiking trails, and Aldo’s Farm & Table, a restaurant that overlooks the first and finishing holes of the Mammoth Dunes course and is located inside the 30,000-square-foot club house.
The resort also wants to create a culinary school and is already hosting weddings, corporate and other private events. Homes are being built around the property and the resort’s 114 guest rooms are 90 percent booked for the season.
With the addition of tennis, a whole new user group is headed to Adams County, one of the state’s up-and-coming tourist destinations. The state Department of Tourism reported on May 6 that direct tourism spending in the county rose 10.2% to $218.6 million, far outpacing the state, which had a 4.9% increase in direct spending. Officials at Sand Valley envision tennis adding to the tourism bottom line with college and high school invitationals, clinics, camps and professional instruction by Wright.
On June 29, for example, tennis legend John Powless, of Madison, the No. 1 tennis player over 85 in the world and former University of Wisconsin basketball coach, will lead a one-hour clinic at Sand Valley as part of “Wimbledon in Wisconsin: A Grass Fed Family Tennis Event,” being put on by the Wisconsin Tennis Association. The all-day event will allow players of all ages and abilities to experience grass courts and take part in other clinics and organized match play. The cost is $5 per person or $10 for a family.
Pam Hammond, executive director of the association, brought her leadership team to Sand Valley last week to scope out the setting and determine where to place tables, seating, water stations and registration. Hammond is expecting well over 100 people and will skip the clotted cream, which is served at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. She plans to pair the strawberries with good old Wisconsin cheese at the event, which will take place two days prior to the start of Wimbledon.
“There was a little concern among the staff when we started talking about this, and would players come to this part of the state,” said Hammond, of Fond du Lac, whose organization has about 7,700 junior and adult members. “Now everyone’s like super pumped. They’re excited that it’s here and we think it has a lot of potential for tennis in Wisconsin.”