Mike Keiser: I'm a hard-boiled capitalist. When you create a product, you know it works or not when you make money on it. I am Mike Keiser, I develop golf resorts in remote locations.
Josh Lesnik: I've been working on the Keiser portfolio of courses for the last 20 years. What Mike did really is turned the industry on its head. He said, "I'm going to go to where the golf ground is great and try and build a great golf course on great property with great architecture and see if they'll come."
Mike Keiser: My first course was in homage to the world's number one golf course, Pine Valley. The course I built was nine holes, it's on sand with some beautiful dunes, close to Lake Michigan. And it was successful, so that motivated me to decide to do at least one other golf course. As I get ready to build Bandon Dunes with David Kidd and his dad, Jimmy Kidd, I realize that America really hasn't built links courses. Why don't we have golf courses like Dornoch in America?
Josh Lesnik: In the late 90s, people were building golf courses close to major metropolitan areas. They were building them to sell homes, to sell real estate, really squeezing the golf course between homes, and what Mike did was really against the norm at that time in golf course development.
Mike Keiser: It slowly but surely dawned on me that to do a course like Dornoch, in particular, in America, even if it's a remote site, just might work out. I work very closely with the architects, not because I don't trust them, but because I enjoy it. If both the architect and I weigh in, I think the result is better. I leave them alone to do their best routing, then I walk it with them and tell them what I think. I actually rate each hole on a scale of 1 to 10 and share my scorecard with them.
Cabot Cliffs, number 16, which is a par 3, over the beach to an unbelievable green sight, that'd be a 9. That's a 9 that wants to be a 10. My total encyclopedia of knowledge is based on playing all the great courses numerous times and deciding which holes and which courses I liked the best and which I didn't.
So my job when I walk a brand new routing with an architect is to represent the retail golfer—that is, the golfer like me who usually doesn't break 90. And, therefore, my first take on this beautiful to-be par-3 was we needed a bigger bailout left, we needed a much bigger backstop in the back of the green, so where we ended up is he gave me additional bailout space on the left, a lot of backstop space in back, and he finally convinced me that the green is all about carrying it over sand, and we should have no bailout front and that's the way we built it.
We are in Rome, Wisconsin, population 600 people. I certainly wasn't looking for a golf course site in the Midwest, much less in central Wisconsin. I had no idea that half of Wisconsin is sand-based—100 foot sand dunes covered in plantation pines. Our use of paper is declining dramatically, and most of the paper mills have gone out of business, and therefore most of the demand for these Red Pine plantation trees is dwindling, so you can buy land very cheaply.
When you restore it as acreage, it returns to its sand-barren origins of what it was like 200 years ago and what it's been like for 12,000 years. It was worth building in this remote site, something a lot like Bandon, but without the ocean. The ultimate question is: Will enough golfers go play at it at a certain greens fee to make money at it? And the answer was "yes." It actually worked. It's my almost religious belief, if the architect does a good enough job, they will come.
When I began building golf courses, I knew nothing about grass. If you were to quiz me now, we would find that I still know almost nothing about grass. It is really boring.
Changing the golfing landscape.
How Mike Keiser is challenging golf course development.
Mike Keiser made his first millions before he turned 30 from a business he and his college roommate from Amherst founded that made greeting cards on 100-percent recycled paper. They called the company Recycled Paper Greetings, and within a decade it was producing annual sales of some $100 million. Thanks to the success of that start-up, Keiser and his family, which included his wife Lindy and their four children, were able to live quite comfortably, with a primary home in the Chicago area and a weekend residence in the town of New Buffalo, Michigan.
One day in the mid-1980s, as he was taking a walk close to his New Buffalo abode, a real estate broker friend pulled along side in a car and asked through an open window: "Hey, did you hear what they are going to do to your forest?"
Keiser's "forest" was a nearby, 70-acre stand of pines growing out of sandy soil. Though it was actually owned by a Chicago bank, Keiser visited the property frequently. It was a favorite spot for afternoon strolls and also where he and his kids played what Keiser called "wilderness golf." The game was simple: someone picked a tree a distance away and whoever hit their shot closest to the designated target won that "hole." It was a much loved family retreat, and Keiser was heartbroken when he learned that a developer had put an offer on the property with plans to cut down the trees and then build a horde of townhouses. But his mood quickly changed when the broker added: "Their offer is loaded with contingencies, and if you come up with something in cash, you might be able to get it."
Keiser liked the sound of that idea and quickly made an all-cash bid that the bank accepted. And what happened after that not only changed his life but also altered the direction of modern golf architecture and ushered in a new Golden Era of course design in America.
Not long after he closed on that deal, Keiser engaged Dick Nugent to design a 9-hole track on the land that came to be the centerpiece of a place Keiser dubbed the Dunes Club. His inspiration was Pine Valley, a rugged track in the New Jersey Pine Barrens that was regarded as the finest golf course in America. It was noteworthy for its huge swathes of sandy waste areas and natural elevation changes as well as its overall difficulty. Pine Valley had a wild look that Keiser adored, and he also liked how its architects had utilized the terrain's features in crafting the golf holes as opposed to imposing their will on the property with bulldozers and backhoes.
"I wanted to build a homage to Pine Valley even though I did not want the course to be as hard as Pine Valley," says Keiser. And the result was a charming and well-routed layout that Golf Digest course raters rather suddenly and surprisingly ranked among the top 100 golf courses in America even though it was only 9 holes—and the only 9-holer on the list.
To say Keiser was smitten by the undertaking would be an understatement. "I had so much fun building the Dunes Club that I wanted to keep going," he explains. "And when that course was done, I told myself that I did not have to make greeting cards all my life. I could make golf courses instead."
His second endeavor in that realm was Bandon Dunes, an 18-hole, links-style track designed by a young Scotsman named David McLay Kidd and located on a remote, gorse-filled site of some 1,200 acres on the coast of southern Oregon. And much to most everyone's amazement, the response to that course when it opened for play in 1999 was overwhelming positive. Keiser expected to record maybe 8,000 rounds the first year of operation, needed 12,000 to break even and ended up amassing 23,000. Two years later, he opened an equally spectacular and second layout on that property called Pacific Dunes.
Crafted by Tom Doak, it, too, leapt to the top of the rankings of the best American golf courses and posted 38,000 rounds its first year of existence. Then in 2005, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw completed the third course at the resort, called Bandon Trails, and by the end of the following season golfers had played a total of 120,00 rounds on all three tracks. Never had a new golf destination made such a first impression, and once the Coore and Crenshaw course came on line, Bandon Dunes was being regarded in many circles as the greatest golf destination in the country.
Today the Bandon Dunes complex includes a fourth 18-hole track, Old MacDonald (designed by Doak and Jim Urbina and opened in 2010), as well as a 13-hole, par-3 layout called Bandon Preserve (Coore and Crenshaw, 2012) and a 2.3-acre putting course dubbed The Punchbowl (Doak and Urbina, 2014). And those additions only enhanced the resort's already exalted status among golf's cognoscenti. The layouts also elevated even higher the esteem in which Keiser was held, as did other ventures he undertook at similarly isolated, sand-based sites in Tasmania (Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm), Nova Scotia (Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs) and central Wisconsin (Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes). As a result, he came to be seen as a sort of modern-day Charles Blair Macdonald, the golf impresario whose efforts to educate Americans as to the virtues and intricacies of Old World golf, first in his founding of the Chicago Golf Club in 1894 and then in his laying out the course at the National Golf Links of America on Long Island, led some to call him the Evangelist of Golf. Others anointed Macdonald as the Father of Golf in America.
In many ways, Keiser was his successor. Growing up in East Aurora, New York just outside the city of Buffalo, Keiser received his introduction to golf as a caddy and became a good enough player to make what he says was not a very good golf team at Amherst. In time, he became quite passionate about the game and soon developed a deep affection for Pine Valley, doing whatever he could to finagle invitations to play the hallowed New Jersey retreat a couple of times a year. He also started to travel to the top courses in the States as well as the finest links in the British Isles, using the rankings the leading golf publications of the time produced as his guide. It was then that he fell in love with St. Andrews and the tracks that had been fashioned on the links that bordered the North Sea there. And places like Royal Dornoch in northern Scotland and Ballybunion in southwest Ireland. Keiser marveled at their seaside locales and the dunes across which the holes were routed, the wind that blew so often and so hard, the fescue fairways that ran firm and fast and the riveted pot bunkers that guarded greens and swallowed up errant shots. He was also enthralled by the ethos of those seemingly timeless spots and the way they allowed golfers to experience the game in its most basic and natural forms. In time, he began to consider rounds in the old country as mystical experiences, and those feelings fueled a desire to create courses in the States that produced similar sensations for players.
After Keiser opened the Dunes Club and started thinking about constructing another golf course, his golf trips to the best of the New and Old Worlds started to take on different meaning. They were forms of education, and market research, and they provided him with a pair of very important insights.
"First of all, Mike wondered why the golf courses being built in America were so far removed in terms of design, playability and atmosphere from those he found in the motherland," says David McLay Kidd, who Keiser hired to design Bandon Dunes when the Scot was only 26 years old. "It was a question no one else in the golf business was asking at the time, and it compelled him to head down a path where he would bring traditional, Old World links golf to the States."
Keiser also realized that to find the best land for those types of courses, he needed to go to remote places that featured windswept, waterside property with great character and contours. Some questioned whether golfers would travel to such far-flung locales and make what he created there economically viable. But after his many trips across the pond, Keiser felt sure that if he built exceptional links-style courses that evoked the very best tracks in Scotland and Ireland, people would most certainly come.
"There are few places as isolated as Royal Dornoch in the north of Scotland," he says. "Yet every time I went there, I saw a tour bus full of American golfers parked in the lot. That got me thinking that if they were willing to travel there, they would also go to some place like Bandon."
As enjoyable as those jaunts to the Old World sound, they were also work. Hard work. For starters, Keiser prepared himself for each one by reading voraciously on the subject of golf course architecture as he also immersed himself in the histories of the place he was visiting. Then, he queried his playing partners after long days on the golf course about what they did and did not like and asked them to rate each hole and course.
That process continued as Keiser followed the opening of Bandon Dunes with the building of Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails and Old Macdonald, and also as he moved onto to other projects. "We evaluated every place we played," says Kemper Sports president Josh Lesnik, who has consulted with Keiser on his golf projects since before construction of the first Bandon course even began. "It's what we talked about at lunch, at dinner, over drinks and on the plane."
Adds Kidd, who has also been part of a few of those expeditions: "It is a good process, and it worked because Mike is a great listener. He also asks probing questions and understands the importance of getting opinions from those people whose opinions he really trusts. But what makes the process really effective is that he is not one of those who are swayed by the last opinion they solicit. He has an amazing clarity and an ability to distill good and useful information from a variety of sources."
It also turns out that Keiser had a knack for collaborating with top golf course architects like Kidd. "One of the things Mike like most about the greeting card business was working with the artists, and he gets just as much pleasure from working with course designers," says Lesnik. "He loves the creative process and has a way of helping them produce their very best work."
As Keiser expanded his portfolio of courses at Bandon Dunes and then undertook projects in Nova Scotia and Wisconsin, he stuck to the formula that had brought him success in the first place: build Old World-style courses on great sites with sand-based soil, and by the water if at all possible, and engage great architects to articulate his visions. He eschewed debt when it came to making land purchases and firmly believed in slow rollouts, never adding a second course until demand for the first was strong – and success of an accompanying layout all but assured based on interest by the golf public. In keeping with British Isles sensibilities, Keiser initiated Walking Only policies at each of his retreats, with exceptions being offered only for those with medical excuses. He also saved the best land for the layouts themselves, only building clubhouses and cottages after he and the architects had determined exactly where the golf holes would be routed. And not once did he construct an owner's cottage, preferring instead to stay in the same quarters as his guests so he could better appreciate the experience.
As he developed new destinations, the most recent of which is at Sand Valley in Wisconsin, where the first course (Coore and Crenshaw) came on-line in the spring of 2017 and the latest (Kidd) opened a year later, Keiser continued the same due diligence process with his friends and business associates as he contemplated their actual designs. "We'd go to the Sand Valley site during the early stages of construction and walk the property with maps," says Lesnik. "We'd trudge through the woods and up and down hills, making notes as we also talked about what we were seeing. And then we would rate every potential hole and share that information with Mike."
Having been with Keiser from almost the beginning of his second act in golf, Lesnik is in many ways awed by what he has seen from that front row seat. "Mike has completely changed golf course architecture, and for the better," he says. "I only wish he had come around sooner." Keiser is too modest to do anything but smile uncomfortably when he hears words like those and add: "I'd like to think that people will still be playing the courses we have built, and talking about them, hundreds of years from now."
They certainly will be. And they will no doubt be talking about the man who had the vision and the drive to create them, too.