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The Challengers Mike Keiser

  • 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.

Why aren't there links courses in America?

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