Mike Keiser grew up in upstate New York, wound up in Chicago and, along the way, built his fortune running a company that made greeting cards out of recycled paper. He loves golf. He loves land. And he is passionate that the late Charles Blair Macdonald had golf course architecture figured out better than anybody else.
Keiser, in his mid-60s now, plays as much golf as his time will allow. And then he plays some more. He is not just the owner of the Bandon Dunes Resort on the Oregon coast. He is, he says, that property’s “land steward.” Last month Old Macdonald, an homage to Macdonald designed by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, opened to rave reviews in Bandon. It’s the fourth course Keiser has commissioned on his Oregon property.
Global Golf Post Editor-In-Chief Brian Hewitt sat with Keiser, the day after the “Old Mac” opening and engaged him in a long conversation that ranged on subjects from the future of golf course architecture and the lure of Old Macdonald to the names of the books on Keiser’s nightstand.
Keiser is still lean and fit. His handicap index is 9.5 and his lowest score at Bandon Dunes is 78. During this interview, he was still grinding his teeth over the double-bogey he made on the 18th at Old Macdonald the day before the official opening that cost him a shot at 79. He lives and breathes this stuff. If you want to see Keiser’s eyes light up, ask him about the caddies that work at Bandon Dunes.
During the pre-interview small talk, the name of Tiger Woods came up (Doesn’t it always these days?). It led to the first question and very quickly moved on to areas that interested Keiser more.
GGP: What’s your for-the-record take on Tiger and how his problems have affected the game in the larger sense?
MK: We’re not about the PGA Tour here. We’re about amateur golf. Always was. Always will be. He doesn’t play golf for fun, as far as I can tell. And if he does, maybe it’s before the British or at his place in Florida. But we’re really all about amateur golf. We’ve put on amateur championships. So he (Woods) isn’t even on our radar screen. Our focus is on internal things as it relates to the golf experience here at Bandon.
GGP: What has surprised you about that golf experience?
MK: It’s that 80 percent of our in-season players use caddies. And No. 2, they overpay. We were worried that the players would pay them frugally and we wouldn’t get good caddies. Caddies now make $100 a bag here. It’s a great place to be and they pay $150 at least for very good caddies. (The rate is $60, $40 is the usual tip). We sort of encourage overtipping.
GGP: On opening day, the Old Macdonald tee sheet was full from 6 a.m. to 4:30 in the afternoon. The secret is out. Tell me something about Old Mac that nobody knows but you.
MK: This isn’t knowing, this is my opinion: My opinion is that C.B. Macdonald is the best golf architect ever to build golf courses. Obviously, there’s no proof or no correct answer here but that’s No. 1 – that I have an opinion that perhaps nobody else has. No. 2, I give Macdonald credit for everything his engineer, Seth Raynor, built. Macdonald’s body of work, his 12 courses, plus Raynor’s 70 or 80 courses, most of them are highly thought of. It’s amazing that there’s an architect that has that influence.
GGP: So could Tom Doak and Jim Urbina (who co-designed Old Macdonald) be the C. B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor of the 21st century?
MK: Time will tell but I would say absolutely that could happen.
GGP: What would you like golf historians to write about you after you are gone?
MK: Ummm … I obviously haven’t thought about that because that seems so far off. I’m certainly aware that one of the great things about golf courses is that if they are designed well, they stand the test of time. Just look at St. Andrews. It was built 500 years ago. I would hope that the courses I’ve built would stand the test of time and, like Macdonald’s and Raynor’s and (Alister) Mackenzie’s, be as popular 100 years from now as they are right now.
GGP: If there was a world ranking for golf architects just like there is an Official World Golf Ranking for players…
MK: Deceased and alive?
GGP: Yes. Who would be your top five. You’ve already given me Macdonald as No. 1.
MK: Macdonald for sure. I can’t tell you what those really old guys like Old Tom Morris really built, so I’m going to leave them out of it. But Mackenzie second … now I need a little help – Raynor, Ross, Tillinghast and William Flynn. All of mine would be the old-timers.
GGP: You did that so well, you want to try it with the guys who are alive?
MK: I’d sort of like to avoid that (laughter). Remember Tom Doak when he was outspoken and he would always answer that and then he went further and wrote the “Confidential Golf Guide.” For example, I think Tom Fazio is a genius. I’m not sure I would ever use him. He’s been a genius at building a specific type of course that is beautiful and playable and fun and all the things I would ask. The only thing that I don’t like about him is that he has successfully branded his type of courses. They all have a sameness to them, which I admire, but that’s not my style.
MK: Certainly, I’d pick Doak and I’d pick Bill Coore of the living as the ones I like the best.
GGP: How many courses are you going to have in Bandon before you stop building?
MK: I’m going to build with Bill Coore and, I hope, Ben Crenshaw, a 12-hole par 3 right up there in those dunes (above the grill at Bandon Trails), which we’ve already routed, and will be sort of the afternoon game for the Baby Boomers, people like me who increasingly can’t go 36 or don’t want to go 36. So we’re going to build that next winter, preview it next fall and open probably June 1, 2012. I am hoping to build Bandon Muni Golf Links, south of Bandon. In order to do that, I have to work a land swap with the Oregon State Parks people. That’s going well, but slowly. And then I need an approval to build 27 holes where juniors can play for free or virtually free, and locals will play very cheaply to maintain interest, and tourists will play Bandon Dunes rates and that will play all the bills.
GGP: What do you think of the “brown is green” campaign being waged by Jim Hyler, the president of the USGA?
MK: I hope he succeeds. It’s about time. Whenever possible, brown is better (than green). But there are still so many clubs I know of where the members might agree to the concept of brown is green, and when they see it gets brown their superintendents know they’re pushing things if it actually gets to brown.
GGP: Do you feel any more responsibility to carry this standard forward?
MK: I’m not sure about responsibility. I’m proud to be a principal in that movement. What we like here is the fescue grass, and you’re aware of some of the fescue-grass projects they’ve tried – Warren in South Bend (Ind.), where they’ve tried over the last 30 years to grow fescue and it doesn’t take. Fescue lends itself to the lean look. You see it on all the courses in Scotland and Ireland. It’s a strength of Jim Hyler and I would never rebut him. But if you’re a golf course in Arizona, what grass do you use to get brown?
GGP: Has anybody ever offered to buy you out? Lots of so-called resorts have been bought out and the money has been made by the second guy in?
MK: Nope. Nobody has offered. There are a lot more vultures than there are investors. The real estate professionals know it’s not what you buy, it’s when you buy it that matters. I think that even though what we have done works, it is still too off the charts. Real estate guys and investors think location, location, location. If you tried to raise money to buy what we have here, you wouldn’t get too many banks to jump in.
GGP: What’s the best part about owning Bandon Dunes and what’s the worst part?
MK: The best parts are providing well-paying jobs for caddies and well-paying jobs for locals. And probably the most fun is just knowing that people coming here to play will, in most cases, have a ball as evidenced by their paying a return visit. In the resort business or the entertainment or restaurant business, the second-hardest thing is getting them there in the first place and the hardest thing is getting them to return. We do a lot of repeats.
GGP: Is there a worst part?
MK: I don’t think so.
GGP: Is there a turnaround near in terms of golf-course building starts or will we never get back to where we were?
MK: I don’t think we will, but I won’t say ever. But for the next 20 years I think the best we can think is that in the growth states, the growth places, Arizona and Texas and South Carolina, there will continue to be a flow of people. After the crash, assuming building resumes, that’s where it will be. The golden time of overbuilding was not golden. We built way too many courses.
GGP: Other than the courses you own, what are your favorite golf courses in America and outside the U.S.?
MK: In America, National Golf Links and Pine Valley, probably in that order because Pine Valley is a little hard for me. I think it’s magnificent. But I’m answering the question which would you most like to play. National is more playable than Pine Valley. And then probably Cypress Point because it’s just gorgeous. And a new one for me is Oakmont. It is stunning especially when you consider that it was designed, as was Pine Valley, by an amateur architect. Those are my top four in the U.S. I’m a member at Chicago Golf. Make that No. 5. It’s Macdonald.
GGP: And abroad?
MK: St. Andrews. Every time I play it, I realize how fabulous St. Andrews is for a whole host of good reasons. It’s what every course is somewhat influenced by. And not everyone gets it. And that’s sort of the puzzle. Do I really like it? And if so, why? It’s hard to get past the first hole joining with the 18th tee. How does that happen? And why isn’t it done more often where it’s one big shape? And everyone likes it whether they’re golfers on non-golfers. It’s neat. You’re starting here and you’re ending here. The same place, basically. It makes me think that’s it’s almost a labyrinth in that way.
GGP: Do you read golf books?
MK: No. There are too many of them. How many come out every year, 10? No one tells me what the new books I should read are.
GGP: Are you a reader?
MK: I am a reader. Ravenous. I read all the golf magazines. Wall St. Journal, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, a day late. I spend too much time reading the news. Perhaps Business Week. Those are my old reliables.
GGP: Standard form?
MK: I’m an old-timer but it’s just a matter of time until somebody gives me an iPad.
GGP: Are you a book reader and, if so, what’s on your nightstand?
MK: There are many credible books on what happened with sub-prime, etc., and I’m reading half of them. The best was “The Big Short,” by Michael Lewis.
GGP: What’s important for you to say?
MK: The main move golf made for all the wrong reasons 35 years ago was high school golf and Division III and AJGA switched from match-play matches to stroke play. I believe the best high school players wanted to go play at, say Baylor, and the coaches wanted to see their scores. You can’t just say you had a lucky two rounds, 72-71, and won the Illinois State high school championship. We need to see all your scores. So I don’t know if it was suddenly or over a short period of time but high school coaches acceded to the wishes of college coaches, who were giving scholarships, and switched to stroke play, which is absurd. Think of the typical high school golf team and how bad most of the team is. And we make them keep track of their score. That’s a painful thing to do. To the No. 1 guy, who was your best friend, you’re now the asshole who shoots 95 and you’re not going to state because of all the bully-boy things. And if it was match play, the kid who shoots 95 would win 80 percent of his matches. I’m not aware of anyone out there trying to make golf at the beginning competitive level friendlier with just that one move.
GGP: I’m going to start three sentences, one at a time, and let you finish them.
MK: OK, I gotta be on my toes.
GGP: A good caddie…
MK: Makes you play better. The best caddie I’ve ever had is (former California state amateur champion) Casey Boyns at Pebble Beach. I play without him, I shoot in the 90s. I play with him, I shoot in the low 80s. It’s a miracle until I saw that when he’s with me what happens. I have to line him up months in advance.
GGP: A good golf architect…
MK: Builds interesting, aesthetically attractive courses and each hole is a work of art unto itself. Each hole is unique. Each hole is beautiful. Each hole is engaging. Pine Valley has 18 good holes. Everyone agrees. It’s the ultimate. How did he do it? How did he build 18 holes that each one is a work of art?
GGP: Finally, A good golf course owner is…
MK: A good owner, when the course is being built, doesn’t let the architect have totally free rein on greens. I think that’s our one job. Don’t let them do whatever they want on the greens because they’ll want to leave their Alister Mackenzie-kind of mark. And they don’t have to play them. And we do. I always insist on flat greens, knowing they start out with a lot of roll and I say flatter, somewhere in the middle. And they still roll. I think that’s the one thing. Tom (Doak) and Bill (Coore). I love them both. I trust them. Except for going a little bit too nuts on two to four greens every 18 holes. So I can flatten them a bit. That’s why I use the National Golf Links as an unbelievable example. The greens are flattish and unbelievably interesting.