Sneak Peek: This article will appear in the Aug. 12 issue of Global Golf Post.
Golf has been a part of Mike Keiser’s life for almost as long as he can remember. He caddied as a young boy growing up outside Buffalo, N.Y., and competed on the golf team at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Keiser continued to play recreationally after graduating in 1968 and still found ways to tee it as he and his college roommate, Phil Friedmann, founded Recycled Paper Greetings in 1971 and within a decade built the greeting card company into a $100 million annual operation. Keiser’s passion for the game grew through those years as he made trips to the British Isles to play classic courses there and also to such New World gems as Pine Valley. But he had no way of knowing at the time that golf was about to become his life and livelihood – and that he was going to turn golf course development upside down in the process.
Now 74 and the father of four grown children, Keiser constructed his first course in the mid-1980s, a superb nine-hole track near his summer home in New Buffalo, Mich., that became the centerpiece of a private retreat he dubbed the Dunes Club. He liked that experience so much that he then started building public-access courses in Bandon, Ore. First came Bandon Dunes, which was designed by David McLay Kidd and opened in 1999, and then Pacific Dunes, a Tom Doak creation. In 2005, the same year that Keiser and Friedmann sold their greeting card company for a reported $250 million, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw completed a third course there, Bandon Trails, and five years later came Old Macdonald, which Doak and his associate, Jim Urbina, produced as a homage to the father of golf in America, Charles Blair Macdonald.
Keiser’s approach was devilishly simple: Develop brilliant links-style, walking-only courses on spectacular sand-based sites, no matter how isolated the locations might be. And each one he fashioned – at Bandon; Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm in Tasmania; Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia; and Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes in Wisconsin – earned rave reviews and attracted hordes of golfers.
Next summer, the fifth and likely last 18-hole layout at Bandon, the Sheep Ranch, will start offering tee times. Its arrival will only cement Bandon’s reputation as the finest golf resort in America – and among the very best on earth – and Keiser’s well-deserved reputation for crafting some of the most interesting and enjoyable layouts in the world.
As Keiser prepares for that opening and begins work on a new seaside course on the Caribbean isle of St. Lucia, he sat down with GGP+ to discuss his life in golf, his plans for the future, his insistence on forward tees so the young and old can enjoy his courses as much as big-hitting hardbodies and his realization that as baby boomers age, he might have to drop his disdain for golf carts. In fact, there may soon come a time when he takes one himself.
Looking back two decades on the opening of the original Bandon Dunes course, could you possibly have imagined that the resort would have prospered so, and that traditional, links-style golf would have taken off in America?
I had no idea how many people in America liked links golf enough to travel to places as remote in this country as Bandon Dunes to play it. No idea at all. I knew I liked that style of golf. And I knew from playing places like Royal Dornoch in northern Scotland that Americans were not unwilling to travel great distances to play it. I just didn’t know whether they would do it here.
When did you know you had a winner at Bandon?
That first season, in 1999, we opened in May, and I was praying for 10,000 rounds. Josh Lesnik (the first general manager of Bandon Dunes and the current president of KemperSports, which has managed the Bandon property for Keiser from the very beginning) thought it would fall somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. We needed 10,000 rounds to break even, and we ended up doing 21,000 rounds that first year.
How many rounds are you doing on all the Bandon courses today?
Do those numbers surprise you?
Maybe more than anything else. I figured I would be lucky to break even and maybe even lose money for a few years. And if things did not work out, well, I thought I could always turn the property into a sheep ranch. There was a big sheep ranch around here when I bought the first land at Bandon, and selling to them if the golf did not work out was my fallback.
Why did links-style golf suddenly resonate so strongly with Americans?
Bottom line, I think it is in large part because links golf is just more fun than the game on a parkland course. There is also a naturalness to it, an austerity and a sense of the game as it was first played, with shepherds banging stones into rabbit holes with their crooks. Then, several of what I call American links courses started to be built. At Sand Hills in Nebraska, and the Straits Course (at Whisting Straits in Wisconsin). Bandon Dunes, too, and after that Pacific Dunes as well. Suddenly, people had places closer to home where they could enjoy that style of golf.
What is it about golf course development that you enjoy the most?
The discovery, really, and seeing a potential site for the very first time and imagining what can be built there. I like working with course architects as well and watching them create great designs from the land we have found and provided them.
Do you have a favorite among your courses?
Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia. I really love all of our courses, but that one is the best. Bill and Ben designed it, on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and I think they built 18 perfect holes. The setting is so special, too, with dunes and cliffs that overlook that sweeping body of water.
Do you have a favorite golf hole?
The fifth on the original Bandon Dunes course. And if I had to pick a favorite stretch, it would be Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8 at Bandon. The terrain on those holes were gifts from the golf gods to us, and the holes David designed there are exceptional.
How often do you play your courses?
I am probably at Bandon Dunes anywhere from six to eight times a year, Cabot maybe two or three times and Sand Valley four or five times. I now have grandchildren in Madison, Wis., which is not too far from the Sand Valley resort, so I get up there more often these days. When St. Lucia opens, I expect I’ll get down there a couple of times a year.
You mention grandkids, and that seems a natural segue to a question about your sons, Michael and Chris, both of whom are now full time in the family golf business. What’s it like working with them?
It is fun, as you can imagine. Every day that you are able to work with a child of yours is a joy. It is also never the same. We have different views, of course, and different skill sets. Michael and Chris are far better at oversight than I ever was.
How active are you in the golf business, and how else do you occupy your time?
I pretty much eat, drink, sleep and play golf. I am also very active with philanthropic causes, with charities that help people and promote things that are meaningful to me. Like the Chick Evans scholarship program for caddies through the Western Golf Association. I support that organization as best I can, and maybe 10 others.
How many rounds of golf a year do you play?
Perhaps 40 to 50, and most of them on our courses. I don’t play as many other courses as I once did. And I no longer play parkland courses.
Who do you play with?
Mostly friends and family, of course. I still play a few times a year with a bunch of high school friends.
You have long been an advocate of teeing it forward, and installing royal blue markers on your courses that generally play in the 4,000-yard range. What tees do you play from?
Usually those tees that put the course at 5,700 to 6,100 yards. The days of going back any farther than that are long gone.
Your courses are famously walking only. Have you ever taken a cart?
Once or twice, way back when. But I may change as I get older. And that is something we have to consider addressing as the baby boomers age and start having more and more trouble walking. We may end up relaxing those rules about carts and allow more people to take them. But we will make sure every person with a cart has a caddie to drive it, so the carts are driven in the right places, and so the caddies continue to get work.
Are there any similarities between the greeting card business and golf course development? And is there anything you learned from greeting cards that you have applied successfully to golf?
I liked working with the greeting card designers, like Sandra Boynton, who was responsible for that birthday card that read: “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes.” And that is something I have really enjoyed in golf. Working with David Kidd and Tom Doak. And Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, of course. I also learned in both industries that it sure helps if you have a genius doing cards or courses for you. In addition, we discovered in greeting cards the importance of identifying winners and making sure that there were always enough of those best-selling cards in stores so customers could keep buying them. That’s how and why we were able to grow so much. Then, in golf, we tried to apply that same philosophy, understanding that the top 50 courses on the lists of the best golf courses were the ones people wanted to play. So, we did the best we could to find winning sites and then produce winning designs that became very highly regarded. That’s what we set out to do at Bandon, and at other places after that.
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