Lord of the links

Sean Dudley

In the decade since the opening of Bandon Dunes, developer Mike Keiser has become involved with a string of high-profile golf projects across the globe. As Old Macdonald, the fourth course at the Bandon resort, is readied for opening, Mike Kraker spoke to Keiser and some of the golf figures who know him best, to find out what makes him tick.

I don’t have the scorecard to prove it, so you’ll have to trust me. The year was 2003 and the place was Bandon, Oregon. My friend Matt and I had embarked on our second golfing pilgrimage. We had heard about this highly regarded tandem of courses built by a recycled greeting card mogul with an address of In-the-Middle-of-Nowhere, Pacific Northwest, USA. Based in Minnesota (home to ice fishing and snowmobiles) and knowing I would be suffering from frostbite, cabin fever, snow blindness, and golfer’s withdrawal all at the same time, I scheduled the trip for February. Matt researched the weather – we prepared as best we could.

We flew into Portland and played Pumpkin Ridge. It poured with rain. I now understood the massive difference between ‘water resistant’ and ‘waterproof’. Our first round at Bandon Dunes was uneventful until the skies opened up on the homestretch. A photo of Matt and I just off the eighteenth has us grinning like village idiots. Our first taste of links golf, and it was sweet.

Neither Matt’s forecast, nor a thorough soaking in our first two rounds prepared us for Pacific Dunes. We awoke to grey skies and steady rain. It was roll-back-over-and-go-back-to-sleep weather. Within a few holes, we knew we had never done anything, let alone play golf, in conditions like this. The wind had grown fierce over the course of the day. If you faced your trolley in the wrong direction, the wind blew it over. If you faced your trolley in the right direction, the wind pushed it down the fairway. We scoured the landscape for shelter. We found none. My goal was to survive… and score less than a ten on every hole. I accomplished both. Barely.

I tell this story often. Like so many Americans, I have Mike Keiser to thank for my introduction to links golf. Keiser was that ‘recycled greeting card mogul’ I had read about – the guy who picked the unknown and inexperienced David McLay Kidd out of the barrel of fish to design the first course at Bandon. As if a location more than three hours from the nearest major airport wasn’t enough, he put his destiny in the hands of a Scottish greenhorn with no golf courses to his credit. Conventional and orthodox have never been the way Keiser rolls.

Mike Keiser starts small, but thinks big. He did it with Recycled Paper Greetings and has done it in golf. His first foray into the golf business was a nine hole course far off the beaten track. But the wheels were turning, the ideas were percolating in his head. He was doing his research, taking notes, and putting together a rough plan. Another Chicagoan (Keiser is a transplant from Buffalo) had done the same, nearly a century before. In Scotland’s Gift – Golf, Charles Blair Macdonald wrote of the process and people that influenced his desire to build a first class golf links in America. Macdonald writes: “I was intensely interested, and it was from this discussion I was urged to carry out the idea of building a classical golf course in America, one which would eventually compare favourably with the championship links abroad and serve as an incentive to the elevation of the game in America.”

I imagine Keiser reading this line in 1990 on the eve of purchasing property in Bandon. Perhaps pausing for a minute or two to let the concept and its meaning truly sink in – He’s talking to me. That’s what I want to do. I can do that. Mike Keiser did indeed build not one, but three classical links golf courses in America. He has elevated the game of golf in the United States (and, as you will see, around the world). Now, the story is coming full circle as Keiser will open the fourth course at Bandon Dunes next spring. Fittingly, Old Macdonald is a tribute to CB Macdonald, National Golf Links and the dawn of golf course architecture as a formal discipline.

This is a brief glimpse into the man and his motivations. Each course tells a little bit about Mike Keiser, the journey he has taken, and the places he will go in the future.

Dunes Club: links golf
“It is so much more fun to play on a fateful surface.” Mike Keiser loves linksland and the ground game that accompanies it. Ask him to describe what he likes in a golf course and he rattles off a physical description of links courses – sand, wind, a large body of water, wide (forgiving), and fun. The game is played less through the air, and more along the ground. Links golf is connected to the elements – wind and rain and the influence of the sea. David Kidd recalls the conceptual stages of Bandon Dunes and the conversations he had with Keiser: “Given the remoteness, given the weather conditions, it had to be proper links, a mountaineering form, and that was fine by him.”

It seems a bit odd to speak of Keiser’s passion for links golf in a section on the Dunes Club – a course that resembles Pine Valley more than Royal Dornoch. But this is where it started. There was a vacant lot, with sand dunes, near his lake home in New Buffalo, Michigan. He walked the small parcel, purchasing it as protection against development. Many visits to clear brush gave him time to think. He thought about links golf, and his imagination soared. The end result was the Dunes Club, a highly acclaimed private nine hole course. It opened in 1989, and by 1997 had been named Best Nine Hole Golf Course in the United States by Sports Illustrated.

Sandy terrain has fuelled Keiser’s aspirations since the beginning. “Mike Keiser sees things that other people don’t and golf courses in places that other people don’t,” says long-time friend, business associate, and KemperSports chairman Steve Lesnik. Since the Dunes Club, all his projects have included one common element – sand. “Mike Keiser is a modern American connection to the earliest links golf. Sand is a link throughout the history of golf,” says architect Bill Coore, the co-designer of Bandon Trails.

Bandon: focus
David Kidd recalls the uncertainty surrounding the first course at Bandon Dunes: “He could have been building his grand folly.” Keiser hoped to break even on the venture, but figured he would need to subsidise Bandon for the rest of his life. He hadn’t gotten into the business to make money, he’d gotten into the business to build golf courses. “Bandon Dunes was the end, not the means,” says Steve Lesnik.

Kidd recalls his days on site at Bandon and the ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid’ strategy that developed. “Mike sees through the complications and cuts through to the simplest solution – the more complex the idea, the less he liked it. He operates at an uncanny level,” he says. This pragmatism led Keiser to make a number of critical decisions – public, walking, caddies (not golf carts), views (not houses) – that define the Bandon experience. Due to the singular nature of his goal, the decisions were easy. “He did not waver. Golf wins out every time,” says Kidd.

Old Macdonald: inspiration
CB Macdonald is Keiser’s favourite golf course architect. Macdonald studied the great holes of the UK – the Eden, Redan, and Alps before he created National Golf Links on Long Island. The holes he built at National were not copies or replicas, they were his own interpretations of the greatest holes in golf. “Macdonald’s designs were wedded to the idea that there were certain classic concepts of golf design from the best courses in the United Kingdom. If you built a course based on those principles, you could not fail to build something worthwhile,” explains Tom Doak, the designer of Old Macdonald.

Make no mistake, Old Macdonald is not a replica course. Keiser estimates that replica holes are 98 per cent the same, whereas holes that are ‘inspired’ by the original are in the range of 5-25 per cent identical: “Holes that are ‘inspired’ are sisters, brothers, cousins and distant cousins.” Old Macdonald will create a direct link to National and the original holes. Just as Macdonald created his own Sahara and Alps at National, Doak is doing his own interpretations at Old Macdonald. He explains “The aficionados will have a field day discussing our new take on the different holes and whether our Biarritz hole or Redan is a better model, or a sacrilege.”

Old Mac will boast 6.1 acres of greens, slightly less than the Old Course at St. Andrews. It will be wide and forgiving, just the way Keiser likes it. He believes Old Macdonald will give golfers ‘a glimpse of Scotland’. “The average visitor probably won’t know anything about Macdonald but will appreciate the huge scale of the course and the links conditions,” says Doak.

Barnbougle Dunes: influence
“The fame of Bandon Dunes inspired other people. If you build a truly unique course, golfers will come. Mike has inspired others to do it,” says Lesnik. Case in point is Barnbougle Dunes on the north east coast of Tasmania. “Barnbougle wouldn’t exist without Mike Keiser,” says Richard Sattler, owner, developer and self-proclaimed potato farmer. Originally looking for a hotel development, Sattler teamed with Keiser, Tom Doak, and Australian Michael Clayton to build Barnbougle Dunes, a traditional links style course ranked the 43rd best course in the world according to Golf magazine.

“Mike gave me confidence in the financial structure – advice on what to spend money on and what not to spend on,” says Sattler. Keiser is the sitting director of ‘Baby Bandon’, and he holds it in very high regard. He rates Ballybunion and Barnbougle Dunes as the best pieces of golfing land he’s ever seen and his expectations for the second course – now under construction by the team of Coore & Crenshaw – are sky high. “Lost Farm could well be the best course since Augusta National,” remarked Keiser after a recent visit. The course will have an interesting twist – 20 holes. Golfers can choose how to score the two extra par threes at the end of the round. Keiser threw the idea out there and Sattler agreed – “Let’s build ‘em all!”

Others have followed in Keiser’s footsteps. Bob Lang built Erin Hills on land scraped by glaciers near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lang admits he was influenced by his golf course developing brethren, Keiser and Herb Kohler of Whistling Straits fame. He visited Bandon Dunes and talked to Keiser. “He was very supportive of the concept of building a public golf course in the growing market for destination golf,” says Lang. Paul Schock was similarly influenced. An accomplished amateur golfer and successful banker, Schock has followed Bandon Dunes’s growth very closely. When The Prairie Club and its three courses opens in Valentine, Nebraska, in 2010, there will be many similarities with Bandon – playability and walkability are central themes to the designs. Both Erin Hills and The Prairie Club are golf only with no residential real estate encroaching on the golfing experience. Schock explains: “Mike Keiser captivated me and guided me on this project.” This is strong evidence of the influence of Mike Keiser and Bandon Dunes – especially since Schock has never met Keiser nor talked to him on the phone.

Conservation Course: environment
“Always leave a place you’ve visited better than you found it.” Keiser says it so matter-of-factly you know it is practice and not preach. The Conservation Course is in the planning and permitting stages and would be the fifth course at Bandon. Keiser has endeavoured to create a net positive impact for the environment on all of his golf courses. One of the greatest successes of Bandon Dunes has been its effective control of the non-native gorse that has proliferated along the coast: in 1936, the city of Bandon burned to the ground after the highly combustible shrub ignited.

The Conservation Course is planned as an example of environmental stewardship. Profits are pledged to The Nature Conservancy and its Oregon South Coast Conservation programme. Keiser anticipates the programme will support restoration efforts in coastal parks and salmon/trout habitats, as well as many other local and regional environmental concerns.

The site is a small triangle of dunes near the first tee of Bandon Trails. The preliminary routing of a 12 hole par three course has been completed by Coore & Crenshaw. “We all loved the land, but just couldn’t find a way to incorporate it into Bandon Trails” says Bill Coore. The course can be used by golfers to loosen up before a round, wind down after, or tune up their short game. As currently drawn, holes will range from 90-170 yards and all will have an ocean view. “There will be an overwhelming sense that the ocean is right there – you can see it, you can hear it, you can smell it,” says Coore. Subject to governmental approval, opening of the Conservation Course is projected for 2011.

Cabot Links: role player
A long-time friendship with Ran Morrisett, the founder of Internet golf architecture site golfclubatlas.com, led to a partnership with GolfTI’s Ben Cowan-Dewar and KemperSports. The result of this collaboration will be spectacular: Cabot Links, on the west coast of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. The land is rugged, remote, wind swept and has plenty of views of a large body of water – namely the Atlantic Ocean. After a recent visit, Keiser was stunned by the progress of Canadian architect Rod Whitman and expects completion of 11 holes next year and opening in 2012.

Cabot Links represents a business model that is different than Bandon Dunes. Keiser is not the owner, but a co-owner. He is not the lead dog, but one of the pack. He understands his role. At Bandon he played the role of the developer – the “impatient business guy” in his words. At Cabot Links, Cowan-Dewar and Morrisett are the major decision-makers. Keiser has a history of knowing when to step in and knowing when to step back. At Bandon Trails, he possessed an amazing piece of property. He handed it over to Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to do the finishing work. “All we can ask for is an excellent site and the freedom to work with it,” says Coore.

Askernish: guardian
Many are familiar with the story of the discovery of this long dormant Old Tom Morris course on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Through the dedicated efforts of master greensman Gordon Irvine, architect Martin Ebert (he charged £9 for his work, just as Old Tom did in 1891), Gordon Stollery of Angus Glen in Toronto, and others too numerous to acknowledge, Askernish has risen from the dunes and white shell beaches.

A recent trip to Scotland at the behest of friend and golf writer David Owen gave Keiser and club president Ralph Thompson an opportunity to meet and talk. The result is still in the works, but will include joint marketing focused on traditional golf ideals. “Mike’s experience and knowledge have been invaluable to me in assessing the future development of Askernish. His values match our beliefs at Askernish – that we are custodians of our courses for a short period of time and should endeavour to protect the heritage and sustainability of the land for the future enjoyment of others,” explains Thompson.

‘For the good of golf’ is how Keiser describes his decision to get involved. He compares the greens at Askernish to Brora and Cruden Bay, its aura to Machrihanish, and its 191 yard par three eleventh to the sixteenth at Cypress Point. With a ‘small investment’ of his own and financial contributions from friends and business associates, the historic restoration of Askernish will continue to move forward. TV producer and Old Macdonald documentarian Michael Robin (see box) has it right when he says: “Mike Keiser is leaving these special markers on the face of the earth for the public.”

“He is on a path of exploration,” says fellow developer Mark Parsinen. If the past is any indication of the future, we can expect wonderful things. Keiser is looking to foreign markets for his unique brand of golf course product. He has had informal conversations on projects in Argentina and Hainan Island, China. Keiser refers to oceanfront property in Hainan as the ‘Cabo San Lucas of China’ and notes that both Tom Doak and Bill Coore have separate projects in Hainan. Although he may be simply dipping his toe to test the water, his track record would indicate that something has captured his imagination. It wouldn’t surprise Parsinen or anyone else, if ‘Let’s try that’ are the next words out of Mike Keiser’s mouth.

Mike Kraker is an American lawyer who focuses on legal issues in the golf course industry, and an enthusiast for links golf. For more information on Mike’s work, visit www.golflawyer.com

This article was initially featured in the October 2009 issue of Golf Course Architecture