When Mike Keiser set out to build his first 18-hole, championship-caliber layout on the windswept cliffs of southwestern Oregon during the late 1990s, he did so with one objective: to create an honest and pure golfing experience — one rooted in authenticity and one reflective of the experiences that come from traversing the heralded links courses throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. Since then, every golfer who has had the good fortune to visit Bandon Dunes Golf Resort will attest that Keiser succeeded on all fronts.
Today, Keiser is just as focused on honesty as he was almost 25 years ago when he and David McLay Kidd staked out the routing of Bandon Dunes’ eponymous first course. Given the resort’s success, Keiser could easily proclaim that he had grand visions for what Bandon Dunes would inevitably become. And no one could argue with him if he did. Keiser, after all, has displayed a Midas-like touch at every golf resort that he has dreamt up and subsequently developed.
But in his answer to questions about Bandon Dunes’ humble beginnings, the 77-year-old doesn’t deliver a revisionist’s history of the expectations that he and his team had for the project. Such lack of guile makes him instantly likeable. It also reveals a bit more of the magic that is Bandon Dunes.
“My prayer was to break even,” he says. “Everyone I knew — plus me — thought it was a crazy idea. A links golf course in Bandon, Oregon … it made no sense.”
In that respect, Bandon Dunes remarkably began as a golf resort science experiment — an experiment rooted on two principles. By the late 1990s, Keiser had played many of the world’s best courses, most of which were the strictly guarded property of highly exclusive, private clubs. It was Keiser’s first belief that every golfer should have access to exceptional golf, and he aimed to accomplish that with Bandon Dunes.
But Keiser also was enraptured by remote Scottish and Irish courses, destinations such as Royal Dornoch and Ballybunnion. Bandon, Oregon, is no less out of the way, Keiser determined, so with Bandon Dunes he also attempted to prove that a similar playing experience could be delivered some 4,700 miles away from those inspirational courses. If he was right, rounds of golf played in the Pacific Northwest might be just as impactful to resort guests as those Scottish and Irish rounds of golf were to him.
As Kidd’s layout neared its completion during the first quarter of 1999, everyone involved in the project took a stab at predicting the total number of rounds that would be played in its first year. To break even, the resort needed to book 10,000 rounds. That was Keiser’s plea: to break even. Others involved in the project didn’t think the resort would be that lucky. Once the season began and reservations came in, however, Keiser and company saw that they would greatly exceed even their most cautiously optimistic expectations. By the end of that first year, almost 25,000 rounds of golf had been played at the resort.
“It’s quite amazing that Bandon Dunes is a hit,” Keiser says earnestly. “Who knew?”
A Hippo, A Birdie, and Two Ewes …
Know what sells.
That’s the best business advice that Keiser can offer anyone. It’s so simple, so matter-of-fact that you might not even deem it advice, given the obvious nature of the message. But such a credence was the power generator behind Recycled Paper Greetings Inc., a greeting card company that Keiser and his college roommate, Phil Friedmann, founded in 1971 and later sold in 2005 for a reported $250 million.
As Keiser explains, a typical display of greeting cards in a store will offer hundreds of cards for sale. In that environment, it’s easy to think of the cards as commodities. It’s also easy to subscribe to the philosophy that stockpiling the most commodities is the best way to guarantee a sale and, thereby, a profit. According to Keiser, that’s what many greeting card companies do. Keiser and Friedmann took a different approach.
“In any one store,” he says, “one of my cards was a number one seller for me and another one didn’t sell. We made it a science of finding out the first, the fifth, the 10th best cards in any store. I learned the power of ranking — so many companies don’t keep track.”
Using that strategy, Keiser discovered in 1975 that a humorous, pun-riddled birthday card featuring cartoon images of a hippo, a birdie and two ewes (which played off the phrase “happy birthday to you”) was a bestseller. So, Keiser made sure stores were always well-stocked with that particular card. He also knew that he could reach out to the card’s artist, Sandra Boynton, to request similar cards that likely would be popular with customers, too.
Since 1975, Boynton has updated the drawings for that card five times and says it’s remained in almost continuous circulation since she first created it. To date, more than 10 million copies of the card have been sold.
“If you keep the best-ranked cards in stock,” Keiser remembers learning, “you’ll outsell Hallmark and all the other companies who only think of the cards as a commodity.”
When Keiser turned his attention to building destination golf courses and their associated resorts, that same guiding principle was paramount. At that time, Keiser didn’t yet have years of experience as a golf course developer to know what would sell to the masses, but he knew what had been sold to him as an avid golf traveler looking for exemplary experiences over the previous decades.
He knew what he loved about Royal Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands, for example: it was a course that felt far removed from civilization and it was surrounded by stunning natural landscapes. During a round at Royal Dornoch, seldom did homes come into view. There was no sense of playing through a densely developed residential community. And the game and the course were experienced as it was intended — by walking.
“After World War II, golf in America was harmed by golf carts and home sales,” Keiser says. “One of my favorite models is Royal Dornoch. Well before people we’re buying real estate, the golf club simply took the best land to make the best course that they could have.”
So when he set out to build a links course on the southern coast of Oregon, Keiser did so without selling home sites. “One of the themes that Bandon Dunes has brought [to golf in America] is golf first and homes second, if at all,” he explains.
Keiser is bringing a similar approach to Cabot St. Lucia, a resort development led by Ben Cowan-Dewar, the CEO and co-founder of the Cabot brand, of which Keiser is an investor and co-founder. Yes, there are home sites on the property — quite a few of them, to be honest — but the site was chosen in part because it features dynamic land that can support world-class golf and because the volcanic-formed hillsides allow home sites to be positioned in such a way that they don’t compromise the golfing experience. Moreover, the routing of the golf course was finalized first; real estate decisions came second. As Keiser acknowledges, at Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, and across many of the Cabot properties — some of which are still in the early planning phases — the best land is reserved for golf.
At Bandon Dunes, Keiser also decided that the original golf course (and all subsequent layouts) would be walking only. “Our byline is golf as it was meant to be, which some people think is a bit arrogant,” he says, “but it’s a walking sport, so we have caddies. And 85 percent of the rounds that are played at Bandon Dunes are played with caddies.”
Ambitious Pursuits for Tomorrow
You might think that at age 77 Keiser would be content to slow down, to kick his feet up and relax a bit. After all, Bandon Dunes is now home to five, championship-caliber golf courses, a 13-hole short course, and a 100,000-square-foot putting course. By contrast, Sand Valleyin central Wisconsin — in the small town of Nekoosa, to be exact — features two championship golf courses and a 17-hole short course. Keiser is also responsible for Barnbougle in Tasmania, a resort that’s home to the 18-hole Dunes course, the 20-hole Lost Farm course and a 14-hole short course. And then Keiser is actively involved in the development of each Cabot property, of which there are now five.
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Ever the entrepreneur and always the golf enthusiast, Keiser refuses to yield.
At Bandon Dunes, for example, he is overseeing the design of another par-3 course, plus New River Dunes, an 18-hole course designed by McLay Kidd that’s positioned on the other side of town. At Sand Valley, 1,700 miles to the east, Keiser is also involved in the recreation of the Lido, an historic C.B. Macdonald layout, as well as the construction of another 18-hole championship course and a sprawling eight-acre putting course.
In early 2020, after visiting Saint Lucia to tour the site of an impending Coore & Crenshaw-designed course (Point Hardy Golf Club), which will serve as the focal point of Cabot’s second resort, Keiser enthusiastically talked of other amazing destinations that someday could feature exceptional golf resorts on par with Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley. He spoke of Colorado, northern Oregon (along the Washington border) and California — about an hour’s drive outside of Santa Barbara — as locations that all offered tremendous potential.
But he also broadened his gaze to look at international locales. Given that the Scottish government had just rejected his plans to build a golf course in the Highlands — a project known as Coul Links — he acknowledged that his desire to pursue many of the promising sites in Europe had waned.
“There’s a fabulous site on the Inch Peninsula in Ireland,” he says. “It’s a 1,400-acre sand dune treasure off the Dingle Peninsula. Close to airports, close to hotel rooms, it’s perfect for golf and one of the best sites I’ve ever seen, but it’s in the EU. Local politicians have said they’d be for it, but there’s so much opposition, as we found with Coul Links, that it would be a longer slog, if successful.”
Nevertheless, Keiser is a dreamer, so much so that he’s considered bold projects that would create visually appealing spectacles to promote the fun nature of the game. After rattling off the numerous European sites where he would love to build courses, Keiser immediately shared a “scheme,” as he called it, through which he would bring a course designer — likely McLay Kidd or Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw — to Namibia and give them three days to route a golf course across the sand dunes.
“Then, without planting any grass or spending any money,” he said, “we’d film Ben Crenshaw — in the best case — playing all 18 holes. There would be a flag out there and he would tee it up off a mat. The yellow ball would splash down, and we’d go out there to hit a second shot to the green where it would splash down [again].
“It starts with just having some fun, because it would be an intriguing thing to play golf without grass in Africa. And all over Africa there are beautiful sand dunes, probably none bigger or better than the Skeleton Coast. In terms of whether it develops legs, you never know. It’s a step-by-step process, but for avid golfers it would at least be interesting.”
More recently, Keiser re-assessed the domestic landscape for golf, explaining that sand barrens provide the best foundation upon which to route and build a course. “A sand barren is perfect for golf,” he says, using Pine Valley as an ideal example. “It’s a scruffy look, you don’t want it to be too verdant. Find all the sand barrens in America and you’ll be amazed. Start with New Jersey. The bottom third of the state is full of them.”
For Keiser, the prospect of developing a world-class golf resort in close proximity to New York City and Philadelphia is tantalizing, but the bureaucratic obstacles in the way of such a project are just too daunting. “From the little research that I’ve done on getting approval to build in New Jersey… it’s frowned upon by environmentalists who want to keep it the way it is,” he explains. “I’m too old to wage that fight.”
No less influential is the cost of land. “If you’re buying land at $20,000 an acre,” he says, “you really need something special to pay the bill.”
That’s not to say that Keiser and his team wouldn’t create something special, but in the case of Sand Valley, Keiser was able to acquire land for $500 an acre. Given that scenario, he says, “we’re buying as much land as we can find.”
Ultimately, when Keiser visits a prospective site, he goes back to that foundational business lesson that he learned decades ago: know what sells. “If you and I were standing on a prospective site, we’d have to ask the question, ‘Is this as good as Bandon Dunes or Sand Valley?’” he says. “If the answer is no, then that’s our solution.”
A Lasting Legacy
One could argue that Bandon Dunes — in and of itself — is Keiser’s golfing legacy. It’s a resort that delivers an on-course experience unlike any other in the United States, so much so that even the most well-traveled golf journalists have described it as “a spiritual place.” One writer even went so far as to name his first-born son Bandon, which speaks to the power of the destination and the impact that the resort and its courses can have.
When asked directly about his own legacy and how he hopes people will remember him, Keiser’s answer is as authentic as the golfing experiences that he aspires to create. “It’s simple,” he says. “That I’ve helped to redefine what golf in America can be — both in terms of links style and in terms of great golf that is available to the public at large.”
It’s on the latter topic that Keiser is most focused. “Going way back before Bandon Dunes, you and I could go to all of the private places in Scotland and Ireland that are [otherwise] open for golf,” he says. “But in this country, if you wanted great golf you had to beg, borrow, or steal your way onto Cypress Point or Pine Valley.”
In that respect, Keiser believes that Bandon Dunes reaffirmed a model of success for public golf in the United States, proving that an open-to-the-public course can be revered as much as one created for a private club. He’s also seen other properties open since, such as Streamsong Resort, which some might say have copied the Bandon Dunes model. If that’s the case, Keiser isn’t bothered by it. In fact, he embraces it. “We’re starting to see a lot of copycats,” he says, “and I think that’s great.”
In June, Mike Keiser published a book with writer Stephen Goodwin titled “The Nature of the Game: Links Golf at Bandon Dunes and Far Beyond”, which reflects on Keiser’s achievements in golf over the last three-plus decades. The memoir, as it were, promotes all of the prominent people involved in Keiser’s developments over the years, from general managers and realtors to maintenance workers, comptrollers, and directors of caddie services.
“Some will guess that it’s about me,” Keiser says of the book, “but I would say it’s about all of the people involved who helped make it happen, and how each of them, in their own way, have participated in ‘golf as it was meant to be’ all around the world. It’s a look at all these people making these golf courses work.”
That selfless approach to self-promotion is not unlike Keiser’s positioning when it comes to the partnership that he’s formed with the United States Golf Association (USGA). Last year, Bandon Dunes and the USGA announced that the resort would host 13 amateur championships over the next 23 years, beginning with the U.S. Junior Amateur and also including prestigious international team events such as the Walker Cup and the Curtis Cup.
“Selfishly, it’s not worth it, even if it’s the U.S. Amateur or the Walker Cup,” Keiser acknowledges. “We lost a bit of money with the U.S. Amateur [in 2020], but it’s simply good for golf. For the good of golf and the good of links golf, that’s why I do this [host amateur championships] roughly every five years.”
On the topic of years, as Keiser’s 80th birthday looms, one has to wonder if a true retirement is forthcoming. With his sons, Michael and Chris, in the fold handling much of the business operations at Sand Valley these days — and also scouring the earth for new destinations to develop — it would seem as though the elder Keiser has left his business legacy in strong, capable hands. While that may be true, Keiser still has no plans to ride off into the sunset… even on a golf cart. “Retirement is not an asset to me,” he says. “Most of my friends are like me; they find it rejuvenating to keep their hand in what they’re doing. The last thing they want to do is retire. On some days, Michael and Chris might wish that I would retire and get out of the way, but they’re stuck with me.”