Meet the Godfather of golf resorts

Courses and Travel

Mike Keiser, the man who created game-changing resort Bandon Dunes, reveals how he was inspired by Scottish and Irish courses and why revered architect Tom Doak was once toxic

Mike Keiser began his working life in the Navy before setting up a ‘green’ greetings cards business that used recycled paper.

So when he was inspired to turn his lifelong passion for golf into a second business, it was perhaps predictable Keiser would follow a route of least disturbance.

This environmentally friendly approach had also been fostered by several trips to the great links of Scotland and Ireland.

His second project was a huge gamble; using an unknown architect in a remote part of Oregon – but it was such a smash hit that he is now the owner of the world’s most impressive golf resort portfolio.

In the candid essay that follows, the modest but forthright Keiser offers a fascinating insight into the business of creating a successful golf resort…

Bandon Dunes

When I started playing golf aged 10 I couldn’t have told you how many golf courses there were in the world. I had no idea. Then when I went to college I played a bit more widely; courses like Taconic and Orchards impressed me. In the Navy, I had friends who were golfers and we would play tough courses like Firestone. That led us to start travelling to Scotland and Ireland to play. My first time on a links was in Scotland and my first trip to Ireland was to Ballybunion; it was jaw dropping. I had never seen anything like it. Spectacular.

I followed the Golf Digest Top 100 in the World, so over the years I’ve been to most of the top Scottish and Irish links. It was an error on my part not to visit the English heathlands; I’ve since been, but I thought wrongly they were parklands so only went to Scotland and Ireland in those days. 

The two courses that have really stuck with me are Dornoch and Ballybunion. Ballybunion because of the huge dunes and Dornoch because in my opinion it is probably the best golf course ever built. The site is perfect for golf, the greens are fabulous, and ‘Foxy’ is the best par 4 I have ever seen. There are so many spectacular holes; it is the essence of what golf should be. Royal Portrush is another I love. It’s remote and it does well.

Why Bandon was such a ricky project

Dornoch really became my model for Bandon. After I built the Dunes Club – a homage to Pine Valley – and it turned out well, I had the bug; but Bandon was spectacularly risky. Not only did I buy land in such a remote place, I also used a ‘no name’ architect. But I thought the remoteness of the location actually added to the allure of a golf resort – and I still think that today.

Tom Doak would have been my choice as architect but I decided he was too risky at that time. He had a reputation as ‘Terrible Tom Doak’. I knew he could build the links I wanted, but he was toxic. He remained on my list for the future, just not for that first one. Coore-Crenshaw I thought highly of too, but they had started work at Sand Hills, and I wanted total allegiance. I knew they were engaged there.

Then Gleneagles design company called and said what about Jimmy Kidd and his son David? I thought they had the chops and the background in links golf and I thought, ‘Let’s start with them and if I don’t like it I’ll just fire them’. But they proved to be very good.

Pacific Dunes

It’s a lot more fun to build rather than buy. But there are some links courses that if they came up for sale, it might be interesting. Waterville would be one possibly. Sand Hills another one. But I like sand sites on the ocean – and there aren’t too many of those.

Two courses aren’t essential for a resort but I do think one plus one equals three. That’s more or less my formula. If you have the space, do two. At Sand Valley we have finished David Kidd’s course, the second there, and we are adding a Par 3 course; that should make it a magnet. One course is a curiosity and two is a destination – that’s my thinking.

When I visited Scotland and Ireland, I enjoyed the fact everything was understated – except for the golf, which is spectacular.

I think resorts can survive without members. Most golfers in Scotland, Ireland and America aren’t a member of a club. If you look at the Top 100 Courses in the US, most of the best courses are private clubs yet most golfers are not members. That tells you there is a need for great but accessible courses.

Donald Trump is after a different market. He sees golf as aspirational. He thinks people get rich to play golf. I know that most golfers in America are not rich. The same is true in Scotland. Most golfers play golf because it’s fun. When I visited Scotland and Ireland, I enjoyed the fact everything was understated – except for the golf, which is spectacular. So with my hotels, I don’t try for five star because it’s out of the range for most golfers. I try for two and three stars. Just good enough. Comfortable.

Royal Dornoch

Keeping architects competitive

I like mixing it up with architects. I can’t say how many exactly, but there are a number of good architects – people like Tom Doak, David Kidd, Coore-Crenshaw, Mike de Vries, Gil Hanse – and I like them competing with each other. I think it is a mistake to go with the same architect for all your courses.

After I’d done the first course at Bandon, David Kidd heard I was thinking of doing another one and he said “I’d be happy to do that for you too”.  And I said “David I’m going to get Tom Doak to do this one and he’s going to try to do a course that’s better than your one”.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this business is that you need a model. I’ve seen a lot of courses built in the US with no real model in mind

I want fescue grass wherever possible. I prefer the running game. I love the look of your courses during a dry spell when they go tawny brown. It is so different to America where everyone is obsessed with green. There is a tendency to overwater; I would like my courses to be tawny but there is a desire to see green in America.

I also want walking courses. If you can’t walk, we will provide a buggy and a driver.

I am interested in course rankings because we are a public business. If I had a private club it wouldn’t really matter. Golfers follow the rankings. They see four courses in the top 50 from one resort and it is a magnet. It certainly helps anyway.

Bandon Trails

Having five or six of our courses among the courses I loved so much in Scotland and Ireland in World Top 100 lists is fun. But I don’t deserve any credit for that obviously, it is because of the skill of the architects.

We have hosted four USGA championships and are hosting the 2020 US Amateur. I like seeing top players playing our courses.

I wanted to duplicate the kind of course Dornoch is and the spirit of the town and it has worked for me; turns out Americans like links golf as much as Scottish and Irish golfers.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this business is that you need a model. I’ve seen a lot of courses built in the US with no real model in mind. The architect says ‘what do you want me to do?’ And the owner really hasn’t thought of it.

Or someone says to Jack Nicklaus, “Build me something tough. Something that would challenge even you”. 

Sand Valley

So we’ve been building these impossible courses – Firestone would be a good example – that are fun to play.  It is important to convey to the architect what I want – and that was especially true in the early days I suppose.

I wanted to duplicate the kind of course Dornoch is and the spirit of the town and it has worked for me; turns out Americans like links golf as much as Scottish and Irish golfers.

The minimalist style is now in vogue

Do I think about my legacy? Only so much as golf courses are unique legacy things. They will still be around in 500 years just as Dornoch is today. The mortality of courses is pretty interesting. I think of them as artwork, albeit in dunes. Like a living sculpture. I like the fact that unless there’s an earthquake, those courses will not be dug up like houses are, or changed. They will still be there.

Bandon might have changed the philosophy of golf resorts – apart from the fact most courses built can’t be links, because they are on clay with trees. But the minimalist style we like is somewhat in vogue now. What Coore-Crenshaw, Doak and Kidd are doing.

Selecting an architect is really based on what they’ve done recently. After Bandon, David Kidd did all kinds of different courses and the one he did he did in St Andrews caused me not to like the new David Kidd. I played it and was so disappointed.

Ballybunion Cashen

Then he came back. The reason he did the second course at Sand Valley is that he did Gamble Sands, which I had heard good things about and rushed out to play. It’s links like, it’s gorgeous, it’s fun. It’s everything golf should be. So that’s why I picked David for Sand Valley; I liked his recent work and the direction he is going in.

Tom Doak did Pacific Dunes and Old MacDonald for me that were terrific then he did some courses that I didn’t like so much but this year I went to New Zealand to play Tara Iti and it’s just about most gorgeous course I’ve ever seen – including Dornoch. He did a great job there and he moved up my list pretty strongly after I was there.

One of the best sites I’ve seen or imagined is 40 minutes from Killarney; the Inch peninsula, owned by the Kennedys of New York

Golf course development has become my life’s passion. I’ll keep building them until I run out of money.  I know there are great sites in the north west of Ireland that are even more remote than Bandon Dunes – in the area that Carne is. I haven’t flown them myself but Tom Doak and others have told they are there.

One of the best sites I’ve seen or imagined is 40 minutes from Killarney; the Inch peninsula, owned by the Kennedys of New York. It’s 1,400 acres and is perfect for golf. But the site is sensitive dunes and in the EU you can’t touch it. I stood there for a while but concluded it would never happen, which is too bad. The Inch peninsula will never be a golf course.

 

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