Q&A: Mike Keiser, Bandon Dunes Resort owner
The first course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort made Golfweek’s cover even before it opened in 1999. Owner Mike Keiser had swung for the fences and hit a tape-measure shot. Now home to 85 holes on the remote southern Oregon coast, Bandon Dunes has become a rite of passage for serious golfers and an homage to Keiser’s love of classical golf architecture. It also has inspired imitators in other remote destinations.
Keiser currently is developing a second course at Cabot Links in Canada, and is contemplating a multicourse resort project in Wisconsin. In a Q&A with Golfweek, Keiser shares his thoughts on how to build greens, his tendency to go against the grain, and the similarities between golf and greeting cards.
GW: How involved are you in the design of your courses?
MK: I’m extremely involved. (The architects) all know that before we seed anything, I need to approve it. I don’t actually see every last inch before they plant seed, but I have a pretty good idea of the general contours and shapes of the hole-by-hole progression of things. In particular I’m looking at greens, because greens are the soul of a golf course. I feel strongly that between St. Andrews and National Golf Links and Chicago Golf (Club) and some of Pine Valley’s greens, I would like most of my greens to fit into those four courses – especially the flatter National Golf Links and Chicago Golf greens. There’s always a debate. I want flat, they want contoured, and we end up somewhere in between.
GW: What is your handicap?
MK: Twelve and getting higher.
GW: I’m told by architects that you keep in mind the average golfer as you work on courses.
MK: I want the best tees for the retail golfer. That’s 5,800 to 6,300 yards. Those are the vast majority of golfers who pay me. . . . I’m interested in what we call the royal-blue tees, which measure 4,300 yards. I’m interested in the back tees, from 7,000 to 7,500 yards. But I’m especially interested in the 5,800- to 6,300-yard tees.
GW: Was Sand Hills (in Mullen, Neb.) a model to copy, or was it so unique that it was a model to avoid?
MK: I won’t say that it was a model to copy, but it was a model for (the idea that) remote can work. That opened in 1994, Bandon Dunes opened in 1999. . . . I knew what (Sand Hills owner Dick Youngscap) was doing. I was a little bit envious that he picked (Bill) Coore and (Ben) Crenshaw before I got to them, and I excluded Bill and Ben from the first course because Dick picked them. So instead I picked David Kidd, and that worked out great.
GW: Some of the remote courses that subsequently have been built have struggled. Why do you think that is?
MK: No ocean. I’m a fan, but have never been, to Sutton Bay, The Prairie Club. I have been to Dismal River; I have been to Ballyneal. They all would love to have an ocean. I can’t speak for the ones I haven’t been to, but Ballyneal would be va-va-voom if you could plop an ocean right down next to it. It’s sort of simplistic, but my formula is: sand dunes plus ocean plus gifted architect equal what the retail golfer wants.
GW: David Kidd (architect of the first course at Bandon Dunes) shared a story that in your greeting card business you’ll often pin up artwork in your office, and if it still makes you smile after a week, you know it’s good. Do you have a similar approach in evaluating golf holes?
MK: Yes. A great example is David Kidd’s No. 16 (at Bandon Dunes). It plays right along the edge of the cliff. David, unlike all of the other holes that he had developed with me there, this one he changed what we agreed would be the hole into something totally different. Instead of it being a dogleg right playing inland and out to the ocean, he made it a straight tee-to-green, drivable par 4. And he did this because he felt that it was better. He sort of trembled in fear that I would look at it and, he told me, even fire him for not building what we had agreed to. He hadn’t seeded it; he just wanted my approval. Much like pinning up the cartoons, my first impression was very strong. But I knew it was not what I had approved three weeks earlier, and decided I would do what I do with greeting cards, which is give it the length of the trip, at least, maybe more, to decide if it was good or not. By the time the (four-day) trip was over, and having revisited it many times, and not having indicated what I thought to David, who was left dangling, I said just before leaving, “David, 16 is brilliant. It’s so much better than what we had before.” If he were sitting down, he would have fallen out of his chair.
GW: Tom Doak (architect of Pacific Dunes) said he thought part of your success was that you don’t get caught up in long-term business plans. His point was that you focus on making the best possible course because that’s the more important thing.
MK: (Samuel F.B.) Morse, who did Pebble Beach, amazingly ripped up the plans to put one-eighth-acre lots all the way down Pebble Beach’s oceanfront and instead built golf. With that as a model, Bandon Dunes has no homes. We used three miles of ocean frontage to build golf. A real estate developer from Chicago just wrote me a very nice note. He said, “We loved it because it was clear that a golfer built this for golfers rather than a real estate developer building it to sell homes.”
GW: Are you comfortable being counterintuitive in your golf business?
MK: Yes. It’s so easy. The intuitive, or the standard way to develop golf courses since the World War II era, is hire a few of the names who are golf architects only – like Pete Dye, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and others – or hire a PGA Tour player – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, etc. for their design, and you know what that means. I like Pete Dye because it’s very unique, but it’s not my style. And Robert Trent Jones just did too many of them. So to me, the counterintuitive choices were the classic designers. At the time, there were really only two: Coore-Crenshaw and Doak. That was counterintuitive. I thought it was the only obvious choice.
GW: That extends to the walking-only policy.
MK: Once you go to the classic mode, you have to answer in the positive: Is golf a walking sport? Yes, it is. And if you’re aiming to do links, which I was, then playing in the rain and wind and elements is part of the experience. And so are caddies. All of those would be in the counterintuitive realm. Once you’re committed to links golf for the retail golfer in remote sites, because that’s the only place you can afford to buy 500 acres of land on the ocean, it becomes a package.
GW: What is your assessment of the state of golf in the U.S.?
MK: Slow. Just terribly slow. Even if you look at junior golf, you see them playing six-hour rounds and taught by their expensive teacher to be deliberate and line everything up both ways. It’s sad. It’s almost the ruination of golf. I know people would say it’s too expensive. That’s been true for 50 years, and it’s not all expensive. And it’s time-consuming, but you don’t have to play 18. So those two have alternatives. But the slow part . . . I was at a friend’s golf course in Romeoville, Ill., yesterday, and I was leaving just as whole bunch of juniors were going to the range. There was one group of about 10 eighth- and ninth-graders, all boys, with a male coach, and they were on the green, and they weren’t doing anything. They were just talking. Not terrible, but I contrast that with what they would be doing in baseball, basketball, soccer. I thought it was characteristic of a slow approach to a slow game.
GW: As a course owner and operator, what is your opinion of the industry’s player-development initiatives?
MK: I monetarily support The First Tee. I’m not sure it’s making that much of a difference, but it means well. I think the PGA under its current leadership, and Joe (Steranka) before it, will be more likely to make an impact. . . . They’re looking to attract more golfers for their PGA professionals to sell stuff to. So they’re aligned with me. I use caddies because we’re walking-only. At The Dunes Club in Michigan, we have 25 great caddies, ranging in age from 78 to 13. Bandon Dunes has 225 or 230 caddies. I’m very proud of that. The potential of adding caddies to more courses – and it’s not going in that direction – would do wonders, far more than the junior golf programs that exist, in creating new participants. I think every young caddie becomes a golfer. . . . The golf cart killed caddie programs, and therefore we lose that flow of new golfers into the game.