Mike Keiser and Herb Kohler each were advised they might be crazy when they decided to build resorts.
The leaders of two of the most successful golf destinations in the United States have several interesting things in common. Both have run successful businesses and both love golf, though neither had extensive experience in developing golf resorts when they dove headfirst into the industry. It was that last fact that led critics to say they might be a little out of round for wanting to build golf courses.
“Everyone who saw it either said, ‘You’re an idiot,’ or, ‘Breaking even is highly doubtful, but you know, maybe,’” Keiser said of his early plans for what became Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the western coastal cliffs of Oregon.
Said Kohler of Destination Kohler’s American Club and its four courses in Wisconsin: “When we built our first course, this Sheboygan Press sports editor wrote an article about what a terrible idea, what a foolish idea. … ‘No way Kohler could make its way in golf.’ Ha! Well, over time we have surprised some people.”
Both men proved their doubters wrong, and then some. It might take a little crazy to build a great destination. The end result: Bandon Dunes and Destination Kohler, along with Reynolds Lake Oconee in Georgia, each have four courses ranked among their state’s list of Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play.
These three resorts take different approaches to their general businesses – Bandon is hyper focused on its golf, while the American Club offers a broader menu of amenities such as its luxurious spa and Reynolds Lake Oconee prides itself as a community with a wide range of outdoor activities. But when it comes to Golfweek’s Best ranking, it’s all about the courses.
Golfweek’s raters have submitted ballots on 3,972 courses. To have one course earn a spot on any of the seven ranking lists in this issue marks a resort, private club, municipal facility or daily-fee operation as special. Several dozen facilities have two courses that appear on the Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list, which includes 530 courses across the country and acknowledges the best public-access tracks in each state. A handful of elite destinations have three courses on the Best Courses You Can Play list.
Bandon Dunes, Destination Kohler and Reynolds Lake Oconee have four. The stories of how these resorts came to be offer a fascinating look at several spectacular patches of land.
Bandon Dunes: Scotland in the Pacific Northwest
“It is as simple as great linksland,” Keiser said of Bandon Dunes’ success. “It’s the sand dunes on the ocean.”
Keiser’s inspiration was Royal Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands, a remote destination with sand along the surf that draws players from around the world. An avid golf traveler and co-founder of the Chicago-based Recycled Paper Greetings, Inc., he wanted to see if he could recreate such a golf setting in the United States. And while he had opened the private nine-hole Dunes Club (No. 39 on Golfweek’s Best Top 200 Modern Courses list) in Michigan in 1995, he had never attempted to build a resort.
His search for perfect sand led Keiser from the East Coast to the West, and in the late 1980s he was scouring California for an available site that offered a perfect combination of dunes and surf. He received a call from Annie Hunter, a real estate agent who knew about a 1,200-acre parcel in remote southwestern Oregon that included a mile of ocean frontage. He toured the site and was blown away by a view across a rollicking landscape covered with gorse, Scottish broom and giant dunes before dropping off 100-foot cliffs into the Pacific.
“As a golfer, you can see it all,” Keiser said. “If you’re a golf developer with Royal Dornoch as the model, then there it was.”
Keiser said he didn’t know it at the time, but there are 50 miles of ideal oceanfront sand dunes that stretch north from Bandon Dunes. He calls it America’s linksland. The land on which Bandon Dunes was built might not even be the best of the sand, Keiser said, but it was available.
“If you were to overfly those 50 miles, which I have done, you would say, “Oh my God, it’s all sand, and it’s all gorgeous sand dunes,” Keiser said. “Some of it is on cliffs, some is not. … I was astonished. I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
Keiser bought the land and set about turning it into his dream, using his own capital because, as he said, no banker or investor would have accepted the risks. It was a huge gamble, but he wanted to know if golfers would travel to such a landscape to play links golf in the U.S.
Best Courses You Can Play – The Fab 4
|Bandon Dunes Golf Resort – Oregon|
|Pacific Dunes||No. 1|
|Old Macdonald||No. 2|
|Bandon Dunes||No. 3|
|Bandon Trails||No. 4|
|Destination Kohler – Wisconsin|
|Whistling Straits (Straits)||No. 1|
|Blackwolf Run (River)||No. 5|
|Whistling Straits (Irish)||No. 7|
|Blackwolf Run (Meadow Valleys)||No. 9|
|Reynolds Lake Oconee – Georgia|
|Great Waters||No. 2|
|The Landing||No. 10|
“I subscribe to it as a business guy using my own money, that this could be throwing good money after bad,” he said of building what at first would be a one-course resort. “But it’s such a good site. … It’s close enough to Dornoch that I’ve got to give it a try and find out what nobody was able to tell me, which is, do American golfers love links golf? The indicators from the number of rounds that Americans play at the Old Course and at Royal Dornoch say that there probably were enough.”
With a plan to focus on the golf instead of spas and other typical resort amenities, Keiser hired a relatively unknown and untested designer to build the first course, Bandon Dunes. David McLay Kidd, the son of superintendent Jimmy Kidd at Gleneagles in Scotland, got the nod.
“I thought of it as a package, father and son,” Keiser said. “I could see Jimmy really wanted it to work with David, and he spent a lot of time on the ground walking through gorse, which is not easy, coming up with the layout that we eventually built. So it was a combination of Jimmy, who’s still alive and doing great, and David together.”
And if Keiser didn’t like Kidd’s work?
“I also knew that I could fire them,” Keiser said.
With the clubhouse set back far from the cliffs to give the best land to the course, Kidd laid out six oceanfront greens as part of a fast and bouncy track that opened in 1999 and grabbed the golf world’s attention. The resort’s original 18 is now ranked No. 3 in Oregon on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list and No. 8 among Golfweek’s Best Top 100 Modern Courses in the U.S.
The second course, Pacific Dunes by Tom Doak, opened in 2001 and has outpaced its older sibling in the rankings, reaching No. 1 in the state of Oregon on the Best Courses You Can Play list and No. 2 on the Golfweek’s Best Top 100 Modern list.
The team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed the third course, Bandon Trails, which opened on higher terrain apart from the cliffs in 2005 and has climbed to No. 4 in the state’s Best Courses You Can Play and No. 14 among the Top 100 Modern.
Doak and Jim Urbina led a team that built the fourth course, Old Macdonald, which opened in 2010 and has risen to No. 2 in Oregon’s Best Courses You Can Play list and No. 5 on the Top 100 Modern.
Those four 18-hole courses are complemented by the dramatic 13-hole, par-3 Bandon Preserve built by Coore and Crenshaw, the Punchbowl putting course built by Doak and Urbina, and another short course incorporated as part of the practice area. As if that wasn’t enough golf, the resort has teamed with Keiser’s Recycled Paper Greetings co-founder, Phil Friedmann, to build a fifth course just north of the original property. The Sheep Ranch, replacing a 13-hole unstructured layout, is an 18-hole course by Coore and Crenshaw scheduled to open in the spring of 2020 with nine oceanside greens.
The four existing courses have changed the golf landscape in the U.S. Instead of the manicured lines and water hazards presented at most resorts of the past 40 years, the Bandon foursome relies on natural ruggedness and wind to keep things interesting. The sand is everywhere, offering a playing experience much more in line with Scottish or Irish links. The firm and fast surfaces make a player consider what happens to a golf ball on the ground just as much as what might happen in the air – it’s an exhilarating approach
for most Americans who are accustomed to a more aerial game.
Keiser said the resort draws 85 percent of its guests from the West Coast, especially from British Columbia down to San Diego, but players come from around the world to sample American links golf in the dunes. Keiser said an intense focus on golf without all the traditional resort amenities has been a differentiator. Instead of a tennis pro, Bandon Dunes, with an emphasis on walking, employs an army of caddies – the resort uses as many as 350 caddies during peak season, a distinction that pleases Keiser.
“Eat, sleep, drink and play golf – those are the four things you do there,” said Keiser, whose success at Bandon Dunes has led to his development of other golf destinations such as Cabot Links in Nova Scotia and Sand Valley in Wisconsin. “I’m astonished by the whole enterprise. Honestly, when I just think about it, it’s astonishing that it has worked as well as it has.”
‘Gracious living’ in the Badger State
Kohler became a golf developer at the behest of customer suggestion slips.
The Kohler family had built a successful manufacturing business that was founded in 1873, expanding from its initial farm implements such as plows to include plumbing products a decade later. It has since become a leader in the advancement of what it calls “gracious living.” Beyond its plumbing business, Kohler also produces furniture, engines and generators, among other products.
Across from its manufacturing headquarters near Sheboygan, Kohler Company owned a dormitory named the American Club built in 1918 to house immigrant workers. As a young CEO of the company, Herb Kohler wanted to develop the building into a boutique hotel, but he met resistance from the company board, which twice rejected his hospitality concepts before relenting.
In 1981 the American Club was reopened, offering a level of luxury that has made it a AAA Five-Diamond Resort Hotel since 1985 and Forbes Five-Star hotel since 2012. The 241-room property, which includes the Carriage House, is the Midwest’s only 5-star, 5-diamond resort hotel. But initially, it didn’t have any golf courses. Enter the customer comments.
“I didn’t know much or anything about golf. What I did have was a tenacious accountant who collected suggestion slips,” Kohler said. “… He said, ‘They all sort of thank you for taking your guests to a public course over here and a private course over there. But because of the amount of land that you own, why in the world aren’t you building your own golf course to fit with your boutique resort hotel.’”
Kohler didn’t want just any regular course – his team members had major championships on their minds. “And that was our ambition right from the outset,” he said. “We wanted tournaments, and we didn’t want the weekly tournaments, so the only possible thing was majors.”
The Kohler team set out to find a course designer who could deliver major opportunities. After an initial plan from a pair of unnamed designers failed to satisfy Kohler, he went looking for a fresh perspective on how to build in a valley near the American Club.
“This one particular chap, he was an odd duck, but he had two courses in particular that were of interest,” Kohler said. “One that had just been open to the public, it was the TPC at Sawgrass, the home course for the PGA Tour. And at least 20 different pros who had a chance to play it were extraordinarily upset, and they were making their feelings known to the local press. … It sort of fascinated me. What I liked about it was, he had this desire to get into the psyche of a pro and really befuddle him.
“This fellow, Pete Dye, took them right to the edge of embarrassment, and they didn’t like being embarrassed, but I enjoyed it.”
Kohler also liked Dye’s Honors Course near Chattanooga, Tenn., which Kohler said could challenge a professional but was built to be manageable from the proper tees for amateurs – potential resort guests.
“So here was this single person, a little strange as he might be – he always wore khaki pants and always wore tennis shoes – but here was this single person who could befuddle the pros but was considerate to the amateurs when he had to be,” Kohler said. “And I liked that combination.”
Dye built two nines for Kohler at Blackwolf Run, the initial River and Valleys nines that opened in 1988. Kohler said there was a three-month waiting list to play the combined 18 – not good for resort guests who wanted to get in a quick round – so he commissioned Dye to build nine more holes that opened in 1989. That didn’t alleviate the wait list, so Dye added a fourth nine that opened in 1990. The routing was reconfigured into two distinct 18-hole courses: the River and Meadow Valleys that play on either side of the Sheboygan River.
But still the waiting list was too long.
“Now we had 18 more holes than we intended, and we still had that goldarn
three-month lead time,” Kohler said. “So I had to go out and look for more land.”
He found 560 suitable acres several miles to the north, a plot with two miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan. After Kohler dealt with multiple regulatory issues, Dye began work on a relatively flat tract that included a deserted military airfield and an adjacent wetland. More than 13,000 truckloads of sand were excavated from a site 10 miles away to construct dunes that climbed more than 70 feet.
With each truckload of sand at the new Whistling Straits, the property slowly became The Straits course that opened in 1998 and The Irish course that opened in 2000.
“Pete and I had this general agreement that The Straits course would be something like Ballybunion (in Ireland), but that was the closest we got to any specifics in design. It was all Pete thereafter, and he did a wonderful, wonderful job,” Kohler said of the course that features eight holes on the edge of the massive lake. “It was the sand that gave it the character and gave the fairways some speed.”
The Straits course, in particular, has achieved international acclaim. It has been the site of three PGA Championships (2004, ’10 and ’15) and a U.S. Senior Open (’07), and it will host the 2020 Ryder Cup with Wisconsin native Steve Stricker captaining the U.S. squad. The Straits also has risen to No. 1 in Wisconsin on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list and No. 7 on the Top 100 Modern courses list.
Blackwolf Run’s River course is next in accolades for Destination Kohler, at No. 5 in the state on the Best Courses You Can Play list and No. 89 on the Top 100 Modern list. Whistling Straits’ Irish course is No. 7 and Blackwolf Run’s Meadow Valleys is No. 9 in the state on the Best Courses You Can Play list.
Blackwolf Run has hosted two U.S. Women’s Opens, in 1998 and 2012, on what the resort calls the Championship Course – the two original nines. That runs the total of majors to six: two women’s, one senior and three for the men. Not a bad tally for a concept that started on customer suggestion slips.
Kohler said the company has five guiding principles, two that most directly influence the company’s golf courses: to live on the leading edge in design and technology in product and process, and to have a single high level of quality no matter the product or service.
“Yes, it’s difficult, but that’s our job,” Kohler said. “And we have to do it better than you or somebody else might expect. We have to do it with a consistency. We can’t miss our mark in some services and expect it not to impact our reputation. That’s why you see the four courses of the quality they are.”
Newcomer Reynolds Lake Oconee scores big
Reynolds Lake Oconee is a newcomer to this threesome, with a fourth course achieving ranking on the Best Courses You Can Play list for 2019. The property has 117 holes divided among six courses by multiple designers, including the private Creek Club by Jim Engh.
Mike Scully, a former college (University of Illinois) and NFL (Washington Redskins) player who took over as general manager at Reynolds Lake Oconee in 2018, said the rolling terrain of central Georgia and the lake make all the difference for the four courses that are ranked.
“You wouldn’t believe we have the elevation changes that we do,” said Scully, whose golf career includes being the director of golf at Medinah near Chicago and Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz. “And having the different designers is great – you have a different experience no matter which course you play.”
Great Waters, built by Jack Nicklaus and opened in 1992, leads the community’s courses at No. 2 in Georgia on the Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list. Great Waters is undergoing a renovation by Nicklaus and is scheduled to reopen this fall, and Scully said he expects the new presentation to be, in the words of the Golden Bear, “Spectacular.”
Also included on Georgia’s Best Courses You Can Play list is the Oconee Course by Rees Jones that opened in 2002 and comes in at No. 4. The National’s combination of its Ridge and Bluff nines by Tom Fazio, which opened in 1997, is No. 8. The Landing, built by Bob Cupp in 1986, is No. 10.
Scully credits their high rankings with a consistency across the property, led by vice president of agronomy Lane Singleton. About 70 percent of play is from members and 30 percent is resort play at the community, which features neighborhoods, rental cottages and condominiums, and a Ritz-Carlton hotel on-site.
“I’m a washed-up football player, and I learned a long time ago that a coach is only as good as his star players,” Scully said. “We run one great play six different times. … It’s that consistency in what we do and how we set it
up each day. That’s our biggest opportunity and that’s our biggest challenge, and that’s what we focus on.
“I believe that besides being the golf mecca of Georgia, we offer a lifestyle here that is unmatched. With the ability to play golf, tennis, the fitness, boating – it’s a lake life that’s unrivaled. … We can be set up for a guys’ trip, a couples’ trip, a girls’ trip, a family trip. We check all the boxes.” Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the June 2019 issue of Golfweek.)