Bandon Dunes 25th anniversary: A chat with founder Mike Keiser

(Editor’s note: Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is celebrating its 25th anniversary and Golfweek Travel Editor Jason Lusk put together a comprehensive package for the occasion, complete with Q&As of pivotal people in and around the operation. To see the entire package of stories, click here.)

BANDON, Ore. – Mike Keiser wanted to prove a point: Links golf is better than what many of the courses in the United States offered near the turn of the century, and enough American players would travel to play great golf. 

The greeting-card-magnate-turned-golf-developer nailed it on both points with Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which in May celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Keep in mind, in the 1980s and ’90s most American golf courses were being built to accommodate shots that flied high through clear skies, rewarding players who possessed enough power to make a ball spin and stop on often-elevated greens. Difficulty was frequently considered the hallmark of great courses, many of which were built with tour players in mind instead of the folks Keiser came to describe as retail golfers. 

The Chicago resident flipped that script by building courses that favored the ground game in strong winds, much as he experienced on frequent trips to the British Isles. But it certainly wasn’t a sure thing when he pulled the trigger on Bandon Dunes, which opened in 1999. Would American golfers pay hundreds of dollars to play a course that required travel to the remote Oregon coast? He already had built the highly acclaimed, nine-hole Dunes Club in Michigan, but how big a risk was he willing to take out west?

Let’s let Keiser – known as an adept listener and studier of his customers – do the talking. 

Bandon Dunes
Bandon Dunes

The coastal Oregon site of Bandon Dunes before it was developed into a golf resort (Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)

What made you think it was possible to build a true modern links course in the U.S.?

It started as just sort of theoretical statement. If we could find a site that was, let’s say, as good as Royal Dornoch (in northern Scotland), it might work as sort of the business case for building a links course.

And serendipitously, (Oregon-based Realtor) Annie Hunter called from out of the blue to let me know this site was available. And she said, “I don’t know anything about golf courses, but this is right on the ocean, 1,200 acres on the ocean with big sand dunes covered in gorse – I don’t know if it’s any good or not.” And that sounded pretty magical to me.

So I rushed out there and said, from the vantage point you can still see out there (on a hillside at Bandon Trails overlooking the coast), this looks like an awfully good site. And I was able to buy it for half the asking price. Talk about more serendipity. The previous owners were so eager to unload it because it had been for sale for over four years. 

What was your thought process in looking at that piece of land to do something that nobody in the States had pulled off up to that point, building such a remote public course focused on links golf? 

I thought I could break even. That was my positive thing. If I built something like Dornoch, it might break even. And I basically said, “Oh what the heck, you only go around once, let’s try it.”

Bandon Dunes
Bandon Dunes

Mike Keiser at Bandon Dunes in the early days (Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)

Are you surprised today at how it all turned out after taking such a risk on the first course? 

Because I was able to sell the greeting card company (Recycled Paper Greetings, which he had founded in 1971 with college roommate Phil Friedmann) for quite a bit of money, I had the money to lose on one golf course. And I knew the odds were that I’d be lucky to break even, so to take X amount of dollars and build a golf course in Bandon, Oregon, was a dicey thing. But I could afford to lose, which is why I went ahead for the fun of it, to build it. 

And we were astonished, like everyone else, that it did not just break even with 10,000 rounds the first year, but that we had 24,000 rounds that year. That was amazing. And that gave me a green light to build Pacific Dunes, the second course. I say that one plus one equals three, and that really changed things. 

What had you learned in building the Dunes Club with architect Dick Nugent? Before Bandon, you built that in Michigan on a site where you and your sons used to play wilderness golf and turned it into something really special in its own right.

If you visit there, you will see one huge sand dune. … I was playing a lot at Pine Valley at that time of my life, and the Dunes’ site reminded me of Pine Valley, which is why I said, “Let’s build something, an homage to Pine Valley, here near Chicago” so we don’t have to go all the way to Philadelphia every time we want to play this magnificent sand dune golf course which is Pine Valley. 

It was that love for sand dunes that led you to Bandon?

I’d say the one thing I learned is that if you have sand dunes on the ocean, you probably have a winner. Hello, Shinnecock Hills. Hello, National Golf Links. Hello, Pebble Beach. Hello, Cypress Point. (All are top-rated classic courses, either in New York or California.)

Had you looked for sand dunes all around the country before going to Oregon?

I looked on the East Coast and couldn’t find anything. I mean zero, and I was going to give up. A friend of mine, Howard McKee (an architect and land planner), said, “Why don’t you look in Oregon? It’s got a gorgeous coast.” I knew nothing about Oregon, so reluctantly I gave in and said okay.

I had went out and looked at Northern California, where there was nothing. I should have looked further north, but I hadn’t gotten there yet when Annie Hunter called and saved me the time.

Sand has become a secret sauce for you in all of your developments, whether it be with your boys at Sand Valley or wherever. Even all the way to Barnbougle in Tasmania. 

You know, Barnbougle is more remote than Bandon. But Tom Doak and I were able to convince Richard Sattler (the land’s owner and a farmer) that rather than farming sheep and cattle, he should farm golfers. 

I remember standing in one of Richard’s pastures, and he spent most of the day, every day, rounding up his herds and moving them from pasture to pasture. And I said, “Richard, you don’t know anything about golf, but golf is like you and I standing here in a pasture, and every 10 minutes, four people will come up to you and ask to pay $200 each to play golf in your pasture.” He said that sounds pretty good. (Barnbougle opened in 2004 with investment from Keiser and has expanded to two full-18 courses and a short course. Both its courses rank among the top 30 international courses outside the U.S.)

How did you structure Bandon Dunes commercially to allow it to grow and flourish this way? 

We priced it at half of Pebble Beach. That’s our pricing mantra: Whatever Pebble Beach is, we will be half, so it’s fair pricing. 

You could do it right now if you had money. You could go to Oregon and find two or three coastal sites. But they would probably be owned by federal or state government, so you couldn’t develop it. But at least you could say, wow, look at that.

One day an Oregon governor will say, “There’s the Alabama golf trail (the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail). Why don’t we have the Oregon Trail?” Wouldn’t that be something for the state to run or to do with some kind of lease option to where a developer could come in and build on a hundred acres in a partnership? It won’t happen with such an anti-development ethos in Oregon. … The Oregon Trail would be hugely successful for golf and financially, but I don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

How often are you asked for advice from other developers, and what do you tell them?

I’m not asked that often, because they’re usually the competition. But if they were to ask, I’d say sand dunes and ocean are what you’re looking for. The Bandon formula of sand plus ocean equals winner.

But sand without the ocean can be OK, it turns out. Look at Sand Valley (in Wisconsin, a popular resort that soon will have four full-size courses and that has been developed by Keiser’s sons, Michael and Chris). It’s a luxury to have the ocean. But it’s not essential; that’s what we learned. 

One day someone’s going to go to Africa, which has great sites for golf, and build. Maybe on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia – it’s just gorgeous for golf and there are beautiful dunes.

Twenty percent of the world is sand. Isn’t that interesting? I once thought that sand was rare, but 20 percent of the earth’s land surface is sand. It’s everywhere. 

What’s it like for you now to see versions of Bandon Dunes working in other places, be it Canada or New Zealand or Australia?  

I love it. I can’t keep up with them all. 

You know, I’m public and proud of it. That’s always been my thing. Even though Ballybunion and Dornoch have memberships, they’re basically open to the public. So I’ve always thought if you build something pretty special, you want the public to play it. 

A lot of new private courses have been built in recent years on sand.

I don’t hate them for it. They’re just not as meaningful as a public course would have been.

I was a retail golfer well before I became a Pine Valley member. So before I was a member, I felt that most of the best courses in America, in particular, were private. And that’s still pretty much true. So I was a big public golf guy, and I couldn’t play them. And it turns out this was noticed by the retail golfers of the world, and certainly of the United States, because they felt this desire to play great courses.

Bandon Dunes
Bandon Dunes

Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser (second from right) with Josh Lesnik (left), the first general manager when the resort opened in 1999, and Bandon Dunes Golf Resort
course architects Tom Doak, Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw and David McLay Kidd (Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)

What made you decide to take such a risk with using David McLay Kidd as your first architect? 

His father, Jimmy. If it had been just David, I would have said no, I can’t give it to you, you’re too inexperienced for me to take a flier given my location. I would have chosen Tom Doak.

But Jimmy Kidd had been in golf his entire life. He was the superintendent at Gleneagles and played golf at Machrihanish. So I felt it was in their blood and that Jimmy had taught David well. And if I found out that David wasn’t very good, I’d fire him. David would tell you the same thing.

It was great fun watching David and Jimmy work together. Jimmy was dead set that David was going to have a success there, so it was sort of a one plus one equals three again. With Jimmy and David together, I had the benefit of both points of view. And as the project went on, David took more and more ownership of it.

Then you followed up behind David with Tom Doak, then hired Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. All of those guys have become famous as designers, but 25 years ago they didn’t have their own fan clubs. What’s it been like to watch the architects develop over the years?

Well, I’ve always been a minimalist, as they have on their own. So we’ve all been minimalist, feeling that golf had become too difficult and too manufactured. We just wanted to build links courses in a minimalist way, and lo and behold, that’s what they did. And it turns out that American golfers love minimalist golf design. 

Bandon Dunes
Bandon Dunes

Mike Keiser, right, with Jim Urbina and Tom Doak during construction of the Punchbowl (Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)

How would you describe minimalism? What drives the concept for you, the appeal of it?

We’re looking for designs that evolve from nature. Tom Doak is probably the most articulate on that topic and would probably give you paragraph after paragraph after paragraph.

Natural golf courses are visually more interesting than manufactured courses. For those of us who would go play links in Scotland and Ireland, our favorite courses were all, you know, very minimalist. Look at the Old Course (at St. Andrews). Talk about minimalist – you know they just they just played on the land they had. They didn’t make it with bulldozers. I’d say the same about Ballybunion and Dornoch and any other of the links courses over there, made not by bulldozers but by men with shovels. 

There is still shaping and routing that goes into minimalist designs. How much would you say the artistry of your architects has been a driving force at Bandon Dunes? 

I give them huge thanks. The first thing is, their routings are fabulous. And I won’t single any of them out, because each of them are fabulous. And their green sites are fabulous. Those are two things that I look for.

At Bandon Dunes, the non-golf amenities are set well back from the coast. How did you come to your decision to allow your architects to use the best land along the coast for their routings, instead of trying to put hotels or clubhouses along the shoreline? 

Because I was not a typical developer. Having done The Dunes Club, which is golf only, I said that I want to build another golf course. I didn’t say I want to build a golf resort. So I wanted to use the best land for the golf course. I never thought we’d get to building a whole resort.

Bandon Dunes
Bandon Dunes

Mike Keiser at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon (Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)

What’s it like for you as a father to watch your boys follow you into the business and have such success at Sand Valley and now expanding beyond Wisconsin?

They’ve been to Scotland and Ireland, and they have played the great links courses. Therefore they almost naturally understand links or minimalist golf. That’s what I’m proudest of, that they don’t stray from that model. They’ll say, look at Dornoch or Ballybunion, these are the types of courses we want to build and play on.

Most developers, they say location, location, location. And they mean close to population centers, because that’s who’s going to use it. And I’ve sort of taken the opposite point of view that if it’s remote and wild and natural, it’s better. 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about your thoughts on looking back at 25 years at Bandon Dunes?

My biggest one is to thank everyone for appreciating links golf in America. It was remarkable how well received Bandon Dunes was. Given the lack of experience of true links golf in America for the retail golfer, it’s an amazing story.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek