Greeting card magnate Mike Keiser’s love of links golf has led him to create some of the world’s greatest new courses
From the Print Edition:
Liev Schreiber, November/December 2013
Mike Keiser went to the ends of the earth to satisfy his passion for links golf. He built the Bandon Dunes complex on the remote southwest coast of Oregon. He built Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm on the island of Tasmania. He built Cabot Links and is building Cabot Cliffs on the island of Nova Scotia.
Yet where he started it all, the nine-hole Dunes Club in New Buffalo, Michigan, is by comparison a pitching wedge away from civilization, an hour and a half from his hometown of Chicago.
But the Dunes Club is the most difficult to find, tucked off a residential street in this Lake Michigan beach community. There is no sign for it, or sign of it, from the lane that passes by the tiny entrance. There is a marker with the street number on it, but that’s it. And if you figure out where to turn and how to maneuver a couple of hundred yards, you will find a tiny clubhouse without opulence or grandeur or much of a locker room, pro shop or restaurant.
This is just how Mike Keiser likes his golf. And it’s how he has gone about changing, in his special way, the golf landscape in America, Australia and Canada. Keiser, the greeting card magnate turned maestro of remote golf, went back to the basics of the game, surrounding himself with his “genius architects” to build links golf courses where they weren’t supposed to succeed, except they did, and rather grandly. He has proved that if you build it, and build it well, they will come—even to the ends of the earth.
“I won’t call myself a missionary now that you and I and anyone paying attention knows that Americans like links golf,” says Keiser. “I think it’s also good for golf. Given all the modern courses built since World War II, without characterizing them as awful—which I could—they are hard and not fun. As long as I can find sites that lend themselves to links golf, I feel almost duty-bound to pursue it.”
And pursue it he has. Bankrolled with the bounty of a company founded with a friend in the early ’70s—Recycled Paper Greetings—Keiser has built five courses at his Bandon Dunes complex that hugs the Pacific at a place you can’t get to—except thousands do. Tasmania? Why would anyone go there for golf? Now that there are two spectacular courses, golfers are coming from near and far. Nova Scotia? For lobsters and cod, maybe, but Keiser has hooked a boatload of golfers who are making the voyage. Yet it is on this piece of land near the oceanic expanse of Lake Michigan that Keiser built his first course. It was an afterthought.
It was the late ’80s and Keiser was well into his second decade as co-owner of Recycled Paper Greetings, a company he formed with Amherst College friend Phil Friedmann in 1971. They had latched onto the “green concept” as it became more and more a part of the public consciousness. They would make greeting cards out of recycled paper, Christmas and birthday greetings from the detritus of newspapers, magazines and cardboard boxes.
It was then he found his first “genius,” or rather, she found him. Sandra Boynton was a Yale graduate with a gift for whimsy. She submitted designs to the fledgling RPG in 1973. Keiser loved her work and she went on to design more than 5,000 cards for the company, which found itself a burgeoning enterprise that, while trailing Hallmark and American Greetings by a factor of many millions, was churning out a healthy profit.
“My formula, and I would give it to anyone who thinks they are entrepreneurial: find a genius,” says Keiser, “In the greeting card business, we found—well she found us—but we found Sandra Boynton who is a genius. Finding her made us geniuses.”
There was enough profit by the ’80s for Mike and wife Lindy to build a Lake Michigan weekend home. And when Keiser found out that a 60-acre parcel nearby was being considered for a condo development, he pounced. “It was strictly a defensive move,” said Keiser during the round of golf this August at the Dunes Club. “I just wanted to keep those condos from being built in my backyard. The land was incredibly cheap, I offered them cash [$350,000], and I had it.”
Now you have to understand that Mike Keiser really liked golf, but wasn’t consumed by it. Growing up near Buffalo, New York, his parents were members of a small club and he learned to play. When he started RPG in Chicago and he became successful, he played maybe 20 rounds of golf a year. He didn’t join a golf club for a while. He liked the fine public courses developed by Joe Jemzek at Cog Hill and the municipal Jackson Park. He would eventually become a member at Shoreacres, Butler National and Chicago Golf Club. And eventually something stirred within him to build a golf course because it would be something, unlike companies and fortunes, that could last forever.
Thus, the Dunes Club came into being. Keiser, his family and friends played “wilderness” golf on the site—just whacking balls through crude holes that he had carved through the underbrush with friend Howard McKee using axes and pruning shears—until he brought in Chicago architect Dick Nugent to lay out nine holes, somewhat in the style of Pine Valley.
His visits to Pine Valley in New Jersey, to National Links of America on Long Island, to Royal County Down and Ballybunion in Ireland, to the Old Course and Royal Dornoch in Scotland had fired his imagination. Keiser was also fueled by the success of Sand Hills, a course in Nebraska that was as remote as you could get, but when it became an instant hit among the raters for golf magazines, Keiser, who had invested in the property, realized that no golf course is too remote if it makes the heart flutter.
He didn’t want to just build a commercially successful golf course, and not just anywhere. He wanted to build links golf, “dream golf,” as he called it. In the early 1990s, he tasked McKee, an architect and land planner, to find him a site for his dream golf course, a links by the sea. McKee came up with the site in southern coastal Oregon that became Bandon Dunes. It was the start of an odyssey that took him virtually around the globe in search of “dream golf.”
And in the process, he surrounded himself with his geniuses, architects David McLay Kidd, Tom Doak and his associate Jim Urbina, and partners Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. Kidd, a young Scotsman, was most notable for being the son of Jimmy Kidd of Gleneagles, Scotland, fame. Through the sort of serendipity—he uses that word often—that brought Keiser to fortune in the greeting card business and surprising success in the golf world, he was introduced to the Kidds and eventually asked David to take a crack at designing the first course at Bandon Dunes.
“Bandon Dunes was not Bandon Dunes back in 1994, 20 years ago when I first visited it,” says Kidd. “It was a piece of scrub land on the Oregon coast covered in gorse and scrub pine trees. To the uninitiated, not overly inspiring. Other people that Mike brought to the site, some of them thought it was pretty mediocre.
“Mike Keiser was a Recycled Greeting card guy from Chicago with no history as a developer. I had never designed anything that Mike could go and see. So there was a whole list of unknowns. The analogy of the stars aligning truly applies in this case. An untested developer with an untested architect on a remote piece of land. All the ingredients should have said failure. If any of those pieces had fallen down, there wouldn’t have been a Bandon Dunes, or certainly no more than one course,” Kidd adds.
Mike Keiser became successful by taking chances, though not by jumping off cliffs and hoping a parachute would open. All who have dealt with him would describe him as thoughtful, analytical, probing. He doesn’t waste words or time. His e-mails and text messages don’t contain complete sentences. He wants to get to the heart of the matter, but he doesn’t rush. His melodic baritone voice commands attention, but he is not looking to be saluted. His large ears are put to good use—he listens more than he talks. He revels in creative collaboration, the process of getting something done, and doing it in the best way. The five courses at Bandon Dunes are every bit testimony to the process that yielded the superb final products, of Keiser’s search for the correct answer, no matter who has it.
And all along, what mattered most to Keiser was not what a professional player or highly placed amateur might think of his courses. Keiser, very much the anti-tycoon, wanted Joe Six Pack to enjoy his golf.
“Most golf course developers are fixated by what the very best player will think of their golf course, what will a professional think, what will the highest caliber amateurs think,” says Kidd. “If they aren’t fixated with that, they are fixated with what can sell the real estate, will I sell the greens fees.
“Mike was fixated with ‘What will Joe Six Pack think?’ I think his mantra through the whole thing was what will the average golfer feel, think, experience when he comes here. For Mike, it would be the experience he loved so much in the British Isles, and would he have brought that experience to the United States. That was his mantra, everything he looked at, everything he talked about. He always talked about Joe Six Pack.”
“It couldn’t have been successful without attracting the broad spectrum of golfers,” says Keiser. “I just couldn’t target the guys with private planes. I needed to make sure that it was accessible and attractive to the American golfer, to the people who can take just one trip a year or every two years. And it had to fulfill their dreams as much as mine. If they couldn’t go to Scotland or Ireland, they could come here to play links golf.”
So he tasked David Kidd with coming up with an architectural tour de force right out of the box, and without a contract. “Mike never actually hired me,” says Kidd. “I was working for another company at that point. He never really said he was hiring me with a formal design agreement that was 50 pages long and walked us into responsibilities. I would go there for a week and he would pay me for a week of my time. A few weeks later or few months later we would agree to do it again. That went on for three years. The first holes I built were the first green and the 17th green. That was April of 1997 and Mike said they were tryout holes. It basically was a casting call.”
Keiser knew why he asked Kidd to do the job, sort of. “If I had retained Arnold Palmer Enterprises to do my first course at Bandon Dunes, it probably wouldn’t have been a true links course though it might have gained some attention,” says Keiser. “But I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful as if it was designed by one of my geniuses.
David, I still wondered why I hired him. The answer was his dad was breathtakingly engaging with experience from Gleneagles and Machrihanish. I think David’s routing and design of holes was just brilliant. It had to be, or the place would have stayed at one golf course.”
It helped immensely, and serendipitously, that some additional land became available that ultimately allowed for some of the more special holes at the original Bandon Dunes course, and even more land became available for additional courses, Pacific Dunes by Doak and Urbina, who also did the Old Macdonald course, the Bandon Trails course by Crenshaw and Coore, who also did the Bandon Preserve course, a 13-hole track.
For all these “geniuses,” working with Keiser was something different.
“The relationship between designer and client is really important and it’s very personality driven. The relationship is about the process of working with somebody,” says Doak. “Mike is a very involved owner. I wouldn’t describe him as a very hands-on owner. He understands that he needs to let the architect do his thing. He’s pretty upfront about the things he likes and doesn’t like.
“In Bandon, for both the golf courses we worked on, he gets out there fairly frequently and anytime he would come out we would walk around the golf course twice, once to see what progress was made, and a second time before he would leave. Not a very formal process. But he’s the kind of guy who likes to ask questions, what about that bunker, why did you go this way instead of that way. That’s opposed to the kind of person who says ‘I don’t like that bunker.’ That’s a huge difference in working with most clients. He wants to be part of the process so he understand why it is the way it is.”
Bill Coore and his partner Ben Crenshaw, who unlike Kidd and to an extent Doak were firmly established architects by the time they were asked to do courses at Bandon Dunes, found working with Keiser eye-opening. Coore and Crenshaw designed Lost Farm in Tasmania with Doak designing the adjacent Barnbougle Dunes.
“It’s an amazing American success story,” says Coore of Bandon Dunes and all of Keiser’s developments. “Mike has taken old-world values and applied them to our new world and proven they still work. It’s not like Mike has reinvented the wheel. He’s astute enough to know what works, where it will work. It’s amazing to be around him, to see how he thinks, how he goes about his decision-making process.
“The alphabet does not contain enough letters or the dictionary enough words to say how grateful we are that we’ve been part of golf architecture the same time that Mike Keiser was a part of it. He allows people to make decisions and work. Then he sort of quietly guides that process. It’s the best you can hope for.”
Crenshaw, twice a Masters champion and astute historian of the game, speaks softly, deliberately and passionately about working with Keiser and what Keiser has done for the contemporary game.
“Bill and I both have been the happy recipients of Mike’s generosity,” says Crenshaw. “Mike is a very fierce advocate for golf. I can sort of call him an American individualist. He is an explorer, scouts the world for golf land that is inspired from the British Isles, sandy land by the seashore is a great part of his passion. He simply wants people to enjoy golf in varied settings, although remote. He has identified the explorer type of golfer, people who will travel. Yes, it’s a trek. But he builds golf for everyone.”
You can’t get much more a trek than getting to Tasmania, the island off the south coast of Australia half a world away. Keiser says finding the land for Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm was “a smaller version of serendipity.”
When Doak was building Pacific Dunes, Keiser proferred one day there couldn’t be a better site for a course. Doak said he had seen one in Tasmania. That thought lodged in Keiser’s head, but he didn’t just run off to look at it. Doak knew a young developer, Greg Ramsay, who was trying to put together a deal with rancher Richard Sattler to build a golf resort on Sattler’s land. He asked Doak if he would speak to Keiser.
“I said, ‘Greg, every person I get involved with now is going to want to know if Mike Keiser wants to be involved, ever since Pacific Dunes,’ ” says Doak. “I sort of gave Greg the stiff arm, but he called Mike anyway and talked the place up.”
Keiser might never have gone to Tasmania if it had not been for his eldest son Michael’s winter break from Santa Clara University. Convinced that all his son would do was go out with his friends when he came home, Keiser thought a “bonding trip” to Australia was in order. “Michael was an adventuresome guy and he thought that trip sounded great,” says Keiser, who then arranged to visit Sattler’s ranch. Over several visits, with a willingness to put up his own money, he got Sattler to go along with the deal.
Now with his reach many thousands of miles to the west of Bandon Dunes, another opportunity arose to the east. Ben Cowan-Dewar was a young developer from Montreal who was mesmerized by a seaside property on the provincial island of Nova Scotia in the tapped out former coal-mining town of Inverness. The mines had been abandoned for half a century, and the youth of the area was bailing out in search of work. But this coal-mining property held promise for Cowan-Dewar, and he sought out Keiser to build a course he wanted to call Cabot Links.
“Ben had been to Bandon Dunes, knew it was his model and knew I was probably his best bet for doing something remote in Nova Scotia,” says Keiser. “Josh Lesnik [a young, untested manager who Keiser put in charge of Bandon Dunes] was my scout. He says ‘I know you told me not to like it, but it’s got a mile of ocean frontage, it could be pretty good.’ Then I went.”
Cowan-Dewar had already committed to using Canadian architect Rod Whitman, and with Coore’s blessing Keiser didn’t switch off to one of his geniuses. Coore and Crenshaw are designing the second course, Cabot Cliffs, and Whitman is running a bulldozer and generally being in charge. The development is humming along nicely, there is a new lodge at the Cabot Links course, and the town is flourishing.
“The thing about Mike and having success in the greeting card business then doing something totally different and having success in golf, you realize that there are few people who can do that, and if they do they obviously possess something a little bit different than your average Joe,” says Cowan-Dewar. “I asked him once what traits he thought successful people had and he said they do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it, and they are someone that people like to work for. If you know Mike, you know that he embodies both of those traits. As well as being an absolute creative genius.”
A welcome byproduct of Keiser’s golf projects in these remote, small communities is the economic impact on the region. It happened at Bandon-by-the-Sea and it’s happening at Inverness.
“Bandon was flat economically, at best. We’ve definitely injected quite a bit into the economy,” says Keiser. “I bought the first chunk of land, 1,200 acres, at $2,000 an acre. By three years later it was $50,000 an acre for coastal land, land in town. The effect, I think, is adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the net worth of the area.
“Regardless of the success of Cabot Links, home prices have gone up there rather dramatically. Those little cottages in town that were rather dilapidated, you could get one for $10,000. Now they are going for as much as $150,000. And I’ve noticed that people are tending their gardens, putting in gardens. That’s very nice. When I first went to Inverness, I described it as butt ugly. But now five years later there is purification, gentrification and a healthy economy.”
For which John MacIsaac, former assistant superintendent for Inverness County schools and a champion of the golf course development, couldn’t be happier.
“It’s really the first time in my lifetime where young people in the community can look forward to getting a job,” says MacIsaac. “Used to be that all of them had to leave the area to get summer employment. Very optimistic and exciting atmosphere in the community. Great impact on housing prices. Retired people can get a price for their house that is very different from what they would get five years ago.”
And there is something else. “You know, it’s created a problem, and a great problem to have. It’s put a premium on parking spaces in town. We never thought we’d have a problem with parking in Inverness on the main street. Now they have to go up the side streets. I never dreamed in my life that would ever be a problem.”
Mike Keiser’s search still goes on. He’ s looking to build “dream golf” near or far. He has taken a stake in a development in Northern Ireland, near Royal Portrush, called Bushmills Dunes. He has an eye on a unique inland property in Wisconsin called Sand Valley. He has assisted the community of Askernish on the Scottish island of South Uist in restoring the Old Tom Morris course there. He’s interested in the Dingle Peninsula in the Irish Republic. His ardor for links golf will not wane. Why?
“The sheer fun of it,” Keiser says. “Unlike the greeting card business where you make cards, they sell, you make money, there is an aesthetic aspect to golf that if you work on the aesthetics and they work, it’s doubly rewarding because it’s profitable and it’s gorgeous. I get shivers when I look at what the genius architects have done out there. These linkscapes are truly astonishing. The fact that they are going to be there most likely in 500 years with our forbearers playing golf is an added thrill and kick. I can’t think of anything else that a non-artist, non-poet like I am could create that will stand the test of time.”
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.
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