Mike Keiser's Sand Valley golf course in Wisconsin is a product of big dreams

By Jerry Zgoda
Published on
Mike Keiser's Sand Valley golf course in Wisconsin is a product of big dreams

Just as that mysterious voice inspired the farmer by whispering across cornfields, Mike Keiser has created something seemingly illogical -- a growing collection of minimalist, walking-only courses in the most far-flung destinations -- and golfers have come.

They indeed have come, from his first ones -- famed Bandon Dunes with now five courses on the Oregon coast -- to those in Tasmania, Nova Scotia and the newest, Sand Valley in Wisconsin's heartland.

Co-founder of Recycled Paper Greetings, Keiser and his Chicago-based company changed the greeting-card business during the 1970s, thanks to the whimsy of artist Sandra Boynton and her sketched animals that included a hippo, a birdie and two ewes (Happy Birthday to You, get it?)

RELATED: Why Mike Keiser thinks sand is the most important design element

In the 21st century, the recreational golfer and armchair course architect has become the golf industry's contrarian. Inspired by the great seaside "links" courses of Great Britain and Ireland, Keiser hired little-known designers at the time to create in the remotest places his idea of golf as it was meant to be.

Opened in 1999, Bandon Dunes is considered something of America's St. Andrews, Scotland's public home of golf.

The destinations are so remote, there's this joke: What's the difference between Bandon and the great Ballybunion on Ireland's West Coast?

Answer: It's easier to get to Ballybunion.

The four traditional-length courses at Bandon Dunes, a 4 1/2 -hour drive from Portland, are ranked second, fifth, eighth and 17th on Golfweek's new list of America's Top 100 "modern" courses created after 1960.

Sand Valley rated 61st -- six slots ahead of Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska -- before it officially opened.

A three-hour drive from the Twin Cities, Sand Valley -- designed by Keiser favorites Bill Coore and two-time Masters champ Ben Crenshaw -- south of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., celebrated its grand opening last week on the 18th anniversary of the original Bandon Dunes course opening.

Sand Valley's companion course, Mammoth Dunes -- designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd, who did the first Bandon course -- opens in 2018.

In a conversation by e-mail, Keiser, who is Sand Valley's managing partner, discussed his latest creation:

For any golfer who has traveled to your distant destinations, how much gratitude do they owe the hippopotamus, birdie and two sheep?

Sandra Boynton took our business from $3 million to $100 million. It's safe to say that without her genius, there would be no Bandon Dunes or Sand Valley.

Why Rome, Wisconsin? It's a long way from the nearest ocean, isn't it?

A Not as far away as you might think. When we looked at the site, we were made aware that these sand dunes were formed from a massive prehistoric inland lake. When the ice dam broke -- forming the Wisconsin Dells -- it left a huge sand deposit and was formed into dunes over the years.

You have Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes in Wisconsin, Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes in Oregon, Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania ... what's so great about sand?

Wind blows sand into beautiful and natural shapes that make for interesting golf holes. I'd much rather play a golf hole that was wind- created rather than bulldozer created.

Have you ever looked at a potential site and said this is just too remote?

The Skeleton Coast of Namibia. There are thousands of golf holes waiting to be played in the most beautiful sand dunes.

When you drive into Sand Valley, it truly seems like the middle of nowhere. But if you draw a triangle connecting Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis, it is kind of in the middle, isn't it?

Yes, that's definitely noteworthy. While Sand Valley seems to be in the middle of nowhere, it's actually in the middle of a lot.

Did you keep official count: How many people told you nobody would ever go all the way to Bandon?

One hundred percent of the people who I asked.

You can tell us the truth now: Just what is the difference between Bandon and Ballybunion?

Ballybunion puts their greens on the top of sand dunes. Bandon Dunes tends to shape their greens at the base of the dunes for a bowl effect.

The book written about the making of Bandon Dunes is entitled "Dream Golf." What's your definition?

A Dream golf has a lot to do with the daydreaming that we all do about great golf courses. I tend to dream about the beautiful links courses of Scotland and Ireland. It got me to thinking, "Boy, I wish there were links courses in America."

You've said such remote sites need two courses to make them a viable destination. What's the second one in Wisconsin, Mammoth Dunes, going to be like?

Just as its name says: Mammoth. The dunes on the golf course [an 80-foot-high, V-shaped ridge is its main feature] are bigger than anything I've seen.

Minnesota golfers know Wisconsin's Whistling Straits from its PGAs and soon Erin Hills from this June's U.S. Open. How much of a Minnesota clientele do you hope to attract to Sand Valley?

We are hoping a lot. I would guess 40 to 50 percent.

Bandon now has five courses with room for more. How many might you have eventually at Sand Valley?

By the end of this year, we'll have three: Mammoth Dunes and the 17-hole, par-3 course both will be completed this fall. I would expect at least two more.

They've been playing golf on the same ground at St. Andrews since the 1400s. What does it mean to you to have created something(s) that will endure long after you're gone?

It's very gratifying. There are so few things that we can build that we know will be around in 200 years. Buildings, homes, they will all be changed and torn down. When we started construction on Pacific Dunes, I spoke with the crew of 25 or so on the first day. I reminded them that the work that they were doing would be enjoyed by golfers in 200 and even 400 years. Some men had tears in their eyes.