This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of PGA Magazine.
Mike Keiser is the driving force behind the most dramatic golf resort developments of the past two decades. Starting with Bandon Dunes along the remote coast of southern Oregon, Keiser has continued on with Cabot Links in Nova Scotia, Canada, and is a driving force behind Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania. These highly rated destinations are geographically diverse, but share many similarities that are important elements in their ongoing success. Keiser’s latest project – Sand Valley in Nekoosa, Wisconsin – is scheduled to open next June.
PGA Magazine recently conducted an exclusive interview with the Chicago-based avid golfer to discuss his current and future projects, hear his suggestions for improving golf at other facilities, and learn more about the formula behind the “Keiser mystique.”
PGA Magazine: What’s the current status of Sand Valley?
Mike Keiser: All 18 holes on the first course, the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course, are now playable – the entire course became available for preview play on Labor Day. The first six holes on the second course, by David McLay Kidd, have been seeded, and we have prepared another 10 for irrigation and seeding by next May. The clubhouse is scheduled to open next June, with a dining area and a bar, and 17 additional rooms. We’re going to be digging like crazy between now and then to have the property ready for players and media members coming to Wisconsin for the 2017 U.S. Open, and for the public to enjoy the grand opening on June 19.
What’s the background on how you found Sand Valley?
I didn’t find it. Craig Haltom found it. Craig is a golf course construction guy who wanted to become an architect. He worked as landscape shaper for Oli - phant Golf Construction company. In the early 2000s, the owner, Mike Oliphant, said to him “If you find a truly great site in Wisconsin, I’ll build it and you can be the architect.” So Craig and his wife, who is an arborist, combed the state of Wisconsin, which is just full of sand. They concluded that this site was the best in the state. It was owned by Plum Creek Timber – one of the only things that will grow in this sand is Red pine, which is good for making pulp paper. Mike Oliphant began to talk with Plum Creek, then the market crashed in 2007 and Oli phant went out of business. Craig was still looking for a way to work with this great property, and he was connected with me through Golf Club Atlas. I sent Josh Lesnik of KemperSports up to the site to tell me why I shouldn’t be interested. Instead, he called me and said, “You won’t believe how great this site is.”
So now I had two passionate people telling me about this site, and I was in. Now Craig is building the courses for me, and Oliphant Golf is back in business as Oliphant-Haltom Golf Construction. Craig is really the catalyst who discovered the site and got it started. When we got on the property, we found all these rows of Red pines covering up the dunes – and great ridges and valleys. It’s a sand barren, to use the technical term. All that grows there naturally is Jack pine and Hill oak. So we went in and cleared out a lot of what was planted there 100 years ago. When we’re done with it, we’ll have 3–4 courses, and what’s not golf course will be the natural sand barren the way it was 100 years ago and more.
Does Sand Valley prove that sand is a key ingredient in golf course architecture?
My formula is sand on the ocean. Add a great architect, and I think you’ve got a winner. Keep in mind Cabot Links – sand and ocean, with great architects, just like Bandon Dunes, just like Barnbougle Dunes. So for Sand Valley (above), you’re itching to ask: Where’s the ocean? In 25,000 BC, an ice age set in, the Wisconsin River was dammed up with ice. That created Lake Wisconsin over the entire central part of the state. When the earth warmed, the Wisconsin River reappeared, and what was left behind where Lake Wisconsin used to be was sand – it was like an ocean bed of sand.
So with Sand Valley, I like to think that we don’t have an ocean, but we used to have something almost as big, and that’s left us that same ground that’s so ideal for golf courses: It’s sandy, fescue grass grows great, it drains well, and it’s easy to work with when you’re shaping courses.
Have you learned anything from building Sand Valley that’s different from your previous projects?
The thing I’ve learned from Sand Valley is one of the ways we handled financing. A number of friends and acquaintances have said over the years, “If you’re going to do another golf property, let me know.” So as Sand Valley got started, I reached out to a group of people and was pleasantly surprised. We have 160 “founders,” who are investors that each ponied up $50,000 to be founders and ambassadors for the property. The financing is great, but even better is the advocacy and PR push that comes from having wildly enthusiastic people invested in the project.
They’ve talked it up year-round – that’s what we do in the Midwest during the winter, we talk about where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s been like a cheering section for a golf course before we even open. Also, my children are more involved now. When I started on Bandon Dunes in 1995, they were in school. Now Michael is 35 and Chris is 28. They are very involved with Sand Valley. Michael is up there full time, living in nearby Rome. Chris handles the financial aspect of the golf resort and splits his time between here in Chicago and in Nekoosa. They do all the detail work, which is the part I didn’t like in the first place.
Now I can focus on the big picture, and I’m still involved in the architecture – I approve every hole before it’s completed. I get to do more of the fun part, and I’m very proud of seeing how they’re working on Sand Valley.
What have you learned and how have you refined your approach since Bandon Dunes opened in 1999?
What I’ve learned is the complete validation of Scotland’s Royal Dornoch as a model. Every time I start a golf project, I want to do something as good as Dornoch: that same formula of sand and ocean, with a good architect. It worked at Bandon Dunes. We hoped for 10,000 rounds, and we did 40,000. So we kept repeating the formula. Each time, it validated what works at Dornoch, and at Turnberry and Ballybunion. A convenient location is less important than having dunes and ocean. And we stick with classic-minded architects, who understand why those great old courses work so well, like Coore and Crenshaw, David McLay Kidd and Tom Doak.
But these are architects who build old-style golf courses, who connect with the idea that the avid golfer really likes to play those type of courses and greens. National-style courses: Big greens, wide fairways. The thing I’m proudest to hear at Old Macdonald – and I know we’re going to hear it at Sand Valley – is “I still have the ball I started with on No. 1, and I just putted out on 18 with it.” No one likes to look for balls, or lose a bunch of them. Have fun hitting off the tee and trying to get the ball in the hole, but don’t get punished while you do it. That’s the formula. It keeps working.
Your golf properties are about a sort of minimalism: There’s nothing extraneous and nothing that detracts attention from the central golf experience. Was that a goal from the start, or something that evolved?
That goes back to Dornoch. We concentrate on giving the player great golf, with pretty good lodging and pretty good food. To me, if you do that you don’t need a spa, you don’t need distractions. It’s been easy to say no to things like that. Only outsiders wonder about why we don’t have a spa. Pebble Beach has a wonderful spa. They’ve moved from being where Bing’s clambake started to advertising a place where you can enjoy a romantic evening. That’s great for what they want to do with their business. We want to stay focused on golf. Instead of a spa, we build a par-3 course like Bandon Preserve, or a putting course like the Punchbowl.
In Wisconsin, Whistling Straits has a magnificent spa. They can have that business. We’ll build more courses and par 3s. It’s about creating and speaking a common language with avid golfers. When you come to our properties, you’re surrounded by golfers, the other guests and the employees. Golf is spoken here, or, as we immodestly say, this is golf as it was meant to be. Go back to the Old Course, that’s not spa-oriented. We’re not trying to appeal to the non-golfer. In most cases, they’re not going to choose to go to Bandon Dunes – it’s too far away to begin with. We don’t want to distract people from the golf. It’s about the golf. So many of our people play 18-36-18 and that’s their vacation.
And when they’re not playing 18, they want to relax by playing on a par 3 or the Punchbowl. I can’t lecture other people and tell them the experience should be all about golf. But for us, it always will be.
Why do you think more resorts aren’t copying your blueprint more completely?
I’m not surprised. The type of land I’m looking for – to build sand and ocean properties – is hard to find. I started looking on the East Coast before building Bandon Dunes. I spent a year and half on research along the East Coast, and concluded there was nothing – there was one site on the Intracoastal Waterway in Georgia that had promise, but it wouldn’t work. Another reason people haven’t really copied us is that the only sites that will work are remote, and your banker will not fund it. They’ll have you do a market research study, and the study will tell you, “Don’t go there.” It’s the same thing with Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska. They were told not to build it, that no one will want to be a member there. Now there’s a waiting list.
What can PGA Professionals learn from a laser-focus on the golf experience?
I can’t lecture them and say a property should be all about golf. I think they should be, but a reality of selling a club to families is having the pool and the tennis and the fitness room. The part of our success that I think more courses – public and resort included – should follow is getting back to walking-only golf courses. A huge part of our success is being walking-only. It’s a huge risk we took. A lot of people said it wouldn’t work, and that we would be writing off a huge number of people who wouldn’t come to Bandon Dunes. David McLay Kidd came from a walking-only background in Scotland. He was the backbone that got me to say, let’s do golf as it’s meant to be. Now we have 350 caddies employed.
At private clubs, members can be educated on how it transforms a club both for playing the game as it was meant, and a chance to bring on juniors to learn about the game. It’s worked for us, and Merion Golf Club is a great model on the private side. Copy that. We will have a largely junior-based caddie corps at Sand Valley. We put out an all-hands notice for caddies there. There are no caddie programs within 150 miles. 150 kids showed up, and they’ve become terrific salespeople for the course. The top 30 are exceptional, and they’re so proud to be there. They have immediate loyalty to the course, and they are a great link to the local community where they live. Two of our caddies are driven to Sand Valley from Madison by their parents. That’s loyalty!
When you think about starting a project now, do you have a list of “musts” for a golf destination?
Sand and ocean are the musts. I’m looking at five potential projects, including working with Gil Hanse on the municipal Bandon Links project that’s been stymied by the permitting process for almost eight years – we’ll get that done eventually. The one that’s closest to happening right now, that I can talk about, is actually in Scotland at Dornoch. There’s a gorgeous site two miles from there owned by the Able Smith family. They’d like to lease it to me and Todd Warnick to build 18 holes by Coore and Crenshaw. They have done a routing, it has preliminary approval, and we’ll know next month if it will move forward. We have two miles of ocean frontage by an existing world class golf course. They have pretty good food already, and plenty of adequate rooms around the Highlands. More people will stay overnight with a second course.
Now we just have to build a golf course that lives up to Dornoch (laughs). This is the most excited I’ve ever seen Coore and Crenshaw. That’s hallowed ground, and they know the pressure is on. They’re nervous, in a good way. So we might get a chance to find out if our formula works in Scotland.
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