Feature Interview with Mike Keiser
June, 2005

In March, 2005, athread on the GolfClubAtlas.com discussion board wascreated entitled, ‘If you could ask Mike Keiser one question, what would it be?’ Below is his reponse to the first fifty posts.

1. I’d ask Mike what his future plans are in Bandon and hopefully in other places!

I love building golf courses on sand. I hope to build at least two more courses at Bandon Dunes. I also own some other sandy dune land-type property around Bandon that has some great potential. If Bandon Trails does well, there will definitely be a fourth course.

2. What will you sell the whole place for?

No way. I’m the right owner.

3. I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on the architect selection process.

It’s one of the most fun and most important parts of the process. I like to meet each architect that I am considering and play their courses with them. There are many talented, some relatively unknown, young architects out there that it makes the decision very difficult. I hope I get to work with many more of them.

4. Would you ever consider opening a low cost public facility in a metropolitan area that would provide quality golf for a large audience?

Yes, if the site were worthwhile and sandy. It can be cost prohibitive to buy in metro areas, but we do think about it.

5. Is the Dunes Club the best course he has built? What did he learn from building the Dunes Club? I know these are 2 questions but the Dunes Club seems to have impacted him in many ways.

It matters more what you the golfer think about which course is the best. I love the Dunes Club – but I love our three courses in Bandon as well. I learned a lot about the process of building a course that people seem to really like.

6. Can he compare his motivations in his business (recycled paper products into greeting cards and stationary products) to his aspirations as a developer of golf facilities? By that I mean, does he feel business must grow to survive?

We are really trying to find the right balance at Bandon Dunes. It is not about growing or surviving per se. We really want to feel as though our golfers love coming to the resort time and time again, but we don’t want to grow, just to grow. We could build a big convention center and accommodate large groups, which would certainly grow our business, but that’s NOT what we’re about at all. We want it to continue to be a golf resort for the retail golf traveler. This balance is the essence of our brand, which is something we try and stay very loyal to, that might be one similarity. Staying loyal to the core idea. Beyond that, greeting cards and golf are very similar: both rely on aesthetics as a key factor of success.

7. What would he do different if he were to do it over?

Get into real estate at a younger age.

8. How is it that such a fine piece of land as that of Bandon Dunes Resort was not snatched up by some other developer sooner? Does he ever feel like it was divine intervention that he was able to obtain the lease on it?

At least two other people/groups bought it before me and had ideas about development, perhaps even a golf course. My timing was fortunate and I guess we had the right vision for the property. My project architect, Howard McKee, was able to help me get the appropriate permits and approvals. No other owner made it that far. Let’s also remember its five hours from Portland. That’s a good definition of ‘remote.’ Back then, no one was looking for ‘remote.’

9. I’d ask about the art of collaboration between owner and architect. Why has he been so successful?

Well, pick a great site and try to select the right architect for that site and hopefully build a good rapport or good working relationship with the architect. Hopefully if I have a bad idea they’ll tell me, and the same for a good one – ditto for them! The first priority is to find someone that does not come in with a style for the course before he knows the land. I think we all appreciate an architect that will try to let the land dictate the style of the course.

10. What environmental issues were faced with sites, and how did they help or hinder the construction of each course?

We had two endangered species to watch out for (1 plant and the Snowy Plover). But we had the ‘noxious week’ called gorse. By eliminating much of the gorse, we were helping the indigenous environment.

11. Why has the Bandon Model (fly in, traditional golf, no carts, stay on site, multiple courses) not been copied in overbuilt markets such as Myrtle Beach or Orlando, where the developer could stand out?

So many elements, many natural, have come together to make Bandon Dunes what it is today. It would be difficult to create ‘it’ in other areas. You’d have to really define ‘it’ first! Further, the South Coast of Oregon is a big part of ‘it’ and that’s really hard to recreate in other parts of the country. Sand dunes, on 100 foot bluffs over the Pacific Ocean ~they can’t even recreate that in Las Vegas! Also, our vision for using all the best land for golf as opposed to buildings of any kind was important and developers are not always able to build that way. Then of course the decision to have no cart paths or carts…it all adds up, when every decision is made for the betterment of the golf experience, and that is what we’ve tried to stay true to. Bottom line: walking only, with caddies and no golf carts costs a lot of money – and that marginal extra cost is not acceptable to many owners.

12. Bandon has been viewed by some GCAers (Sir Richard) of being sterile in comparison to U.K. and Irelands clubs. Has there ever been any thought of creating a European model where one (or more courses) have a membership with priorities over non-members – call it the St. Andrews model.

We really want Bandon to be a public destination.

13. What is your personal list of priorities when selecting a site to develop a new course?

Priority #1 is sand. Priority #2 is a feeling from spending time on the site. First alone, and then perhaps with an architect. Can I build a lasting, memorable, playable, fun and timeless course on the site? Is there an intimate, walkable and/or unique routing on the site? How many great green sites can we discover? Is it naturally beautiful? The best site is one that a non-golfer would love to walk too. I looked at a site in Northern Scotland that had it all, but we could only find 14 holes. We couldn’t get to the 6 to 8 other great holes without crossing a massive sandy expanse. We finally gave up on the site, for now. Go take a look – it’s across the bay from Durness.

14. What’s his favorite Chicagoland G.C.? And why?

There are many great courses in Chicago. I had a permanent tee time at Cog Hill for many years. Were really fortunate to have places like Shoreacres and Chicago G.C. Beverly is great and very close to the city. Of course I love spending time at The Dunes Club. We also have our fair share of championship caliber courses Butler, Medinah, Olympia Fields, The Glen Club – It is truly a great city for golf…despite our weather.

15. Would he ever hire one of those other mainstream designers to do a future project?

Every project is different. I try never to say Never.

16. If he had the opportunity build, back in the golden age, who would he have chose as Archie, and why?

A great question. Too many variables, like where and when, but it’d be MacKenzie, McDonald, or Raynor depending on the site and the timing. In case of a tie, MacKenzie.

17. What is your favorite course at Bandon?

It changes every trip. Right now it’s Trails.

18. Which is your favorite hole at each of the Bandon courses?

  1. Bandon #15
  2. Pacific #9
  3. Trails #17


The one shot 17th at Bandon Trails. Photo by Wood Sabold © Bandon Dunes.

19. Would you ever consider adding any of these to the Bandon complex: a world-class par-3 course; a less-than-‘championship’ difficulty course; a women’s-and-children’s course?

Our practice area actually has a par-3 course built into it, but we’re not sure when/if or how it will ever be open to our golfers. Building another type of course would be somewhat off brand for us. We’re trying to be loyal to our core group of golfers and they don’t seem to be interested in these ‘alternative’ facilities.

20. Where in the world will the next ‘Bandon’ be?

Tasmania? Southwest Ireland? Alberta, Canada? Who knows? I think the South Coast of Oregon could be known as America’s Linksland. There’s 50 miles of sand dunes on the Pacific.

21. In your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine the Bandon development would be as successful as it has been so far?

Not really.

22. Today Bandon has three well-regarded courses and a thriving resort operation. It is sui generic as a destination for core golfers and its own brand with worldwide recognition. How is your vision for Bandon different in 2005 than the vision you were following when you first broke ground for Bandon Dunes?

At the beginning we just wanted to build a great golf course. Now, that’s still our main goal, but we have to concentrate on managing our growth too. We want to enable our golfers to love the golf experience and kind of work everything else around that concept: 36 holes guaranteed every day you’re there.

23. I got to hear his vision 3 or 4 years ago. I would ask him in light of the success this project has to date, what changes if any to his business plan have been made or are being made? Also, whether yes or no to the above where does he see this project in 10 years?

I can’t really say that we’ve ever had a formal business plan; honestly, my plan was to build great golf. And if people like them, build some more. Because of our location, we’ve had to build overnight accommodations and restaurants to take care of our golfers. Hopefully, we’ll continue to do a good job of that. In 10 years? Perhaps our fourth course, maybe a fifth. What type of support we’ll have to build into that, not sure right now. It all depends on whether we think we can build another course that golfers like. Right now we’re excited to see the reaction to Bandon Trails.

24. (a) How long did the process take to look at potential sites and finally narrow it down to Bandon (b) did at anytime during the due diligence process did the remote location of Bandon give you second thoughts or did you always buy into the philosophy – build it and they will come.

Ten years. Yes, at one point we even said it could potentially be called a ‘folly’.

25. Are there any changes in the future for The Dunes Club?

No.

26. Obviously Julian Robertson already has a major foothold here, but I would be interested in whether Mike has looked at property here, particularly linksland, perhaps during his December visit.

I didn’t see anything on that trip. It will be interesting to see how Barnbougle Dunes does in Tasmania. It’s first year has been remarkably strong.

27. Can you tell us about your first dreams for building a golf course? Can you tell us about being an armchair architect yourself? What were you not seeing in golf that you wanted to create? I realize that’s not one question – but I guess I’m just trying to get to the part that connects us all – a golf enthusiast with a dream – yet Mike got to build it… Can you connect the dots for us? How did he get from ‘here’ to ‘there’?

Imagine yourself doing it, and it’s probably not that far off. It’s a hobby and a passion for me and I am a businessperson as well, but I also like to listen to people that make golf their business. I talked to everyone I could. Ron Whitten, Jimmy Kidd, Steve Lesnik, Tom Doak, Bill Coore. I tried to learn as much as I could – still do. However, I didn’t ever want to hire a fancy firm to do a feasibility study because I know what they would have told me, ‘You’re crazy’! My strongest belief is that courses like National Golf Links and Cypress Point would be BIG winners if they were public. Most of America’s greatest courses are private. Make one that’s public and, I thought, it would probably work.

28. Who will he select as the architect for the 4th golf course, and why?

I’m very impressed by Kingsbarns, so Mark Parsinnen and I have talked often of collaborating. We’ll see.

29. In deciding whether or not to go ahead with the project, what were the most important, and final, mental hurdles he had to settle in his mind before moving ahead. Why did he pick Kidd for the first course?

Well, I had to convince my wife I wasn’t crazy! I loved his dad and saw some potential. The rest was David’s genius.

30. I would like to ask him what he thinks the state of golf course development/ownership and the golf course architecture will be like 10 years from now and even further down the road; you know when Tom Paul will be quietly rocking in his chair on his front porch at least figuring out the final elusive writings of Max Behr and nearing his 125,000th post of GCA.

The strong will survive. We need to make it easier for people to get into the game and stay in the game. I was inspired by many of the courses in Scotland and Ireland. Also, some in Australia and right here in the USA. Machrahanish, BallyBunion, Turnberry, St. Andrews, Dornach, Royal Melbourne and the sand belt (on Bandon Trails), Cypress Point, National Golf Links, Pine Valley in particular.

31. This was obviously a lead of faith for Keiser, a very perceptive decision as the course turned out to be a true challenge and good enough to attract a lot of golfers to visit a site which could be described as one of my kids once described a remote destination, ‘BFE.’ The addition of Tom Doak’s Pacific Dunes was a relative no brainer when compared to the decision to hire David Kidd to start the complex.

True. David was a total unknown, Tom a relative unknown. But David has a Scottish brogue and an impish grim.

32. I would ask what the future plans are for green fees at the Bandon complex. I would hope he isn’t going to let Bandon get to Pebble or PinehurstNo. 2levels, where many golfers will get priced out of seeing some of the great courses of the modern era. Is Mike determining that at this point, or has he turned it over completely to a management team? Who originally made the decision to give a discount on second rounds? That was a GREAT idea. Did Mike have a backup plan if Kidd’s design didn’t work out? It all seems like success was a forgone conclusion in hindsight, bud did it seem like that when Mike was getting Bandon Dunes started?

We are trying to be very sensitive to the fees. We are seasonally priced so people that don’t want to pay ‘in season’ rates can come November through April and pay relatively inexpensive greens fees. Many of these decisions are made by the whole team of people, and yes, even though I have a management company, I stay very involved through a working relationship with my managers. I approve all pricing. No one remembers whose idea 50% replay, no cost for third 18 was, but it began with my certain belief that 36 holes per day has to be guaranteed for those who want it.

33. Why do greeting cards cost so much. Sorry could not resist. I would ask him about the nature of the management agreement with Troon Golf. Not $ and cents but rather how much input the ownership has into how the resort is operated, marketed and how the courses are developed (built/designed).

Because if you don’t bring one home for your wife on Valentine’s Day, or on her birthday, she’ll be upset with you and you wont get to go on that golf trip with your buddies. The resort is managed by KemperSports (not Troon). With Kemper I can be as involved as I want. We have a great working relationship.

34. I thought Kemper Sports was the mgmt company for Bandon Dunes, has that changed?

No. KemperSports has been a great partner since years before Bandon opened.

35. Presumably there are a lot of great course locations in the middle of nowhere. How would he evaluate whether such a location is or is not likely to success?

How great is the site? Who are the owners? What’s the plan? How does one get there? Example: there are fabulous sites in Chile, Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. They’ll probably not be developed. Example: New Zealand and Tasmania. These are and will be developed. Example: sand hills of Nebraska. 50 courses will pop up in the next 30 years.

36. What’s the recipe for ‘Grandma’s Meatloaf’?

Work up a big appetite walking 36 holes, have a couple of cold beers, then sink your teeth into some ketchup sauced Meatloaf. The rest is Top secret!

37. How is the greens fee pricing at Bandon determined? Is it done to cover costs + earn a predetermined return, is it ‘whatever the market will bear’ or is it based on comparison to come courses determined to be in a similar market (if so, the more interesting question is which courses are those)?

A lot of factors go into determining our greens fees, including the ones you mention. We have such a tiered pricing plan so we appeal to different markets at different times of the year. We want to be considered reasonable relative to other places that our golfers visit.

38. Would you consider an architect for another course that has a completely different style to the minimalist approach of Kidd, Doak, and C&C? Someone like Dye, Strantz etc…

I’d consider just about anything, but I prefer for Bandon an architect that will allow the site to dictate the design, not a style to dictate the design.

39. Mr. Keiser, given your experience with the evolution of the three courses at Bandon, each by a different architect, whom would your choose to design the second (and any subsequent courses at Barnbougle Dunes, and why?

It would be hard not to pick one of these three that I’ve worked with here, were it not for a very talented fourth, Mike Clayton, from Melbourne. Let’s hope success at Barbougle enables us to find out the answer.

40. Would he consider doing a development outside of the USA? If so, where?

Sure. I am involved with Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania. I’ve looked at sites in Scotland, Ireland and Canada. We’ll see. I sure like Oregon, though. It’s America’s LINKSLAND: 50 miles of stunning dunes on a rugged, windy shore.

41. Not to be too macabre, but does he have a plan for Bandon and its courses after he’s gone? Is there some sort of Master Plan/Deed of Trust which will try to preserve what he has created, or will any new owner be able to do whatever he or she wishes, particularly vis a vis the architecture?

Hey, I’m only 60! But I am concerned and I’m working on it.

42. Has the success of Bandon changed the way you look at golf?

Not really. Golf got overbuilt in the ’90s and people got more leveraged. The golf market will find a way to right itself. That’s America.

43. A number of the great owner-architects of the past have found and built their dream course and then spent a lifetime refining it (Crump-PCGC, Fownes-Oakmont, Morse-Cypress Point/Pebble Beach, Jones/Roberts-Augusta, MacDonald-NLGA, Tufts-Pinehurst, etc). Mr. Keiser owns some course that many would only dream of the concept (Dunes Club, Sheep Ranch, Bandon/Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails), and now he seems to be getting involved with courses overseas (Barnbougle, etc). What is he still searching for?

I love building golf courses, that’s it. It’s much more a continuum than a search.

44. My one question: Could you please hire me at Bandon Dunes? I will work for golf.

What do you want to do? Send your resume and cover letter to hhickox@bandondunesgolfresort.com

45. Is there some sort of ‘battle of the golf course titans’ going on behind the scenes between, Keiser, Kohler, Robertson, Trump, Parsinian, et al? Do you guys ever get together for poker?

I am a friend and admirer of Herb Kohler, Julian Robertson and Mark Parsinen. Each of them has done amazing things … and they’ve only just begun.

46. I’m wondering if there isn’t a ‘top that’ battle going on between C&C and Doak. They seem to be following each other around the country (Friar’s Head/Sebonac, B. Trails/P. Dunes, Sand Hills, Ballyneal, Cuscowilla/Harmony). I personally wish that they’d bring it to the NC Sandhills.

I don’t think so, that’s really not their personalities. They work on jobs offered them, not vice versa.

47. I’d be curious to know what differences he noticed in the approaches of Messrs, Kidd, Doak, Coore & Crenshaw in the design process.

Too many to mention. But you can see the difference in their personalities and their courses.

48. Did he ever consider hiring one of the bigger ‘name’ guys? If not, was it due to design reasons or was it simply the desire to be different?

Not really. Not just to be different, but to build something different.

49. How involved in the decision-making on the design of the three courses were you? Were all design decision made by your chosen team 100% or were your very hands-on in what exactly you wanted for each course or even each hole? If the team was left to just get on with it, was it difficult to stand back?

I was very involved. Somewhere between nodding my head and prodding my architect.

50. Have you thanked the Good Lord for all your blessings in this life today?

I thank God whenever I stand on the first tee of Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes and, recently, I thanked him three times on the first tee of Bandon Trails. As William Wordsworth said, ‘There’s such splendor in the grass.’ Amen.

The End