Longtime golfer builds his dream course
A greeting-card entrepreneur creates a links-style course widely acclaimed as a golfing classic.
(FORTUNE Small Business Magazine) - Two decades after co-founding a greeting-card business, Mike Keiser was looking for a new challenge. Chicago-based Recycled Paper Greetings, which he had launched in 1971 with his wife and a college roommate, had grown to the third-largest card company in the U.S., with $100 million in annual sales. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, bankers had encouraged him to diversify into other businesses. Instead, as Keiser puts it, "I decided to diversify myself."
A longtime golfer - he played on his college team at Amherst and maintains a handicap in the single digits - Keiser, now 61, set out to build a golf course. After playing and studying the greatest courses in the world, he decided that he wanted a links-style layout, meaning one built into a sandy, seaside landscape, with construction that involved moving as little earth as possible. Such courses are an anomaly in the U.S., where most golf architects rely on bulldozers and non-native plants to create, say, pristine green gems in the deserts of Arizona. Keiser also wanted to eschew condos, and he wanted a course for walkers (and caddies) only, no carts.
In 1999, Keiser debuted his dream course, Bandon Dunes, on a remote stretch of the Oregon coast. He'd already taken a practice swing of sorts, building an acclaimed nine-hole course on property he owned in Michigan. But Bandon Dunes was a far bigger venture and a correspondingly bigger success. Golfweek ranked it a top-100 course before it officially opened. Golf Magazine had never run a picture of a golf course on its cover - but it ran one of Bandon Dunes. Golf writers declared the place to be inspirational, comparing it to Pine Valley in New Jersey and to Ballybunion, the fabled Irish links.
Keiser wasn't finished. On adjacent property, he opened two more 18-hole courses, Pacific Dunes and Bandon Trails. All three are now ranked among the top courses in the U.S. - no other golf resort has three courses ranked so highly - and Keiser's venture has turned an operating profit from the start.
His story is the subject of a new book, Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes, by Stephen Goodwin, a golf writer and novelist who teaches at George Mason University. The book describes how Keiser ignored the skeptics and took an unorthodox - and entrepreneurial - approach to building a resort according to his own ideals. The following story is adapted from Goodwin's book.
$2,000 an acre
The Bandon property was offered for sale at $4.8 million. The owners were a group of Seattle businessmen who had been frustrated in their attempts to develop the land. Over the years they had drafted several plans calling for the construction of vacation homes, golf courses, and other recreational amenities, but every request was denied. Oregon's land-use laws are among the most stringent in the country, and the Seattle group - having invested a substantial amount in various efforts to develop plans that would meet with approval, not to mention the carrying costs of the land - was ready to throw in the towel.
Mike Keiser and Howard McKee, an architect and land planner, quickly became aware of the plans that had been rejected. The outlook for the kind of development that Mike envisioned was, to put it mildly, discouraging. But a links-style course uses native plants and leaves a smaller environmental footprint, which meant they might have better luck. (Also, McKee grew up in Oregon, and his government contacts would help.) Mike flew to Seattle to present an offer in person, $2.4 million, an amount that would have seemed absurdly low if it hadn't been all cash. He didn't ask for an option or a study period or any other contingencies. He was prepared to sign a contract that day.
The Seattle group left the room to confer. In half an hour they agreed to the sale. Two-point-four million dollars for 1,215 acres. That came to slightly less than $2,000 an acre. In hindsight it has to be one of the best land deals since Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan from the Indians for $24 worth of beads.
Thorns vs. chainsaws
Most of the site was choked with gorse, a thorny, yellow-flowered shrub (Ulex europaeus) native to the British Isles. In Ireland it is often called "furze," and in Scotland patches of gorse are known as "the whins." Golfers regard the whins, which line many a hole on British courses, as a punishment, for gorse is a prickly demon that will tear the clothes off a man's back.
In Oregon the gorse flourished. Irish gorse rarely grows much higher than six or seven feet, but here the plants grew 20 feet high, covering acres of dunes with growth that was literally impenetrable. It wasn't impossible for a man with a chainsaw to take the gorse down, but he would have to fight the prickly leaves to lean in close enough to put his blade on the plant's woody stem. Shorty Dow, the caretaker at Bandon, had heard that some people who worked regularly in gorse had improvised clothing made of metal, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
How to get rid of the stuff? Shorty didn't propose tin overalls for the workmen, but he and his son Bud did have an idea: On the front of a bulldozer they rigged a gizmo called a Hydro-Ax, which was basically a giant lawn mower. A large rotary blade whipped around at high speeds inside a protective circular deck, pulverizing everything.
The system wasn't perfect. The Hydro-Ax was raised and lowered by a complex hydraulic system that tended to overheat. In the summer, with the gorse dry and highly combustible, splinters like kindling swirled through the air, and they frequently caught fire. For the driver of the dozer with the Hydro-Ax, this was nerve-racking; if the oil on the machine ignited, he was toast - badly burned toast.
"Do we like it?"
On a windy day in September 1997, on the site of the not-yet-built practice green, surrounded by half-cleared land, Mike Keiser addressed the crew - a rough, ragged bunch of out-of-work loggers, former cranberry pickers, and hard-luck farmers, with a few Oregon hippies thrown in for good measure. Most of them didn't know a golf hole from a gopher hole. Even though the jumbled-up, fantastically shaped dunes served as shelter, a north wind was blowing so hard that Mike's words of encouragement, when played back on tape, sounded as if they were competing with the overflight of a jet fighter.
Nevertheless, his words made a lasting impression on several of the men. "He told us that what we were going to build could last for 500 years if we built it right," recalls Jim Haley, the lead course-shaper. "He got us pumped. He talked about St. Andrews and how long people had been playing there. That really motivated the guys, because we could see that Mike believed this place was going to be something special."
The goal was to build a world-class golf course, and to build it in record time. They were starting in September to take full advantage of the usually benign fall weather, and they were going to try to complete the back nine - drained, irrigated, shaped, and seeded - by Thanksgiving. The pace was going to be breakneck.
The construction plan focused on one or two holes at a time. Mike and construction contractor Pete Sinnott would fly out every three weeks or so from their hometown of Chicago to check on the progress. As soon as a hole had won Mike's approval, the irrigation would be installed and the grass would be planted. His standard question, asked over and over, was "Do we like it?" The phrase became a kind of mantra. Even when Mike wasn't on the site, his voice was there, asking for an appraisal, reminding them that they were aiming high. Do we like it?
The work, unquestionably, could be grim and miserable. During the clear days of September and October the coastal winds blew steadily. On a site with exposed sand, this meant that crew members were pelted with blowing grains; they tried to cover their mouths and noses but still inhaled quarts of the stuff. They weren't exactly threatened by dangerous critters, but the site was overrun with porcupines, and the guys on the excavators got to be very adept at capturing them in their buckets and flicking them over bluffs and down onto the rocky beach below (where many porcupines still live, though they rarely show their faces on the golf course). Even worse, especially when the rains came in November, was the backbreaking wheelbarrow work, which involved pushing loads of turf through heavy, wet sand. But by Thanksgiving, the back nine at Bandon Dunes was completed. The crew had worked for 57 days without a break.
Risk and reward
Mike wasn't building a private club but a resort course open for public play, and he was too much of a businessman to be indifferent to commercial success. He wanted more than favorable reviews: He wanted a course so spectacular and irresistible that it would attract golfers to a place they'd never heard of.
This emphasis on the retail golfer had far-reaching consequences. It meant, for instance, that the fairways would be wide and the greens would be huge. They had to be; the heavy coastal winds could knock even well-struck shots way off line. Mike and David Kidd agreed that they wanted a golfer to be able to finish the round with the same ball he started with. They also wanted him to have a chance to stop his ball on the greens, some of which would eventually measure 60 yards in length. Yet they didn't want a course where a player could simply whale away.
David's approach was to design a kind of course-within-a-course, crafting holes that provided plenty of margin for the hacker but, for the golfer trying to shoot a low score, demanded a high degree of accuracy and the willingness to take a risk. There were no water hazards, but David's bunkers were carved into the greens and fairways, not set back at a comfortable distance. Even on architectural renderings, the bunkers looked numerous and dangerous, and they were placed near the spots where a bold golfer would want to play. The essence of classic strategic design, of course, is that it requires a golfer to measure risk against reward on almost every shot and provides many routes from tee to green, allowing each golfer to chart his own way.
When Mike tackled the question of how to publicize Bandon Dunes, he decided quickly on his first tactic: Send the message in a greeting card. "I'd seen enough press releases," he said, "to know they were eminently tedious. The fancy folders that some courses put out have to be expensive - they must cost at least $10 - and most of them go straight into the trash can." The first card his team designed showed a picture of the 12th hole, a magnificent par-3 hard by the Pacific Ocean. The card was sent to every member of the Golf Writers Association of America and to the presidents of golf clubs in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California, who were invited to bring a foursome to Bandon for a pre-opening round.
Several writers from Golfweek had been in Washington State for the 1998 PGA Championship, and course manager Josh Lesnik persuaded them to stop at Bandon on the way home. The Golfweek writers were sure of their opinions, and in March 1999, two months before Bandon Dunes opened, the golf course made its debut on the magazine's list of America's Greatest Courses. It was ranked No. 10. The buzz had started.
Mike was worried about opening day, but Josh was watching the reservations add up, and he knew that people were going to come. A cold, steady rain was falling that day, but there was only one no-show. From 7:30 in the morning until after 3 that afternoon, foursome after foursome of golfers, bundled in raingear, stepped to the first tee, where a photographer was on hand to take a picture of each group. By the end of the round the pictures had been developed, and each golfer received one as a souvenir. The pictures are standard shots of golfers leaning on their drivers, and every foursome has the same guy standing in its midst, wearing a blue-and-red rain suit and grinning from ear to ear.
That was the owner, Mike Keiser (who, with his partner, finally sold a controlling interest in the company in December 2005, though he retains a 10% stake and still works there). If you ask him to name the best day at Bandon Dunes, he'll say, "The day the golf course opened."
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