A little more than two decades ago, Mike Keiser discovered a piece of property in a remote southwestern part of Oregon along the Pacific Ocean. His vision was to create an American golf experience similar to the classic seaside links layouts in Great Britain and Ireland such as St. Andrews, Ballybunion and Royal Dornoch.
While the East Aurora, N.Y., native and Amherst (Mass.) College graduate made his money through the greetings card business, it’s the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort that has given Keiser his legacy. From the moment he opened the first of the four courses in 1999, Bandon Dunes has attracted thousands of golfers. This week, Bandon Dunes hosts the U.S. Amateur Public Links and U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championships, the third and fourth USGA events to be played at the resort since 2006 when the Curtis Cup Match was conducted at Pacific Dunes. USGA senior staff writer David Shefter sat down with Keiser to chat about Bandon Dunes and its role in promoting amateur golf.
How did you find this piece of property?
Mike Keiser: I discovered it in 1989. I built the Dunes Club in New Buffalo, Mich., which opened in 1985. It was so much fun that I said I had to do another one. I wanted to build it on sand and you find sand near the ocean, so I thought let’s go to the East Coast. There may be something on the East Coast, but I quickly realized there wasn’t. My friend, Howard McKee, an architect who I was friends with had heard I was frustrated looking at East Coast sites. He suggested I look in Oregon. It’s got a beautiful coast.
So I came down here looking in Northern California and Brookings (Oregon), which is all mountainous. One of the reasons I looked in Brookings was it’s the banana belt. You could grow citrus trees. That’s where I wanted to be because I thought this far north was too cold and too [much] bad weather. It turns out I was wrong.
So did that lead you to Bandon?
Keiser: Word spread through the real estate community that a guy from Chicago was looking for coastal property. He didn’t matter where it was, just coastal. A broker named Annie Hunter knew about this [land] and that it had been on the market for 4½ years. It was 1,200 acres and one mile of ocean frontage that was covered in gorse and Scottish broom. That’s how she described it. It sounded great. Bandon Dunes on the other side was all gorse. I bought it within a month.
Did you have a vision of building this kind of golf destination with four world-class courses?
Keiser: No. I added an additional 1,200 acres over the years that came to 2,400 [total] acres, which I bought defensively to [not] be used for [residential properties]. And you never know. I might want to build additional golf courses. But honestly, given where this is, there was a dream of more [courses], but a realistic expectation of breaking even at first.
So the first year must have gone pretty well?
Keiser: I needed 12,000 rounds [at Bandon Dunes] to break even and we did. We did 23,000 the first year.
Obviously, word spread quickly?
Keiser: It did. We got a lot of publicity. No one at the time was building remote golf courses, other than Sand Hills [in rural Nebraska, which is a private facility]. That was just as speculative as this. I’m a founder at Sand Hills and it was very helpful to me that Sand Hills did well. So I didn’t start spending money at Bandon Dunes until Sand Hills had opened and succeeded.
But having this facility being located on the Pacific Ocean had to be a major attraction for golf enthusiasts, even though it is five hours from Portland?
Keiser: It does have an ocean. This sand golf course in the Kansas sand hills would still be one golf course and I’d probably be losing money. My formula is great site, on the ocean and great architect. You need those three things. And this became four golf courses because of the math. We did 23,000 the first year at Bandon Dunes. Two years later we opened Pacific Dunes and each course did 38,000 [rounds]. So 23,000 went to 76,000 [rounds]. One plus one equals three…It’s a winner.
Bandon Dunes isn’t the type of facility most American golfers see on a regular basis, so the lure or attraction, I’m sure, is the unique layout combined with its ocean location?
Keiser: I’ve said this is America’s links land, but nobody knows it. No one knows those dunes stretch 70 miles going north. This (Bandon Dunes) is the foothills.
When you created the resort, did you ever dream you would be hosting four USGA events in a six-year span?
Keiser: Mike Davis [from the USGA] was very interested even before [it opened]. He really cares about courses. I forget where he was, probably in Portland, but he made it a point to come down for one or two days. He walked [Bandon Dunes] before it was built. He didn’t commit to anything. He just said this is neat. Did we ever think we would host a USGA championship? Frankly no. I didn’t think we would break even because of its remoteness.
So the early success combined with the reviews the facility received had to help generate interest from the USGA?
Keiser: All the good things that happened, I didn’t think would happen. The best case scenario: I thought some of the things might happen. But I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself.
What did having the 2006 Curtis Cup Match at Pacific Dunes do for the resort?
Keiser: It added credibility to have the USGA agreeing basically that this is a good site for a championship venue, whether it was the Mid-Am (2007), the Curtis Cup or the Public Links. I love the Mid-Am, I love this one. I love amateur championships. We’ve had the Pacific Northwest Championship a number of times. We’ve had the Pacific Coast Amateur here.
Have you had college events?
Keiser: Yes. For six years, we had the Big Ten versus the Pac-10. And that kind of frittered away and got replaced by an even better tournament: the Gonzaga Invitational. The winner [this past] year is playing here (Charlie Hughes). He plays at either Washington or Washington State (it’s University of Washington). He lives in Vancouver, B.C. (British Columbia). That [event] had a field of probably 12 schools. I think they are going to keep doing that tournament here.
Are people shocked by the weather conditions when they come here?
Keiser: Most people think of Oregon as rain. Oregon…rain. Oregon…parkland. They don’t know it’s the size of France. They don’t know it’s mostly desert. They don’t know the population is 3.3 million people. They don’t know the coast looks like this. They don’t know the weather on the south coast. It really is a good year-round golf climate. We play through hail. We don’t play through snow. It snows here every three years.
Do you plan on building more golf courses?
Keiser: The par-3 course [scheduled to open in 2012], if it succeeds, I have enough room [on the property] to build another par 3. There’s already two. When we expanded the practice facility, instead of just building a big field, I hired David Kidd to build nine real holes, where the practice balls go. We use it as a practice range until 2 [p.m.] and then we clean the balls up. I built it really for the juniors in this area to learn golf. After 2, juniors and guests play it. It’s called Shorty's. The holes range from 90 to 200 yards.
Do you see another championship layout here?
Keiser: There is another 400-acre parcel that is called the Sheep Ranch, which has 14 Tom Doak-designed green shapes in a big pasture right on the ocean. That’s a site for an additional golf course sometime [in the future]. I haven’t planned it yet. I do hope that I can complete a deal with the state parks to build Bandon Muni Golf Links. It would be south of Bandon, six or seven miles away [from the resort]. It’s right on the ocean. It will be 27 holes. Juniors and locals pay virtually nothing. It’s just like St. Andrews. Tourists pay full ride and Oregonians pay half price.
What is the topography of that proposed layout?
Keiser: Pretty much exactly like Pacific Dunes. It’s about there that the dunes stop. It’s the southern-most edge.
Has this project turned out the way you wanted? Do you pinch yourself sometimes to make sure it’s real and not some fantasy?
Keiser: I’m astonished. It’s a dream come true.
Bandon seems to have become one of those mystical destinations like St. Andrews or Pebble Beach or Ballybunion in Ireland?
Keiser: It’s sort of a Golf-in-the-Kingdom kind of place. I made many trips to Scotland and Ireland [before building Bandon Dunes]. Whether it’s Ballybunion or Lahinch or [Royal] Dornoch – I’m sort of naming my favorites – they are remote. They are in the middle of nowhere. Just look at their landscape. It’s mystical. It’s unlike golf. The fescue is native here and in those [classical] links courses. It blends perfectly with beach grass and gorse. The gorse does not do well when it’s hot or too cold. It’s basically maritime climates.
Do you have a favorite course?
Keiser: St. Andrews is my favorite. But as I said Saturday night [at the players’ dinner], if you take the top 32 courses in the world, according to GOLF magazine, two of them were built after 1935. They are Sand Hills and Pacific Dunes. So take those out, everything is old school. And if you go to the top 20, 12 of the 20 are links. Sixteen of the 20 are on sand. And that’s part of the mystical [value]. Pine Valley [in New Jersey] isn’t a links, but it’s built on sand, and it’s mystical. It’s a wild look.
It’s remarkable how some of these great courses were just there waiting to be built.
Keiser: I guess it’s obvious that golf was invented in dunes in the 14th century. And it’s just a natural sport for the dunes. It’s sort of like bird hunting in the dunes. That’s where the birds are. You can go out there [on the property] and find golf holes. They are all out there.
When you brought in architects like David McKlay Kidd (Bandon Dunes), Tom Doak (Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald), Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (Bandon Trails) and Jim Urbina (Old Macdonald), did their eyes just widen when they saw the possibilities?
Keiser: This is a career-maker because they are so unique and distinctive in America. There are 25 million golfers, but until Sand Hills and Bandon Dunes, there were no true links courses in America. There are a number that are links-like: Shinnecock Hills and The National [Golf Links of America], Maidstone in part, Newport [Country Club], Prairie Dunes a little bit. George Peper, [the new editor at LINKS magazine and the former editor at GOLF magazine] who just did this links book, names three links courses in America. They are Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald. So unique is good for an architect. If you do a parkland course or a course to sell houses, it’s not going to have the same appeal.
You said you love amateur golf. What is so appealing to you about the amateur game?
Keiser: With the media attention on golf, everything is focused on the professional game. And for the last 15 years, it’s been [about] Tiger Woods. Golf equals Tiger Woods. I call myself a retail golfer. I’m an average golfer with a 10.6 [USGA Handicap] Index. I like golf not because of Tiger Woods, not because of televised golf courses, not because of the media attention on the top players, I like golf for me. I like match play. Amateurs represent the best of the rest. And that’s why I like amateur events. I didn’t build this for the pros. Now some have come here. Even though they are moderately short by modern standards, the wind is a great equalizer. These golf courses would stand the test of the pros. But I didn’t build them for them because they are a petulant group. I built them for 25 million amateurs and amateur tournaments. These people are the best of us. So they are my target.
Do you ever see yourself playing in a USGA event?
Keiser: Not at a 10.6. I wouldn’t stand up against the pressure. I would not even shoot my handicap. I see myself spectating and rooting for these young men and women. And they are not even close to the professional ranks.
How much golf do you play?
Keiser: I probably play 70 rounds a year, most of it here. I play a lot in Chicago, both public and private. But I’ve gotten spoiled out here. We’ve got four courses and they are all pretty good. And unlike in Chicago or any big city, it takes me an hour to get to where I play. Here it takes me three minutes. I’ve been spoiled.
USGA Executive Director Mike Davis was here this week, along with USGA President Jim Hyler and Thomas O’Toole Jr., the chairman of the Championship Committee. Is there talk of doing another USGA event in the future?
Keiser: I would like that. I’d love to do others. I would love to do the Walker Cup. I would love to do the U.S. Amateur. I’d love to do any of the amateur [championships]. I supposed I would love to do the juniors (Junior Amateur or Girls’ Junior) because just like the Public Links, most of these contestants don’t even know what a true links course is. Even though golf started in the 14th century in Scotland in dunes, we say, “OK guys and girls, what’s a links course?” As I said to someone [this week], I’ll bet the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship has never been played on a links course, even though it has links in its name.