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A Conversation with Mike Keiser

http://www.golftripper.com/a-conversation-with-mike-keiser/

Over the last two decades golfers have been fortunate to live through a renaissance period in terms of golf course architecture. One of the key figures in this era has been a Chicago businessman with an intense love for the game of golf, Mike Keiser. After selling a very successful greeting card company Keiser decided to try his hand at golf course development and quickly discovered he had a knack for it. Over the last two decades Keiser has helped introduce golfers toBandon Dunes in Oregon, Cabot Links in Nova Scotia and Barbougle Dunes in Tasmania . . . not a bad resume. Mike and I caught up a few days ago to chat about his new project in Wisconsin, Sand Valley, as well as golf in general. The following is the transcript from our conversation. 
 
Golf Tripper: Sand Valley is your first project without an ocean. What exactly did you see in this property that made you decide to change your formula and take on a project that’s not seaside?

Mike Keiser: Pine Valley and Sand Hills. At Sand Hills there is not a drop of water anywhere! The site in Wisconsin is very similar to Pine Valley. It has 80 foot dunes, just like Pine Valley and frankly just like Sand Hillsas well. So, my first thought was no ocean, so sorry. My second thought was Pine Valley and Sand Hills . . . well, they are not so bad.

GT: I understand that there’s a group of roughly 200 Founders who have invested in Sand Valley and that this is the first time you’ve done a round of outside fund raising for one of your projects.

MK: That is correct.

GT: What made you decide to do that with this particular project?

MK: Wisconsin, in fact the Mid-West in general, is a very competitive market place. Whistling Straits is huge, Erin Hills is coming on strong, Lawsonia is very good, and there are many others that get a lot of play. It is a very crowded field and I figured that the more salesmen, the more ambassadors, that I have the better. So I think of the investors, which we call founders, as ambassadors and marketeers of Sand Valley.

GT: That makes a lot of sense, especially in light of all the local competition Sand Valley will be facing. It’s my understanding that the founders will have an option of building a home in the area. Is that going to actually be part of the Sand Valley development or it will it be on completely separate and unrelated property?

MK: There will be homesites on our 1,500 acre site, just as there were at Pine Valley back in the early 1900s. The club built a dormitory but all the houses were built and owned privately. The sort of the housing available at Pine Valley will be the model for us.

GT: Are we talking about houses that will actually be on the golf course?

MK: No. You have been to Pine Valley, correct?

GT: Yes I have.

MK: That really is the model. As you know there are two or three houses on the course at Pine Valley. Particularly, one on the sixth tee and one on the seventh tee. Really they are they are so few and far between that your overall impression is that there are no houses at Pine Valley. We will strive for the same impression.

GT: Okay, that’s good to hear.

MK: It will be just as you would hope Steve.

GT: [Laughs] You know my feelings about real estate based golf! You have made it clear that the site in Wisconsin is very similar to Pine Valley, and of course Pine Valley has a reputation for being a very difficult golf course. Do you anticipate that Sand Valley is going to be an exceptionally challenging course like Pine Valley or is it going to be something a little bit more geared for the “retail golfer”?

MK: My answer is both, and it is based on the Sand Hills model. I don’t know what tees you played from at Sand Hills, but I’m a weak 12 handicap, so, I play the forward tees – which are GREAT for me. As soon as you take me to the back tees it is NOT great for me. So, here is the challenge for Coore/Crenshaw. They can have forced carries from the two back tees and they can build it tough from those tees. Not only with the pro golfer in mind, but also the amateur scratch golfer. Then on the four forward tees, which will go all the way up to 4,300 yards, they will have limited or no forced carries depending on the terrain. The goal is to not present anything that will be frightening to the lesser golfer . . . challenges appropriate to ability.

GT: I like that concept a lot.

MK: It is easier said than done and that is why I give you Sand Hills because they actually did it there, in my opinion.

GT: When I visited Sand Hills, one of the things that I thought was really cool, is that the member who hosted my group had developed two different golf courses using a mixture of the sets of tees. In the morning we would play one of the mixtures and then in the afternoon we would play the other mixture. We ended up playing a course that was very tough in one round and then a little easier in the next. I thought it was a really cool and really fun way to see the course from different angles.

MK: Yes it is. Another off-shoot of that is when you get to the middle tee areas there will be more than one tee, let’s say ten tees per hole, and we allow you to pick your own tee. I haven’t decided that yet, but that’s what we do at the Dunes Club in New Buffalo, Michigan and everyone loves it. Usually whoever wins the last hole picks the next tee, and it is great fun.

GT: I’ve played that way before a couple of times and it definitely makes for a lot of fun. So, your properties are obviously well known for authentic links golf that features fescue turf and encourages the style of golf played in the U.K. rather than the aerial game that is the common in the U.S. Are you planning for Sand Valley to be a links style golf course with characteristics similar to the courses at your other resorts and will fescue grass be a possibility in Wisconsin?

MK: My honest answer is we haven’t decided. We do know fescue grows in Wisconsin because that is where a lot of fescue comes from. The local turf nurseries say fescue is fine, but the experience at Whistling Straits and Erin Hills with fescue has not been great. We are also not sure of the number of carts we will have, and that will affect turf selection. We know we are going to be walking encouraged, but with the baby boomers getting older and the number of founders who can’t walk 18 holes we are going to have to look at the cart situation and make some decisions this year.

Do note that my models are Pine Valley and Sand Hills neither of which have fescue. Sand Hills is certainly links like, so its safe to say Sand Valley will be similar, but the type of grass is unknown as of right now.

GT: Coore/Crenshaw have been the architects for the last four of your projects including Sand Valley.

MK: It is getting pretty predictable isn’t it?

GT: Well, I don’t think that anything that Mike Keiser does can be categorized as predictable. The fact that you are building a golf course in Wisconsin is pretty unpredictable based on what you’ve done thus far. Can you elaborate on why you’ve leaned on Bill & Ben so heavily lately?

MK: I loved the idea of, and almost announced, that we are going to build three courses at Sand Valley and they will be designed by Kidd, Doak and Coore/Crenshaw in an order as yet to be determined. If I was in a tie on selecting an architect that’s what I was going to announce. That was once upon a time not too long ago. Frankly, to choose between those three even before looking at guys like Mike DeVries, Mike Nuzzo , Jim Urbina and Jay Blasi, is a very difficult decision.

As the founders joined up I said to them that my hardest decision, even harder than approving the routing, is to pick the architect. When I asked them who they liked between Coore/Crenshaw, Kidd and Doak 80% said Coore/Crenshaw, so that is one vote for them. Vote number two for Coore/Crenshaw comes from the fact that they went last at Bandon Dunes. David went first and Tom in the middle, so out of fairness you could say that Coore/Crenshaw should go first at Sand Valley. Last, and not a small item of these three points, is that I thought that Coore/Crenshaw beat Doak at Streamsong Resort. As you know they opened the two courses down there at the same time. I’ve played them both three times and my vote is Coore/Crenshaw over Doak. I think, if I had four rounds to play I’d play three on the Coore/Crenshaw course and one on the Doak. Those are the three factors that lead to selecting Coore/Crenshaw for the first course at Sand Valley.

GT: That seems like a logical thought process to me. A few minutes ago you touched on something that I’d like to go back to and that’s the use of carts at Sand Valley. Am I understanding correctly that there will be some cart play at Sand Valley?

MK: At least limited, yes. As you know we have them at Bandon Dunes in a limited capacity as well. Sand Valley will not have a huge fleet out front where visitors pull up. Visitors will not just say “Oh we can take a cart”. They will have to make a case for it.

GT: So your intent is for the course will be routed as a walking course with tight green to tee transitions?

MK: Yes, that is correct.

GT: And will there be asphalt cart paths or more of a natural path of sand?

MK: I have gotten as far as Sand Hills in regards to this. As you may remember they have very natural and invisible cart paths going from the green area to the next tee. We will have something like that and until we get a specific plan Sand Hills will be the model.

GT: Okay, and what about the lodging plans, are you planning to build a hotel or cottages?

MK: I like cottages.

GT: So no big lodge in Sand Valley?

MK: No.

GT: Wow, that’s fantastic and will really give a different feel to the experience.

MK: We don’t really have hotels at the other properties. We have the Inn at Bandon Dunes which is the biggest. Pine Valley is a good model for our lodging strategy with the five or six houses you can rent. They also have the dormitories there and we might eventually get to that point at Sand Valley. Initially, it is going to be founders building four bedroom homes or cottages and that will be where visitors stay.

There are also a ton of homes in the area. This is not like Bandon Dunes, Cabot or Barnbougle. This is a developed summer vacation area. The Wisconsin Dells are forty minutes away, Lake Arrowhead is nearby with a thirty-six hole golf complex that does fifty thousand rounds a year. There are a couple of other resorts that are within twenty minutes, so there are a lot of housing units in the area. That will be a big plus. It will be like going to Killarney, Ireland and playing Old Head and Waterville out of Killarney. You will have many lodging options.

GT: So it sounds like the initial lodging will be handled by the founders and you won’t even have to really worry about it at first.

MK: That is what I’m thinking.

GT: Sand Valley sounds just incredible and I can already hardly wait for it to open. Between Whistling Straits, Erin Hills and now Sand Valley I’ve heard talk of a Wisconsin Golf Trail. That would certainly be great for the area.

MK: The Southern Wisconsin golf brand is already strong and I hope that Sand Valley with Coore/Crenshaw doing a great job will make southern Wisconsin even stronger . . . sort of like THE place to play in the summer. There literally is a golf trail already. If you painted it on a map you would say, “ah it looks like a big circle” and Sand Valley is right at the top of the circle.

GT: Moving away from Sand Valley I’ve got a couple more questions for you. Is there any interest on your part in seeing a professional major championship at any of your golf courses and if so which one do you think will be the best suited?

MK: I like tournaments because they are good for golf – especially if they are on a links golf course. I’d love to have one at Bandon Dunes, but it is so remote that it’s unlikely. Cabot actually is being mentioned as a Canadian Open site, so that is a possibility.

I would love for Sand Valley to be considered, but it’s still a little bit early. I will definitely show the site to the USGA as it is being built and then invite them to play a hand, or at least have some influence, on what kind of back tees we are building. The PGA will be welcomed as well.

GT: I can only speak for myself, but I definitely want to see a major championship on a course that is modeled after Sand Hills and Pine Valley. That would be great. Now that you’ve been at this golf course development game for a couple of decades I’m sure you have made a few mistakes and learned a whole lot. What is the biggest lesson you learned in your golf course development career thus far?

MK: To know what you want.

GT: And don’t vary from it?

MK: Yes, and don’t vary. I’m convinced that so many golf courses have been built when the architect says, “Owner, what do you want?” And the owner really hasn’t thought about it. They will say, “Well I don’t know . . . something tough. Something really tough.” The architect might say “If you want a tournament there you’ll want it to be really tough” to which the owner will respond “Yeah, maybe we should make it the toughest”. For thirty five years we have built really tough golf courses. Are they fun to play? For most people – no. The owner sort of started it with his lack of direction and it was perpetuated by the fact that all the architects were PGA players. The owners could have built any kind of golf course they wanted and ended up going for something that is tough for the pros. Enter Jack Nicklaus.

So to me, its very important to know what you want, and at Bandon Dunes I wanted Dornoch. Who can top Dornoch? We didn’t actually replicate it, but I think all four courses at Bandon Dunes are designed in the same spirit as Dornoch.

GT: If you can believe it, I have not been to Dornoch.

MK: Whoa!!! That’s a problem!

GT: I know. Now that I’m winding up my Top 100 quest, getting to the U.K. is clearly the next item on my agenda.

MK: It’s crucial to see those courses.

GT: I absolutely agree. One of my best friends recently moved to London so I am planning a trip over there this year to visit Sunningdale and a few others in that area.

MK: I’m doing the same trip with both of my sons who have not played the heathland courses in that area either. Do you know the courses that George Crump was told to visit before he started Pine Valley?

GT: No.

MK: Sunningdale Old and New, and Swinley Forest were the big ones. There were one or two other heathland courses, but those three in particular ended up being big influences on Crump. I have played Sunningdale and Swinley and they are essential. They are a lot like Pine Valley. I’m going there this summer and very well could be there at the same time you are.

GT: I’m planning to be there in September, so unfortunately I’m going to miss you guys if you are going to be there over the summer. Coming back to our side of the pond, what do you think is the future of the game in America and what do you think needs to change in order for the game to have a bit more mass appeal? I can envision a model that has fewer private clubs and the ones that are private may look a little more like the U.K. where they allow non-member play at certain times or on visitor days.

MK: You may not know this, but U.K. golf was my business model for Bandon Dunes. For the most part the best golf in the U.K. is open for public play. It’s certainly open for tourist play and Americans flock over there to play the great golf courses. Anyone can get a tee time at Muirfield on a visitor day if they’ve got enough money. How nice is that when compared to the U.S.? My business model was if I built something as good as the top private clubs in America that people like you and me will go there – and it turned out to be true. Even if the location is remote, as long as the quality of the golf was high people will go there. So yes, I totally agree with you, the number one move is towards fewer private clubs, more public resorts, and more upscale public facilities. That’s the big move that I think is going on for the good of golf.

The little move is with private clubs. Even some of the prestigious clubs are having trouble filling their ranks and one by one they are loosening their restrictions on visitor play. I’m sure you have seen this because you are always researching how to play great courses, just as I used to. Many more of the private clubs are now saying OK, you can play on Tuesday at 3PM, you must take a caddie and the greens fee is going to be two hundred dollars”. A lot of clubs wouldn’t have dreamed of this twenty years ago, but now they have learned that they can earn a significant amount of extra revenue each year from this type of outside play.

So what is happening with some private clubs loosening restrictions is the little move. The bigger one is what Whistling Straits, Bandon Dunes, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst have proven . . . that quality golf sells and I believe we will see more and more quality public golf facilities being built. You can take credit Steve, you were there with that theme earlier on.

GT: I don’t know if I get any credit for anything.

MK: I will give you credit.

GT: [Laughs]I appreciate that. And now my final question that I ask everyone. Excluding courses that you are personally involved in, what are your ten favorite places to play?

MK: This is an important question and here they are in order. I would guess most people will try to avoid putting them in order, but as a Golf Magazine ranker I’m accustomed to it.

GT: Great, Let’s hear em!

MK: 1. National Golf Links 2. Pine Valley 3. Ballybunion Old 4. The Old Course 5. Dornoch – which you must see 6. Oakmont 7. Shinnecock Hills 8. Cypress Point 9. Pebble Beach 10. Chicago Golf Club

GT: Wow, that’s a good list.

MK: It really is. Dornoch screams the loudest because it is so subtle and so good . . . so simple.

GT: There is no question that I have got to get over there. It’s very high on my priority list, and once I finish the last few Top 100 courses on the list I’ll be ready for the next chapter.

MK: Perhaps you will play another list of courses?

GT: I don’t know if I will ever do another list, but I will definitely continue to travel and see more courses. I’m less interested in lists and more interested in just seeing great places. If they are on a list that’s great, but if they aren’t that’s okay too.

MK: Yeah, that is a good point. Especially in Scotland and Ireland and England. There are a lot of courses that aren’t ranked in the Top 100 that are ever so worthy of your play. One of which I am reminded of today is Crail.

GT: I am certainly familiar with that one and it is definitely on my list of places to see.

MK: There are many others as well.

GT: : I’m sure we could sit her and talk golf courses for a few more hours, but we should probably wrap up. Thanks for taking the time to chat, it’s always a pleasure. How about closing things up by answering one final question. What would you like your legacy in golf to be?

MK: I knew this question would be coming and here is the best I can do . . . He built golf courses that withstood the test of time.

GT: Very nice. I don’t think that will be a problem. Thanks again for taking the time to catch up. It’s always enjoyable to spend some time with you.

MK: My pleasure.

Chris Keiser