Mike Keiser Knows Where Golf is Alive and Well. (It's not Illinois)
Mike Keiser made his fortune in Chicago, co-founding a greeting card company that was sold for nine figures. Working from offices in Chicago, he then gained his fame as a golf course developer, constructing courses in Oregon, Michigan, Canada and Australia. His newest property, Sand Valley Golf Resort, laid out on 1,500 acres in central Wisconsin, stands to be the most important course to open in the nation this year.
Keiser has never built a course in Illinois and probably never will. The landscape is too flat and dull, he says, to interest modern-day golfing connoisseurs. "Illinois means cornfields, and cornfields are not good places to be building courses," Keiser says. "Wisconsin has more interesting land."
In Illinois, golf is dying. The 27-hole Indian Lakes Resort course in Bloomingdale shut down last fall. The money-losing Antioch Golf Club is seeking a lifeline from Lake Villa Township to stay in business just as plans are being laid to cut the similarly troubled Bonnie Dundee Golf Club in Carpentersville in half in favor of open parkland. The U.S. Open tournament hasn't been played in the state since 2003, and the U.S. Golf Association doesn't have a tournament scheduled anywhere in Illinois through at least 2026.
But in Wisconsin, golf is alive and well. Forty miles northwest of Milwaukee, Erin Hills Golf Club is hosting the first men's U.S. Open tournament in the state, starting June 15. Farther north, the Blackwolf Run/Whistling Straits complex near Sheboygan—expanded over the past 30 years by kitchen and bath magnate Herbert Kohler Jr.—has announced that construction will soon begin on a fifth course. The prestigious Ryder Cup will be played at Whistling Straits in 2020.
And then there's Keiser's Sand Valley resort. Designed by famed course architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore—the team that designed Keiser's Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on Oregon's Pacific coast—the site could eventually expand to five courses, about an hour's drive north of Madison, near Wisconsin Rapids.
Jason Kauflin started up a tour company called Wisconsin Golf Trips in Wauwatosa, Wis., last year, and he reports that Illinois residents make up nearly 40 percent of his business so far. A rating agency, Golf Advisor, has named Wisconsin the No. 1 destination for golf in the world for 2017, he notes. "Wisconsin has never had a higher profile for golf than it has now," Kauflin says.
Keiser agrees. Wisconsin, he says, "is now the new mecca of golf. With the U.S. Open, it's arrived in the big time."
PRICEY PUBLIC PLAY
Keiser got to Chicago in 1971 after four years of service in the U.S. Navy. He then reunited with an Amherst College classmate, Phil Friedmann, to start Recycled Paper Greetings in an apartment in Lakeview. Back then, he was too poor to play golf anywhere but public courses. Today, 12 years after selling their card company, he's a member at such august private clubs as Shoreacres and Chicago Golf (playing to a handicap of 12), and counts the most private of all clubs, Pine Valley in New Jersey, built on sand dunes itself, as much of the inspiration for his new venture in Wisconsin.
Still, his courses are all built for public play, albeit pricey, with Sand Valley's green fees running over $200 a round in prime time. The peak rate for its modestly furnished lodge is $350 a night.
Keiser has been compared to Donald Trump as a golf developer, but the two are golfing antitheses: Trump favors private clubs with big water fountains out front, and gold and mahogany furnishings inside, while Keiser's public spaces are spartan at every turn. The president also famously disdains exercise and takes golf carts everywhere. At age 71, the razor-thin Keiser can still walk 36 holes a day and has banned carts from all his courses.
Trump is reportedly jealous of Keiser's reputation: Trump spends more on his courses, investing $250 million to merely renovate the Trump National Doral near Miami recently, while Sand Valley's courses are costing less than $15 million each to build from scratch. Yet Keiser's courses are rated higher in national magazine polls.
Sand Valley, which is being supported by some 170 so-called founders each paying $50,000, also marks a passing of the torch within the Keiser family. Son Michael Keiser, 35, is living at the site and directing much of the construction on the second course now underway, assisted by his brother, Christopher, 29. Meanwhile, their father has embarked on yet another project, attempting to win government approvals to build a golf course near secluded Dornoch, along the northeastern coast of Scotland.
Back in Illinois, the Jemsek family invested $5 million in 2008 to renovate their Cog Hill Golf & Country Club's Dubsdread course, once the site of the Western Open, in the hopes of becoming U.S. Open-worthy. But USGA officials have turned cool to the idea, and volume of play at the club in Lemont has sunk by one-third. "Our goal is still to host an open someday. It's the ultimate validation of your course, and makes people want to come and visit you," says Katherine Jemsek, Cog Hill's president.
At Erin Hills recently, USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said he isn't ruling out someday staging the U.S. Open at Cog Hill or Medinah Country Club or Olympia Fields Country Club. "But we have no plans to do anything around Chicago in the foreseeable future," he said before extolling the wonders of Erin Hills and Wisconsin golf.
Michael Hurdzan, one of the designers of Erin Hills, is no fan of Illinois, either. "Chicago golf has a lot of sameness," he says. "You can only do so much with the land there. Wisconsin has lots of space, and it's got very diverse geography. Golf architects love it there."