I first met Mike Keiser Junior 15 years ago when Barnbougle Dunes was being built. Recently I was lucky enough to catch up again at the Keiser’s first course, The Dunes Club in Michigan, as well as playing their newest venture Sand Valley in Wisconsin. Afterwards we sat down and talked a little more about the ever-expanding list of successful Keiser developments and more generally, ‘Destination Golf’… – Michael Cocking
‘The only thing that matters when looking at a new site is the quality of the land… we look for land that has great shot value as well as wow factor that will excite our guests.’
Interview: Mike Keiser Jr – The Keiser Philosophy – Issue 18 – Mike Cocking – Photos: Charles Cherney (MK Jr); Larry Lambrecht; Ryan Farrow (Sand Valley)
Golf Architecture: What were your first golfing experiences?
MKJ: My first experiences playing golf were in the “pre-Dunes Club” sand barrens where the 4th, 8th and 5th fairways now stand. My dad called it Wilderness Golf. We’d take turns choosing a tree to aim toward; hitting the tree would complete the hole. Sometimes our match play consisted of fewest strokes to the tree. Other times the winner was the fastest player to hit the tree. My dad often gravitated to the Jack Pine that now overlooks his favorite green site, the 4th.
GA: I was lucky enough to play the Dunes Club in Chicago in September 2016. I guess that was your dad’s first venture in into golf course development.
GA: I was lucky enough to play the Dunes Club in Chicago in September 2016. I guess that was your dad’s first venture in into golf course development. What are your memories of its beginnings?
MKJ: My favorite times in the early days of the Dunes Club were spent shoulder to shoulder beside my dad with hatchet and saw to work on fairway centerlines. Once the course opened I also loved gathering leaves and removing brush left of the 2nd green. The smell of those burning oak leaves in the fall are among my fondest memories. We’ve been clearing the left side of that hole ever since, and still have some ways to go.
When the course opened I was quickly frustrated by many of the forced carries that the course demanded and decided golf was far less enjoyable than wandering the woods with my hatchet and bb gun – looking for squirrels to hunt and building forts. That was when I was 10. I took the game up again on a family trip to Dornoch when I was 15. I felt the spirit of the game for the first time and played from sun up until 11pm. Dornoch is where I fell in love with golf.
GA: Was that the start of your dad’s passion for course design and development?
MKJ: No. My dad’s passion for course design began sometime in the ’80s (prior to the opening of the Dunes). I believe it was ignited by the trips he began making annually to Scotland and Ireland with his high school buddies.
GA: We first met back in 2002 during the construction of Barnbougle when you were straight out of college. Was that your first experience of being involved with a new venture (I’m guessing here you were too young when Pacific Dunes was starting?) What are memories of those days… what lessons did you take away from that project?
MKJ: Well I began walking Bandon Dunes in the early ’90s, before my dad purchased the land. We’d spend a week there every summer. When the course opened I worked there during the summers.
I have so many great memories of Barnbougle. I met so many wonderful people and discovered that Australians really are the friendliest people on the planet. My greatest lessons I learned from the Sattlers. Richard and Sallie were the hardest-working people on the property. They were smart, wise and likeable, but above all they had grit. Beyond keeping up with Richard and Sallie’s grueling work ethic, I learned to listen to our guests. Guests at Bandon, Sand Valley and Barnbougle have fabulous ideas and feedback – we just have to listen to them and hear what they’re saying.
GA: Has ‘Destination Golf’ changed since Sand Hills was first built? Are they less risky now as developments because they’re relatively common?
MKJ: As golf slowly declines in this country (the USA), ‘Destination Golf’ is growing. In that sense destination resorts are less risky. But because there are more of them nowadays it’s more important than ever to differentiate ourselves from our peers. I think when the dust settles the successful destinations will be those that remain authentic. There are many different ways to be authentic but if we’re constantly trying to follow another property’s success, we’ll always be one step behind. At Sand Valley we strive to be one step ahead.
GA: With the Keiser brand covering a number of projects now from West Coast to East Coast USA, Scotland and Nova Scotia, can you give us a brief overview of current projects you have already developed or are in some form of development?
MKJ: In addition to the Dunes Club, Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links and Sand Valley, we are hoping to develop a golf course in Dornoch, Scotland, as well as two golf courses on the Inch Peninsula of Ireland. We’re thinking about a site in Iceland as well as one in Australia. There are also some wonderful sites we’re considering very close to Bandon.
GA: Tell us a bit about Sand Valley? When and how did the site come to your attention?
MKJ: Greg Ramsey’s (instrumental figure behind Barnbougle Dunes) friend Craig Haltom returned from St Andrews with a degree in Landscape Architecture and the certainty that he would discover a great sand site in his new home state of Wisconsin. He and his wife Becky (who was a botanist) would spend their weekends scouring the state looking for the perfect golf course site. After several years of these weekend hikes, Craig and Becky stumbled upon what is now Sand Valley and Craig knew that first day on the property that he had found “the one”. The global crash ended his dreams of developing the course on his own. His friend Greg pestered my dad and I with long-winded emails until we finally caved and agreed to see his friends site 3½ hours from Chicago. Greg can be very persistent, and I’m glad he was!
The central sands of Wisconsin were formed by the lake bed of an ancient glacial lake, dammed by a mile-high sheet of ice which burst free 12,000 years ago. Since then this land has been the battleground between prairie and forest. It has characteristics of both: grasses, flowers, scattered oaks and pines – all lying on pure glacial sand.
GA: In Australia we’re used to playing golf 12 months of the year and it amazes me that so many of the great American courses are only open for about half that time. How much of a risk is that for a new venture and how does only being open for six months affect how you operate?
MKJ: Opening a course for six months of the year is risky. The greatest challenge is retaining employees from year to year. We’ll see how it works. Cabot’s season is a few months shorter and the site is far more remote and has been a success nonetheless. Luckily for us, Rome is a beautiful place to play in the winter. The cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are world class and the expansive views are just as beautiful when they’re covered in snow. So we hope our guests will enjoy relaxing and playing here year-round one day.
The 5th and 6th holes at the remote Sand Valley in Wisconsin which will deliver a sense of adventure to golfers when it opens in 2017 – Interview: Mike Keiser Jr – The Keiser Philosophy – Issue 18 – Mike Cocking
GA: Is it fair to say that the combination of ‘Keiser’ and ‘Coore’ and ‘Crenshaw’ virtually guarantees the success of a new development because of the attention and hype those names create amongst the golfers of the world?
MKJ: Not at all. We need to continue to earn the trust of our guests with each resort we build. Complacency would certainly mean our demise. The reputation of my dad and Coore & Crenshaw will bring us exposure and customers during our first year, but if we do not exceed our guests’ expectations they will not return. Bill and Ben could easily leverage their reputation to build 10 courses or more a year. Instead they are committed to focusing 100% of their energy on growing as architects and building one or two at a time. We are all relentless in our efforts to continually improve the experience and enjoyment of our guests, and the quality of our golf courses.
GA: When you’re looking at new sites, what are the issues you focus on the most?
MKJ: The only thing that matters when looking at a new site is the quality of the land. Is it unique? Does it have a variety of topography? Is the ground cover interesting? We look for land that has great “shot value” as well as a WOW factor that will excite our guests.
GA: Where would you next like to explore for golf?
MKJ: I’d like to spend my life exploring the land around Sand Valley and building golf courses here. However, there are sites in Australia that are among the best I’ve ever laid eyes on and it would be thrilling to live in Australia again.
GA: There have been some great courses built in the past 20 years which are a looooong way from any populated area. Sand Hills is one, Cabot another and now your new course at Sand Valley. Do you see that as an impediment or do you find that it actually helps business as guests don’t want to just drive an hour, they want to get on a plane which means accommodation, meals and a sense of adventure?
MKJ: We are a nation of adventurers. In the 21st century, most of us lack real adventure in our day to day lives. So I think our guests enjoy the adventure of traveling into the wilderness to pursue the game they love so much. At its best, the game of golf is an adventure where the golfer is always dreaming about what lays around the corner and what surprises lurk on the next hole!
GA: So I have 200 acres of beautiful, rolling land on the sea that isn’t sand. Great views but drainage issues. Then I also have 200 acres of the most beautiful rolling sand dunes on an inland site. Both are the same distance from a major city. What’s your choice?
MKJ: I’ll take the sandy site every time. I recently saw one of the greatest rocky golf sites that you could ever imagine. I’m happy knowing that someone else will be drawn toward building it into a golf course – I look forward to visiting as a guest.
GA: Golf in Australia is very accessible – certainly compared with America. I’ve always liked the fact that pretty much anyone can play or even join our best courses (Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Barnbougle Dunes etc). I also really like the fact that your developments are publicly accessible after decades of very few great public access tracks being built. Was it a conscious decision to focus on public access? Is that a moral decision or a financial one?
MKJ: It has always been a moral decision for my dad. He never expected to make money at Bandon. He wanted to build something authentic, pure, unique, and public. Success followed.
GA: Have you ever been tempted by a certain property to create a private course (aside from the Dunes Club)?
MKJ: No. Last year I saw a fabulous site in Georgia. It was clear that the property wouldn’t work as a public destination but could be successful as a private club. That was that.
GA: Is there a price point you look to keep below? What does the average American consider too expensive?
MKJ: We’ve always strived to stay below half the price of the big resorts. Additionally, we like offering our second round of the day for half price and the third round for free. We hand a crisp $100 bill to the rare enthusiasts who walk off their 72nd hole of the day. Given our rates at Sand Valley, this means that some guests can actually make money playing 72 holes!
GA: You mentioned Iceland earlier… is there a certain level of remoteness that you feel is a step too far?
GA: Typically, how long have you found it takes between finding a new site and playing golf?
MKJ: The time it takes to develop a course is a function of analyzing the quality of the land, permitting, financing, design (however long it takes), and construction (again, however long it takes to make the best course we can). It has varied a lot over all of our projects.
GA: Do you ever spend time analyzing the local market before dipping a toe in the water?
MKJ: We spend 0 time analyzing markets…
GA: So I’m guessing then you’re not a facts-and-figures kind of guy when it comes to looking at a new property?
MKJ: It’s 100% feel. Is the topography exciting, varied, inspiring? The only way to determine that is to lace up your boots and walk.
GA: Sadly in Australia the caddy has all but disappeared yet it’s a wonderful way to play the game. How important are caddies to the experience of Destination Golf and to your business?
MKJ: Caddies spend four hours a day with our guests, so they’re critically important. We’re emphasizing Junior caddies at Sand Valley and our customers love their enthusiasm and the opportunity to mentor young men and women who are in the process of deciding what passion of theirs to pursue in life. One of our caddies wants to be a band teacher and another would like to join the air force.
With that said, some of our customers enjoy carrying their own bag. As long as our guests are walking, we’re happy!
GA: I think it’s fair to say we’re both huge fans of alternate facilities – ‘Himalayas’ putting greens, short courses, cross country practice areas and even now we’re seeing a return of reversible courses. You’ve been very innovative in incorporating such ‘non-conventional’ elements at your resorts… what are your thoughts on these?
MKJ: Bill and Ben have actually just begun building another variation of these, a “par-2” course here at Sand Valley. What’s great about what you’re building at Shady Oaks, the Himalayas at St Andrews and the 13-hole par-3 at Bandon is that they all remind us that golf is a game and should be fun. I hope that these alternative facilities play a large part of the game’s future. They’re a great way to learn the game, they’re fun to play, they don’t cost much to build and they require very little time to play (unless of course you decide to play over and over again!).