Bandon's Mike Keiser keeps building golf courses when others are shutting them down
By Peter Finch
Like a lot of people I know, I got home from a recent trip to Oregon's Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and immediately began dreaming about my next visit. Developer Mike Keiser has created something extraordinary, reflected not just in the accolades (it has four courses in our ranking of America's 100 Greatest) but in the satisfied smiles you see on golfers all over the property.
One knock on Bandon is that it's hard to reach, especially if your trip doesn't begin in the western U.S. But Keiser has a couple of other projects in the works that, if everything goes as planned, will bring the Bandon experience to the East Coast and the Midwest. The former is the Cabot Links Resort in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and the latter is Sand Valley in Rome, Wisc.
How can he keep building all these courses when news about the golf economy is generally so dour? The difference is the sand, he says.
"As you know, these are links golf courses built on sand and using fescue grass," Keiser explains. "Most U.S. courses are built on dirt. People love the links courses. They always have. They've flooded over to Ireland and Scotland for decades, for that reason. The Wisconsin courses won't be links because they're not on the ocean, but they will be virtually treeless and links-like."
Here are updates from Keiser both of these projects, as well as a third one near Bandon.
Keiser partnered with Canadian Ben Cowan-Dewar in 2007 to build the first course (pictured) and now they are adding a second 18, this one designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. "We're in the last two months of completion," Keiser says. "By sometime in September we'll have everything seeded, then we'll get through the winter and as early as next August, we'll probably have limited preview play for our hotel guests." He imagines an official opening for this second course, known as Cabot Cliffs, in 2016.
For the moment, getting to Cabot Links is every bit as tough -- if not tougher -- than Bandon Dunes. You fly into Halifax, then drive three and a half hours north. But Keiser is "95 percent confident" the government will build an airport nearer to the resort, with direct flights likely from Toronto if not New York and other U.S. cities eventually.
Right now there are 48 rooms on property. Keiser is building "at least" another 24 in time for the opening.
For this 1,500-acre site, set about an hour and 45 minutes north of Madison, Wis., Keiser imagines multiple courses. "We're near the final 18-hole routing" on the first, also designed by Coore and Crenshaw, Keiser says. "It will be final after a mid-August trip with Bill and Ben and my son, Michael, and me. We'll also nail down a final clubhouse site, at which point we'll begin grading the course. Next year we'll put in the irrigation, do the fine grading in September 2015, and by 2016 we'll have some founder play."
Founder play? Keiser rounded up 155 investors -- "friends who wanted to be part of a golf-course project" -- to help finance the development. It was a sort of Keiser Kickstarter. "They get all kinds of freebies," he explains, including a chance to play the course first.
He's already talking about starting a second course there. "My philosophy is 1 plus 1 equals 3," he says. "One course is a curiosity, two is a destination."
Who will design the second course? "Well, it's known that I think highly of the boy genius Tom Doak and also Gil Hanse," he says. "Bill and Ben's two key guys are Dave Axland and the Canadian architect Rod Whitman (who designed Cabot Links). They work as a team. So I'd say those three are all contenders." Keiser says he expects to have an announcement about the architect by November.
Eventually he'll build some lodging on site, but for the time being he expects guests will stay at the nearby Lake Arrowhead and Northern Bay resorts. "We want to help the existing economy," Keiser says.
This is a separate project, located a few miles down the road from Bandon Dunes. It's a 36-hole municipal facility that's to be designed by Hanse. Keiser has gotten approval from the state parks department to do a land swap that will make the project viable for him, and now he's waiting on federal Bureau of Land Management and Coos County approvals. "I estimate we'll get all that done in two years and then Gil Hanse can go to work," he says.