fields of dreams
How Mike Keiser invented the Remote Architecture Movement
DIAMOND IN THE DUNES Mike Keiser, in 2007, surveying what would become Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia. Photograph by Tom Fowlkes
You might say it started when W.P. Kinsella wrote a baseball novel in 1982 called “Shoeless Joe” that used the haunting refrain, “If you build it, he will come.” The extraterrestrials of Stonehenge may have had the notion originally, but Kinsella’s mantra expressed perfectly that if you create something worthwhile, people will beat a path to your door. The book became a movie in 1989, and a solitary baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield romanced a generation. Within a decade two visionary golfers built their “Field of Dreams,” and the Remote Architecture Movement was born.
The first was in 1995 when Dick Youngscap hired Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore to design Sand Hills Golf Club on what was once the ocean floor in Nebraska, now ranked No. 8 on America’s 100 Greatest. The second was in 1999 when Mike Keiser opened the David McLay Kidd course at Bandon Dunes on coastal Oregon (No. 40). “There was something in the air that led us to links golf,” Keiser said recently.
Coore draws a stronger connection. He says if Youngscap hadn’t played Prairie Dunes, the Perry Maxwell links-style masterpiece in Hutchinson, Kan., 700 miles from the sea, he would never have built Sand Hills, and if Keiser hadn’t seen Sand Hills (he’s a founding member), we likely wouldn’t have Bandon Dunes, which begat Pacific Dunes (No. 21), Bandon Trails (No. 65), Old Macdonald (No. 72) and Sheep Ranch (No. 115) in Oregon. The sun now doesn’t set on Keiser’s properties from Nova Scotia, Canada, to Tasmania, Australia, to Saint Lucia in the Caribbean to our Best New Public Course of the Year in the middle of Wisconsin. A land rush of imitators have followed.
Keiser stands alone as the single most important positive force in golf during the past quarter century. When he started Recycled Paper Greetings in 1971, he was a pioneer of environmentally friendly products and later brought his passion for sustainability to golf. More than anyone, he has had a knack for doing well and doing good at the same time, which his two sons, Michael and Christopher, now propagate. Can you name another amateur who made a billion dollars in the golf business?
I first crossed paths with Mike in 1986, although we didn’t really know each other until years later. At the time Golf Digest’s Armchair Architect contest challenged readers to create the best golf hole based on a topographic map, and 22,000 filed intricate designs. Looking back now, two entrants stand out: a 10-year-old kid with a Black father and a Thai mother whose name was Tiger and a Chicago businessman who called our architecture editor Ron Whitten when the results were announced and politely demanded to know why he hadn’t won. Undeterred, Keiser bought 60 acres in Michigan, built the nine-hole Dunes Club and launched his new career as a golf-course developer.
Starting with two stated principles he applied them over and over with increasing success. The first is: “Dunes plus ocean equals great golf.” The other is what he calls “one plus one equals three.” One course at Bandon Dunes was a curiosity; a second made it a destination. “By the time we added the Coore-Crenshaw third course we proved that one plus one plus one equals seven,” he says. “In my lifetime, and I hope to live a little bit longer, I think there will be 10 courses at Bandon Dunes, a site that no one thought made any sense whatsoever back when we contemplated it.”
In listening to him over the years, I realized he had another principle of success: Never lose sight of the Retail Golfer. I’d not heard of the term before and asked Mike what it meant. He said: “I don’t want to say lousy golfers so I call them Retail Golfers.” His priority is the customers who pay for their green fees, dinner tabs and hotel rooms—not low-handicappers or pros who usually are freeloaders.
After World War II, when Golf Digest produced its first ranking called “America’s 200 Toughest Golf Courses,” the emphasis was on monster courses that challenged tournament players. Keiser took the game in a different direction. Tom Doak told me Keiser used to post the best-selling greeting cards in his office as a reminder of what was working. On any given day you can ask which of his courses are playing the most rounds, and he’ll know. The frequent answer is Bandon Dunes or Mammoth Dunes—both with oversize greens and wide-open fairways.
“Lousy golfers like hitting greens in regulation even if they three-putt,” he says, “and finishing with the same ball you start with is fun. The only thing worse than looking for your ball is looking for your partner’s ball.”
Keiser’s fourth principle I’ve come to appreciate is his commitment to walking and caddieing. His properties promote if not require walking and taking a caddie, which runs counter to most resort businesses dominated by cart revenue. Five hundred caddies work at Bandon Dunes; 85 percent of the rounds are played with caddies. His philanthropy for caddie scholarships is world-renowned. The Evans Caddie Scholarship Foundation honored him and his wife, Lindy, with its highest award this year, and his friends raised $7.3 million for a special Keiser caddie fund at the dinner.
The final element of his secret sauce I discovered in a talk he gave at the University of Chicago. He got into the recycled business because he thought customers would want to support ecology but found they cared only about price and quality. In fact, it was employees who cared about the environment, and his higher purpose allowed him to attract and retain a better workforce. The same has applied in golf—Keiser’s staff is known as the best for customer service, and his businesses are dedicated to supporting local communities. He would cringe at the metaphor, but Keiser is a walking Hallmark Christmas movie.
A few years ago, Mike invited me to a reunion with Dick Youngscap at Sand Valley. A foursome of old friends sat around a table and listened while they swapped stories and heaped praise on each other. These two pioneers had changed golf. They built it, and we all came. Youngscap, now 85, found perfection in one course and stayed. Keiser, 78, keeps going with no end in sight.