Keiser Goes Against Grain To Develop Courses

RSS

BANDON, Ore. -- Mike Keiser stops to point out a giant dandelion growing in the path overlooking the classic seaside links golf course he carved out of the sand and gorse in this remote corner of the Oregon coast.
 
``You can't go to a golf course and see a weed like this,'' Keiser said. ``It's part of the wildness here. It's part of the wildflower thing. They don't build them like that in the United States.''
 
Keiser has risked going against the grain and found success - first with a recycled paper greeting card company before the environment became a hot-button word, and now with a third world-class golf course in a state better known for rain than sunshine.
 
A monument to the ancient roots of golf as it was played in Scotland and Ireland, the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort has become a hot destination for golfers around the world and a bright spot in a local economy still trying to find its feet after the collapse of the fishing and timber industries.
 
Two courses - Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes - are on Golf Digest's top 100 in the country. A third, Bandon Trails, opened this month and is drawing rave reviews. They are all links courses, carved out of seaside sand in a tradition that grew out of knocking a little ball around the poor lands between the sea and farm fields with a stick.
 
``The best courses, with a few exceptions, are built on the ocean in sand,'' Keiser said. ``We believe, as links purists, that you can't beat wind for informing ripples, forms and shapes. It works because it is so natural and wild.''
 
And there are no fairway homes to spoil the view, even though ocean-view lots on the Oregon coast can go for $1 million. That would violate Keiser's unspoken compact with golf enthusiasts.
 
``As soon as we do, it changes the whole feel of the place,'' he said. ``It becomes more common. And because the avid golfers have come here, the unspoken compact I have is that as long as they are coming here, I won't change what they like about it.''
 
Keiser, 60, grew up spending every daylight summer hour caddying or playing golf at East Aurora Country Club outside Buffalo, N.Y.
 
Facing the draft after majoring in romance poetry at Amherst College, he joined the Navy and served stateside blowing up old bombs. Afterward, on the last night of a ski trip to Colorado, he dreamed of starting a business based on recycled paper. Keiser's wife wanted him to go to Harvard Business School, but his college roommate, Phil Friedmann, liked the idea.
 
In 1971, a year after the first Earth Day, they pooled $500 each and started Recycled Paper Greetings, Inc., in Chicago. Though Keiser's father saw no future in the venture, he guaranteed half the $15,000 first printing bill.
 
The company has grown to 850 employees with $100 million in sales that rank it a distant third behind Hallmark and American Greetings, said Keiser, who remains an owner and regularly shuttles between the company's headquarters in a former dairy building and Bandon Dunes.
 
Financial success allowed Keiser to indulge his passion for golf - he carries a 12 handicap - traveling the world, playing the top courses. He decided the best were the classic links courses of Scotland and Ireland, and the best way to enjoy them was to walk.
 
In 1986, he bought 60 acres along Lake Michigan near his summer home and, inspired by Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey, built a nine-hole links course. His first Oregon course, Bandon Dunes, opened in 1999.
 
Keiser acknowledges a few sleepless nights.
 
``What was the Oregon brand? Rain. You go to St. Louis and try to sell Bandon Dunes in March, they look at you and say, `Why do I want go there when I can go to Florida or Arizona?'' he said.
 
Keiser figured he could open the first course for $3 million, but architect Howard McKee persuaded him to spend about $15 million, including rooms and facilities. Thanks to his personal fortune, Keiser needed little outside financing.
 
``If you want to give something a try, you need your own money,'' Keiser said.
 
As it turned out, the rain was overrated, and no deterrent to a golf destination that was different.
 
Keiser would have been happy to draw 10,000 rounds of golf a year, but soon was getting 30,000. Last year, the two courses drew 70,000 rounds, said general manager Hank Hickox.
 
Bandon Dunes, with its spectacular ocean views, is ranked this year by Golf Digest as 28th best in America, sixth among public courses. Pacific Dunes, which followed in 2001, ranks 22nd, fourth among public courses. Bandon Trails, which opened this month and was designed in part by Ben Crenshaw, is widely expected to get a top ranking, too.
 
All this despite the fact that the fairways turn a little brown in the summer and able-bodied golfers have to walk, in the links tradition.
 
``Wild and natural. It is a good walk spoiled,'' Kaiser said. ``But it is a good walk, first and foremost.''
 
Dana Woudenberg and Jed Billings belong to several country clubs around Phoenix, but came to Bandon Dunes on a golf safari that began at Pebble Beach to see what all the buzz was about. They found Bandon hard to get to, but worth the trouble.
 
``It's nothing like back home, but that's why we're here,'' Woudenberg said. ``He took a huge risk to do it this way.''
 
``You know what impressed me?'' added Billings. ``You have to walk it. That's the way golf ought to be played.''
 
Bandon Dunes is not cheap - $175 a round in high season if you are staying at the resort, $225 if you are not. But it's open to the public, and about half the $425 to play Pebble Beach. A second round the same day is half price and a third free, with certain restrictions. Rates are lower in winter.
 
``They try to say this is for rich people,'' Keiser said. ``I found it a little off-putting and not in keeping with what golf is, where it starts, how it is played in Ireland. In Ireland it's like bowling. They leave the factory, and play golf 'til they've got to be home. This place attracts avid golfers, and avid golfers in general agree with me that it's a classless sport.''
 
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.