A Round With Mike Keiser

A links enthusiast lets nature take his course

In business or in golf, Mike Keiser has always gone against the grain. In the 1970s, when greeting card giants such as Hallmark were still writing syrupy messages on glossy stock, a twentysomething Keiser introduced witty, enviro-friendly cards that appealed to baby boomer sensibilities. And when Keiser, a passionate golfer, decided to take a fling at building courses, he rejected man-made artifices such as elevated greens. Instead, he chose to create throwback European links-style courses where enthusiasts could play "golf as it's meant to be."

Just as his Chicago-based Recycled Paper Greetings Inc. shook up the hidebound card business, Keiser's retro courses have taken the golf world by storm. In their first four years, Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes on the Oregon coast have opened to rave reviews. Golf critics say the two are among the best tandem courses in the world.

Keiser became hooked on golf as a teen, spending his summers caddieing at a course in Buffalo. As an English major at Amherst College, he stumbled onto what he jokes was "one of the four or five college golf teams bad enough for me to play on." His epiphany came in the 1980s, when a friend took him to New Jersey's Pine Valley and Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia, two legendary courses revered for their natural beauty and design. "Those two courses hooked me on golf architecture," Keiser says.

In the late 1980s, Keiser built a private nine-hole course near his summer home on Lake Michigan, and soon after began scouting the East Coast for a site suited to a links-style resort. He was about to give up when an Oregon real estate agent who heard about his search called and suggested he look at 1,200 seaside acres in Bandon, a depressed logging village an hour north of California. Keiser flew out -- and a week later inked a deal to buy the property perched on cliffs 100 feet above the Pacific for $2.5 million.

He hired a young Scottish architect, David McLay Kidd, who with Keiser's input laid out Bandon Dunes simply by following the natural terrain. "We never put anything down on paper. We just built it," says Kidd. For the true links experience, Keiser decreed that both Bandon and Pacific Dunes would be "walking" courses, where caddies are provided -- and golf carts are banned except for the truly needy.

As Keiser tees up one late September afternoon on Bandon Dunes with Kidd, myself, and Jim Haley -- the "shaper" who oversaw the actual construction -- it's clear the 58-year-old owner has become adept at links golf. He plays mostly bump-and-run shots onto the greens, and more than once uses his belly putter from up to 20 feet from the green's edge. He also hits most balls with a knockdown swing -- a half-swing, with his hands out in front of the club. This is to ensure the ball stays low, under the swirling winds blowing in off the Pacific. "It's a sad irony, but I think these courses have ruined my swing," jokes Keiser, who plays to a 12-handicap. "I play other courses with friends and they say, 'Hey, why don't you follow through on your drives?"'

No matter how you play it, at Bandon Dunes nature often has its way. On the second hole, an uphill 155-yard par 3, the winds catch Keiser's tee shot -- leaving it short and buried in the sand and thick Irish gorse that line much of the course. Keiser finally takes a drop and a one-stroke penalty, and even with a chip and two-putt, walks away with a double bogey. After making the turn at 50, his fortunes improve on the back nine. In particular, his low trajectory comes in handy on the 131-yard 15th hole. With the wind blowing in, it requires three extra clubs. While the others sail their tee shots wide of the green, Keiser hits a low-running drive that glides over the surrounding mounds and skips just off the green. Everyone else scrambles to salvage a 5 or 6, but Keiser chips on and two-putts for a bogey. His 94 for the round -- 13 off his personal best -- is respectable, given the winds and Bandon Dunes' slope rating of 141.

Although he already has a third course on the way, Keiser admits over dinner that he's obsessed with creating a course modeled on the original Lido Golf Club on Long Island, which was damaged when the Navy claimed the seaside land for its use during World War II. "Economically, we don't need more than three courses here," says Keiser. "But it's the idea of reviving the original Lido Club that stirs my soul." As his first two links courses show, Keiser would love nothing more than to take course design -- and the game of golf -- back to its roots.

By Dean Foust

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