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A Resort Developer Who Puts the Emphasis on Golf, Not Real Estate

This article is part of our latest special report on International Golf Homes, about some of the top spots to live and play. Mike Keiser started …

A Resort Developer Who Puts the Emphasis on Golf, Not Real Estate

This article is part of our latest special report on International Golf Homes, about some of the top spots to live and play.

Mike Keiser started building Bandon Dunes, a remote golf destination in Bandon, Ore., with little care as to where the golfers who came might stay after they played.

Bandon is certainly hard to get to: It is hours away from any airport and a five-hour drive from Portland. But in the late 1990s, Mr. Keiser felt the time was right. He also had the funds to make it happen, having built a successful greeting card company, which he sold for $250 million in 2005. And he wanted to test his theory that golfers in America would love links golf — an old form of the sport, invented in Scotland, involving a more open landscape and generally near the water — if exposed to it.

“I expected we’d have 10,000 rounds the first year, which was the break-even number,” Mr. Keiser said. “We did 24,000 that first year and that basically paid for two years of development.”

Bandon Dunes, built along a barren stretch of the Oregon coast, has 1,200 acres, 48 rooms and a clubhouse. The club and vacation homes were added by Mike Keiser at the urging of Howard McKee, an early partner.Credit…Bandon Dunes Golf Resort

Even with that sort of success, Bandon needed somewhere for players to stay. Enter an early partner, Howard McKee. At Mr. McKee’s urging, Mr. Keiser built a clubhouse with 12 rooms and four guest cottages with individual rooms for group trips. “It was self-funding after the initial investment in 1,200 acres of land, 48 rooms and a clubhouse,” Mr. Keiser said. “But that wouldn’t have been possible if Howard hadn’t made me build the rooms and the clubhouse. I give him kudos for that.”

Mr. Keiser is one of the most successful golf developers of the past three decades. From barren, coastal land in Oregon, he created a new template for the stay-and-play buddies’ trip. He has since built three more.

His model is the reverse of many developers who lead with real estate and fit the golf in around it: Mr. Keiser puts the golf courses first, then he listens to what the local market wants. Today his name is spoken of among serious golfers in the same manner as top players and star architects: with reverence, a bit of jealousy and a good deal of amazement.

Soon, he was expanding. In 2014, he had opened Cabot Links on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and has recently begun development on Cabot St. Lucia in the Caribbean, both with an outside partner, Ben Cowan-Dewar. In between, he helped spread the model to Sand Valley, a golf resort his sons Michael and Chris opened in 2017 in central Wisconsin.

Sand Valley and Cabot Links both have real estate developments within the resort. Cabot St. Lucia is experiencing a pandemic-driven boom in demand for its homes — even though the resort is still years from opening.

At Bandon, however, Mr. Keiser had a practical reason to build temporary dwellings and not vacation homes: He could not imagine golfers’ successfully selling their families on trekking out to a vacation home in coastal Oregon.

“The Bandon brand is it’s cold and windy and it rains a lot,” Mr. Keiser said. “Does that sound like a marketing hook? Had we tried, we would have failed.”

Two decades on, Bandon, with its five full-length courses, two short courses and international reputation, has remained a “spartan” experience, as Mr. Keiser’s son Michael put it. But the resorts under the Keiser brand that have come since Bandon have all found a way to include real estate without cheapening the golf experience with Florida-style condos lining every fairway.

“Most developers try to maximize the amount of real estate they can put around their golf course,” Michael Keiser said. “We sell just enough real estate to fuel our golf addiction.”

The market for Sand Valley, unlike Bandon Dunes, is one where most guests are driving less than three hours to get to a part of Wisconsin known for vacationing. So the homes can be rented and earn income for their owners.

The Sand Valley golf resort in central Wisconsin was built to be family-friendly. “We got golf going first, but we’re adding other things like a pool and a pool house and court tennis,” said Michael Keiser, Mike Keiser’s son.Credit…Sand Valley

“It doesn’t go against the spirit of Sand Valley,” Michael Keiser said. “Our guests love staying in them. By selling real estate we’re also able to give our resort guests more of what they want, like fire pits and screened porches.”

Yet, like his father, Michael Keiser said he was resisting the siren call of money from home sales. He has built only 15 homes at Sand Valley with eight more in the works.

“We just want to sell enough to house our resort guests and fund golf courses,” he said. “I’d rather spend my time building great golf courses, and the real estate lets me do that.”

At Cabot Links, which opened in 2012, real estate has come slower. For years, Mike Keiser was uninterested in partnering with the prospective developer, Mr. Cowan-Dewar, then a 20-something Canadian golf enthusiast, and did not return his calls.

“A friend convinced me to take his call,” Mr. Keiser said. “The deal was land for a dollar. It was remote, but I’d already done that.”

“When I finally went there,” he added, “I was flabbergasted that it looked that good.”

Cabot sold out its original 19 villas in 2014, but it only recently got zoning approval for 29 additional homes at its second golf course. Those homes sold quickly and are now funding other improvements. Mr. Keiser said that he had never wanted to rush a development and that he had been fortunate to have the money to take his time.

After surveying the original homeowners, Mr. Cowan-Dewar said people wanted more non-golf amenities like tennis, walking trails and barns for exercise and entertaining. “As people live in these places, they behave differently than if they just come for golf,” he said. “You start to go to the beach. You don’t just play 18 holes when you arrive, then 36 holes the next day and 36 holes the day after that.”

Mr. Keiser did not balk at the different formula. One of his business philosophies is to listen to the clients and shape the resort around what they want.

“You need to find the best property you can, but then sit next to the first tee and ask people what they want,” Michael Keiser said.

The Dunes Club in New Buffalo, Mich., was an early acquisition of Mike Keiser. A nine-hole course, it is not far from Lake Michigan. Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

His father takes that approach literally: When Cabot Links opened, he eschewed the ceremonial first round, and instead sat with Mr. Cowan-Dewar on the first tee, asking people what they liked and disliked.

Largely because of its geographical location, the project underway in St. Lucia is the most different. There is nothing cold or unpleasant about the golf season there and it has been a pandemic escape, which Mr. Cowan-Dewar credits for selling out the first 42 homes upon their release.

Per the Keiser formula, the golf course in St. Lucia came first: Nine of 18 greens will be on the ocean and the course is being designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, acclaimed architects who have also built courses at the other Keiser resorts.

The philosophy of Sand Valley has evolved to be something different still — not a dream buddies’ trip or a Caribbean escape but a family-friendly vacation spot.

“Our goal is not spartan, it’s comfort,” Michael Keiser said. “The non-golf activities are the difference at Sand Valley. We got golf going first but we’re adding other things like a pool and a pool house and court tennis.”

In addition to its two existing courses at Sand Valley, a third is about to be approved. For hard-core golfers, one of the Keiser family’s favorite course architects, Tom Doak, is in the process of recreating the Lido, a revered Long Island course that closed after World War II. The new Lido, scheduled to open in 2023, will have just 17 homes, with half of them for rent to provide 50 guest beds. Additional rooms might be added above the club house, if needed, he said.

“Part of that secret sauce is that nimbleness and ability to flow and adapt,” Michael Keiser said. “Just like at Bandon, my dad didn’t set out to build all these courses. He set out to do what was immediately in front of him.”

The success of Bandon begot the subsequent resorts, but that success required a wholesale reimagining of what the golf vacation would be.

It started with the land. Then Mr. Keiser added architects who were little known — David McLay Kidd, now a sought-after designer, had yet to design a course when he was selected at age 26 to build the first Bandon course, which opened in 1999. And he asked the designers to make the courses fun, not penal as many top courses had been.

“I’m using a no-name inexperienced golf architect at a remote site that had no chance of succeeding,” Mr. Keiser said. “It was ridiculous that it could work. But I had the money to lose, which was good because no bank would have financed it.”

That risk has been rewarded. In addition to a steady stream of golf tourists at all the resorts, Bandon was just awarded 13 national championships from the United States Golf Association over the next two decades, starting with the U.S. Junior Amateur next year. Mr. Keiser is proud of getting the recognition but prouder still of having the courses to do something that, again, hasn’t been done before.

When Bandon hosts the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Amateur in 2032, the tournaments will be played the same week. “With five courses, we can have two televised golf tournaments going on at the same time,” he said. “It will be very important for girls golf. I’m very proud of that. That’s the direct result of having enough golf courses.”


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