Bandon Dunes is Back in the News!
With 13 upcoming USGA championships and more new courses, Mike Keiser can’t stop growing his resort and the game
By Matt Ginella
I often think about the time Mike Keiser told me Bandon Dunes would go to the USGA in his will. It was around 2007. Keiser thought his sons were too young to run Bandon, and in his mind, who better to shepherd this civic trust than the stewards of the game at the USGA? He said something like: “It would make for a great West Coast office.”
A lot has happened since then. Not only are there more courses at Bandon, but Keiser also added Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia. He gave his sons, Chris and Michael—who learned every aspect of the business by working at Bandon and Barnbougle in Tasmania—their own development at Sand Valley in Nekoosa, Wisc., and its success proved they we were ready to take the baton of the family business. Keiser also has put money into Cabot Saint Lucia, where Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are building something new for Ben Cowan-Dewar, the co-developer at Cabot. And there are more possibilities in Florida, Colorado, California and Canada.
But let’s cut to June of 2020 at Bandon Dunes. In a mask and at a safe distance, I attended the opening of the Sheep Ranch, the fifth 18-hole course at the resort. With all of the changes through the years, the remote caddie-only destination has never changed its focus: great value and a memorable experience that guarantees a return customer. Golf as it was meant to be.
“I don’t see there being any more courses at Bandon Dunes,” Keiser told me prior to the Sheep Ranch opening.
Two months later, Bandon hosted the U.S. Amateur, and not unlike Arnold Palmer at the dawn of the TV age in the 1960s, there was a serendipitous synchronicity of a captive audience and a star who over-delivered. The wide shots of the coastline, the tight shots of tighter lies, whitewater, wispy grass, wind-blown bunkering, the ball rolling this way and that … the world was fascinated by the Oregon optics. And according to Bandon management, the phones haven’t stopped ringing.
“The U.S. Amateur or the Walker Cup were always the Holy Grails,” says Josh Lesnik, president of Kemper Sports, which manages Bandon Dunes. Lesnik was the first general manager of the resort, when he was in his late 20s; he was literally in on the sand floor. “But to be honest, we never really thought about hosting anything like that until [USGA fixture] Mike Davis took a look and liked it,” says Lesnik. “That’s a big part of this. Mike Davis came out early, and the fact that he liked what he saw, that pushed it over the top for the USGA.”
Now here it is, July of 2021, a quarter-century into the development of Bandon, and news just broke that not only is Keiser looking to develop a sixth 18-hole course, but also that the USGA will be bringing 13 amateur championships to the site across the next 24 years, including the Walker Cup, two more U.S. Amateurs, three Women’s Amateurs, a Curtis Cup and four U.S. Juniors split evenly between the boys and girls.
“I never dreamed Bandon Dunes would be as popular as it is,” Keiser said by phone on Tuesday evening, just before sitting down to dinner with one of his granddaughters. “That popularity enables us to have these tournaments.”
Keiser credits Lesnik with wooing Davis and Davis for believing “championships on linksland are where they belong.”
Pinehurst doesn’t sit along a coastline but the sand-based venue plays like it is, and the USGA likes the place so much it recently declared No. 2 the anchor to a rotation of U.S. Open venues, just as the Old Course defines the Open rota. Now Bandon will be the home of the elite amateur game in the same way.
And the resort continues to evolve: Next week 24 new rooms will open, with 48 more under construction. One insider told me some of the new lodging will line the ridge along the fourth fairway of Old Mac, which is also going to get a clubhouse (with a steakhouse) overlooking the 18th green. Not far from there will be another Punchbowl putting course, because you can’t have enough of those. Keiser has also committed to building the short course Tom Doak laid out several years ago, because you can’t have enough of those either. (I remember seeing a flag in the sand to the right side of the second tee of Bandon Trails, among some of the wooliest dunes on the property.) But if the sixth big course gets approval—and that’s a big if—Keiser says at least 72 more rooms will be added. No wonder he’s expanding his employee subdivisions, which ensures his staff and caddies have affordable housing.
For all of the new developments coming out of Bandon, it’s the possibility of the sixth course that set the golf world on fire when the news was first reported by Joel Beall of Golf Digest on Tuesday. Keiser confirmed to me the Sheep Ranch has been such a success he unearthed the idea of utilizing the land he owns seven miles south of the resort. This was long slated to be the “Bandon Muni”: 27 holes by Gil Hanse in which locals would get dirt-cheap green fees while everyone else would pay resort rates. At Bandon Muni, Keiser had plans for a junior caddie academy and other ideas with a philanthropic slant. To make it work, he believed he needed a parcel of land owned by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission. After years of negotiations, the deal fell through. So Keiser and Phil Friedman, his college buddy and former business partner, built a fifth course to the north.
“Sheep Ranch has been so popular we can’t fit in everyone,” says Keiser.
In March, he called David McLay Kidd. In the late ’90s, Kidd was a brash Scottish no-name, but the 25-year-old savant brought true links golf to a wondrous stretch of the Oregon coastline. Bandon Dunes launched his career. Earlier this year, Keiser called Kidd because he wanted him to walk the dunesland he has owned for more than 20 years and offer a fresh take on the Bandon Muni site, which internally is being called New River Dunes, because it runs along the New River.
Kidd spent weeks developing a plan.
“As we walked the course, I’ve never seen Mike so excited,” says Kidd. If New River Dunes gets done, Kidd would be the man to build the first and (almost surely) last courses at Bandon. “Poetic,” Kidd says. “That’s how I’d describe it.”
The site (above and below photos) has dunes as tall as 130 feet, which would make it by far the wildest and most undulating Bandon experience. Kidd’s proposed routing is a par-70, but “unbalanced, in that it’s not two par-35s,” he says. “It follows the flow of the land. And it ends on a par-3.”
“David is the guy,” says Keiser. “He understands the ‘golf is fun’ thing.’”
And yet Kidd had fallen out of favor because after Bandon he started building something other than fun. Keiser does not like wildly undulating greens. He passed on Hanse for the Sheep Ranch after seeing the extreme putting surfaces at Streamsong Black, and he often softens a lot of what Tom Doak designs. That was part of the problem with what Kidd built at Tetherow and the Castle Course near St. Andrews. In Doak’s course rating system, the Castle scored a zero.
Then came Gamble Sands in Brewster, Wash., the Kidd design that opened in 2014. Keiser doesn’t own it, but he played it and he loved it. Big. Open. Options everywhere. People smiling. Keiser has an idiosyncratic rating system in which he gives every hole a score: 1 to 10. Gamble Sands averaged a little better than a 7, which is apparently damn good for such a discerning critic. And while walking the proposed routing on New River Dunes, Kidd says it wasn’t until reaching the 13th tee that Keiser had given any proposed hole less than a 9.
“It’s the easiest I’ve ever seen, identifying holes tee to green amongst these massive dunes,” says Kidd. “They’re all just right there in front of you.” But he also acknowledged the reality and the complexities of trying to build anywhere near the coast.
“The biggest problem is permits,” says Kidd, who is only cautiously optimistic this vision will become a reality.
And if it does …
“Holy Moly! People are going to think they’re at Ballybunion,” Keiser says. “It will be big. There will be some shared fairways. It’ll be more unique than the Lido Club,” which is the new Doak re-creation of the lost C.B. Macdonald design, which will be the third 18-hole course at Sand Valley. “And the Lido is going to be U-nique!”
I’ve seen pictures. Hard to disagree.
Keiser’s two sons own and operate Sand Valley. Chris and Michael revere what their father has created, yet are making their own way with a deftly crafted personal style. For example, at Sand Valley you’ll see tennis courts, food trucks and a community garden. What they’re doing and how they’re doing it is working, which is not a surprise if you spend any time with either of them. Michael is focused on the land and development, Chris on the business and marketing.
“I’m so happy for my dad,” says Michael. “Back when I was a kid, I remember him talking about his dream to host a USGA championship. It’s pretty amazing to think he’ll now be hosting 13 USGA championships for decades into the future.” He pauses. “I guess he didn’t dream big enough,” Michael says with a laugh.
“There does seem to have been a progression here,” said Keiser, as he was breaking away for that dinner date with Simone, his seven-year-old granddaughter.
And in all my conversations with Keiser, he has never let me go without a parting thought. It’s usually an idea he tosses out as if to test his theory or get feedback on a concept he’s considering. One time it was that high school golf should be match play instead of stroke play; it saves some kids the embarrassment of posting a high score and lets everyone just play for a team point. Another time it was the notion of extremely forward tees to manage egos and a fun factor for an aging clientele who don’t hit it as far as they used to. There was once the idea of more hot tubs at Bandon, which sounded good but was deemed too expensive both to build and insure. And then, as Sheep Ranch was being built, he hit me with this: “What do we think about no sand bunkers anywhere on the course?” Which saves on money and maintenance and improves pace of play.
So what was it this time?
“One thing I hope the USGA considers is playing some of the men’s and women’s events, or boy’s and girl’s events, simultaneously. One of the benefits of adding a sixth course is that we could do it, not just consecutively, but at the same time. And I think something like that would be great for both girl’s and women’s golf. Which would be great for golf in general.”
Seed planted. And now watch Mike Keiser as he keeps growing the game.
For more on the building of Bandon Dunes, with Keiser, Kidd, Lesnik, Coore, Crenshaw and more, here’s a two-part Fire Pit podcast from Season 1: