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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Jason Lusk

Golfweek’s Father of the Year 2022: Mike Keiser, dad to four and founder of Bandon Dunes

Mike Keiser, the eminently pro-walking founder of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon and staunch supporter of the game on foot, had a surprisingly simple way to get his two sons interested in golf more than three decades ago.

“Hey, you wanna go ride in a golf cart?” Keiser said he would ask young sons Michael and Chris when he wanted to introduce them to the game.

It wasn’t about hitting shots, not about architecture, nor entirely about developing an ethos that would lead to a family golfing legacy. It was all about young kids having fun, no matter what it took. If that meant a ride in a golf cart at age 3, then those cart batteries better have been fully charged.

Those initial forays into the game for the father alongside his sons – near their Chicago home and at the family’s summer house in Michigan and at courses around the world – have led to one of the great family success stories in golf. After Mike developed Bandon Dunes in the late 1990s and stretched his reach into destinations such as Canada and soon St. Lucia, Michael and Chris followed suit. The sons have opened their own highly ranked resort at Sand Valley in Wisconsin and plan to extend into new territories as well.

Mike Keiser plays at his sons’ Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley in Wisconsin on opening day in 2017. (Courtesy of Sand Valley/Jeffrey R. Bertch)

But this isn’t a business story. Not a golf development story, per se – barrels of ink have been expended in telling those stories of how the Keisers built and contributed to a new market for links-style resort golf in the U.S. and beyond. This is a story of how a father got his sons into the game and piqued their curiosity about what might be possible in golf, course and resort development, and beyond.

Golfweek has since 1983 – with a recent two-year break because of COVID-19 – selected a Father of the Year in all of golf, and the list includes players, fathers of players, business leaders and regular dads who possess an irregular knack for fostering a passion for golf among their kids. This year that Father’s Day honor goes to Mike Keiser in reflection not of his business success but instead for his approach to helping sons Michael and Chris find their own paths into golf by sharing his knowledge and curiosity, his contacts, his love of fun courses and only occasionally his money.

And it all began with good times in golf carts, smacking balls along the shoreline of Lake Michigan and playing cross-country golf through the woods on land that later would become Mike’s first golf development, the highly rated, nine-hole and private Dunes Club in Michigan.

“For me, it was always a game, and it was a made-up game,” said Michael, now 40. “We didn’t really start by playing golf. We had golf clubs and golf balls, but they were always games on the beach in front of our house in Michigan.”

Mike would sometimes hit balls into Lake Michigan, then pay Michael to don a snorkel and retrieve them, Michael said. It was all part of a great adventure.

“My dad is a Tom Sawyer figure; I’ve always thought of him as Tom Sawyer,” Michael said in reference to Mark Twain’s character who can talk his friends into taking on his tasks with a smile and charisma. “He convinced me that retrieving his golf balls out of the lake was the funnest thing in the world. A lot of my introduction, I guess you could say, was empowering his practice, but I couldn’t have had more fun doing it.”

There’s that word again. Fun. Want to get your kids into golf? Keep that in mind.

“I have fond memories of Snickers bars and Reese’s and Cokes and putting around,” Chris, 34, said of his early days around the Dunes Club. “There’s just this kind of fun association with the place. When I got into actually trying to play, he would encourage me to tee it up in the fairway and keep it fun, not really keeping score.”

The new Sheep Ranch course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon (Courtesy of Bandon Dunes)

That goal of fun golf has been a frequent theme as the family has expanded its reach in the game. Mike was looking to transport the enjoyable and accessible game played on links courses in the United Kingdom and Ireland to the U.S., and after much searching for a perfect site, he chose the remote coastline of Oregon to introduce a different kind of golf to an American market. It wasn’t about resistance to scoring, never about overly green grass, and not strictly about birdies versus bogeys. He believed there was an underserved U.S. market of golfers looking for fun above all else, and he set out to develop that market.

The results have been legendary, as Bandon Dunes now operates five full-size courses that rank among the best in the world, as well as a gorgeous par-3 course named The Preserve that helped reinvigorate the appetite for short courses at U.S. resorts. And his dream continues at Bandon Dunes, as he plans to add yet more holes.

Mike’s involvement in the development of Cabot and its two incredible links-style courses in Nova Scotia – in partnership with Ben Cowan-Dewar – further cemented his status as a premium developer of a new kind of resort and golf-first ethos that has been frequently imitated in recent decades.

Family trips often involved the sport as the boys grew. They are two among four siblings born to Mike and wife Lindy, with sisters Leigh and Dana following their own pursuits that didn’t involve golf. Mike and Lindy now have eight grandchildren, two per each of their own children.

“Having and raising children is the most important thing you ever do,” said Mike, a native of East Aurora near Buffalo, New York, who served in the U.S. Navy before cofounding a greeting card company, Recycled Paper Greetings, that would grow to be one of the largest in the U.S.

Both boys played other sports, and their interests in golf would sometimes ebb and flow, they each said. But Mike had a way of sparking their interest time and again. He once took a young-teen Chris and his cousin, Scott, on a tour of Scotland that included rounds at Royal Dornoch – a Mike Keiser favorite ­­– and Brora Golf Course, which is famed among experienced golf travelers for having sheep and cattle grazing the fairways and fences around the greens to keep the livestock out.

All that great golf and history and architecture and all those kinds of things were fantastic for the grown-ups, Mike said, but the kids found another unexpected reason to laugh.

“Chris and Scott found a ball in a cow pie, and they said ‘Watch this,’ and they blasted out of cow pies,” Mike said with a laugh. “So I took them to play golf at Brora, and what was the highlight? Golf balls in cow pies.

“So moms and dads out there, if you’re playing golf with your younger kids, don’t expect them to like golf for the same reason you do. They’ll appreciate the views and et cetera et cetera, but it will take something like their ball landing in a cow pie to really get their attention. There’s more than one path to getting your kids to joining you in golf.”

The same could be said for the sons’ growing involvement in resort development. Michael finished college and worked in golf operations at Barnbougle, which his dad helped finance in Tasmania, before branching into residential development. Chris became a teacher for two years after college, then worked in digital golf sales. Neither went straight to work for their dad, instead finding their own way back to resort development over the years. Chris eventually landed a job working on digital initiatives for Bandon Dunes, and he and Michael paired up to open Sand Valley in 2016 in remote central Wisconsin, with their resort adding a second 18, Mammoth Dunes, in 2017.

Though Mike was involved as much more than interested spectator, it was up to the brothers to make Sand Valley work. Michael said that his dad bought the forested land and brought in founding members who provided seed capital, but the boys were responsible for most of the financing and on-the-ground decisions. It was their project, boom or bust. Dad, to a great extent, got out of the way.

“The best thing was that it was their idea, each step of the way,” said Mike, who didn’t want to be a controlling force as his sons built their own names in the industry. “It’s not good if you say, ‘Son, I’ll pay you twice as much as you’d make on the outside if you work for me.’ I don’t like that model. I prefer the model that Chris and Michael did that was sort of aligned, to get a sense of the industry and then shift to Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley. … Some dads push kids to work with the dad. Let them choose. Let their path be their path.”

Sand Valley in Wisconsin (Courtesy of Sand Valley/Brandon Carter)

Mike said his sons make a nice team, a mesh of Michael’s interest in sales and marketing and Chris’ skills in operations big and small. Both sons mentioned processes and methodology learned from their dad as keys to success, including one trait of their father when asked what they thought might surprise outsiders most.

“He’s extremely curious, everywhere he goes,” Chris said. “He’s deeply curious. That’s also reflected when we travel. He’s always asking people about the area. What’s it like to live here? What are the schools like? I think that can be disarming to people who maybe know who he is, know him in the world of golf and maybe expect him to be this intimidating character – he’s really not that way. … He has a common touch; it’s just part of who he is.”

Michael echoed those sentiments.

“One of the methods we learned before we even knew we were learning it, was just the curiosity of learning every day,” Michael said. “Growing up, if we were in a taxi cab, my dad would get to know the driver and ask him a hundred questions. Waiting in line at a restaurant, ask more questions. I think he trained us to be curious, to be unafraid to ask questions. …

“You don’t have to know everything, but there is probably somebody out there who knows the answers. Find that person, and ask them questions.”

As the family continues to expand its operations – in Florida, in the Caribbean, possibly in Scotland and beyond – there isn’t necessarily a lot of time for reflection. There’s too many great golf holes in interesting location to build. But the boys will keep one lesson in mind, as frequently expressed by their dad.

“He taught us that to whom much is given, even more is expected,” Michael said. “And nobody has been given more opportunities in the golf industry than my brother and me. Maybe Young Tom Morris, right? It’s not lost on us that we’ve been handed these opportunities. …

“We learned from so many adventures. We grew from those and we learned our own boundaries. My dad thought kids should learn from their mistakes. Go out there and take risks. Whatever the opposite of a helicopter parent is, that’s what he was. If he had just shared his wisdom, we wouldn’t have learned it for ourselves. We had to go learn it for ourselves. … He doesn’t offer a lot of advice per se, but he introduced us to incredible opportunities.”

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