By Gary D'Amato, Global Golf Post/Biz
ROME, WISCONSIN | A chicken sandwich has been placed in front of Michael Keiser in the Mammoth Bar & Lounge at the Sand Valley Resort, but it will be ice cold before he takes the final bite. Keiser is talking about the destination resort that he and his brother, Chris, manage in central Wisconsin and about the three other resorts they hope to bring out of the ground in the United States and, well, there’s no time to eat when there’s so much to say.
“Generally, I talk with my mouth full, anyways,” he says. “So if you’re not offended, I’ll just keep yapping.”
Keiser, who splits his time between residences in Madison, Wisconsin, and at Sand Valley, is at the resort to look at a proposed site for a putting course that would become, at some 400,000 square feet, the biggest in the world. Across the street from the resort, founding members of the Lido are getting their first look at Tom Doak’s much-publicized re-creation of a “lost” C.B. Macdonald/Seth Raynor course on Long Island.
“We’re letting 20 members a day play nine holes,” Keiser says. “It’s a newborn. We want to welcome the public, but we can’t do that until next year when the grass is mature enough to withstand the traffic.”
While that is happening, the 121st Wisconsin State Amateur Championship is being contested on the Mammoth Dunes and Sand Valley courses.
“There’s a lot going on,” Keiser concedes. “I worry that there’s too much, but the team is killing it.”
“I think we take some of those non-golf things and push it a little farther. Why is that? Maybe part of it is the stage of life we’re at. We both have young families and we want Sand Valley – partly selfishly – to be accessible not only for golfers but for families.” – Chris Keiser
The team is led, philosophically and in all other ways that matter, by the Keiser brothers. Michael, contrary to what has been written countless times, is not a Jr. He and his father, Mike Keiser, the developer of Bandon Dunes, have different middle names. Michael is 41 and Chris, who is based in Chicago, is 34.
Mike Keiser bought the land that would become Sand Valley, but it is his sons who have shepherded its growth and who are making the decisions about its future and other projects. At some point, the elder Keiser reasoned, the boys would have to sink or swim on their own. Turns out that when it comes to golf course development, they’re Michael Phelps times two.
While the Lido was under construction, Doak was simultaneously working on Sedge Valley, another 18-hole course with an anticipated 2024 opening. Sand Valley is modeled after the uber-popular Bandon Dunes – from the bouncy, fescue fairways to the simple, rustic cottages – but it’s at Sedge Valley where the Keiser brothers are putting their own stamp on the resort. There are plans for a tennis center and a pool complex in addition to the putting course, a practice facility, new restaurants and real estate development.
Retail golf will always come first, second and third at a Keiser property, but the brothers are showing that they’re willing to push the envelope. One doesn’t associate a swimming pool, for instance, with anything their father ever did.
Chris and Michael Keiser don’t shy away from what they view as environmental obligations at Sand Valley and beyond.
“I think we take some of those non-golf things and push it a little farther,” Chris says. “Why is that? Maybe part of it is the stage of life we’re at. We both have young families and we want Sand Valley – partly selfishly – to be accessible not only for golfers but for families. We also think it can be additive to the golf experience, which is always the focus. If we do it right, it won’t feel like it’s competing with the core golf-destination experience.”
Like their father, the Keisers won’t shy away from what they see as obligations to the environment or to the game’s grass roots. To the former, they are restoring tens of thousands of acres of sand barrens and oak savanna in central Wisconsin. To the latter, Michael Keiser and his wife, Jocelyn, funded a $750,000 transformation of Glenway Golf Course, a nine-hole municipal course in Madison that was in danger of closing. Now called Glen Golf Park, the course welcomes walkers, birders, ultimate Frisbee, yoga classes and music festivals.
“It’s what golf needs more of, right?” Michael says. “Affordable golf. Accessible golf. We were out there the other day, and it was all teenagers or people in their early 20s. It was awesome.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the replication of the Lido, with fairway ripples and green contours re-created to the linear inch, is perhaps the boldest-ever undertaking in golf course architecture. The Lido was subsidized by founding members, each of whom paid $50,000 for a lifetime of free golf – and perhaps more to the point, bragging rights – and by the sale of a limited number of residential lots. Early indications are that the course has exceeded its considerable hype.
“It was nerve-racking, because the original Lido was a ‘10,’ ” Michael says. “If we build an ‘8’ at Sedge Valley, we’re going to be financially successful. We’re all going to be high-fiving Tom Doak and saying, ‘We did it!’ If we deliver an ‘8’ at the Lido, the only people to blame are me, Chris and Tom. We’d have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘We screwed up.’ ”
“We don’t necessarily want to build the destination for the world’s richest people. That’s an uninteresting community that I don’t want to live in.” – Michael Keiser
Doak and the Keisers were so committed to delivering the Lido – not a copy, but the actual course – that when a member of the maintenance crew pointed out something on the 15th hole that didn’t jibe with the historical record, the irrigation was ripped out so that a tweak could be made.
The Lido is private, but tee times will be set aside for Sand Valley guests. “Every amenity we ever build is going to be open to the public,” Michael vows.
Sedge Valley and the Lido won’t mark the end of growth at Sand Valley; already, sites have been identified for three more courses. Michael envisions the day when the resort, now encompassing about 13,500 acres, grows to 100,000 acres and becomes a “national park,” with eight or nine courses flowing in and out of restored habitat interspersed with “villages” of diverse communities.
“We don’t necessarily want to build the destination for the world’s richest people,” Michael says. “That’s an uninteresting community that I don’t want to live in. We want to build a ‘rich’ community. The cornerstone is golf, surrounded by a national park in which we want to build sustainable green, walking cities of the future.”
Chris Keiser says the family is “excited” by new potential projects at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.
At Bandon Dunes, plans are in the works for two more courses, along with additional housing for employees as part of a development plan at Old Macdonald. David McLay Kidd has done an 18-hole routing on land 15 minutes south of the resort (working name: Wild River). And there is a proposed routing for a second par-3 course just south of the Preserve.
“We’re really excited about the new potential projects,” Chris says. “Now, as we’ve learned from our dad and then with ourselves, many if not most potential projects don’t work out for one reason or another.”
Among those potential projects: the Keisers have identified three sites in other states ranging in size from 13,000 to 60,000 acres for more destination golf. Michael Keiser wouldn’t identify the locations, other than to confirm that one of them is in Colorado.
“We’re trying to bring them out of the ground,” he says. “We’re in pre-development – permitting, water – but we are actively working with architects. We have routings. So we have three new Sand Valleys that are coming around the country.”
Ultimately, the Keisers are going to build a lot more Dream Golf than did their father.
“We’re very competitive, but we shouldn’t be measured by quantity,” Michael says. “We started young. Our dad started when he was 55; he got us going in our early 30s. If we don’t build more golf, then we’re just sitting on our asses.”