A resort developer with an emphasis on golf, not real estate

by | Sep 10, 2021 | Golf Courses

This article is part of our latest special report on International Golf Homes, which covers some of the best places to live and play.

Mike Keizer began building Bandon Dunes, a remote golf destination in Bandon, Oregon, not caring about where the golfers who came might stay after they played.

Bandon is certainly hard to get to: it’s hours from any airport and a five-hour drive from Portland. But in the late 1990s, Mr. Keizer felt the time was right. He also had the funds to make this happen after building 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 left golf – an ancient form of the sport. Invented in Scotland, with a more open landscape and generally close to water – when exposed to it.

“I expected that we would have 10,000 shots in the first year, that was the breakeven point,” said Keizer. “We made 24,000 in the first year and that basically paid off for two years of development.”

Despite this kind of success, Bandon needed a place to stay for the players. Enter an early partner, Howard McKee. At the urging of Mr. McKee, Mr. Keizer built a clubhouse with 12 rooms and four guest cottages with individual rooms for group travel. “After the initial investment in 1,200 acres, 48 ​​rooms and a clubhouse, it financed itself,” said Keizer. “But that wouldn’t have been possible if Howard hadn’t got me to build the rooms and the clubhouse. I give him great praise for that. “

Mr. Keizer is one of the most successful golf developers in the last three decades. From a barren coastal country in Oregon, he created a new template for the journey of the buddies. He has now built three more.

His model is the opposite of many builders who manage real estate and adapt the golf to it: Mr. Keizer first sets the golf courses, then he listens to the wishes of the local market. Today his name is spoken among serious golfers as well as top players and star architects: with awe, a little envy and a lot of amazement.

Soon it expanded. He opened Cabot Links on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in 2014 and recently began 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 that his sons Michael and Chris opened in downtown Wisconsin in 2017.

Sand Valley and Cabot Links both have property developments within the resort. Cabot St. Lucia is experiencing a pandemic-induced boom in demand for its properties – although the resort is still years away from opening.

In Bandon, however, Mr. Keizer had a practical reason not to build temporary dwellings rather than vacation homes: He couldn’t imagine golfers successfully selling their families on trekking to a vacation home on the Oregon coast.

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

Two decades later, with its five full courses, two short courses and an international reputation, Bandon has remained a “Spartan” experience, as Mr. Keiser’s son Michael put it. But the Keizer-branded resorts that have sprung up since Bandon have all found a way to include real estate without discounting the golf experience with Florida-style condos lining each fairway.

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

The Sand Valley market, unlike Bandon Dunes, is one where most diners drive under three hours to get to a part of Wisconsin known for its vacation. So the houses can be rented out and generate income for their owners.

“That doesn’t go against the spirit of Sand Valley,” said Michael Keizer. “Our guests love to spend the night there. By selling real estate, we can also offer our resort guests more of what they want, such as fire pits and screened-in porches. “

But like his father, Michael Keizer said that he defied the siren call of home sales. He has only built 15 houses in Sand Valley, eight more are in the works.

“We only want to sell enough to accommodate our resort guests and finance golf courses,” he said. “I prefer to spend my time building great golf courses, and real estate allows me to do that.”

Real estate has slowed down at Cabot Links, which opened in 2012. Mike Keizer had been disinterested in partnering with the prospective developer, Mr. Cowan-Dewar, then a Canadian golf enthusiast in his 20s, and didn’t answer his calls.

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

“When I was finally there,” he added, “I was amazed that it looked so good.”

Cabot sold its original 19 villas in 2014, but only recently received planning permission for 29 additional homes on its second golf course. These homes were quickly sold and are now funding other improvements. Mr. Keizer said that he never wanted to rush a development and that he was lucky enough to take his time.

After interviewing the original homeowners, Mr. Cowan-Dewar said people wanted more non-golf amenities like tennis, hiking trails, and barns for exercise and entertainment. “Because people live in these places, they behave differently than when they just come to play golf,” he said. “You’re starting 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. “

Mr. Keizer did not shrink from the other formula. One of his business philosophies is to listen to the customers and to design the resort according to their wishes.

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

His father takes this approach literally: when Cabot Links opened, he skipped the ceremonial first round and instead sat on the first tee with Mr. Cowan-Dewar, asking people what they liked and what they didn’t.

Mainly due to its geographical location, the project in St. Lucia is the most diverse. There’s nothing cold or uncomfortable about the golf season there and it was a pandemic escape that Mr. Cowan-Dewar credits for selling the first 42 homes after their release.

According to the Keizer formula, the golf course in St. Lucia came first: nine out of 18 greens will be on the sea and the course will be designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, renowned architects who also built courses in the other Keizer resorts to have.

Sand Valley’s philosophy has evolved into something different – not a dream trip with friends or an escape to the Caribbean, but a family-friendly vacation spot.

“Our goal is not spartan, but comfortable,” said Michael Keizer. “The non-golf activities make the difference in Sand Valley. We got golf going first, but we’re adding other things like a pool and a pool house and tennis court. “

In addition to the two existing courses at Sand Valley, a third is about to be approved. For hardcore golfers, one of the Keizer family’s most popular golf course architects, Tom Doak, is in the process of recreating the Lido, a revered Long Island course that was closed after World War II. The new Lido, due to open in 2023, will have only 17 apartments, half of which will be rented out to provide 50 guest beds. Additional rooms could be added above the clubhouse if necessary, he said.

“Part of this secret sauce is this agility and the ability to flow and adapt,” said Michael Keizer. “Just like with Bandon, my father didn’t want to build all these courses. He set out to do what was right in front of him. “

The success of Bandon spawned the resorts that followed, but that success required a major reinterpretation of the golf vacation.

It started with the land. Then Mr. Keizer added architects who were little known – David McLay Kidd, now a sought-after designer, had yet to create a course when he was selected at the age of 26 to build the first Bandon course, which opened in 1999 the designers, so that the courses are fun and not punished as many top courses have been.

“I’m using an inexperienced, unnamed golf architect in a remote location that has no prospect of success,” said Keizer. “It was ridiculous that it could work. But I had the money to lose, which was good because no bank would have financed it. “

This risk was rewarded. In addition to a steady stream of golf tourists at all resorts, Bandon received just 13 national championships from the United States Golf Association over the next two decades, starting with the US Junior Amateur the next year. Mr. Keizer is proud of the recognition, but even more proud that he has the courses for something that has never been done before.

When Bandon hosts the US amateurs in 2032, the tournaments will be played that same week. “With five places we can have two golf tournaments on television at the same time,” he said. “It will be very important for girls’ golf. I am very proud of that. That is the direct consequence of the fact that there are enough golf courses. “