BANDON, Ore. – The story of Bandon Dunes easily could have been lumped in with the Ford Edsel or New Coke as some of the biggest commercial flops in history.
To think that someone would purchase 1,200-plus acres of land, predominantly covered in gorse bushes, with its lone redeeming quality being an extensive shoreline on the Pacific Ocean, well, it just as easily could have been called Keiser’s Folly.
That’s what was unknown in 1999, when Bandon Dunes opened to the public on Sunday, May 2.
Understaffed, with no permanent structures and only four trailers serving as the facilities for the resort, Bandon Dunes stood at the beginning of a groundswell created by its visionary founder, Mike Keiser.
Of course, Keiser, then 53, was not considered a visionary, at least not in golf parlance. Keiser, a native of East Aurora, N.Y., recently had sold Recycled Paper Greetings, a greeting-card company that he started in 1971 with Phil Friedmann, Keiser’s roommate at Amherst College, and was looking for new horizons.
Keiser had limited experience in owning a golf course, having built the nine-hole Dunes Club, a private course in New Buffalo, Mich., about 70 miles east of Chicago, along Lake Michigan.
The venture at Bandon Dunes was a much bigger enterprise, with the closest population centers in Eugene, Ore., about 2½ hours northeast, and Portland, another 90 minutes north of Eugene. With little-known architect David McLay Kidd as the designer, Bandon Dunes appeared to have prepared the ingredients for failure.
On that Sunday in May 20 years ago, a full tee sheet of 238 golfers was booked, but everyone wanted to see the course and arrived at much the same time. With a flood of customers, Bandon Dunes felt the pressure on its infrastructure of only 35 caddies and temporary buildings. Add rain that day, and the start didn’t seem to be ideal.
According to Josh Lesnik, president of KemperSports, the management company that teamed with Keiser, the plan in 1999 was for 12,466 rounds, at $35 per round. That would have produced tee-time revenue of $436,310. Kemper and Lesnik vastly underestimated Bandon’s appeal. The number of tee times that first year nearly tripled the initial projection, to 35,000, as revenue soared.
But the biggest underestimation concerns the weather. Golf can be played on the central Oregon coast 365 days a year, making the winter months just as popular. Although Bandon averages 9-10 inches of rain monthly from November through January, daytime highs typically are in the 50s, and there is much less wind than in the drier summer months, when temperatures average in the high 60s.
Almost immediately, Bandon Dunes appeared in golf magazines’ lists of the top courses in the country. The resort grew quickly, with Pacific Dunes, a Tom Doak design, opening in 2001; followed by Bandon Trails, by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, in 2005; Old MacDonald, by Doak and Jim Urbina, in 2010; and the picturesque par-3 Bandon Preserve, by Coore-Crenshaw, in 2012.
In those first 13 years, Bandon Dunes grew from a remote 18 holes to an 85-hole destination resort, with expansive accommodations and numerous dining options.
Today, Bandon Dunes celebrates its 20th anniversary in its customary understated manner. Keiser intends to stand on the first tee and greet each group of golfers, just as he did on opening day in 1999. It’s a tradition that he has continued with each course’s opening, oftentimes with the architect on hand, as well.
Each of the 18-hole courses at Bandon Dunes hosts about 35,000 rounds annually, with green fees that range from $100 to $285, depending on the time of year, with July-September being the peak season. By any measure, Bandon Dunes is an incredible success.
Since Bandon Dunes, Keiser has been involved with properties in Canada, Tasmania and Wisconsin, and he is working toward developing a property in Scotland, near Royal Dornoch.
Back in Oregon, Bandon is almost fully built out, with only one property left to develop, the Sheep Ranch, a 150-acre parcel that might be the most land in the resort.
Keiser, in partnership with Friedmann, will see the sixth and last course open at about this time in 2020.
During the 20-year history of Bandon Dunes, Tiger Woods has enjoyed tremendous success in the game. Yet on a list of personalities who have held the most influence in golf during the past two decades, Keiser should rank ahead of Woods.
Keiser changed how golf is packaged and consumed. His philosophy has been adopted by many of the iconic properties worldwide and has enticed players to use putters off the green and learn how golf was played in its infancy.
At the same time, Keiser has created an environment at all of his courses worldwide to provide a level of customer service that encourages his guests to return.
Just think where golf would be without Bandon Dunes and Mike Keiser. Thankfully, we don’t have to.