Mike Keiser never has been one to follow the herd and embrace conventional wisdom. That's not how breakthroughs are achieved. It's not where greatness lies.
When Keiser decided in the late 1980s to build a true links golf course on the remote coast of Oregon, he did not bother to commission a market study.
What good would it have done? You want to build a public golf resort in the middle of nowhere, a five-hour drive from Portland? What consultant was going to sign off on that money pit?
Keiser, born in East Aurora and a graduate of the Nichols School, pursued his vision, undeterred. The Bandon Dunes Golf Resort opened in 1999 and almost two decades later, the Oregon golf mecca has become one of the top golf destinations in the world.
"My business thesis was American golfers would love links golf, and they do," Keiser said.
Do they ever. The four main courses at Bandon Dunes all currently rank among the top 14 public golf courses in the United States, according to Golf Digest. The best of the four, called Pacific Dunes, is No. 2 in America, behind only Pebble Beach Golf Links.
The 72-year-old Keiser has been called golf's "King Midas." He currently owns 12 courses, all which he developed. Six of them rank among the top 100 in the world – public or private. It's a stunning accomplishment, part of the reason Keiser earned a spot in the 2017 class of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
Yet, the lofty ranking and financial success of Keiser's courses do not do justice to the impact he has made on the game.
Keiser's courses are universally acclaimed for being one with the environment, more a part of the landscape than most modern courses. They are true to the spirit of the oldest courses in Great Britain and Ireland.
No fountains or waterfalls are found on Keiser's courses. They all are built for walking, not littered with carts. And there are no housing developments at Bandon Dunes. Keiser's push for golf as it was meant to be played has had a dramatic impact on golf development around the world.
Recent U.S. Open courses Chambers Bay near Seattle and Erin Hills in Wisconsin both were influenced by the success of Bandon Dunes. Keiser annually ranks as one of the 10 most powerful people in golf by Golf Inc.
"In the '50s and '60s, in particular," Keiser explains, "America started building these horrendously hard golf courses. They just played the Bridgestone on Firestone. . . . It was highly thought of. So we went to play Firestone on one of our golf trips. Hate is a little bit strong, but certainly that was not a trip we repeated. Firestone, like many courses, is unnatural, man-made, bulldozer-enabled. . . The bulldozer made building unnatural golf courses possible and ruined golf course architecture for at least 20 years."
Keiser made his fortune in greeting cards, and his business success also stemmed from non-conformist vision.
It was 1971 and Keiser was considering business school. He had majored in English literature at Amherst College and served a stint in the Navy. His options were the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School or Harvard.
But he struck upon the idea of starting a business based on recycled paper. He and his college roommate, Phil Friedmann, created Recycled Paper Greetings Inc. in Chicago. There were hundreds of greeting card companies at the time, but an environmentally friendly card venture was a novel idea. Keiser and Friedmann talked their dads into guaranteeing the first $15,000 printing bill.
"My dad was a Wharton graduate," Keiser said. "When I chose the environmental greeting card idea, he was not apoplectic externally. But I'm sure he churned inside and said to himself my oldest son has just made a capital error."
The company, one of the first to give artists recognition by putting their names on the cards, became an overnight success.
"We worked with hundreds of artists, some gifted some not," Keiser said. "But our great luck – just like I've had in working with a golf course architect like Tom Doak – was in finding Sandra Boynton. We found her in our fifth year. She's a genius. Her products enabled us to go from $2 million to $100 million" a year."
(You might know Boynton from her famous card: Hippo Birdie Two Ewes.)
Keiser grew up playing and caddying at East Aurora Country Club. Nichols didn't have a golf team when he graduated in 1963, but he subsequently held down the No. 6 spot on the seven-man Amherst golf team.
His passion for golf course design was fueled from an annual golf trip that he took with former Nichols classmates, organized by Warren Gelman, a fellow Class of '63 Nichols graduate and Buffalo attorney. Their first trip to the British Isles came in 1986, and they fell in love with links golf.
"No one had built links courses in America," Keiser said. "There are links-like courses in America, but they're all private, which means most people can't play on them. So my business idea, which I arrived at over the years, was to build a course that feels like Royal Dornoch or Ballybunion or the Old Course . . . but it had to be something on the ocean, on sand, that was a true links course."
Keiser spent a lot of time looking on the East Coast. Then the ideal piece of property came available in Oregon. Would people go there?
"I used Dornoch as my model," Keiser said, referring to the famed Scotland course rated among the top 10 in the world. "Dornoch is in the highlands. It's two hours north of Inverness, which is the only city in the highlands, and it's an eight-hour drive from Edinburgh. It's remote. Warren and I repeated our trip there. I couldn't believe the number of Americans getting off tour buses to play Royal Dornoch."
"That's when the business fire lit in my head," Keiser said. "Even if we're in Oregon it might work. Might work. No one thought it would work until it did in fact work."
Keiser sold Recycled Paper Greetings in 2005 to concentrate fully on his golf course development, which stretches worldwide. He usually works with some of the most famous "traditionalist" architects in the world, among them Doak, David McLay Kidd and the team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.
Keiser owns a course on the Australian island of Tasmania - Barnbougle Dunes – that opened in 2005 and ranks No. 33 in the world. He owns two courses in Nova Scotia – Cobot Cliffs and Cabot Links – that opened in 2011 and are in the top 100. He just opened Sand Valley in Wisconsin this year to rave reviews. That one has been called "the Bandon Dunes of the Midwest" and may crack the top 100, as well.
Pressed to describe his impact, Keiser says: "You've seen an increase in the kinds of minimalists, classic natural golf courses being built now all over the world."
Keiser says the influence of his upbringing in Western New York can't be overstated.
"I'm astonished at what an impact the Nichols School had on me, in particular the idea that to whom much is given, much is expected," Keiser said. "That was sort of the underlying theme. You guys are lucky to be here and we expect you to give back a lot."
The same goes for East Aurora.
"I grew up in East Aurora, right contiguous to Seymour Knox's polo pony field," Keiser said. "I bring that up because I had sort of a Tom Sawyer summer every year. It was just a great place to go out and roam. I wish all kids these days could have the same freedom of roaming that I had from the age of 4 on."
Considering Keiser's career, the Sawyer reference is appropriate. Like Sawyer's buddy, Huck Finn, Keiser never has been afraid to "light out" in a new direction. It has earned him fame and fortune.