At a time when U.S. golf was on a downward slide, one course architect decided to replicate the design values of the Old World in New World courses. The result has been a boon for the golf travel business.

The par-3 third hole at the Prairie Club Pines Course reveals the subtle beauty of the Nebraska sand belt. (Photo Courtesy of The Prairie Club) The par-3 third hole at the Prairie Club Pines Course reveals the subtle beauty of the Nebraska sand belt. (Photo Courtesy of The Prairie Club)

The par-3 third hole at the Prairie Club Pines Course reveals the subtle beauty of the Nebraska sand belt. (Photo Courtesy of The Prairie Club)

The par-3 third hole at the Prairie Club Pines Course reveals the subtle beauty of the Nebraska sand belt. (Photo Courtesy of The Prairie Club)

In the late 1990s, as greeting cards magnate Mike Keiser was developing an upscale, Scottish-style golf course among the coastal dunes of Bandon, Ore., few thought his venture would be a success. 

After all, the course was to be located in a wet, wind-swept locale more than four hours from Portland and nearly three hours from Eugene. 

Now, 19 years after its opening, Bandon Dunes, as the resort came to be called, is home to five golf courses and five boutique lodges and has arguably become the leading draw in the U.S. golf tourism marketplace, attracting visitors from around the world. 

More than that, Bandon Dunes ushered in a new prototype for the American golf resort, one modeled after the seaside courses in Scotland and Ireland, where the game first took root. It’s a model that industry experts expect will continue to grow over time. 

“It has basically risen from nothing to a trendsetter in golf,” said Jason Deegan, a senior staff writer for the Golf Channel.

For Keiser, who has gone on to develop widely heralded and similarly inspired golf resorts in Nova Scotia, the Australian island of Tasmania and, most recently, rural central Wisconsin, the formula for building golf resorts is straightforward. He finds what he considers to be an ideal piece of land, then hires an architect to mold the property into a golf course in the least intrusive way possible, an architectural style known as minimalism. 

The properties need to be dotted with sand dunes, just as the classic coastal golf courses of the U.K. and Ireland are. And Keiser prefers that they be on the coast. 

The resulting golf courses typically look like they have been there for centuries, even when they are brand new. And for golfers, the appeal comes not only from the high sand dunes and spectacular vistas, but also from designs that aren’t especially punishing, typically featuring large greens and wide fairways. 

Also borrowing from the Scottish tradition, Keiser’s courses, as well as those built following in his footsteps, eschew golf carts, encouraging or outright requiring players to walk. Lodging is typically comfortable but not luxurious. 

It’s a type of golf known to aficionados of the game as “links,” and Keiser isn’t shy about the impact his vision has had on the U.S. golf landscape.

“I brought links golf to America,” he said in an interview.


Antidote for struggling industry?

It’s no secret that the American golf industry is struggling. In 2016, approximately 21 million people took to a course in the U.S., down from a peak of approximately 30 million in 2001, according to Stuart Lindsay, an adviser for the golf industry research company Pellucid. 

Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2016, some 1,800 U.S. courses closed, about 10% of the country’s inventory. In 2016, the most recent year for which Pellucid has figures, 176 courses closed while just 22 opened, Lindsay said. 

But tour operators say the story is different in the golf travel business. 

“We are actually seeing a fairly large growth,” said Ryan Jacobs, a travel specialist for Amherst, N.H.-based Adventures in Golf. “We’ve seen a pick-up for the past year and leading into this year.”

Joe Cerino, owner of the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Sophisticated Golfer, which sells upscale golf vacations in the U.S. and around the world, strikes a similar tone. 

“From my perspective, yeah, golf tourism is doing quite well,” he said. “Golf is growing internationally.”

According to a report prepared last November for Brand USA by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (Iagto), U.S. sales among operators grew 3.1% in 2016, compared with worldwide growth of 4.2%. The number of Iagto members selling the U.S. grew 34% between 2015 and 2017.

The relative strength of golf at its higher end is reflected in the fact that most recent course openings have been either private clubs or upscale resort properties, Lindsay said. 

Several of the most prominent of those have either been developed by Keiser or inspired by his new vision of the American golf resort. The fifth and most recent course at Bandon Dunes, a unique 13-hole, par-3 layout called Bandon Preserve, opened in 2012. 

Then last year, Keiser opened Sand Valley among the dramatic dunes of central Wisconsin, approximately three hours northwest of Milwaukee. The facility’s eponymous first course was greeted with rave reviews. Its second — a 17-hole, par-3 called the Sandbox — opened on May 1, while the 18-hole Mammoth Dunes is slated to be fully open this week. 

Meanwhile, the most ballyhooed of the resorts from other developers to follow in Bandon Dunes’ footsteps is Central Florida’s Streamsong. 

Located an hour east of Tampa in about as remote a location as one can find in the crowded Sunshine State, the resort’s original two courses opened in 2012 and are set among sand dunes left over from the phosphate mining operations of developer Mosaic. A 212-room hotel followed soon thereafter, and Streamsong opened a third course last year. A fourth course is widely believed to be part of its long-term plans.

Other golf resorts that have adopted all or parts of the Keiser model include Wisconsin’s Erin Hills in a rural area about 45 minutes north of Milwaukee, which hosted the U.S. Open last June, and the Prairie Club and Dismal River resorts in the central Nebraska sand belt. Between them, Prairie Club and Dismal River have four regulation courses plus Prairie Club’s 10-hole, par-3 course.

Whistling Straits, which sits along two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline in northern Wisconsin, actually opened a year before Bandon Dunes. And while the facility’s two courses are not minimalist in their design, architect Pete Dye carved up the land on its marquee layout, the Straits Course, to resemble a Scottish links. The Straits is walking only. It has already hosted the PGA Championship, one of golf’s four majors, on three occasions. 

In another nod to golf’s past, the Loop, which opened at the Forest Dunes golf resort in north-central Michigan in 2016, is walking only and is reversible, meaning it can be set up to be played clockwise one day and counterclockwise the next, just as was once done on the world’s original golf course, the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. 

Meanwhile, Keiser said he’s currently looking at four more potential seaside links sites in the U.S., and it is widely speculated that Bandon Dunes has not yet seen its last course development. 

Deegan is among those who believe that others will likely follow. 

“These are popular because they are interesting and fun and unique and enjoyable,” he said. “And that’s a reverse trend from the ’80s when golf was hard and penal and frustrating. So golf is in a better place now.”

To understand why Keiser’s version of American golf resorts is generating such a buzz among dedicated players, it’s worth considering how different his facilities are from the model that preceded it. 

The U.S. golf industry boomed during the 1990s and early 2000s. But, said Steve Skinner, the CEO of KemperSports, which counts Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley and Streamsong among the approximately 125 golf properties it manages around the U.S., the resort courses built during that period tended to be amenities to a larger hotel property as opposed to the central focus of the resort. Picture, for example, the resort golf that proliferates in places like Orlando or Scottsdale, Ariz. 

But even on properties where golf is a major focus, locations were selected as much for their broader desirability to the tourism market as for the characteristics of their terrain. On properties that didn’t have interesting features, architects employed bulldozers to shape penal mounding, for example, and to build water hazards. 

Architects also shaped golf courses geared entirely for the golf cart era. Many U.S. resort courses feature long distances between greens and tees as they weave around housing developments or natural features. If a site was especially hilly — as with, for example, many resort courses in northern Michigan — architects designed holes to take advantage of dramatic drops in altitude, confident that golfers would be able to easily get to the next tee with the aid of their carts.


The quest for ‘core golfers’

It’s a model that continues to appeal to many people. But Keiser has said that his resorts, and those that emulate them, attract a different group of golfers: people he calls “core golfers.” Such aficionados, he said, are drawn to classic venues like those in Britain and Ireland. But they’re also drawn to the concept of golf as an outdoors endeavour, one in which battling the elements and testing one’s endurance are a part of the experience. 

Core golfers, Keiser said, will enthusiastically golf in the rain. They might even be frustrated if they travel to the Oregon coastline and it doesn’t rain. 

“They’re like bird-watchers [who] will go anywhere to look at birds,” Keiser said. “Core golfers will go anywhere to play links golf. No one knew how many core golfers there were. I now know there are millions of them — not thousands or tens of thousands, but millions.”

While the popularity of these new American links courses is undisputed, industry experts have different views on whether the prototype is truly growing the U.S. golf tourism market.

“People may have already been traveling golfers, but I think it has caused them to take more trips,” Skinner said. “I think it has created demand, and I think it has also created a new experience. Golfers like variety.”

Another believer is Jason Kauflin, whose Wisconsin Golf Trips became the only Badger State-specific golf tour operator when he opened it in 2015 due to the popularity of Erin Hills, Whistling Straits and its sister property, Blackwolf Run, in the city of Kohler. Sand Valley has since added to Wisconsin’s appeal. 

“The last three or four months have been out of this world,” Kauflin said in an interview last winter. “I’ve got groups contacting me from all over the world wanting to come to Wisconsin. “

Pellucid’s Lindsay, though, said he believes the new, classic American courses are merely fighting for a share of the existing market of golf connoisseurs. 

“All they are doing is trading bucket-list golfers,” he said. “At some point, Keiser is cannibalizing his own brand. I think the top-end resort business is going to reach some sort of saturation point.”

Cannibalizing his brand or not, for now Keiser’s courses, along with Streamsong’s, are generating enough buzz that they have not felt the need to offer commissions to travel agents. Cerino of Sophisticated Golfer said he expects that will change over time, noting that famed Pebble Beach on California’s Monterey Peninsula once refrained from working with Iagto but now does, and that Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run have begun offering commissions after initial reluctance. 

The one tour operator Bandon Dunes does work with is Premier Golf, which is the largest golf travel company in the U.S., said Bill Hogan, a Premier Golf international consultant.

“They don’t have that many rooms,” he said, referencing Sand Valley, as well. “They have shorter seasons. Until they build more rooms, they haven’t needed the agent community.”

Still, Hogan said that agents who put an emphasis on golf ignore such properties at their own peril.

“I know a lot of Virtuoso and Ensemble agencies, they may charge a small fee for a booking, but I think it may be a bit of a loss leader,” he said. “The customers will come back.”