Golf courses are a contentious subject among environmentalists and locals around the world. In a time where America’s wealth gap continues to widen, golf, to many, represents luxury and exclusivity while using large amounts of water and pesticides to maintain its expansive greens.
Mike Keiser isn’t one to brag, so I’ll do it for him. With eleven golf courses under his belt, Fortune says he’s a main contender in the golf business. In fact, he never intended to become a career golf mogul, nor to end up in Chicago. His golfing ambitions pretty much ended with his graduation from Amherst College where he played on their Division III collegiate golf team. After graduating from Amherst, he moved here with his old roommate to start a greeting card company. Such a stereotypical origin story, right?
With such a diverse career, we talked about how he translates his “vision” to various industries. When starting his card company, he says he and his partner “knew nothing…and we knew we knew nothing so we had the good sense to try a lot of things.” Experimentation in business, he argues, is important.
Starting a Golf Course
Keiser, always an avid golfer, disliked how course development had shifted away from enjoyment and instead toward long, drawn out, technical features. This trend has been going on the past few decades and the results only further the negative economic impact of the sport. Longer, intricate courses require more land to maintain, taking away water from the local community. The highly manicured and planned out courses often stray from the natural geography of the area. Finally, they have become so long that most golfers spend all day riding in personal golf carts, using gasoline to power their game.
So how does one stumble into the golf course game? For Mike, it began with a nine hole golf course in New Buffalo in the mid-80’s. A self-proclaimed “avid and lousy golfer” and father, his favorite golf club to escape to was Pine Valley near Philadelphia. Upon hearing of similar 60 acres of cheap land in Michigan, Keiser reluctantly rose to the challenge of constructing his first course, the Dunes Club, modeled after Pine Valley. Hear him recount the story below:
Environmental Friendly Golf Courses
Let’s take a quick step back for readers who are unaware of the heated debates surrounding golf course construction. The major concerns about development from new golf courses are environmental and economic. Mike Keiser combats most of these concerns at all eleven of his courses.
On the environmental front, modern golf courses utilize a huge amount of natural undeveloped land, often on coastal dunes or desert terrain where manicured turf doesn’t easily grow. To make room for the course, indigenous vegetation and corresponding wildlife are removed. Finally, in order to maintain the turf at an ideal texture and pleasing green color for golf players, an exorbitant amount of water and chemicals are almost constantly applied to the course. The amount of potable/drinkable water used to maintain all of the golf courses in the world could sustain 80% of humans over that same year.
On the other side, the economic impact to the community, especially long term, isn’t great. Job creation and local economy stimulation are often touted by golf course developers looking to sway residents, but the actual statistics are underwhelming at best. The high membership fees and monthly dues price out local golf players and the number of jobs created is usually in the low hundreds rather than promised thousands. Additionally, as a luxury hobby, expensive golf courses are vulnerable during economic downturns.
Mike Keiser’s inspiration for his golf courses comes from across the pond in Scotland. Scottish golfing, in stark comparison to American golfing, is an inexpensive, public sport focused around existing dunes. It’s a lot harder in some cases, but a lot more fun and inclusive. When asked what his top five favorite courses include, there’s a clear trend in his answers. He places a huge emphasis on using the existing terrain and indigenous plants to cultivate a natural course.
Maintaining ideal appearance and texture of modern golf courses requires a cocktail of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides among other dangerous chemicals. These treatments are dangerous enough for the National Pesticide Information Center to offer warning guidelines about proper attire and behaviors to reduce risk of cancer and other chemically induced conditions. These safety precautions are just for golfers walking on the turf for a few hours at a time! Now imagine the health risks if the constant watering caused the toxic pesticides to run off into a community’s water supply.
This is a very real concern in the Long Island area where three million residents rely on a natural underground aquifer for their drinking water. Because of its underground placement, the risk of pesticide contamination is high. After nearly a decade of unenforced chemical regulations on nearby private golf courses, locals are scared of a golf-induced repeat of Flint. Fortunately, courses can be organically maintained, especially when they follow the natural landscape the way Mike Keiser’s do.
Whether a course has gas or electric golf carts for its members to use, they are burning finite resources that both negatively impact the environment. For this reason, designing a course golfers can feasibly walk through is an obvious, albeit unconventional, way to minimize negative environmental impact. This is why Mike created a culture where walking is central to the experience and he enthusiastically reports that all able-bodied golfers have embraced it.
With walking comes an increased need for caddies to carry a golfer’s clubs so they don’t exhaust themselves and ruin their scores. Mike proudly employs approximately 350 local caddies at his Oregon courses alone. The high number of caddies is unconventional, but necessary as 85% of golfers at his Bend courses use caddies. It’s funny how the environmental and economic concerns can be lessened when you look at long term sustainability instead of shortsighted bottom lines.
For Keiser, it’s about marrying the course and club into the natural landscape and local community. It’s hard to be successful when your golf course is at odds with the surrounding residents as well as the environment.
Watch the full interview: