Michael Keiser helped create a golf course with Aldo Leopold in mind

Sand Valley was named the country’s best new course of that year by Golf Digest
Michael Keiser sitting in front of photos of the golf course
Michael Keiser (Photo by Chris Hynes)

Michael Keiser still remembers the day in 2013 when his family decided not to go forward with the central Wisconsin golf resort the world now knows as Sand Valley.

Keiser’s dad, Mike Keiser, was already famous in golf circles for creating Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, a cluster of glorious courses on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in remote Oregon, in 1999.

Mike Keiser was leery of a site that lacked an ocean. But when they decided not to build a golf course on the property in northern Adams County, Mike Keiser nevertheless asked some people from the Field Museum in Chicago to survey it. Perhaps the land had another use?

The scientists’ report included a copy of Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” and described what would happen if the ecosystem was restored to a time before the planting of pine trees for their paper potential.

Michael Keiser says he and his dad both read Leopold’s book, which elicited visions of reemergent, cascading sand dunes as the central feature of a starkly beautiful natural terrain. Maybe there was a golf resort there after all.

“We decided an ocean of prairie and sand and jack pines could compete with any body of water,” Michael Keiser says.

They were right. The first golf course, called Sand Valley, opened in May 2017 and was named the country’s best new course of that year by Golf Digest. A second, Mammoth Dunes, opened a year later and Golf Magazine named it the best new course of 2018. There’s now a par-3 course and plans for a third regulation 18-hole course to open by 2022.

But Michael Keiser, who is managing partner of Sand Valley and owns it with his brother, Chris Keiser (the torch having been passed by their dad), sees a future that weds a larger conservancy effort with golf — a future that might include wilderness trail hiking, horseback riding, bird-watching, fat bike riding and cross-country skiing.

“If it’s going to be preserved,” Michael Keiser says of the larger restoration project, “it helps if it’s enjoyed.”

Michael Keiser, 38, has lived in Madison with his wife, Jocelyn, since 2016. They have a son who was born in July of that year and are expecting a daughter this July.

Golf will always be the engine driving Sand Valley, and Michael Keiser came to the sport early — not surprisingly, through his dad.

In 1971 Mike Keiser co-founded a greeting card company that combined the use of recycled paper with witty phrasing. It upended the stodgy greeting card industry and made him wealthy.

A golfer good enough to play on Amherst College’s team, Mike Keiser used some of the money to buy property on Lake Michigan, 70 miles from Chicago in New Buffalo, Michigan. As a kid, Michael helped his dad cut trees and clear trails. They’d take a couple of clubs and play what they called “wilderness golf” on what is now the Dunes Club, one of the country’s best 9-hole courses.

When Michael Keiser was 14, his dad took him to Scotland, the birthplace of golf.

“We played 36 holes at Royal Dornoch,” Michael Keiser says, referencing a legendary course in the hard-to-access Scottish Highlands. “That’s where I got the bug.”

Dornoch also impressed his dad. By 1989, Mike Keiser was actively searching for property for a golf course that could be both extraordinary and public (Dunes Club is private).

Michael Keiser had accompanied his dad to Oregon to see a large patch of land that adjoined the Pacific but was hours from a city of any size and an hour from a small regional airport. Everyone said it was too remote. Well, so was Dornoch. Beyond that, Mike Keiser wanted a course that allowed walking only — no paths for carts.

“I was there,” Michael Keiser says, “when a lot of people told him he was crazy.”

The first course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon opened in 1999. There are now four 18-hole courses, a par-3 course and a fifth course set to open in June. It is a spectacular success, one of the world’s top golf destinations.

Michael Keiser — who attended Santa Clara University in California, where he studied economics and Latin — knew he wanted to work in the business. After spending a year in golf operations in Australia, he realized he wanted to create a golf resort rather than operate one. He followed his dad’s advice to go someplace else first, working for a real estate development firm in Chicago.

Sand Valley provided the opportunity to rejoin his dad and eventually take on a leadership role.

Michael Keiser’s plans for Sand Valley may eventually include a science and education component, a 3-acre putting course, a barbecue restaurant and a brewery. They’re taking it in increments.

Craig Haltom, who has worn numerous hats in the golf business in Wisconsin and first brought the Sand Valley property to the Keisers’ attention, has watched Michael Keiser expand on his father’s vision.

“He took an approach that was similar to his dad’s, in putting golf first,” Haltom says. “But Michael has also introduced the idea of taking these other concepts and blending them seamlessly with the golf. Not just a list of amenities, but what would be the coolest and most inclusive use of the property.”

Michael Keiser himself says, “It’s pretty remarkable how all this has come together.”

How it all started is remembered, too. In every guest room at Sand Valley is a copy of “A Sand County Almanac.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.