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Bandon Dunes 25th anniversary: Ben Cowan-Dewar proves the Bandon model works other places

By admin May10,2024

(Editor’s note: Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is celebrating its 25th anniversary and Golfweek Travel Editor Jason Lusk put together a comprehensive package for the occasion, complete with Q&As of pivotal people in and around the operation. To see the entire package of stories, click here.)

BANDON, Ore. – Ben Cowan-Dewar, who dreamed of building a far-away golf resort in Nova Scotia, Canada, has learned much by studying Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon.

The Canadian developer has partnered with Mike Keiser on several of the best new golf course properties in recent decades, most notably the two highly ranked courses at Cabot Cape Breton. Cowan-Dewar has in recent years expanded to Scotland, Saint Lucia, Florida and soon western Canada.

Cowan-Dewar spoke with Golfweek about the inspiration and financial backing he derived from Keiser, the developer of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which in May celebrates its 25th anniversary. 

How much have Bandon Dunes and Mike Keiser influenced your career?

It would be hard to imagine Bandon having a more profound effect on many people’s lives than it did on mine. When I first went there (in 2001), I was a lover of golf courses who went to this far-off place and played Bandon Dunes and Pacific. I think it gave me the ability to dream, you know. I’ve been dreaming since I was a kid about building a golf course, but I think to see something like that on the coast, it sort of gave me a dream. …

There’s no chance I would have even been able to undertake Cabot 19 years ago had I not seen Bandon. I think Bandon gave me the ability to dream really big dreams. And then Mike, in his partnership and mentorship, really helped fulfill them. It had an absolutely profound effect.

Bandon Dunes CabotBandon Dunes Cabot

Bandon Dunes Cabot

Bandon Dunes founder Mike Keiser and Cabot founder Ben Cowan-Dewer (Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)

What was your first conversation about Cabot with Mike Keiser like?

We were two years from partnering, and he was busy with trying to get Trails open. And, you know, he said he had bitten off more than he could chew in remote golf. That partly was a natural defense for a man who was probably assaulted on a weekly basis by some young buck who wanted to build a golf course in the middle of nowhere.

At the end of that conversation, which I call a very polite brush-off, he said, “Hey, wait, you’ve got to get more land, because you won’t be able to buy land for a second course (Cabot Cliffs) after the first course (Cabot Links).”

In 2007 he partnered with me and made the dream come true, and from those humble beginnings, we built on that foundation. 

He’s been an exemplar, a mentor, a partner, a father figure, and I’ve been blessed to know him.

Is it fair to say that no other modern golf developers had the impact that Mike has had? 

I would say, not even close. I would go further than that to say no one since Old Tom Morris has had more impact.

It’s been only 25 years, and if you think about Barnbougle (in Tasmania, and in which Keiser invested before it opened in 2004), and you think about Cabot, those were two that he was directly related to early on. Then you think about all of the other stuff that’s been built in that period of time since. 

I just can’t think of anybody else. You said “modern” but I would drop the modern and just say, who’s had a greater impact on golf development in history? I can’t think of anybody. 

What are some main lessons you’ve learned from Bandon or Keiser?

I have a book of what I call my Keiserisms. Mike has this unbelievable ability to make things seem very simple, even if they are anything but. I think when you have the success that he has – he’s had two very different types of businesses (golf and greeting cards), and he’s been a global leader in two different sectors. Some of that is getting people to follow you, and he has that in spades, but he just has so many really simple truisms. 

One of my favorites is to do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going do it. That means if you say you’re going to have something on Tuesday, you don’t wait and have it on Wednesday. Well, that sounds pretty simple but it’s a hard thing to live by.

Simply being someone that people want to work for, to me that is one of his greatest hallmarks. You see that with all of the great architects in the world that have lined up and wanted to work with him. 

And he just has the ability to draw the very best out of people. 

Bandon Dunes CabotBandon Dunes Cabot

Bandon Dunes Cabot

Mike Keiser was an early investor in Cabot in Nova Scotia, Canada (Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)

So many developers and courses have tried to follow the Bandon model, but few have been able to pull it off as well. What do they miss? 

I think there’s a couple of things. One, Mike said at Cabot in the early days that Cabot will be different than Bandon in 20 ways, he just didn’t know which 20 ways yet. For a man that had done the impossible at Bandon, he wasn’t trying to carbon copy it and say this is a franchise model.

And so I think whenever you’re trying to copy an original, it’s probably pretty hard. He had the original, and he didn’t go and try and copy it. He tried to make everything authentic to the locations he worked in.

He obviously focused on a couple of really key ingredients, but I think like any really good business that is consumer-facing, it’s really about delivering to your customer the very best product you can. People can lose sight of that and have their own vision, and it’s just not as customer-centric as Mike would be in his business.

What’s it like to play golf with Mike? 

He’s fast. He’s good a player too, but he’s fast more than he’s good. And that suited me quite well. He is competitive, and he loves the competition, but above all else he is fast.

On the opening day of Cabot, we stood on the first tee and saw every golfer tee off, like he has done at Bandon. So we didn’t get to play until the next morning. 

The next morning we were playing with the premier of Nova Scotia – for you, he was the equivalent of a governor – and Mike told the premier, let’s play at 8. And Mike was on the tee at 7:41, and he said, “Do we need to wait for him?” I said, “Well, he is the premier.” Mike’s ball was in the air before 8, and the premier was running down to meet us having seen us out his window. So speed trumps all.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek

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