1/18/21

A Lido in the Sand Barrens

The Keiser family teams up with Tom Doak to recreate the lost C.B. Macdonald course in Central Wisconsin

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Just north of the Sand Valley golf resort in Wisconsin, Michael and Chris Keiser plan to resurrect the Lido Golf Club, the legendary Long Island course that disappeared 80 years ago. The Keiser brothers have hired Tom Doak to carry out the reconstruction of Charles Blair Macdonald’s original design.

With funding and zoning approval in place, the Wisconsin Lido is quickly becoming a reality. Pre-construction began several months ago, and in an interview with The Fried Egg, Michael Keiser—the developer behind Sand Valley and the eldest son of Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser—said Doak’s team has already rough-graded two famous holes from the Lido, No. 4 (“Channel”) and No. 12 (“Punchbowl”). “Two pretty good holes to start with,” Keiser said.

Formal construction will begin this spring, and the current schedule calls for nine-hole preview play in the spring or summer of 2022 and a full opening in the spring or summer of 2023.

From Peter Flory's virtual build of the Lido (with the Wisconsin environment added in), the view from the second bridge on C.B. Macdonald's Channel hole, No. 4

This will not be the only Lido-related project to debut in the early 2020s. In Thailand, Gil Hanse’s Ballyshear Links, which features what Golf Course Industry characterizes as recreations and reinterpretations of every hole from the Lido, will open in August of this year. Initial maps for the Wisconsin Lido indicate that Tom Doak will seek a more precise restoration of the Long Island original.

A different model

Although next door to Sand Valley, the new Lido will not be part of the resort. Rather, it will be a private club that allows regular public play. At the moment, the Keisers plan to give members the run of the course on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning. From Sunday afternoon through Thursday, tee times will be available within specific windows to Sand Valley guests.

This is the first time since 1995’s Dunes Club that the Keisers have experimented with private golf, and they want to make clear that their Lido will not be an exclusive enclave. It will instead emulate the relaxed model of many Scottish and Irish golf clubs: members will get preferred tee times and other privileges, but visitors will have ready access to the tee sheet.

“There is so much that inspires us about the architecture and culture of golf in the UK,” the Keiser brothers said in a press release. “Golf clubs in Scotland and Ireland generously welcome guests onto their grounds to play their extraordinary links. We look forward to introducing this hospitality to golfers here in the U.S.”

“Private golf [in America] needs to change trajectory,” Michael Keiser added. “Hopefully there will be several different models that will emerge, and this could be one of them.” Keiser is not, however, looking to make further forays into the club business. “The private [element] is very different” for the family, he said, “and it’s a one-off.”

Another unique dimension of the project is that the golf course will be just one part of what the Keiser brothers call the Lido Conservancy. Consisting of 880 acres, the conservancy will be largely devoted to landscape restoration.

The property is currently dominated by dense timber land that, for several decades, has been used for agriculture. Centuries ago, however, the landscape was far more diverse. Located in the Central Sands of Wisconsin, it consisted of savannah, prairie, and sand dunes. The majority of the Lido Conservancy will be restored to this mixture.

To help fund this work, the Keiser family will sell 17 to 20 homesites near the golf course. The lots will range from five to 25 acres, and on average each homesite will have one acre that can be developed; the remainder will be restored to native landscape.

Rise and fall

Built during World War I, the original Lido was a massive, unprecedented feat of engineering. Architect C.B. Macdonald and his partner Seth Raynor installed the course on a tract of seaside swampland by dredging an estimated 2,000,000 cubic yards of sand from the bottom of an inland channel. The project cost nearly $800,000—an astonishing sum for the time.

After the Lido opened in 1917, it received widespread praise. A survey by the New York Metropolitan Golfer in the late 1920s ranked it the second best golf course in the United States, behind only Pine Valley. Writer Bernard Darwin called the Lido “the finest course in the world,” and Masters champion Claude Harmon referred to it as “the greatest golf course ever.”

Daniel Wexler, whose book The Missing Links is our source for the above details, described the original course this way:

“It was… the first truly ‘man-made’ golf course, its massive earth shaping rivaling that of almost any project undertaken in the modern era. It was also, without a doubt, a most authentic-looking creation, its barren, links-like expanse broken only by the six-story Lido Club, an enormous clubhouse/hotel erected at ocean’s edge in 1928. And while frequently noted for its great toughness, it was also a strategic masterpiece, providing the player with numerous shotmaking options, several alternate fairways, and some of the best replica holes [also known as ‘template holes’] ever built.”

A 1916 stick routing map of the Lido from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Research credit: Peter Flory

A plasticine model of the Lido's routing. Research credit: Peter Flory

The more Michael Keiser has studied Macdonald’s Lido, the more enamored he has become with it. “The golf course is very strategic,” he explained, “with wide fairways and masterful bunkering. It’s all about the angles. And each hole is completely different from the others. The Lido has no weak holes, and its high notes—4, 6, 7, 18—are very high.”

Keiser contrasts the Lido with Yale Golf Course, a Seth Raynor design on which Macdonald advised. Whereas Yale is a sprawling course that wanders over massive landforms, the Lido was more intimate, with holes clustering together and sharing fairways. The ground, as shaped by Macdonald and Raynor, had subtle contours that mostly stayed within the four- to six-foot range. In that way, Keiser said, it was “very much like St. Andrews.”

“It would have been one of the prettiest courses ever built,” he said, “with the warm sand and the bumbling, broad fairways.”

Like many golf courses of its era, the Lido fell into neglect during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The club collapsed fully when the Navy occupied the property during World War II. Today, the site is home to a high school, a residential neighborhood, and a windswept beach where the Biarritz 8th hole once sat. The colossal Lido Club Hotel has been retrofitted into a condominium complex.

Dreams and (virtual) realities

The romance of a lost masterpiece is hard to resist. After its demise, the original Lido attained a kind of mythical status. For decades, golf architecture enthusiasts dreamed of reviving the course.

Mike Keiser’s* interest in the Lido dates back at least to 2002, when George Bahto published his C.B. Macdonald biography The Evangelist of Golf. (*To distinguish between father and son, we refer to Keiser Sr. as “Mike” and Keiser Jr. as “Michael.”) According to Stephen Goodwin’s book Dream Golf, Mike Keiser called Bahto to ask if the historian thought it was possible to rebuild the Lido. When Bahto said yes, Keiser invited him to see a property on the Oregon coast.

That property, just north of the recently opened Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, turned out to be ill-suited to a Lido. Keiser ultimately hired Tom Doak and Jim Urbina to design a collection of tributes to Macdonald’s “ideal holes.” The course, under the cheeky name of Old Macdonald, opened in 2009.

This process revealed to the Keisers how difficult it would be to recreate the Lido. Mike Keiser’s golfing friends, whose opinions he always took into account, were concerned that the course would be a mere novelty. For his part, Doak did not want to bulldoze Oregon sand dunes for the sake of an historical homage. Besides, as he told Stephen Goodwin, “I didn’t really believe George or anyone else had good enough information on the Lido to build it just like it had been.”

Now, a decade later, researchers have found more information, and perhaps more importantly, they have organized that information more rigorously. Leading the effort is Peter Flory, who runs a consulting business in Chicago.

A few years ago, Flory’s work slowed down, and he began looking for a new hobby—“something to be creative,” as he put it in an interview with The Fried Egg, “a kind of zen activity.” Flory became curious about lost golf courses by reading Daniel Wexler’s books. Meanwhile, he was teaching himself the software of The Golf Club, a video game that allows users to create highly detailed virtual builds of courses. “And I thought to myself, What’s the holy grail of lost golf courses?’”

So in early 2018, Flory set out to create a digital version of the Lido. For help with research, he started a thread on the Golf Club Atlas message board. He was surprised by the number of maps, photos, and other archival scraps that came his way. “I became a kind of repository for Lido information,” he said.

What Flory ended up producing in the Golf Club game astonished other Lido researchers.

Flory’s work received wider attention in May 2019, when Golf Channel aired a brief feature on the history of the Lido. Still, he had no reason to believe that his passion project would end up providing the basis for an actual golf course.

That changed in the fall of 2019, when Flory received a call from Tom Doak, himself a regular poster on Golf Club Atlas. Doak wanted to know more about the virtual build—how accurate it was, how the research had been done. “I think I convinced him that it’s not 100% accurate, but it’s really good,” Flory said. “It’s as good as you can do with the information available.”

“When you looked at the graphics,” Doak told Andy Johnson in a new episode of The Fried Egg Podcast, “you thought, ‘That looks pretty close. I mean, I don’t see anything there that looks like it’s clearly wrong or out of place. That’s kind of amazing.’”

In early winter, Flory’s phone rang again. This time, Michael Keiser was on the line, and he asked permission to use one of Flory’s renderings to pique the interest of prospective Wisconsin Lido members. “Not only did he say yes,” Keiser said, “he offered to help in any way he could.” Keiser invited Flory to Madison for a meeting, and soon the virtual builder was an official advisor for a real build.

Flory is excited that the new Lido will not be a “tribute” or a “reinterpretation.” Instead, it will be a data-driven reproduction, as faithful to the original as possible not only in spirit but also in detail. Obviously the Wisconsin sand barrens have no Atlantic Ocean, but Doak’s team plans to dig lakes to represent the coastlines and coastal lagoons that defined the Lido Beach property. In addition, the directional orientation of the new course will be the same as the old one, and the wind patterns will be similar.

“For me,” Doak said, “the goal is to get the reproduction just spot-on to what it should be. And that will be an interesting goal.”

To replicate the terrain of the Long Island Lido, a great deal of Wisconsin sand will need to be pushed around—approximately 700,000 cubic yards, Keiser estimates. This is another change of pace for the Keisers, who have garnered praise for how little earthmoving their courses have required.

But unlike, say, the Old Macdonald site, the Lido Conservancy does not have massive landforms that would be tragic to lose. It is relatively flat, and its sandy base is malleable. While a far cry from the seaside swamp where C.B. Macdonald manufactured his masterpiece a century ago, the Wisconsin property can—and will—be refashioned in service of an ambitious vision.

“Compared to what we’ve done in the past, it’s a massive construction project,” Keiser said. “But given the quality of the golf course, it will all be worth it.”