BANDON, Ore. – We could see forever on the downhill stroll to the first green at the new Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. The view from that northernmost point of the resort was all Pacific Ocean to the west, while the panorama to the south appeared as exposed land that somehow has taken on the shape of ocean waves, rising and falling at the whims of the wind. Flagsticks dotted the exuberant landscape, dancing in the seaside breezes.
Built upon a mile of jagged coastline, the tract initially looks huge. The ninth green sits at the far southern end, nearly reaching the bluffs at Old Macdonald and the rest of the famed golf resort. On an early preview round before the course’s official June 1 opening, it was a thrill to know we would play from here to there, then back again – we could see almost all the challenges waiting ahead. With few trees to block the sightlines, it looks like one giant playground.
But looks certainly can be deceiving.
The design team led by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw had to dig deep into its bag of tricks to make this highly anticipated course work on a deceptively small piece of land that is roughly 600 yards across at its widest. With only about 140 acres for the course before the land climbs into trees to the east, Coore and Crenshaw fashioned a genius routing that plays as wide open as the views.
The grand opening of the Sheep Ranch will reveal several differences to the resort’s other courses – all of which rank highly in the Golfweek’s Best ratings of greatest modern golf courses in the United States. Pacific Dunes is ranked No. 2, Old Macdonald is No. 5, Bandon Dunes is No. 8 and Bandon Trails is No. 14.
The most immediately noticed difference is that the Sheep Ranch’s cliffs are not as linear, with promontories jutting 100 feet above the beach that afforded somewhat surreal opportunities to build several greens and tees almost entirely surrounded by open sky. And second is the ground itself, with little natural foliage to hide the sweeping internal contours.
“For the most part we did what we always try to do,” Coore said. “If you find a site that has a lot of inherent qualities, natural qualities for golf, you just let that guide the process. Certainly at the Sheep Ranch, the site was inherently different than any of the courses there. It definitely had different contours than most of the other courses. It wasn’t sand, wasn’t dunes. It just had such interesting natural contours for golf, amazingly interesting contours. We tried to let those contours and the coastline dictate the type of course.”
A few things to know going in: The Sheep Ranch is a compact course that is much more exposed to sometimes extreme wind than the other tracks at Bandon Dunes. The views are ridiculous. It has nine greens on those incredible, 100-foot Pacific cliffs. The fairways are wide, but that fact alone doesn’t necessarily make it easy to hit them when the wind is howling. For the first time at the resort, players can intentionally hit balls over the cliffs to targets perched on those dramatic promontories instead of just alongside the cliffs.
And there are no traditional sand bunkers. Not one. More on that later.
As for the question I get most after my preview round: No, I won’t call it my favorite of the now five 18-hole courses at the resort, simply because it’s impossible for me to choose. Golfers will gather in McKee’s Pub and around the fire pit to figure out that argument, and they’re all right no matter which course they choose. My favorite at Bandon is always the next one on my schedule.
“I think it was Willie Nelson who said, you just do the best you can – in his case music – and then you throw it out there for everyone to judge,” Coore said. “Somebody will tell you if it’s any good or not. The Sheep Ranch is a little like that in the sense it’s quite different than the other courses at Bandon. We think it’s good, and we’re very pleased with what happened there. How it will be perceived is up to others to determine.”
The fact that the Sheep Ranch is even part of the discussion as the best course at Bandon Dunes involves some sleight of hand that has holes zigging and zagging across the landscape with so many greens perched above the ocean. It’s that intimacy with the cliffs that turn this course into one continuous photo op. That was the goal from the outset for Sheep Ranch co-owners Mike Keiser and Phil Friedmann.
“Mike and Phil are very good natured, but they had a very pointed directive: Try to use every single foot of that coastline. Every foot. And I can’t say it enough, I mean every foot,” Coore said with a laugh. “We all like to have fun with that kind of stuff in conversations, but it’s hard to do. We could have said we’re just going to run some holes along the ocean and along the cliffs, but if you do that, you get very few holes on the ocean.”
The highlight of the cliffside holes – and the focal point for the entire course – is the giant double green for Nos. 3 and 16. Jutting into the ocean atop Fivemile Point, suspended above dark rocks that rise from the water, it was obvious from the outset that this spot was special. It surely will take its place among the best spots for a golf selfie on the planet – the caddies will be busy here, handing off putters in exchange for smartphones for the obligatory shot.
But much of what makes the Sheep Ranch work was not so obvious. Routing is a common term in golf, frequently used to casually describe a course as a whole. But to a course designer, it’s the nuanced art of fashioning 18 holes into a cohesive experience. And at the Sheep Ranch, the routing is everything.
The new course replaces a 13-hole track on the site that was built by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina and which also was named Sheep Ranch. It was owned independently by Friedmann, who along with Keiser was a co-founder of Recycled Paper Greetings, Inc., in 1971. That version of the Sheep Ranch wasn’t open to standard resort play and didn’t always follow a traditional routing, as the handful of players who experienced it could choose their tees and greens in a golf version of the basketball game Horse.
So how did Coore and Crenshaw approach the task of making 18 holes fit onto the piece of land that previously held just 13?
“The big thing, because of the small size of the property and the effects of the wind out there, we did have some concerns that if we built a bunch of holes that paralleled each other, balls could go anywhere,” Coore said. “Once balls get airborne on that kind of wind, they could go laterally a long way – they can go anywhere. We tried to figure out, the most interesting ground is here along the cliffs and, say, 400 yards inland – how do we best utilize that? But we can’t just line the holes up in a paralleling fashion because we were worried about where some of these tee shots would go on that wind.”
Turns out, the secret is in the clever and shared arrangement of the tee boxes.
If a course is built with parallel holes, each tee box consumes a sizeable chunk of land. Then there is all that ground stretching from tee to fairway. Factor in the space to keep the holes far enough apart so that each has its own identity – and so that players are less likely to send tee shots screaming on a crazy wind into other groups – and a designer will have used a lot of land that isn’t even really in play.
Instead, Coore and Crenshaw created several tee boxes that serve as hubs from which multiple fairways radiate outward and away from each other. Consider the spokes on a bicycle wheel: The spokes grow farther apart as they stretch outward from the hub.
Same thing with several of the Sheep Ranch tee boxes and fairways, with key examples being Nos. 2 and 18, Nos. 5 and 15 and Nos. 8 and 10. Placing the tees close together allows the fairways to extend farther apart while consuming less land.
“Ben and I both agree, if we did anything that was maybe a bit unusual but was actually key to unlocking the routing there, it was combining those tee complexes,” Coore said. “By pulling tee complexes very close together where they almost become common teeing grounds for two different holes, it allowed us to really make it compact in the teeing areas. Then as the holes go away from the tees to the landing areas, they can get wider and wider. That was one of the absolute keys to the routing of the golf course.”
It also creates what can be a fun, communal vibe on the tee shots. Whereas most top courses revel in a sense of isolation, with one group rarely coming in contact with another, players will frequently come face-to-face with others at the Sheep Ranch.
“You’ll see a lot of other folks hitting golf shots, and they’ll be seeing you hitting golf shots too,” Coore said with a laugh. “If it were at a municipal golf course some place, it would be harder to pull this off because you would have to be so aware of which tees you are going to and which way you’re playing. It would be easy to get up there and play down the wrong hole. While we tried to delineate the lines of play very distinctly, it helps that Bandon Dunes has caddies and the vast majority of players choose to use them.”
One thing those caddies won’t need is a rake.
Instead of traditional sand traps, the Sheep Ranch features a wide range of shallow areas dug out like bunkers, but with variations of grass instead of sand. Some are partially mowed, while others have taller and wispier grass. Coore described them as looking like old, abandoned bunkers that have grown over with grass.
One of the main reasons for skipping the sand was the strong winds so prevalent at the Sheep Ranch. Wind over 30 mph – common at all the cliffside holes at the resort and even more so at the Sheep Ranch – can blow sand out of a bunker, making the traps a maintenance headache. And because the Sheep Ranch isn’t built on sandy terrain like the resort’s other courses, instead being laid out over what Coore called “red shot clay,” having sand blow out of the traps would leave hard-pan clay bottoms exposed.
For inspiration on how to handle that problem, Coore and Crenshaw looked to a classic golf architecture book, The Links by Robert Hunter that was first published in 1926.
“There’s an old black and white photograph of contours that are just so incredible, and there’s a caption that says one day there will be a site with contours so interesting for golf that bunkers will be unnecessary,” Coore said. “And we thought if we were ever going to build a golf course with no formal bunkers, this is probably the place. Given the weather conditions, given the soil type and given the amazing contours, this is the site. So that was the beginning of the idea.”
Coore said that Keiser, the original developer of Bandon Dunes who has built a network of top courses around North America, got on board quickly. Friedmann, however, needed a little convincing to leave out what is typically one of the most recognizable features of a great course.
“Phil, I guess, was a bit more hesitant, and for good reason,” Coore said. “His comment was that we could build some of the most spectacular bunkers on earth here, and he was absolutely right. We could, and I could see how there would be bunkers looking like waves crashing against green sites. But again, we get back to long-term maintenance, and did we want to do that? Or do we want to try something a bit different?”
Coore expects that the lack of sand bunkers will make the course play easier for mid- and higher-handicapped players.
“But for the best players who can spin a bunker shot and control those shots consistently, I have an idea they will find those grassy bunker-type areas to be more unpredictable and more difficult,” he said. “All those things have been involved in the thought process collectively.”
The lack of bunkers is just one more example of different being interesting. Coore and Crenshaw didn’t set out to copy Pacific Dunes or Old Macdonald. With the eyes of the golf world on the much-heralded site, they understood that they needed to embrace the differences.
“We knew the expectations would be extreme because of the spectacular nature of the site and the coastline being so different, exposing it differently and play-wise to the ocean than the other courses,” Coore said. “And we knew people would focus on the spectacular potential and not so much on the restrictions of the site. That can be daunting, because people will think that if you can’t build the best course at Bandon on that site, you’ve done something wrong.
“The potential is extreme, but the restrictive nature of it is extreme as well. How do we work these things together? We knew the expectations would be very high, but the downside could be very high too. It’s a site where you can succeed spectacularly, or you can fail miserably. … I will say, we’re thrilled with how it turned out.”