By Erik Matuszewski
While most everyone was fixated on the seemingly endless ocean views upon pulling up to the Sheep Ranch pro shop at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Bill Coore’s attention was elsewhere on opening day for the Oregon resort’s fifth 18-hole course. Coore was focused on the smiles.
After success with Bandon Trails and the par-3 Bandon Preserve course, Coore and design partner Ben Crenshaw were entrusted with a truly special yet challenging task: reimagining the Sheep Ranch. The land was previously home to a minimalist layout shrouded in mystery, a roughly cut course with 13 greens created by Tom Doak, the architect of Bandon’s second course, Pacific Dunes. The original Sheep Ranch wasn’t officially part of the resort and only a select few knew the secret to gaining access to property, which featured holes designated by letters, not numbers, that could be played in multiple directions like a choose-your-own-adventure.
“It was a bit daunting and, quite frankly, the Sheep Ranch had gained almost mystical reputation,” Coore says while watching players putt on the 11th hole, a par five that climbs dramatically back up to the clubhouse. “It was something that very few people had experienced, but you just knew the expectations were going to be extraordinarily high.”
Judging by the smiles, including mine, it’s safe to say the new Sheep Ranch is already meeting, if not exceeding, expectations.
With nine greens on the soaring cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Sheep Ranch boasts more coastline than Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes combined. The water is in view from every hole on the course, which is the first 18-hole addition to Bandon Dunes since Old Macdonald in 2010.
“We knew it was special. The thing that you instantly see is the coastline, which is different than the other courses because it’s more broken,” Coore says. “It affords you the opportunity where you can actually play over the ocean in places, not just alongside it, to it, and away from it.
“And then the contours were just incredible for golf. Yet, those things being such huge positives, it’s a fairly small property in terms of its acreage. The question became how you get the holes on it, how do you take the most advantage of the attributes of the property?”
What unfolds is a masterful routing, starting with an opening shot through pine trees to what looks to be an “infinity fairway” from the teeing area. After clearing a rise, the first fairway dives down to a green overlooking the ocean, with a lone dead tree standing sentinel alongside.
The course is eminently walkable, with an easy flow and holes that blend seamlessly together. In some areas, several tee boxes or several greens are clustered together. In one instance, the 3rd and 16th holes (both par threes) share a green that overlooks the ocean at slightly different elevations.
In addition to the mile-long stretch of coastline, there are two other signature elements to the Sheep Ranch: an absence of traditional sand bunkers and windier conditions than the other Bandon courses given the exposed northernmost location. Wind will almost always be a factor at the Bandon courses—it’s part of the experience. But be prepared for your “when breezy, swing easy” mantra to really be put to the test on numerous occasions at the Sheep Ranch, especially down the stretch on the 15th, 16th, and 17th holes during most times of the year.
The dead trees, or snags, along several of the coastline holes lend an almost ominous feel. It’s not going out on a limb to suggest that the tree next to the green of the par-four 17th hole will emerge as one of the most photographed spots on the course.
The sandless bunkers will also be a memorable distinction. They’re still hazards, just with grassy hollows and knobs that should prove slightly easier for the resort golfer to play from. Coore & Crenshaw through the years had talked about the possibility of creating a course without bunkers, but only if the terrain warranted it. The Sheep Ranch qualifies.
“We just thought if we were ever going to do it, this has the landforms that are interesting enough,” Coore says. “And the fact that it’s not a sand base, trying to maintain bunkers out here in the windy conditions would just be a nightmare.”
Coore asked me after my round if I had missed the bunkers. My answer was an emphatic “no.”
There are too many other things to celebrate at the new, open-to-all Sheep Ranch: engaging elevation changes; a blind tee shot; challenging putting surfaces; short par threes with greens practically hanging off the cliffs; and forced carries like the epic tee shot at the par-four sixth hole that has views to rival anything at Pebble Beach.
“It’s that idea of trying to create a product that can be perceived as not just a complement, but a new family member,” Coore says. “Hopefully it will be another one of the quality that some people may say, ‘Oh, it’s the best of the bunch.’ Others might say, ‘It’s my least favorite.’ Whatever the case may be, hopefully it will expand the experience at Bandon.”
Like everything at Bandon Dunes, it’s an experience you won’t forget.