Early in the new millennium, Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser and his long-time business associate Phil Friedmann acquired around four hundred acres of land from Pacific Power and Light on a site to the north of where the Old Macdonald course would later be built.
Purchased largely on a speculative basis for an undefined future project, around a dozen holes were roughly shaped on this property by Tom Doak and Don Placek when the Pacific Dunes course was constructed, with minimally maintained playing corridors and putting surfaces irrigated occasionally by fire trucks.
There were thoughts of developing the informal layout into a private 18-hole course but the owners backed off after learning of objections to this proposal from local people. In the meantime, those “in the know” at the resort were still able to access this informal golf experience, which Tom Doak described as "transcendent".
Around 2015, new plans to construct a “proper” golf course resulted in the recall of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to work on yet another Bandon Dunes track, even though many in the industry thought either Tom Doak or Gil Hanse would be the architect of choice for this layout.
Five years later, Sheep Ranch finally debuted, with nine greens located against the bluffs, making full use of a mile of ocean shoreline. Interestingly, there are no sand bunkers here; only twenty or so grassy depressions that have something of a natural, “abandoned look” about them.
The routing is such that instead of holes being laid out linearly on the coast, they weave in and out of little peninsulas, offering golfers the opportunity to play out over the cliffs on some of the tee shots.
"You can play diagonally across the ocean away from the promontories that jut out toward the ocean, which you can’t do from any of the other [Bandon Dunes] courses," Bill Coore said. "The ability to watch your tee shot go, literally, over water and over a cliff, instead of just along the water [is exciting]. The key was how best to use the shoreline."
What must also be factored in is how windy it can get out on the course, evidenced by the site’s former use as a wind farm back in 1970s. Making golf playable in the often blustery conditions on a compact property is why Coore and Crenshaw are regarded as among the best in the business.
I agree with the other reviews in that this course will only improve as it grows in over time. This is a stark, dramatic piece of property with some ghost trees, less gorse than Pacific and Bandon Dunes, and no sand bunkers. It's the northernmost track on the property and certainly can get windy in the afternoon and even more so than the other tracks. I also agree with the rater who had Pacific, Bandon Dunes, Sheep Ranch, and Old Mac/Trails as the order of best courses. The oceanside holes are spectacular, particularly #6 and #16 but even an inland hole like the par 5 #11 is worth the trip. #16 was only 92 yards one day with the flag as front as possible with a 25-30mph wind into and towards the ocean and it was one of the most unsettling shots I've ever had. Alternately, next round a partner went long on #3, which shares the football sized three-tiered green and ended up using a hybrid for that length and uphill putt. Only downsides I can see are the extreme imbalance of the 9's with the front playing a short 34 and mostly downwind and the back being a much longer par 38 mostly into the wind. Also the par 5 #18 is quite short and somewhat anti-climatic but after getting beat up on the back it's nice to finish with an easy birdie. Real good addition to the course rotation at Bandon and I look forward to playing it again as it matures.
In 2 or 3 years this could be the best course at Bandon Dunes. Needs some time to grow in and firm up. Sits on fantastic golf land with rolling terrain inland and jaw-dropping views from the cliff’s edge. #6 Tee and #17 Tee are two of the most dramatic tee box locations you’ll find, hanging on the edge of the cliff. These two tees are better than most oceanfront greens you’ll find anywhere! There are many fantastic greens with subtle undulations… when these grow in and can be cut a bit lower the course will play significantly more challenging. Highlight holes: 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 16, 17, 18.
Every new addition to the Bandon Dunes resort will make headlines. The official opening date was 1st June 2020, which was preceded with some limited preview play. Coore & Crenshaw now have a third course at the resort, which means half of the golf offerings have been laid out by the dynamic duo. Founders of Bandon Dunes Resort, Phil Friedman and Mike Keiser have owned the Sheep Ranch site for more than 20 years so no additional property was purchased to build the new 18 holes. The history of the Sheep Ranch plays a crucial role with understanding its current presentation. Many years ago, Doak created 13 random greens to facilitate cross-county golf for limited play. Each green was identified with a letter of the alphabet. When the few select golfers got access to the Ranch, they created their own course across the rugged land. From the resort, you only needed to look up the coastline to see golf flags blowing in the wind. Curiosity as to what the place was went off the charts. The mystic of the original 13-hole Sheep Ranch made it golfs equivalent to Area 51. Countless questions and inquiries went on for years. You either loved or hated the place depending on which side of the fence you were on.
When the Sheep Ranch was ultimately destined to be an 18-hole course at the resort, the level of hype was inevitable. The selection of Coore/Crenshaw to lay out an 18-hole course was a wonderful decision given their familiarity with the region, and their outstanding portfolio. Almost overnight, making the Sheep Ranch a public 18-hole course (in my humble opinion) wiped out the mystery and mythical image that surrounded the course. Gone are the days where lucrative access and secrecy of Area 51 took a strangle-hold on who got in the gate. While I love everything about Bandon and what the resort gives to the game, I can’t help but feel a little sentimental about the past. Many visitors may not know the history of the Sheep Ranch, but I think it’s crucial to its present and future intention. Try to play it with somebody who was intimately familiar with the original 13-hole site, and you’ll learn how little resemblance there is today as to the routing, or even the access roads around the perimeter. Even the sheep are gone! But while we could focus on what’s been lost forever, there is a serious amount of light at the end of the mysterious tunnel.
The immediate highlights of today’s Sheep Ranch include 9 greens abutting the coastline, 3 shared (and very clever) V-shaped tee boxes, and there are no sand bunkers because the architects concluded that sand would not stay in the bunkers given the site’s exposed location. I was fortunate to play the course 3 times over a variety of days with a mixture of wind directions, tee-markers and an assortment of interesting pin locations. Since the course opened a couple of months ago, it’s been pounded with play. It was of little surprise that the fairways were still trying to grow, and the green speeds were on the slower side. This is exactly what I expected, and totally normal for such a young public course. Conditions were not a focus of each of my rounds. With time, the Sheep Ranch will be pristine like all other courses at the resort.
The opening par 5 brings you downhill straight to the coastline, as does the par 3 3rd hole and par 3 5th hole, followed by the epic par 4 6th hole that plays parallel to the coast with a heroic tee shot over the cliffs. The 7th is yet another short par 3 that takes you to the corner of the property along the coast before turning around for the dog-leg right 8th hole which might be the best par 4 on the course. The 9th brings you straight back to the coast with a beautiful infinity green. The first 9 holes highlights how special the routing is, with an emphasis on finding as many shots down towards the ocean as possible.
No sand in the bunkers is a strange feature. There are dozens of grass hollows that look like bunkers that were grassed in. I’m not sure I loved the concept, as many of them could easily be sand bunkers. At the current moment of the course’s evolution, there’s no real punishment off the tee or around the greens. There’s plenty of width off the tee, and limited areas of higher fescue. I guess the vast nature of the land is a homage to the original Sheep Range where golfing in any direction is (technically) possible as you navigate around.
When there is only so much land at your disposal, the architects had to come up with smart ideas to economically use limited land for multiple purposes. V-shape tee boxes are used to strategically point golfers away from each other to increase the probability that stray golf balls won’t hit adjacent players. We see this concept on holes 2 & 18, 5 & 15 and 8 & 10. An aerial view of the course highlights the brilliance of this deliberate feature.
Routing a course is always a major challenge for any architect based on the land they are presented with. One of the absolute most unique design features that I fell in love with were the holes that played diagonal to the ocean. We see this at the par 3 5th and the par 4 15th. Ironically, these holes share a V-shaped teeing ground and generally play parallel to each other in places. The 15th is a brilliant example of how you play crosswise to the ocean, as the sense of anticipation builds dramatically for the mouth-watering 16th and 17th holes that begin to show their faces ahead.
Most of the drone photography you’ll see of the Sheep Ranch will be of the par 3 16th that plays to a large exposed cliff-top surface, followed by the theatrical par 4 17th that presents the burnt ghost trees guarding the fairway and green along the fairytale coastline. The crashing waves offer a symphonic melody as your experience comes to a climax. I make it a point to call out drone photography, as the views of these closing holes at eye-level is very different. Sadly, most golfers will be tricked by the drone shots and won’t even realise where they are while walking the course. The drone gets to heights and angles that players will never see. Same argument goes for the finger fairways at Cape Kidnappers. The eye-level playing view from the fairway is completely different, and essentially never shown given that it doesn’t help with marketing.
I’ve played each course at the resort multiple times based on multiple visits. I’ve seen them all at their best. Everyone wants to know where the Sheep Ranch compares to the others, and where it will appear in the next batch of rankings from the various publications and websites. I am a massive fan of the course and consider the routing to be the best at the resort. Taking an objective view, Pacific Dunes is still the #1 at the resort – after 4 visits, my opinion hasn’t changed at all. I think the rankings will be Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes, Sheep Ranch, Bandon Trails and Old Macdonald.
I love Bandon Dunes... After COVID-19 cancelled a group of 8 of us in March, 2 remaining die hards and I jumped in my truck and drove the 14 hours from Southern California to Bandon Dunes in mid May. On the way up I read a tweet by the renowned Bandon Welcoming-Weatherman “Shoe“ who said a select few would be able to play a preview round that week on the Sheep Ranch.
As I stood on that first tee in sunny, calm, 60 degree temps I thought I was in for a treat. When my caddy Jimmy the Canadian started laughing before I even swung the club, I asked what was so funny? He replied that “2 days ago it was blowing 50 on this very spot!”
Many who have played it since then have remarked in print, podcasts and social media outlets that it is the most spectacular starting hole in the world. As you walk over the rise and someone magically pulls back the curtains and a scene akin to somewhere over the rainbow appears in the form of the Pacific Ocean you know you are in for something epic. Words do not do it justice. It is the most beautiful starting hole in the world.
Hole after hole it is one amazing view after another. The par 3s are all spectacular with million dollar vistas everywhere. At times, you are reminded that you are only a stones throw from the other courses at Bandon but like the others, Sheep Ranch has its own feel.
Hole #6 gives Bandon Dunes #16, Pacific #4 Trails #11 and Old Mac #3 a run for their money as best hole on the property. I had been hitting a slinging (left handed) draw up to that point but aimed somewhere over the ocean and hit a perfect cut that rode the slight breeze back safely into the fairway. (Jimmy the Canadian was both surprised and impressed)
The rest of the course is not very long and without the wind or sand, there is very little defense. That does not diminish from the experience one bit. It is so much fun to play! You don’t even notice there is no sand on property. It is minimalism at its finest and Coore/Crenshaw deserve credit for painting another masterpiece.
Every time I go to Bandon, my favorites list changes but after one round, Sheep Ranch is just behind Bandon Dunes but ahead of Old Mac, Trails and Pac Dunes. I can’t wait to get back up there and try it again. It is special & I won’t be surprised at all if it become my favorite course at my favorite place on earth.
With another golf trip to Western Ireland cancelled next month due to COVID-19, I am going back up to Bandon in 2 weeks and will probably get to play it in more typical circumstances which is fine with me.
Did I forget to say I love Bandon Dunes?