Found and experienced: The mysterious Sheep Ranch
by Keith Potter
The next big thing at Bandon is bound to be a big thing. After all, the courses at Bandon Dunes always deliver, unless the weather is too much like Scotland for some. So the thought of getting an early sniff at The Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch, the up-and-coming fifth course at Bandon Dunes, got me up and out the door from Eugene at an ungodly hour.
If there was a hesitation, it was the weird notion that there are only 13 finished holes. Thirteen holes? And no clubhouse? No bathrooms. No cart girls. No carts! It was BYO food and drinks, and “you might throw in some toilet paper, and plenty of balls.”
I was ready for the rough beginning—a mysterious keeper meeting us at the gate at the very end of the road, followed by dirt tracks to an unlikely parking patch. And then it all opened up. Here are the things I liked most about an amazing day at The Sheep Ranch.
An astounding piece of land that gives the sense that the whole course is cliffside. I’ve played Monterrey Peninsula courses a lot, and learned to cherish the few holes that actually touch the shoreline. Wherever the final design lands, The Sheep Ranch is truly an ocean course. Every hole is scenic. Many holes hug the rocks.
- It’s already in great shape. The fairways look rough, brownish-green like St. Andrews, while the ball sits nicely anywhere. Missing the fairway is punished by tall fescue (or so I was told) and other varieties of pure trouble. The greens are huge and immaculate with interesting contour, inviting a variety of approaches.
- As for variety, the best part of the day was pretending to be Ernie Els and Alister MacKenzie at the same time. At every hole, we picked our tee box, and sometimes even created an entire hole. The genius of its current cut is the invitation to go in more than one direction. Yes, they give a sheet with a recommended approach to fourteen holes. But it took no time to realize that the possibilities are endless. We played more than thirty holes, and almost all of them were a bit unlike anything any of us had played.
- And as for anyone else, there was no one else. Eight of us played in a group of eight, until that bogged down, and then two groups of four, and then by sunset one group of four. All to say, we owned the whole course for an entire day.
- One small encouragement: play a game. For us, a simple skins game kept us focused. Without a game, the lack of structure would make many players come apart. Losing balls on a fairly undefined track with coastal weather can beat a lot of people up. But the glory is asking, “What direction do you want to go with this one?” And then firing away with some skin in play. I kept imagining myself in wool knickers in 18-something, playing a raw, pure game. But mind you, stay on the fairways and there’s nothing rustic about it. Nice grass and welcoming greens.
- I can’t give a number to the hole, but there’s one cliffside par-3 that’s a sure memory maker. Yes, I stuck it close (the first of three times), which always remembers good. Forgive the hyperbole, but it reminded me of priceless moments at No. 7 at Pebble and No. 3 at Mauna Kea. Not the same, but this one’s picturesque and really tough, with wind and weather determining club selection. Total risk/reward—hug the cliff and have a shot at birdie. Or play it over the hill to a blind, spacious landing area.
By the way, the whole day cost a hundred bucks apiece, paid by check to the gatekeeper. Someone at Bandon Dunes can give his name and some directions, though the course is currently not tied to the resort.
Did I mention we played on a windless, sunny, 70-degree June day? Not sure I can promise you that. Maybe wind and rain makes it brutal, or the elements dry out the fairways in August. But with unpredictable weather and even changing holes, it’s all ever-new and really, really old.
Keith Potter is a university VP, occasional writer (published author), avid golfer and (most famously) the proprietor’s brother.