Imagine being in a vast, open field with nothing except short grass, golf flags dotting the landscape and panoramic views of a sparkling ocean hundreds of feet below, with total freedom to choose a routing to play.
Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?
For many years, that dream was a reality at a property just north of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, where resort owner Mike Keiser and his longtime business partner Phil Friedmann had created “The Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch.”
Around the time Pacific Dunes was built, this surreal coastal plot was procured by Keiser and Friedman outside of the official Bandon Dunes development. They enlisted Tom Doak, who was busy designing Pacific Dunes at the time, to create thirteen greens on the site. The surfaces were maintained to a minimal level, with the surrounding areas mowed to a playable height. While a suggested routing was developed, there was no “official” one and golfers were free to define their own course.
This sparsely-maintained property largely existed as Friedmann’s personal playground for years, until Bandon Dunes visitors got wind of it and curiosity swirled. Eventually, access was unofficially granted to inquiring resort guests for a small fee.
After years of mulling over plans to turn Sheep Ranch into a full-fledged 18-hole venue, either as part of or separate from the Bandon Dunes development, Keiser and Friedmann finally agreed the time was right and hired Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to convert it into the resort’s fifth full-length course, opening in 2020.
Coore and Crenshaw could’ve moved mountains of dirt to enhance the contours of this rather flat property and create an artificial dunescape, similar to maximalist projects like Whistling Straits, but that would have been inconsistent with their philosophy of taking land as-is and creating the best possible golf venue on it.
Instead, the focus was on creating a routing to maximize the oceanfront views. The somewhat small dimensions of the property made it a challenge to find 18 holes, so a creative approach was needed to run playing corridors to and from the sea while still ending with a regulation-size track.
The architects employed a “pinwheel” routing technique, with a handful of gathering areas for adjacent greens and tees, and holes sprouting outward in different directions from there. This allowed for more greens to be placed in the best locations on the property, and saved just enough room to eke out a par-72 design.
Sheep Ranch’s ingenuous routing yielded nine greens directly on the cliffs, with the roaring Pacific Ocean far below, a visual spectacle virtually unmatched in American golf.
To add some unique flair to the layout, Coore and Crenshaw opted to install grass bunkers instead of sand traps. After three days of toiling in nasty sand bunkers on the other Bandon courses, I was thoroughly relieved to be free of the prospect of more sand play on Sheep Ranch.
With minimal hazards and flatter terrain, Sheep Ranch is the easiest course at Bandon Dunes, if the wind isn’t blowing hard. However, it’s also the most exposed property at the resort, and I can only imagine how brutal it could get in blustery conditions. We played Sheep Ranch on a relatively calm day, and I found it to be the perfect final venue to cap off a magnificent golf trip. Despite struggling with my game, I still managed to shoot my lowest score of the week at Sheep Ranch, which was a fun way to reach the trip’s finish line.
Starting from a clubhouse placed away from the ocean on the highest point on the property, Sheep Ranch wastes no time heading to the ocean with my favorite starting hole at Bandon Dunes. This downhill par 5 bends slightly to the left with OB and gorse far right. After the tee shot, a panoramic view of the ocean opens up with the first green in the distance. This is a reachable par 5, even for shorter hitters, but the scenery may distract from the task at hand.
The third hole returns to the ocean, featuring one of the wildest greens I’ve ever seen (see the featured image of this post). It’s actually a double green shared with #16, backing up against iconic Five Mile Point. The front section of the green houses most of the pin positions for the third hole, before the surface tumbles down several tiers to the area occupied by the 16th.
Depending on the wind, it may be a challenge to hold the front tier, and anything hit long will end up on a lower tier and prompt a roller-coaster putt back up the slopes.
While Sheep Ranch mostly features short yardages and wide playing surfaces, there are a few demanding holes that require great ball striking and courageous playing lines. The first example of this comes on the dogleg right, monster par 4 fourth. The tee shot must navigate past a series of deep grass bunkers, but running a drive just past them would minimize the distance into its massive punchbowl green. This could be an absolutely brutal hole in the winter, when it would play into the prevailing wind out of the south. Even without hindrance from the wind, this is a daunting par 4, and I wasn’t disappointed to make a 5.
The sixth is an adventurous par 4, with a tee shot that must carry a gorse-covered cliff. A blind tee shot with nothing but cliffs and ocean in sight may be the most visually intimidating challenge in golf, and the sixth at Sheep Ranch certainly holds its own in that regard with the likes of the 12th at Old Head or the 17th at Cabot Cliffs. Golfers must decide how far right to aim their tee shots to cut off distance at the risk of losing a ball to the Pacific. Conservative play to the left will help ensure the ball stays in play, but will also lead to a very long approach distance to a slightly elevated green.
The seventh is a short, downhill par 3 with a dazzling view of the coastline to the south, with other Bandon Dunes courses and the city of Bandon in sight on a clear day. This is one of three short par 3’s at Sheep Ranch that must be taken advantage of to post a competitive score.
The short par-34 front nine is followed by a lengthier stretch on the par-38 inward side. The first of three par 5’s on the back nine is the 11th, a straightaway hole that heads uphill towards the clubhouse. After cutting through a pine forest, the approach plays into an elevated green with rocky walls flanking the entrance. This unique, quirky hole is a good scoring opportunity for those laying up in two, with a receptive green that will welcome a solidly executed short iron.
The 12th is a lengthy downhill par 4, with an expansive view of the course and the ocean in the background. While this is a manageable challenge with a wide fairway and little trouble in play, I managed to find a diabolical spot just left of the green in a small depression. After taking three shots to hack it back in play, I limped off with a triple bogey, ending any hope of breaking 80. Tiny spots with extreme trouble can be found throughout the property and must be avoided to keep a good round rolling.
The 16th may be the most famous spot at Sheep Ranch, playing to the tip of Five Mile Point. Featuring endless views of the Pacific, this little par 3 may not be more than a wedge shot. We played to an extreme front pin, which baited me into hitting one less club than I should have, but I still managed to get up-and-down for par.
The 17th is a short par four with a cliff lining its left side. After hearing rumors of a “pro tee” located on Five Mile Point just off the 16th green, I asked my caddy if we could check it out, but there were orders from the resort to discourage guests from hitting shots from that spot.
Even without that exhilarating driving angle open for play, the 17th is plenty interesting due to the amazing ghost trees that border the cliff. Apparently, Keiser wanted to remove them to create an unimpeded oceanfront, but Friedmann insisted they stay. The ultimate decision to keep them was the right one, as they are some of the coolest trees I’ve ever seen on a golf course.
The 18th is a very short par 5 playing from the oceanfront back to the clubhouse. The generous distance (just 436 yards from the popular green tees) made this the perfect closing hole to a Bandon trip. As a matter of fact, my only eagle putt of the entire trip came here after striking an excellent hybrid to about 35 feet. Unfortunately, my eagle bid slid just wide and I had to settle for a tap-in birdie.
Amenities and Closing Thoughts
Sheep Ranch features a counter-service restaurant, offering its famous caddy-preferred pastrami sandwich. Just outside is a sweeping patio adorned with fire pits and a sublime view of nearly the whole golf course and the ocean beyond. Sheep Ranch is also the only course at the resort with its own driving range, located just west of the property.
From a scenery standpoint, Sheep Ranch is hands-down the most stunning of the five Bandon courses. However, I would rank it a solid notch or two below the resort’s other courses in terms of architectural appeal, strategy, and challenge. For that reason, I agree with the popular sentiment that Sheep Ranch should be played either first or last on a Bandon trip.
On the one hand, barring heavy winds, it’s easy enough to get off to a strong start if Sheep Ranch is the first round of a trip, which could buoy confidence and provide a soft introduction to the true links-style golf that awaits on the other tracks. On the other hand, the spectacular scenery and less demanding nature of the layout is also the perfect way to unwind and close out a trip. Of course, one could bookend their trip with two rounds at Sheep Ranch to capture the best possible sequence.
Sheep Ranch has forged a unique identity starting with its unusual conception over 20 years ago, and has lived up to the lofty standards of the best golf resort on the planet. It wasn’t one of my favorite tracks at Bandon, but the fact that it still debuts in the top 15 in my all-time favorite course rankings goes to show how special Bandon Dunes is as a golfing destination.
For more on Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, check out Brian’s full destination review.