Sheep Ranch

6,245 yards, 119 slope from the Greens

Creaky. The wind surged against the window of my room that night, keeping me up with its fury. Wood creaked this way and that, some where. My alarm went off while I was in a daze, not nearly enough sleep. Out of bed standing, weary bones creaking. Yet there is no rest for the weary. I got dressed and picked up my golf bag. Muscles creaking, bag was even creaking. Head outside to catch the shuttle. Even the fucking shuttle was creaking. Flags flapping wildly, trees swaying from one side to the other like they’re doing the limbo. And yes, their trunks, limbs, branches and even the leaves, creaking.

Finally, we get to the new part, at least to us. All of it is new. The drive to the clubhouse, the clubhouse, all of it. Golfers and caddies huddled in and around the clubhouse. The assistant pro at the register recites something about once we tee off, we can’t get a refund if we decide to stop. Ok. My caddie seems resigned. He knows how bad it’s going to be but keeps it to himself. He’s willing to give it a go and so are we. Besides, the First tee didn’t seem all that bad. Neither did the fairway. But then, we reached the green.

It was then the wind pierced our beings.

This was the round we had pegged for our big official match. We had enough time to scope out each other’s games and none of us had played here before. We kept the match going, which I knew would be futile in the end. 80 mph gusts on the most wind exposed course on the property. I told my caddie, “I’m keeping everything on the ground. These other guys are going to hit their balls off the fucking edge of the world.” I had to shout it at him since the wind was busy destroying our ear drums. We were against the wind most of those starting holes. My caddie pointed out the other groups walking in already. You couldn’t stand still when you were at address. The ball was moving, you were moving, the club was moving Lord knows where during the swing. Of course, I was having a blast. If golf is an adventure, this was a first for me.

And the course was really really good.

While the Sheep Ranch is the newest course, it has been around for quite some time. Doak, Jim Urbina and Don Placek shaped thirteen holes on the property during construction of Pacific Dunes. It was a largely informal, casual place that Doak and his team used, playing to different greens from each tee depending on how the mood caught them. There was some thought by Keiser and his team to build a private course here, but those plans never materialized. An old fire trucks was used to irrigate on occasion, which turned into some where that could be played if one was determined enough. I believe last time I was here, there was a phone number you called and paid something like $100 to get in and play any which way you felt like for the day. During our round at Old Mac that trip, the caddies pointed out this large bluff area tilted towards the water below as its place. There wasn’t enough time to get over there that trip but boy did that bluff look idyllic.

Coore and Crenshaw were tagged by Keiser to develop the land into an eighteen-hole course that would join the collection at Bandon. The property is compact and yes, windy. It was actually used as a wind farm in the 1970’s. One decision they made was not to incorpoate any bunkers. At least with sand. The wind would complicate sand bunkers and I have always though grass and rough bunkers are not used nearly enough, so that is to be applauded. With the smaller piece of property, there are shared tees and an intelligent routing to fully utilize the spectacular geography. Fescue is used here as well, which opens up what I would say is the most fun and strategic ground game at Bandon. Sure that’s almost out of necessity but also emphasizes the point just how wide-ranging such a course is. Even with hurricane gusts battering us, there were still an arsenal of choices in getting to the hole. A 120 yard shot was no longer a stock iron. It could be a punch, a hybrid chip, a heaving up in the air for one of those high draws I like to think I can pull off when I want; even a bunt driver is in play. More to the point, this is surface level golf. There are no dunes, or trees; the fairways are completely exposed to the elements. Laid bare, the width and expanse one encounters at Old Mac is magnified here tenfold. The golfer sees bumpy green and brown land in front of him but locating the green is some times a challenge in itself. The views of the coast are abundant and spectacular. The approaches and angles into the ocean vary as well, which sets this place apart from the others even more. Even when the ocean mist is so close that the wind is sending it into your face like tiny arrowheads, the views still mesmerize.

And yes, sheep were here grazing. They were brought in but they were there.

Its distinct personality is within the dominant natural elements. It’s the coastal bluff, mostly as low profile as it gets. It’s the ocean, always close by with its sounds and more of a crashing against the cliffs bravado than the beaches and rock formations of the others. It’s antique golf, where one’s guile and inventiveness is more important than most anything else. The ability to engage in such style of golf in this setting on the west coast of North America is wonderfully unique.

Alas, while I was some what reveling being out there in such amplified winds, I understood when the rest of my group called it. After playing the Sixth, we played the Tenth and Eleventh in, getting in eight holes in all. Yet there are ten holes I did not get to play. A big reason for the trip was to play this course and I have no idea when I’ll return. Such is how it goes. I know the course I will be playing first when I do return. Maybe this expedites my return. Hell, this might have been Bandon’s devious way to get me back sooner rather than later. If I find myself relatively close with a little bit of free time, I will return. Come hell or high water. Or gusts of fury.

From what I saw of the course, I enjoyed the width, which itself created strategy with the availability of options. It seems to almost rely on the wind and without it, I could see its more gentler, fun side coming out, where challenge becomes secondary to the golfer engaging in a good deal of creativity while fully taking in the splendid little spot in the world. The gentle hills add some variety to those ground game shots while the higher inland holes become more assertive with their character. By far, it’s a links experience. It didn’t seem overly complex, but more of a design that is allowed to settle where less is more, completely aware that nature will mold and craft these holes for years to come in brilliant fashion. I’ll be there for it.

The First is a 517 yard par 5 (from the Greens). Trees on both sides that leads up to a ridge along with ample width for even the most wretched of tee shots. It’s a proper introduction, plunging all the way to the ocean. The golfer gets to decide how to get his ball down there, as it can tumble down the hill in a seemingly endless bounce and roll, it can be placed on a particular side to set up an ideal approach, and so on. The green and run offs certainly set the tone. The slopes demand attention and while the ball will not fall into many penal elements, these gentle slopes will take the ball further and further from the hole instead. As the constant barrage of gusts started in on our souls, the splendor of the site revealed itself to us from every angle.

The First
Moving up the fairway
The green (and ocean) come into view
Approach shot territory
Just off green
From the rear of the green, looking towards the fairway

The Second is a 303 yard par 4. This is also the tee area for the Eighteenth. While that hole heads up in the direction of the clubhouse, this hole moves more in line with the coast. A dog leg right, it was comical how far left the wind took some of our tee shots. And yes, everyone still had a shot. Tee shots that flirt with the bushes on the right will get rewarded with a shorter approach. The green is a bit uphill, deep and inviting with a concave grass bunker area at the front left.

The Second
Approach shot territory
From the right side

The Third is a 113 yard par 3. This seemed like a gateway to the ocean to me. A short, inviting hole that’s a bit more squirrely than it looks even with the sides funneling towards the center and all of it short grass leading up to the green. The wind was a menace here as I watched my single digit index friend hit his tee shot 10 yards. I ended up in the gorse to the left yet had a shot. The hole probably played as tough as it can get yet even in those conditions, it played. The ocean back in full view and winning the hole with my double, I started to keep spirits up in the group by proclaiming at some point the wind would be at our backs. . . Right?

The Third
The green
Looking back

The Fourth is a 443 yard par 4. Heading into the interior of the course, this was one of my favorite holes we played. The vast rumples and expanse laid before you is a sea of endless opportunity. Of course I found the sole hazard off the tee, what looked like a principal’s nose off to the left. The rumples roll to the right and the green is at grade with the fairway. I was starting to get adept at a 2 hybrid low hook draw that would run and run against that wind, that Bob Seger song playing over and over, fittingly.

The Fourth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory

The Fifth is a 166 yard par 3. A bit of a reprieve from the wind, and a reprieve a lot of other ways too. Width, short grass pretty much every where and a halfway house behind the tee, all with the ocean beyond, it’s a great energy place. It’s also one of those greens that if your shot hits into the slope, a longer, tricky recovery shot will be in order. I felt we were going to get the round in at this point, no problem.

The Fifth
A closer look at the green
Looking back

The Sixth is a 431 yard par 4. And then came the Sixth. I was glad we were able to play this tee shot, which I had been fantasizing about for several months. The right side goes over the ocean and the view is another to take in and register in the memory book. A slight crook around the coastal cliff and then the fairway heads straight to the green, which is a little uphill. The rumples and contours all so evident, like little spotlights shining on them from all over, the ocean crashing next to us; what a tremendous golfing scene.

The wind was in full force at this point, with the ocean mist and then rain hitting us sideways at ferocious speed. You started to feel it in your eyes. The hole took forever to finish and no one in our group wanted to continue. I acquiesced and while I kind of wish I simply stayed out and finished on my own, that’s not really the point of these trips. It’s camaraderie, sharing the experience and adventure with those you are with, which includes the caddies. My brother in law was leaving for his flight after the round, so we all decided to play the Tenth and Eleventh in to the clubhouse. Then, we would cap things off with lunch at the Pacific Dunes clubhouse with the caddies. Some times, decisions must be made and things don’t turn out how you anticipated. And some times, they turn out for the better. They certainly did that day.

And like I said, I’ll return. Some day.

The Sixth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green
Full hurricane mode

The rest of the front nine is the 138 yard par 3 Seventh that is in the same direction as the Sixth, the green overlooking the ocean and seems to be the far side of the course opposite the First. The Eighth is a 407 yard par 4 that heads inland and a little uphill with a center line hazard off the tee and dunes on either side before the green, creating another gateway of sorts. The Ninth is a 386 yard par 4 that heads back to the ocean in the same area as the Sixth and Seventh greens, the drop off now on the left side of the fairway, which needs to be carried off the tee for those angling for that side.

The Tenth is a 375 yard par 4. Running parallel with the Sixth at an angle, the heft of width is seen here from the tee. There are some lower points off to the right where the wind disappeared, but was back in full force at the green, which moves and drops off the right side.

The Tenth
Approach shot territory
A little closer
Even closer

The Eleventh is a 506 yard par 5. Realization settled in this was the last hole I would see of this course. For quite some time. The wind had subsided as we were somewhat back in the trees and with the remaining focus I had in me, I belted what was probably the longest tee shot of the trip (probably wind aided too). The fairway moves downhill in waves and turns left before starting uphill to the green. The green is in an old sand quarry and has become known as the volcano green for how it juts up and then seems to go into the hill. My caddie let me know I was in striking distance of the green, so I decided to give it a go and watched as my shot came off as planned. A longer eagle putt awaited. Most of the group had given up and were already walking to the clubhouse as the wind berated us at the green, but I finished up, admiring the unique green setting and realizing just how many cool approaches you could pull off, many of them completely blind.

And that was it. The rain actually worsened and we watched waves of it speeding by us in gales from the clubhouse at lunch, fortifying our decision to call it a day. My brother in law left for the airport, then the caddies left as lunch came to a close. If the golf was over, it was a nice finish. That fulfillment I feel after meaningful golf was there. And having some time to enjoy the resort a bit without rushing to this tee time or that one was refreshing.

The Eleventh
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green
One last look

Generally, my time at the Sheep Ranch was incomplete and I didn’t get to the glorious closing sequence that has been making all the headlines but I nonetheless experienced the place, so might say in some of the more harsher conditions. Even with the gusts, the course was full of intrigue, albeit what we were doing out there was much different than standard golf. It was a much more involved battle with the elements, all just get that little white ball in the tiny holes throughout the property. The routing is both efficient and artistic in how it moves about the bluff while the green sites and tees are in locations that allow it all to flow very well. It’s a tremendous site used spectacularly, allowing the golfer to proceed in any style he sees fit, in just about any weather condition.

Really, this is an excellent rendition of minimalist golf one should experience at least once. The bare contours and setting are the main features while hazards consist of hollows, contours used for their slopes and occasional native bush and gorse. It is beautiful in its simplicity yet the walk and how the holes work in unison is organic sophistication.

What Bandon Dunes does really well is its awareness that each course exudes a particular shade of character that shows off the rich landscape in a particular style. A round at each course is a different experience altogether from the next. This is probably why every course at the resort is popular, as opposed to only a select few while others are more ignored. Sheep Ranch adds to this aura with its age old timelessness feel, underlaid with that rolling terrain all the way to the rolling, rollicking sea. It’s not as intricate in its shaping and presentation as the other courses, instead relying on an otherworldly restraint that defers to the natural surroundings and elements for its mystique and adventure.

We had two rounds planned here so we could stay the entire day. I still lie in wait for it to happen. I’ll return some day, whether in this life or the next.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: An all world location atop the bluff looking at the course and ocean, it’s a simple structure with seats inside and out for breakfast and/or lunch. They seemed to pay attention when I mentioned the ghost tree should be the design for Old Macdonald. Here, it should just be the shepherd crook, lose the S/R.

View from the clubhouse, and putting green