Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch is a throwback course with few rules
BANDON — No sign advertises the presence of the Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch, except the gate that reads “no trespassing.” There’s no restaurant, no pro shop, no amenity other than a remote port-a-potty and, no matter how much golf you’ve played, maybe no experience as wildly beautiful, or spectacularly wild, as this one:
A stretch of 100 acres above the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, the western-most point jutting out over the beach far below to create the point of a “W” between Bandon to the south, and South Cove at Cape Arago to the north.
On that land, 13 greens, very well-kept, and clearly defined fairways, regularly mowed — this is significantly classier than pasture golf — and ball-sucking rough. “Fair grass,” said Kurt Woodburn, of Bandon Golf Supply, who loves this place. “And unfair grass.”
From some places on the Sheep Ranch, you can see, bordering to the south and across a ravine, parts of the internationally famous Bandon Dunes Golf Resort — the turnstand at Old MacDonald, a sliver that is the fourth fairway at Pacific Dunes.
And from everywhere, you can see the ocean.
You have to know about this place to arrange to play it. You phone Bandon Golf Supply, where they put you in touch with the course superintendent, Greg Harless. Scheduling is generally for weekdays, from November through June; there’s no irrigation on the fairways, so the course closes in the hot summer months. At the appointed date and time, Harless meets you at the course, collects a check for $100 per player, gives you a scorecard with a suggested routing for 18 holes, with a daunting par of 71, and shows you where to begin.
And then, literally, you’re on your own, for as long as you can play. Most days, your group, whether just two of you or 20, is the only group. You can follow the suggested routing to the greens that are lettered, not numbered, or create your own holes. You can bring a cooler, even a grill, and stop back at your car for lunch, and play some more; there’s no group pushing you at the turn, because there is no turn.
Last week, a couple of Eugene golfers played there with Woodburn and Alex Smith, a former Los Angeles scriptwriter who has caddied for the past four years at Bandon Dunes. Woodburn, who once played 96 holes at the Sheep Ranch in two days and never went exactly the same way twice — and, he said, never lost a ball — showed us the way, his own way, and what a way it was, along the coast.
We played a par 3 over a ravine to a green on the point, the kind of scene you’d see in photo books of the world’s greatest golf holes; we created a par 5, or so we decided, that required a blind approach shot to a green hidden by a tree-studded hillock, like something you’d find on Old Mac at the Bandon Dunes resort.
There are a few defined teeing areas, but often you simply find a flat spot near the green you just played, tee up and take aim at another green. At one point, playing back north from the green at the southernmost end of the property, we hit driver then 3-wood, and maybe another — and then figured out which distant flag was our ultimate target.
“It’s not what you’re shooting, as much as it is your enjoyment along the way,” said Smith, who has played the Sheep Ranch a half-dozen times. “It’s not so much where you’re going, but how you get there. It’s different than the resort. It’s not nearly as defined, obviously. You play it as you see fit. Whatever you can create, you can go out and do. … You’ve got your run of the place. You hit one flush, and it feels great, and you can yell, you let out a hoot and a holler and you don’t have to worry about the group on the next fairway.”
It is what golf might have been more than a century ago, in parts of Scotland and Ireland.
“This is definitely a throwback … ,” Smith said. “Out here it is a different feel. The vastness, the wildness. Last year, we saw a couple of big ol’ porcupines just waddling down the fairway. And the biggest difference is that there’s nobody out here. This is a golfer’s playground. When I saw this place the first time, I knew I was coming back.”
Past, and future?
There are no sheep at the Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch, its name an allusion to the famous Ballybunion course in Ireland. It is owned by Mike Keiser, who created Bandon Dunes, and Phil Friedmann, who was Keiser’s partner in the greeting card business that made them wealthy, but it is not part of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.
Around the time that the resort’s second course, Pacific Dunes, was being designed by architect Tom Doak — it would open in 2001 — Friedmann commissioned Doak to build, in essence, a personal golf course, the 13-green complex on the land on the north border of Bandon Dunes.
Initially, the Sheep Ranch was cloaked in mystery.
A Sports Illustrated article in late 2003 gave the course its first national publicity, exposé-style, questioning whether it was being developed secretly as part of Bandon Dunes, and as a private, members-only club. Certainly, the writer recognized the potential of the property:
“Bally Bandon is taking shape on land that is even more spectacular,” Chris Lewis wrote. “Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes hug coastline that is as straight as a ruler; the ocean is a gorgeous backdrop but comes into play only if you hit a foul ball. Bally Bandon’s jutting, swooping coastline presents myriad possibilities for heroic carries, calling to mind the shot values of the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, the 16th at Cypress Point, the 1st at Machrihanish and the 7th at Teeth of the Dog.
“Those holes are shrines, immortalized on television and in coffee-table books and glossy golf magazines.”
A decade later, however, the Sheep Ranch is still only 13 greens, and it’s a course that anyone can play. While speculation persists that it will eventually be developed into something more, a fifth 18-hole course at Bandon Dunes, there have been no definitive public statements, let alone timeline, to that effect.
“There’s no architect and no current plans,” Keiser was quoted in an interview with Golf Digest last year. “I’m pushing as best I can.”
In a statement last week, Bandon Dunes director of communications Erik Peterson said: “Bandon Dunes doesn’t have any plans on the table with regard to the Sheep Ranch. In terms of expansion projects, right now we’re focused on the May 2014 grand opening of the Punchbowl putting course, and the potential development of Bandon Links.” Formerly dubbed Bandon Muni, the latter project is a proposed 27-hole complex south of Bandon, in part of the Bandon State Natural Area, that would require a land-swap with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
A few years ago, Blaine Newnham, the former Register-Guard sports editor who is one of the most respected golf writers in the Pacific Northwest, played the Sheep Ranch and wrote: “Easily, romantically, playing the Sheep Ranch earned it a spot among my greatest golf experiences. Up there with playing Royal County Down in Ireland, or two of America’s great places, Merion and Cypress Point, or winning a spot in the lottery to play Augusta National the day after the Masters ended.”
Woodburn, who is sort of a guru at Bandon Golf Supply, fitting clubs, fixing clubs, giving lessons, is a scratch golfer who has played the course as much as anyone in the area. He never tires of it.
“There’s just no other place like it,” Woodburn said. “Besides having the place virtually to yourself, it’s such a dramatic piece of property. Time just sort of stops. I’ve gone out and played it with hickory sticks, and older, softer golf balls, and you almost have a connection with a certain time period of golf that no longer exists.
“When people are gearing up to go out there and starting asking about conditions, I let them know ‘look, it’s rustic. There’s fair grass and unfair grass and greens. Anyone who ever complains about conditions, or needs a scorecard to let them know how their day went, don’t bother bringing them.’”
(A side story, about shared passions for golf: Smith was in the writing business until he played Bandon Dunes as a guest, learned that caddies could play free, and was hooked. He left his career in Los Angeles and drove to Bandon to begin caddie work, arriving at 3 a.m., and instead of getting a motel slept in his car in the parking lot at Bandon Crossings Golf Course, south of town. He got up at dawn and played Crossings; Woodburn was working in the pro shop then, and a friendship was born.)
Last week, on a wonderful, sunny day, the wind gentle until the afternoon, playing the Sheep Ranch was a remarkable, magical experience. We went green to green, shot to shot. We lasered distances — a purist like Newnham would cringe — but also invented holes, and pars, the latter not really meaning much, because the only scores kept were mental, by choice, and if not for jotting notes for purposes of research, we would have lost track of how many holes we played.
On that day, we played 18 of them, and kept going. We lost balls in the rough and the gorse, and kept going. We stopped and looked out at the ocean, and kept going, the wind up in the afternoon, a two-club wind was it, or three?
Late in the day, with Woodburn and Smith having left for other obligations, the two Eugene golfers, alone on the vast course, assessed one hole at roughly 220 yards, from somewhere inland on the course due west over stretches of “unfair grass” to a green with little behind it except the gorse-choked cliff dropping to the Pacific Ocean. An intimidating shot for a writer, but the swing was true, the contact pure, and the ball screamed straight to the green despite the north wind, bounced once or twice, and came to rest on the narrow back fringe.
A chip and a putt, and a par never written on a scorecard, but indelibly scrawled in a golfer’s soul, to be cherished along with the very special memory of playing the Sheep Ranch.
The Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch is not part of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. To arrange to play the Sheep Ranch, phone Bandon Golf Supply, 541-347-1636.