At the Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch in southern Oregon, where the holes are denoted not by numbers but letters, the large, topsy-turvy “E” green sits on the tip of a rocky peninsula. If you look north from this point, you can see for miles up the coast. When the tide rolls out on the beach below, the scenery is at its spellbinding best, with rock formations protruding from the sand and whitecaps breaking just off shore. It’s among the more captivating views in golf, trumping even the much-Instagramed vistas at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which occupies its own impressive parcel of coastline immediately south of the ranch. On this one green alone you could happily pass an afternoon: putting, chipping, meditating, selfie-ing. And you actually can, because if you make the pilgrimage, there’s a decent chance you’ll have the place to yourself.
Ah, the mysterious Sheep Ranch. Twelve years after its low-wattage debut, the seemingly half-finished layout with 13 greens on a raw, rolling plot not quite roomy enough for 18 holes remains one of the game’s buried treasures. How? Why? There are at least five reasons, and probably more. First, let’s just say you won’t find Sheep Ranch tee times on GolfNow. The course intentionally maintains a J.D. Salinger-like profile, relying on word of mouth to fill its one-or-two-groups-per-day tee sheet. Interested? Call Bandon Golf Supply, a golf retail shop in town. They’ll connect you with caretaker Greg Harless, who, assuming your desired date is available, will pencil you in.
Second, the ranch has no formal relationship with the resort, other than the fact that Bandon co-founders Mike Keiser and Phil Friedmann bought the land and commissioned Tom Doak to build a rough -- and we mean rough -- routing upon it. Which means should you be fortunate enough to find yourself at the Bandon Dunes resort, the good folks there won't be in a hurry to shuttle you over to the ranch with a boxed lunch; understandably, they’d rather keep you and your wallet on site. Third, the course is closed in the summer. To save on irrigation costs, the property limits its playing season to the cooler, wetter months, from November through June. Fourth, the admission fee is $100 (checks only, please). That’s no great motivator, especially with mighty Pac Dunes & Co. beckoning just down the road.
Lastly -- and this is a big one -- the ranch is not for everyone. Even our resident course guru Joe Passov admits it’s not his “cup of tea.” When he visited in 2006, he found the target lines, or lack thereof, exasperating. “You don’t know where to hit it,” he says. Which is sort of the point, because the course thrives on its unconventionality. “The furthest outside-the-box design of anything we’ve done,” is how Doak describes it on his website. When I contacted Doak and asked him to elaborate on his vision, he said: “A simple idea, with complicated results, that had to be executed simply. It reshaped my idea of what was possible in golf course design.”
The holes are labeled A through M and the recommended order in which to play them is plotted on the scorecard like a pirate’s treasure map. “The suggested routing is something I argued strongly against,” Doak told me. “We only wanted to give people a ‘mileage chart’ from every green to every other green, and turn them loose, with possibly a few suggestions as to what were the better holes.”
Still, the sequencing ultimately is up to you. Fancy an 800-yard par-7 opener? Pick a green in the yonder and have at it. Want to close with a 40-yard flip wedge? That works, too. “Have it your way” is not just a burger slogan. Speaking of which, you’re welcome to bring along a grill and cooler and make a day of it. Play nine. Cook some brats. Play three more. Chug a Bud. Take a mulligan. Or three. The rules are there are no rules. “I experienced it too early in my golfing life,” a ranch fanatic posted on golfclubatlas.com, a sounding board for architecture buffs. “I miss the feeling I had that day.”
The course has been characterized as golf’s “Area 51,” but that’s a bit of a stretch given Google Maps returns gorgeous satellite images of the property. (Search for “Bandon Dunes Golf Resort,” then head north up the coast, just beyond Whiskey Run Road.) Still, the ranch’s aura had long piqued my curiosity, so on a recent trip to Bandon my colleague Josh Sens and I dropped by to see what all the fuss -- well, whispers -- were about. I had followed the requisite steps and arranged a Tuesday rendezvous with Harless at an iron gate emblazoned with the words “NO TRESSPASSIN.” When we arrived in our Nissan Altima on an overcast afternoon, we found an unlocked gate but no sign of Harless, so we showed ourselves in and proceeded up the gravel entrance road.
With no clubhouse or smiling workers waiting to strap our bags to EZ-GOs, we drove aimlessly in search of the first tee, fighting the tractor ruts that line the service roads. Greens were visible across the property, but the first tee was not. We drove to the north end of the course and clambered up to an elevated green, from where we surveyed the layout like New World explorers. Our first impression: meh. The putting surfaces were well kept but the landscape paled in comparison to the heaving bluffs that define Bandon’s powerhouse quartet.
I called Greg’s cellphone. It was difficult to hear him through the wind, but he directed us back to the vicinity of the first tee where he said he’d wait on his tractor. When we pulled up, he greeted us with a knowing smile that suggested we weren’t the first visitors to lose their way out here. He wore a few days of stubble and a winter hat perched high on his brow. Greg led us to the tee box, handed us scorecards and sent us on our way. We banged a couple of drives in the general direction of the F green -- a par-4ish -- and off we went.
The solitude was refreshing and even a little eerie, but the scruffy conditions didn’t exactly inspire us. With my second swing, I hit a low, hard 3-wood in the general direction of the green. I never found my ball, swallowed alive, presumably, by the clumpy grass in front of the green. Seeking ocean views, we headed southeast toward the J green. About 100 yards from our destination we dropped balls in the fairway for an impromptu closet-to-the-pin contest. The wind gusted, so we pulled 7-irons and tried to keep the ball down. Tried. After putting out, we sought the next tee and that’s when we spotted the peninsula jutting out about 170 yards away.
There was no tee box in sight, but the shot was irresistible; several divots in the area indicated that we weren’t the first to think so. The degree of difficulty was a 9.7: all carry, through a stiff crosswind, down a gorse-lined coast to a green that you can’t miss short, right or long. Five-iron? Five-wood? We elected the former. Josh hit a heroic draw 15 feet past the stick. I … avoided calamity, ripping a screamer that mercifully came to rest just off the back of the green.
There was only one word for it: fun. The Sheep Ranch suddenly made sense. Not to go all Shivas Irons on you, but there’s a rush in picking your own shots, conjuring your own holes, with no one around to hurry or harass you. When we arrived at the green, we dropped several balls and played all kinds of wacky shots: 100-foot putts, cliff-hanging pitches. Josh strolled back to the tee for another whack. The drama. The scale. The seclusion. It was liberating.
And then it was time to go. As we strolled back to our Altima, bags slung over our shoulders, we stopped 130 yards or so from the green nearest our car. Balls were dropped and a wager placed: Loser buys dinner. It was a blind shot and Josh pushed his 30 feet right of the flag. Good not great. I finally struck a decent iron, parachuting my approach just over the stick. Certain victory!
We ascended the steep bank to the putting surface to discover that my ball had somehow run out to the back of the green, just outside of Josh’s.
Yet another Sheep Ranch surprise.