Mysterious Sheep Ranch set to become latest addition to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon

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Exclusive: Sheep Ranch set to elevate Bandon Dunes Resort
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Exclusive: Sheep Ranch set to elevate Bandon Dunes Resort

If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard.

That was Dorothy Gale's great revelation at the end of "The Wizard of Oz." But the quote also now applies to Mike Keiser, who has found the missing piece to his Bandon Dunes Golf Resort expansion puzzle -- in his own backyard.

I recently called Keiser to ask about the progress of one of his projects, Sand Valley in Wisconsin. And yet again, the wizard of pure golf destinations broke news to me about the further development of Bandon, the Oz to avid amateurs all over the world.

What is commonly referred to as the Sheep Ranch, a 300-acre parcel of land with a mysterious golf course only a few miles north of the entrance to Bandon Dunes, will soon become the popular resort's fifth 18-hole course.

"It should happen in the next two years," Keiser said. "The site is spectacular. Approval is easy because we already own the land. Irrigation shouldn't be an issue. But we're not in any rush."

The "we" in this case refers to Keiser and Phil Friedmann, who was Keiser's partner in their Chicago-based greeting card business and both have been co-owners of the Sheep Ranch since late 1990s.

"After we sold the company, we both went off and did our own thing," Keiser said. "And after looking at so many other possibilities for further expansion to Bandon Dunes, I got to thinking, 'What if?'"

Although Friedmann has never been as passionate about golf and course development as his partner, sources say Friedmann has recently been spending a lot of time traveling to other golf destinations and doing due diligence on the work of course architects, with an emphasis on Gil Hanse.

"Gil is the front runner for the Sheep Ranch," Keiser said. "But it's not a done deal."

Hanse and his firm's partner Jim Wagner have both toured the property. Keiser has been trying to hire Hanse for over a decade on what was going to be called Bandon Muny, at least 27 holes 25 minutes south of the resort. After years of stalled and complicated negotiations with the Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon State Park's Department, Keiser walked away last year and started looking at other options for expansion.

"That was disappointing," said Josh Lesnik, President of Kemper Sports, which has managed Bandon Dunes since before it opened. "But when it didn't work out with the Muny concept, I never imagined something as good as this would come out of it. The Sheep Ranch is a better site. It's closer. In hindsight, it's really a gift that Muny didn't happen."

The Sheep Ranch currently consists of 13 greens designed by Tom Doak that can be played from multiple directions. (Doak built them at the tail end of working on Pacific Dunes in 2001.)

Regardless of its proximity to the resort, it has always been a distant cousin to Bandon's golf portfolio. A mystery to most of Bandon's clientele, if you ask about a tee time at the Sheep Ranch, you get a phone number to the caretaker of the land. And if you reach him, and the course is open, he might give you access for about $50 per person. As for upkeep and irrigation, there has always been the bare minimum. Greens are mowed and fairways are knocked down occasionally. Mother Nature handles the watering of the grass and you decide on teeing areas.

One of the greens, on what is called Five-Mile Point because it's five miles from the town jetty, has been compared to the 16th at Cypress Point and now the 16th at Cabot Cliffs.

"There's at least as much ocean-front property at the Sheep Ranch than what was used for Bandon Dunes and Pacific combined," Lesnik said. "If Bandon Dunes isn't already considered the best pure golf destination in the world, then this is the type of site that will put it over the top. It's crazy good. It's really unbelievable."

Matt Ginella snapped a pic of Sheep Ranch on a recent flight into Bandon Dunes.

Just to recap, Keiser opened Bandon Dunes in '99 with one course and a little lodging. Pacific Dunes, a second course, opened in 2001. Which was followed by more lodging and courses: Bandon Trails (2005), Old Macdonald (2010), Bandon Preserve (2012), a 13-hole, par-3 course, and the Punchbowl putting course (2014).

Tom Doak is scheduled to build what would be his third design on property, an 11-hole, par-3 course. But plans have been shelved for now. According to Keiser, that addition probably won't start until the first or second quarter of 2017. And there are even questions deep within the Keiser camp about whether or not this addition is absolutely necessary at this point.

Regardless, Keiser relentlessly continues to grow his game.

He opened Cabot Cliffs this summer, the second course at Cabot Links in Inverness, Nova Scotia. The first course at Sand Valley in Nekoosa, Wis., also opened for preview play this summer, and the second course is almost halfway through development. He seems cautiously optimistic about a new course in Embo, Scotland, which neighbors Royal Dornoch.

And it's that project that could decide the fate of which architect goes where and when as Keiser continues to lay down a yellow brick road of "golf as it was meant to be."

If Embo receives approval from environmentalists and locals, the best guess is that Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw take their show to Scotland. (Coore has already made multiple visits.) And if there's a third course at Sand Valley, there's a good chance Mike DeVries, who built Kingsley Club near Traverse City, Mich., and Cape Wickham in Tasmania, might follow Coore and Crenshaw and David McLay Kidd with a third 18-hole course in Nekoosa, Wis.

That leaves Sheep Ranch for Hanse, who's coming off the Olympic Course in Rio, Mossy Oak in West Point, Miss., and the Black Course at Streamsong in central Florida.

"The Sheep Ranch is the best site we've ever seen for a new golf course," Hanse said. "And it's not just the land along the coast. What's inland is just as good. When Jim and I walked the property we were doing cartwheels."

Now click your golf shoes three times and say the magic words: There's no place like Bandon Dunes.

Video: Ginella on what Sheep Ranch acquisition means for Bandon Dunes

Matt Ginella is Golf Advisor's Editor-at-Large and host of Golf Advisor Round Trip travel series on Golf Channel. Matt serves as resident buddy trip expert and captains a collection of VIP trips called Golf Advisor Getaways.
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Torn a bit... I'm sure a spectacular course will be built on the Sheep Ranch property, but also feels like something uniquely special will be lost.

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Need to play the Sheep Ranch again before it is gone. Most unique place for golf will be no more. Guess this was inevitable.

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Mysterious Sheep Ranch set to become latest addition to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon