“I liked it when I could go wherever I wanted, but I believe people are going to come out here, and they’re going to take a look at nine absolutely breathtaking greens perched on the cliffs above the Pacific—nine of them—and they’re going to say it’s better than it was before.”— Phil Freidmann, co-owner of the Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes
BANDON, Ore. — Flickering like a flag in the shadows of the accolades that have been given to the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which hugs several miles of Oregon’s southwestern coastline, there has been the story and experience of the Sheep Ranch.
Hard to emerge from under the legend of Mike Keiser and Howard McKee, who bought and deftly developed Bandon Dunes. In 20 years, it has become the most concentrated pure golf destination in the United States. Some would argue, the world. There are four courses on almost everyone’s list of the top 15 public courses in the country. In the Punchbowl, there’s a leader in the putting course revolution. And in Bandon Preserve, there’s a par-3 course that served notice to all other top-tier golf destinations: Have a short course, or suffer the consequences.
The Bandon narrative started in 1999 with Bandon Dunes by David McLay Kidd. In 2001 they added Pacific Dunes by Tom Doak. In 2005 they opened Bandon Trails by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. In 2010, Old Macdonald opened as an homage to architect C.B. Macdonald by Doak and Jim Urbina. Then Bandon Preserve in 2012 by Coore and Crenshaw. And the Punchbowl in 2014 by Doak and Urbina.
But what few have known is that in 2000, a 400-acre plot of coastal land, directly north of where the Old Macdonald course is now, went on the market. Keiser was already heavily invested in the development of the resort, so if he were to buy that additional land, he’d prefer not to go it alone. Enter Phil Friedmann, Keiser’s college roommate at Amherst and his partner in Recycled Paper Greetings, a company they started together in 1971. Keiser had always been rolling his fortunes into golf as it was meant to be. Now it was Friedmann who felt this was meant to be.
“Bandon Dunes was always his vision, and I supported it,” says Friedmann. “And then this land came on the marketplace, and we bought that land with the idea that we would always do something golf with it.”
On a 50/50 split, the deal closed in 2000, right about the time Doak and Urbina were finishing Pacific Dunes. And when they were done with that project, the two architects, along with Friedmann and Keiser, spent a few weeks discovering and developing 13 putting surfaces.
“What we had is what has been known for about 15 years or more as the Sheep Ranch,” says Friedmann, 74, who has reached an age in which his relentless rugby injuries are wreaking havoc on his golf game and his gait.
"It was 13 green sites, no route, no irrigation, except we would bring a fire truck full of water, and we hooked up sprinklers around each of the green sites, and we’d irrigate the greens so you could play if you weren’t too put off by the fairways that burned out in the summer. It kind of looked like what Ireland must have looked like a hundred years ago, but when you got to the green, you had a reasonable putting surface."
One green in particular has been a trending topic within golf insiders' social streams. The green that blankets Five-Mile Point, which is exactly that. If you stand on the property’s western peak, which pokes out to the Pacific Ocean, you can see five miles of coastline in both directions.
And while Bandon Dunes Resort was enjoying a meteoric vault into American golf lore, with thousands annually making the pilgrimage to play pure golf, only a few hundred were hiking and swinging their way around the Sheep Ranch.
But being in Bandon’s shadow was exactly where Friedmann wanted to be. It was his design for a place that embodied and celebrated very little design.
“I was totally content,” says Friedmann. “I was enjoying the idea that the Sheep Ranch was a place that I could go and play in solitude or with friends. Maybe eight or nine years into it, we opened it up and if you could figure out how to find it, if you could figure out how to get a hold of the superintendent and he’d agree to open the gate for you, you could come out with your buddies, and you could bring some sandwiches and beers and bring whatever you wanted and the place was yours for the day. You could go wherever you wanted. You could create whatever routing you wanted. And you could play from dawn to dusk.”
Sheep Ranch is a lot of things to a small amount of people. But one thing it’s not, certainly in a state of no irrigation, no defined routing and no infrastructure, is a viable business model. And as Friedmann wakes up every day in his mid-70s, it’s no longer a place he can utilize as a selfish soul zone. So he decided it was time to share.
“Bandon has four world-class golf courses,” says Friedmann. “And this is possibly the most interesting piece of linksland of all of them. And I thought, if I was going to do it, now is the time to do it.”
Friedmann has never been much better than a bogey golfer. But it’s clear he’s passionate about golf and the golf course being built on his land. He wasn’t just going to do it, he was going to do it right.
I kept staring and wondering, ‘How did they do this?’ Now I know how. They get in and out of that Five-Mile Point several times. That was the answer to the riddle. And I’m simply amazed.
And here’s where the story of the Sheep Ranch gets slightly complicated. Who builds it? How much of the land can they use for golf? Both answers became moving targets.
Going back to 2000, they already had roughly 150 of the 400 acres permitted for a golf course. There were attempts and considerations made to try and acquire more land or more permitting for more golf on the land they owned, but both options hit walls.
When it was simply a question as to who could build the ultimate 18-hole course on any part of the Sheep Ranch, Friedmann and Keiser had discussed routings with Doak, Urbina and Gil Hanse. Keiser had been trying to get Hanse a spot in the Bandon portfolio for years. This looked like ideal timing for both.
But then two things happened that altered the course of the future, and altered the decision on who would build the course.
Friedmann and Keiser took a trip to Streamsong and played the Black course, Hanse’s latest addition to a three-course resort in Central Florida, which received “Best New” honors from both Golf Magazine (2017) and Golf Digest (2018). The Black’s early returns are that it’s a memorable adventure, a good compliment to the first two courses on property, but that there are a lot of three putts on some extreme greens.
Which is also about the time Keiser and Freidmann made the decision that if they were going to build an 18-hole course on the Sheep Ranch, it would need to be on that original 150-acres that has already been permitted for golf.
The Sheep Ranch might be the most linksy piece of land at Bandon, even though the sand base is buried below a lot of dirt. But it’s also the most exposed to the wind. Which meant that if it’s going to be playable any day of the year, the preferred putting surfaces would be fairly flat.
So the Sheep Ranch job description was refined to a need for a master router who wasn’t inclined to build extreme greens.
“The real dilemma was how do you fit everything on the western portion of the property so that you face the ocean the entire time you’re out there,” says Friedman. “And Bill Coore came up with a routing that actually worked.”
Podcast: Listen to the full interview with Sheep Ranch owner Phil Friedmann
Keiser has always said he trusts Coore and Crenshaw more than the rest. And he also has said he felt bad that he never gave Bill and Ben a chance to build on a coastal portion of Bandon Dunes. Both Bandon Trails and Bandon Preserve are inland.
“I feel very good about Bill and Ben and that routing,” says Keiser. “Doak, Urbina, Hanse and others could get about 14 holes on that land. Bill said he thought he could get all 18. And now they all want to know how he figured this out.”
“I was blown away,” says Urbina, who recently went back to see the start of the new Sheep Ranch. “I kept staring and wondering, ‘How did they do this?’ Now I know how. They get in and out of that Five-Mile Point several times. That was the answer to the riddle. And I’m simply amazed.”
Meanwhile, Coore’s biggest concern has never been the routing, the riddle or the answer. Coore needed to know Friedmann was ready to share his land.
“This has been a place where he has brought his family,” says Coore. “His private sanctuary. Ben and I both wanted to be sure he was comfortable opening it up to multitudes of people. That he was willing to give up a place that had a reputation of mystical proportions.”
About a year and a half ago, Coore had walked the property with Friedmann. It was one of their first meetings, and one of Bandon’s worst weather days, which is saying something. Both were layered like dog-sledders. Coore recalls a driving rain in 40-mph winds. And while Coore was out there all day, Friedmann never left his side.
“I remember thinking, ‘This guy is into it,” says Coore. “Mike has done this so many times, and although he is intimately involved, I get the sense that this is Phil’s project. And he specifically said, now was the time. He told me that this place is so special and beautiful that other people need to see it. Which is why Ben and I are so relieved that he’s not going into this second-guessing.”
The people who go back and get to see and play the Sheep Ranch a second or third time will actually recognize some of what they saw and played before. Coore and Crenshaw didn’t feel the need to arbitrarily strip the land and some of the greens built by Doak and Urbina simply to call the course or the greens their own.
“We didn’t want to get locked in on what had been,” says Coore. “We wanted to try and figure out what it could be. But at Five-Mile Point, there will be a big double green. The portion of the green closest to the cliff, the one you play as a par 3, I told Jim, just look at it, I stole your green.”
“We wanted to stay consistent with what Tom and Jim did,” says Crenshaw. "But to get in 18, we had to make some changes."
Urbina says he is honored some of his original work will make the cut. Apparently Doak is impressed with the solution to the routing riddle. Meanwhile, the rest of us benefit from what it was and what it’s about to become. Which is a par 71, 7,000-yard course from the tips.
As Friedmann advertised, there are nine ocean-side greens in a one-mile stretch of coastline. And for a quick comparison, Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Old Mac combine for 10 ocean-side greens in a two-mile stretch of coastline. But the final order of the Sheep Ranch’s 18 holes is yet to be determined. And might never be finalized. Both Keiser and Friedmann talk about the possibility of two or three different ways to play the course. There might be a different place to start and finish, depending on which day you play.
“It was Perry Maxwell at Southern Hills,” says Coore. “After he finished he handed the routing to the directors of the club. They told him, ‘We see holes, but they’re not numbered.’ Maxwell told them the same thing I’ve been saying to Mike and Phil: ‘I laid them out, you can number them.’ ”
So, for now, there are no official numbers to the holes. But there’s a good chance they decide on one set order before opening day, which will be in the summer of 2020. What will never be on the Sheep Ranch are bunkers. NO BUNKERS.
“Ben and I talked about it a long time ago,” says Coore. “Robert Hunter, in his book called The Links, back in the 1920s, said there would one day be a site with such interesting undulations, sand bunkers wouldn’t be necessary.”
The catalyst for the concept was Coore, who had walked the terrain on several bad weather days. The sand in the few bunkers that were out there had all blown away. The old abandoned bunkers only piqued his interest.
"I said, 'seed them,'" says Coore. “With some wispy fescue. They’ll enhance the visual presentation, keep balls from going off cliffs and it helps any maintenance issues.”
So, coming soon to Bandon Dunes, a Sheep Ranch redux, with an actual routing, reimagined greens, cliff-side cape holes that run north and south of Five-Mile Point, which is where you’ll play to a double green. There will be tees that go one way, and that same tee might go the other way. But in no way will you ever be playing from a sand bunker.
And according to Keiser, 73, this will be where it all ends in terms of new courses at Bandon Dunes.
"The Sheep Ranch is exceeding expectations," says Keiser. "And on the 20th anniversary of Bandon Dunes? The year before we host the U.S. Amateur? I feel very lucky. Very Fortunate. We all are. But this is a fitting end. I don’t want to overdue it."
Hard to believe that’s possible. Keiser does say there will be more lodging at the main resort property on the horizon. At least 24 more rooms in the next two years. There will be a modest clubhouse, a dining option and possibly some more lodging on the Sheep Ranch.
As for Friedmann, his patience paid off as he parks the fire truck and pushes open the gate to the masses.
“It was all worth waiting for,” he says. “And I think by waiting I got to meet Bill Coore, and he was the prefect guy to make this happen. And maybe the Sheep Ranch is a good example of the journey being more important than the destination.”
I’ll buy that. Especially when his journey enhances this particular destination.