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Don’t Be a Sheep

Ruminations on an aimless afternoon wandering the Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch
Sheep Ranch, 2017

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The one thing you desperately need when you’re playing a course you’ve never played before is some sense of where to hit the ball. That goes double when you’re playing a course that isn’t even really a course.

It was late afternoon on one of the longest days of the year when we finally pulled into the narrow, sandy patch that passes for a parking lot at Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch, golf’s most mythical almost-course. We had already driven down the laneless country road that pointed toward the Pacific, opened the rusted metal gate that had been left unlocked just for us and wound our way past the best piece of property that few golfers know about. When we got out of the car there was no one else around, because at Sheep Ranch there’s almost never anyone else around, not even sheep.

Sunny days in June are rare in Bandon, Oregon. The spectacular light cast on the most spectacular golf resort in the world—subjectively speaking—seemed like a blessing earlier in the day when I had played 18 at Bandon Trails, the third of four courses that have been built in the area since 1999. Now, though, on what passed for a first tee at Sheep Ranch, that same light seemed less than ideal.

“Just hit it…that way,” said Scotty, one of my playing partners, squinting into the setting sun.

Here’s what Sheep Ranch is today: It’s 100 ocean-straddling acres just north of Bandon Dunes, said spectacular golf resort. It’s home to at least two antique fire trucks that water the 13 greens on the property. It’s strips of long grass interrupted by fairways that don’t point to any one green in particular, which makes it possible to play any hole you like, in any direction you like, at any time you like. And it’s as close to a playground as any golf course I’ve had the pleasure of walking.

Now here’s what the people who created Bandon Dunes would like Sheep Ranch to become, eventually: the fifth incredible course at a resort full of incredible courses. It’ll still be a playground. But whether it becomes a more traditional playground is still uncertain.

Sheep Ranch.
Given the view, it’s no wonder that this is Sheep Ranch’s most popular green, and with no set routing, if you don’t succeed in hitting it on your first attempt, just play it again from your preferred yardage.

*

I had come to central Oregon assuming I’d be playing Sheep Ranch alone. But to my delight I discovered I would be accompanied by two other men who, for lack of a better word, would act as my babysitters. 

Scotty and Donny have known each other a long time. Though I’ll never get an exact date, it seems possible they’ve been friends since high school, which they both attended outside of San Diego. It’s also unclear who’s older, but the way they play off each other makes it clear that the age difference doesn’t matter. Scotty has piercing blue eyes, a calm demeanor and says one word for every two that Donny offers up. Donny is chatty, fidgety, funny and very obviously looks up to Scotty in a way he might never admit, given their similar stations in life: two guys with a wife and two kids each, living the dream in the Pacific Northwest.

“I’ve gotten him every job he’s ever had,” Scotty had told me earlier at Trails, purposely within earshot of Donny.

“Not the one at 7-Eleven,” said Donny, replacing the pin on a par 3 that both had nearly birdied.

The pair caddied together at a course in Palm Springs, California, before Scotty made the pilgrimage to Bandon 14 years ago, back when it had only Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes, which is usually ranked second, right behind Pebble Beach, on lists of the best public courses to play in America. A few years later, Donny joined him.

Earlier in the day, at Trails, I had the opportunity to observe how each man’s personality found a way of expressing itself in his swing. Scotty was smooth and upright and never seemed hurried. Donny’s swing was more powerful, he was a little more apt to talk to his ball if it did something he didn’t like and he played a beautiful draw that did, on occasion, turn into a smothered hook. Both were capable of any shot at any time but tended to hit the ball low, the natural result of playing most rounds in a strong breeze. It was a testament to how good they were and how easy they made the game look that I didn’t realize until late on the back nine that both were close to par, even though the last three holes played uphill into a stiff wind.

Playing with good golfers is disorienting, but never more so than when they also happen to be caddies—caddies who can’t help but bag up just before you hit your tee shot. It’s not that they’re rude. It’s just that their livelihoods depend on them always being a step ahead of their clients. And that instinct can’t help but persist even when they’re off the clock.

Scotty and Donny had been gracious enough to take me around one course. 

Now they were going to show me how to play Sheep Ranch, where you actually need a guide. But there was only so much help they could give, considering that the “course” has no yardage markers, neither Scotty nor Donny had brought a range finder and the three of us were going to share a cooler of beer while listening to some god-awful SoCal reggae Donny queued up on his portable speaker. 

“You’re not finding that one!” he said as I pulled my first drive into waist-high grass. Good caddy that he is, he was right.

The most celebrated feature of Sheep Ranch may be its lack of a defined routing, but there’s also absolutely no irrigation, which means the property relies on natural precipitation and vintage fire trucks for its moisture. Ironically, their permanent presence isn’t enough to keep the course open in the summer, when the risk of fire threatens not only the Ranch, but Bandon Dunes too.

*

When Mike Keiser, a man who had made his fortune selling recycled greeting cards, told people he was going to build a true links golf course in America, five hours from the nearest decent-sized airport, he was, perhaps appropriately, laughed at. 

Then Keiser did it. He didn’t build just one course, though; over time, he built a mecca. If you haven’t been to Bandon, then maybe you can’t understand. If you haven’t been in a while, you need to see what’s there now. It’s not just that Bandon has four of the top courses in America. It’s that it also has the Punchbowl, a 2.5 acre roller coaster ride of a putting green that gets a new 18-hole route laid out daily, has specially made drink holders on every “tee” box and is the ultimate value-add to any happy hour—or any hour, for that matter. Then there’s the Preserve, the 13-hole par 3 that is, if we’re being honest, the course most of us would want to play most often because it comes with all of the spectacular views endemic to the place, but without the intense yet somehow satisfying foot ache that marks the end of a true round of links golf. Bandon is a place that makes you do stupid things. Things like tell your wife, a week after you’ve come home, that you’re afraid you’ll never make it back in your lifetime. If you’re me, and still a year short of middle age, your wife will look at you like you’ve gone crazy. But you haven’t. You’re just homesick for a place you didn’t realize until now is your real home. 

It’s been no secret that Keiser has long wanted to build a fifth course near or on the Bandon property. For a while that fifth course was supposed to be Bandon Links. The land wasn’t close—it was 15 miles south of the resort—and there were a host of other problems, including that it was state owned, which meant dealing with state politics. Two years ago, Keiser ended his seven-year quest to build Links, though not before contributing nearly half a million dollars that allowed the state to acquire even more undeveloped land. Keiser then turned his eye north to a 200-acre piece of property in nearby Tillamook County that happened to be owned by a conglomerate of Boy Scouts who were deeply in the red. The actual kid Scouts, however, didn’t like what the adult Scouts were doing, so they organized a 2,000-Scout-strong Facebook protest and, once again, Keiser had to look elsewhere.

Let’s not overdramatize this “search” just for the sake of a more interesting story, though. During the time in which Keiser tried to build these courses, he wasn’t sitting on his hands. Along with the addition of the Punchbowl and the Preserve, he also added Old MacDonald, Bandon’s fourth celebrated course. What’s more, from scratch he built two new Bandons—instant must-visit golf destinations in off-the-beaten-path locations: Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs on the coastline of Nova Scotia, Canada, and Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes (opening next year) in central Wisconsin. We should all be so productive.

Then, last fall, during an interview with Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella, Keiser dropped some news. “It should happen in the next two years,” he said of his plans to turn Sheep Ranch into an 18-hole course. “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.”

If Keiser wasn’t in any rush, the same certainly couldn’t be said of golf fans. The news that Sheep Ranch would no longer be Sheep Ranch quickly pinged its way through the golfing universe. Reactions ranged from pure elation that Bandon would finally get its fabled fifth course to pure disappointment that Sheep Ranch would be no longer. The news spread so far and wide that it also established a set of expectations that make the job slightly harder. The land is half owned by Keiser’s former business partner, a man who reportedly has little interest in golf but, presumably, like any businessperson, may have some interest in making good on his 50 percent stake. A stake that is worth considerably more because of the amazing things Keiser has done in a part of the country that previously had very little going for it. This is all a long way of saying that Keiser very politely declined to speak for this piece, and who could blame him? Every time he talks about Sheep Ranch the excitement level and expectations go up. And until he owns it all it’s probably best to keep those expectations to a minimum. Every employee at Bandon observes the same friendly code of silence. When asked about the status of Sheep Ranch, all offered evasive answers with a smile. “Let me know what you find out,” said one driver of the resort’s complimentary shuttles.

Why would golfers feel heartache to learn that one of golf’s greatest developers was going to task one of golf’s greatest course designers—Gil Hanse, whose original designs include the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro—with taking one of the greatest pieces of property available to golf and turning it into an actual golf course?

Because what golfers crave most is an experience. One that can’t be had easily, or with any amount of money. One that might be difficult for their friends to experience too. One they can brag about later. For the golfer of means, almost any experience is attainable. Scarcity is precious. Sheep Ranch isn’t a round at Pine Valley or Augusta. But an experience at Sheep Ranch is still scarce. So why are so many people so protective of a piece of land they may never step foot on?

Sheep Ranch (in the foreground) may be the raw, unkempt playground idealogues dream of, but with four top-100 courses a mere downwind drive away at Bandon Dunes, it’s ultimately more novelty than destination, for now.

Perhaps most importantly, Sheep Ranch represents an idea. Among the people online complaining—and let’s pause to consider that you can always find someone online to complain about something—the outcry seems to be less about losing the course than losing an experience. The words that come up most often among the internet rabble are “pure” or “purity.” Never mind that a great golf course architect, Tom Doak, has already put his partial stamp on the land by laying out its fairways and greens. The idea that exists in the minds of people bemoaning the imminent loss of Sheep Ranch is that it represents something close to the experience of what golf was when golf was first getting started. Links golf is itself an attempt to reconnect with the game’s beginnings. A links course that isn’t yet a fully realized course may be, in the minds of those who want to see it preserved, the purest possible expression of those beginnings.

*

For the $100 you’ll pay to play Sheep Ranch, here is what you’ll get: one scorecard with one map that lists not holes, but a series of greens with letters assigned to each. (An aside: The man who’ll give you that scorecard is named Greg. He’s the caretaker, he wears the practical dress of a man who tills land and he speaks the minimum number of words necessary. He will not look to you like a stereotypical golfer. But, according to Bandon employees, he regularly shoots below par. The knowledge that Greg has game is another one of those facts you can lord over your buddies. You’re welcome.)

There are a few lines on that map. Those lines represent some suggested routes. Here’s a tip: Pay little attention to them. Part of the spirit of Sheep Ranch is to pay as little heed to the rules as possible. Also, you will be drawn to the coast, to the green at 5-mile point and to the place where, if Keiser’s plans ever come to fruition, the most famous short par 3 this side of Pebble’s seventh will become a reality.

That’s where Scotty, Donny and I found ourselves shortly after our first “hole.” Donny was right; I hadn’t found my ball. But neither had he. In its place he’d scrounged from the wispy grass a metallic purple Lynx that looked like a disco ball. He played that to the green for bogey, which beat Scotty. That made Donny happy, because the only thing Scotty and Donny seemed to care about while playing was beating one another.

The game we had all decided to play was “Loser First.” That meant whoever had the highest score on the previous “hole” had to tee off first on the next one. The strategy was pretty simple. No one knew yardages, so the advantage went to the guy who got to watch the others play their shots. This meant I was at an extreme disadvantage when we found our way to the future famous par 3.

“I’m guessing about 110,” said Scotty.

Whether he was being sincere or strategic was up to me to decide. Pulling gap wedge meant a bet on sincerity; it certainly looked like 110 yards. But I soon realized it didn’t matter whether or not Scotty was telling me the truth, because the truth of playing on a 100-foot bluff overlooking the Pacific is that your ball just doesn’t do what it does in other places.

“That’s way gone,” said Donny with sincere delight. Once again, he was right. The gap wedge would’ve been the right club almost anywhere else on Earth. Here, though, with an elevated tee to a green slightly downwind, and with the vertigo-inducing views, it all added up to a ball that sailed over the green’s precipice, never to be found again.

The caddies both found the surface but had taken only a few steps on it when we were assaulted by incoming fire from the south. Greg the caretaker had told us that another group was on the course, but thus far we hadn’t seen them. We still couldn’t see them, but judging by the fact that there were now five balls on the green, they were out there somewhere.

Three mid-level executives from Detroit soon made their way over a bluff and bounded down to the green to greet us. They had just stepped off of a plane and were positively giddy that they were now playing the famous Sheep Ranch. They got giddier once they were told that the beers chilling in the cooler greenside were free for the taking. And they were positively ecstatic when they realized that Donny was the same Donny who had caddied for a friend of theirs a month earlier.

“Big, bushy red beard!” one of them yelled, trying to jog Donny’s memory. “He’s massive!” said another while dropping the friend’s name.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” said Donny. 

“I remember!”

During our morning round at Trails, Scotty and Donny had schooled me on the keys to being a good caddie. Hustle was obviously important. But the one skill they’d harped on most was an ability to read people—to say the right thing at the right time. Donny elaborated on this point with a story. He was carrying for a guy who was on his way to a disastrous front nine and was hating every minute of it. Scotty and Donny love their jobs, in part because people who come to Bandon come to have a great time. This man, however, was not. So Donny played a shot in his bag that he usually avoided.

“No one gives a fuck what you shoot,” Donny said he told the guy on the next tee box. “Not me, not your wife, not your friends. Nobody cares!”

It was a risk. Cussing out a guy who was technically his boss for the next few days could’ve blown up in Donny’s face something fierce. But Donny had played his shot perfectly. The man started laughing. So did his buddies. Donny had said the exact right thing at the exact right time and the man had gone on to enjoy the hell out of his round, even as he continued to play worse than he thought he should have.

“Did you really know who they were talking about?” Scotty asked Donny as we walked off the par 3’s green and away from the Detroit execs.

“Not a clue,” said Donny, who had executed a high-risk shot well once again.

The next hour or two went like this: Scotty and Donny competed, and I tried to keep up. We played one “hole” using only our 6-irons. We scampered down a steep cliff and tried to hit 40-yard lob wedges nearly vertical onto a green we couldn’t see and within the castoff wave spray of the Pacific. We had chipping competitions and putting competitions and did all we could to use all of the spectacular light the long afternoon had made available to us. Finally, it got late. Scotty and Donny left to return to their families and I was left, alone, in a place that may cease to exist in its current form in a few years.

It should have been perfect. It should have felt like golf Shangri-la. After all, Sheep Ranch was the filming location for parts of the adaptation of Golf in the Kingdom, the Bible for New Age types who happen to love links golf. Yet mostly it felt lonely.

Sheep Ranch
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is a purist’s golf destination, designed for those who want to experience the game the way it was originally played. It succeeds on all fronts, but even it can feel diluted when compared to Sheep Ranch, where you literally have to make the course up as you go.

Golfers like to do a lot of things on their own: beat a bucket at the range; play a familiar course at sunrise; complete a full circle of made 3-footers around one hole on the putting green. Normally an empty course at dusk would’ve felt like a gift. But one thing golfers—or at least I—seem to enjoy even more is doing those things in a place where someone has already made decisions for them. A golf course is basically just a collection of decisions. But those decisions matter. Without them, the structure of the game disappears. And without the structure, you lose some sense of where you’re headed and why. That’s why I felt lonely. That’s why I craved a tee box with a sign that would have told me what par was, what direction the hole went and would’ve given a good sense of when I was done with it. Without all those things, I had complete freedom. What I wanted instead were boundaries to play within.

I hope the people at Bandon get their wish. I hope this place finds its way toward something even more heavenly. I hope it becomes a “real” course and I hope you get to play it one day. And I hope for all these things in part because if all that happens, I’ll be able to say that once I played the old Sheep Ranch. Bragging rights like those just don’t come around too often, and who am I to deny them?