First Light On The Ranch

TGJ members open the Bandon Dunes Sheep Ranch

Mark Maurer limped off the first tee at Bandon Trails. The previous day’s 18 holes at the new Sheep Ranch had taken its toll on his left hip. Or maybe it was the 18 he walked afterward on Pacific Dunes. Maurer walked slowly but played quick. He had to; he was scheduled to have that hip replaced in 14 hours. 

“You thought I was going to miss this?” Maurer smiled after the round, minutes before making the eight-hour drive back to Reno. 

Nearly 50 other Golfer’s Journal Subscribers and staff agreed, as they recently gathered in southern Oregon for an extraordinary four-day/three-night stay at Bandon Dunes—punctuated by a preview round at the highly anticipated Sheep Ranch course before its official opening to the public. 

This first look at Coore & Crenshaw’s latest masterpiece was the hook for people from all over the U.S. to make the trek. And while the course somehow managed to exceed lofty expectations, we’ll all remember the new friends, the laughs and the sheer volume of golf just as much. 

Getting there

Jordan Wagner woke up at 3:30 a.m. on a muggy Sunday in New Jersey. Three flights, multiple car rides and 15 hours later, he arrived at The Punchbowl—Bandon’s 100,000 square foot, 18-hole putting course designed by Tom Doak. He was just in time for free drinks and side bets on mind-bending putts with fellow members as they arrived.

Day 1 was a travel day, but there’s always time for the Punchbowl. As the sun dipped behind the pines surrounding the putting playground, reality set in that its next appearance would signal our turn at the Sheep Ranch. Everyone scurried to their cabins—there’s nothing like the early pop of the alarm on a golf trip. 

When the views are this good focusing on your putt is a challenge in and of itself.

First off

Already feeling first tee jitters, we piled into a shuttle at Bandon’s main clubhouse. The long drive wound past Pacific Dunes and Old MacDonald; a fresh Sheep Ranch sign stuck in bulldozer tracks confirmed our arrival. We peeled off into the woods and a starter suddenly appeared along the unmarked road. The clubhouse and parking lot were barely visible, but we could make out a putting green and a sliver of ocean in the distance. 

The par-5 first tee is on a bluff, tucked into the shadows of tall pines and the modest cabin-style clubhouse. To the left lies roughly 90% of the course; when the thin layer of morning fog dissipates, you can see it all. This is the top of the rollercoaster.

The opening tee shot is hit through a wide chute of pines and out of sight. It’s a quiet but thrilling walk to the crest of the fairway. When you reach it, the world appears. 

There is a view on Bandon’s namesake course— it appears as you turn the dogleg on the par-4 fourth hole. It’s a view that forces the hair on your neck to stand just so it can catch a glimpse. The first at Sheep Ranch is one of those views and one that forces you for the first time to wonder how the course designers were able to make a green float.

More firsts

Dan Maurer (no relation to Mark) arrived at the Sheep Ranch amidst a serious drought. In his 32 years playing the game, he had never made a hole-in-one. That changed when he hit a 54-degree wedge from 120 yards on the gorgeous par-3 third. The strike was admittedly a bit thin, and in danger of cascading to the far side of the double-green shared by No.16. The bottom of the flagstick was blind from the tee, but his caddie, Mike, thought it had a chance. So the cameras were rolling as Maurer walked ahead of the group and took a sheepish peek inside the cup.

The ensuing roars sailed downwind and could be heard many holes away. When Maurer returned to the pro shop after the round, a plaque recognizing the Sheep Ranch’s first-ever ace was waiting for him. And yes, that skin held up. 

A picture worth taking

Those who didn’t make a hole-in-one were forced to settle for a picturesque day on Bandon’s most exposed piece of the property. Even with 30-mph gusts, the extreme variety of holes made it a fair but challenging test for a wide range of skill levels. 

It was the type of wind for which Bandon caddies earn their keep. For many of them, this was their first full loop around the Ranch, so we learned together: talking through shots, dissecting greens from every angle, finding targets in the distance. There aren’t many views at Bandon that shock these loopers anymore. It was a treat to see them whip out their cameras and become the tourists again for a day. 

No. 6 was a perfect example, as we carried our tee shots over the clifftops and diagonally across the ocean. Then again on No. 9 as we played to what Mike Keiser likes to call an “infinity green.” And once more on No. 16, which Bill Coore predicts will be the site of many photos in the coming years. After making the narrow cliff walk to a green dangling over the Pacific, we all understood what he meant. 

TGJ subscriber Michael Krouse capturing the magic

Whole lotta holes

Following a breathless round on the Sheep Ranch, we paused briefly for lunch. Everyone revelled in their shots of the day before realizing there were more to hit. Some bolted for Old Mac, others headed to Pac Dunes, a handful wanted a cool-down at The Preserve, and some just needed another drink to process a round they’d be telling stories about forever.

For the rest of that day, and from sunup to sun down on the next, we played golf. We didn’t watch matches; we organized them. We didn’t work on the range; we grinded over four-foot sliders to level our own matches. We didn’t bury our heads in our phones; we jammed them in our front shoulders at the top of our backswings. 

After hundreds of holes and thousands of steps, we finally reconvened for a closing dinner reception on Tuesday evening. The room bustled with laughs, tales of heroic shots and painful collapses, and flips through our new summer issue. 

As the sun set in the distance, we grabbed a cocktail and filed outside. Some diehards even ran to squeeze in one last three-hole loop. An orange glow exposed the gorgeous contours of Bandon’s first fairway. 

The next day’s alarm clock wouldn’t sound as sweet as the first’s had. The real world beckoned. But we went to bed smiling—in the morning there’d be just enough time for another quick loop before departure.

Zac Blair’s Ranch Notebook

Zac Blair is a TGJ Subscriber and professional golfer on the PGA Tour. He carries a sharp eye for golf-course design, so we asked for his notes after his first round at the Ranch:

  • Sadly, I never saw the original Sheep Ranch so I had nothing to compare it to. 
  • I was looking forward to seeing how Bill and Ben pulled off the no-bunkers concept. I now totally see what they were trying to accomplish, and felt like it worked great on some holes. Others I felt needed something to just break all the grass from a visual standpoint. At times it felt a little forced to have no bunkers on the entire course, but some holes, like No. 11, it worked out perfectly.
  • The reveal on No. 1 really sets the tone for the round. Once you crest that hill and see the first green and the ocean…it’s pretty spectacular.
  • My favorite holes were 11, 14, 9, 6, 16 and 17. 
  • I was a little let down with the one-shot holes, many of which hit back into the ocean. But I can see why they did it.
  • For me, it ranks third behind Pacific Dunes and Bandon Dunes (I’ve never played Old Mac).
  • All in all, I thought it was a very fun course and I look forward to getting back in the future to see it evolve. I’m sure the masses will love it!