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Q&A: Bill Coore on Bandon Dunes’ new Sheep Ranch

Course co-designer Bill Coore shares how Sheep Ranch came to be and what to expect as Bandon Dunes Golf Resort debuts its latest course jewel

Draped atop the craggy headlands of the Pacific Ocean in southern Oregon, Bandon Dunes Golf Resort has clearly established itself in its 21 years as the premier must-play public course mecca ever built in the United States. With four championship courses in play by 2010, each ranked in the nation’s top 15, there wasn’t much talk about an encore, especially after the resort added the 13-hole par-3 course, Bandon Preserve, in 2012.

Yet, there were always whispers. What would become of the mysterious, spectacular Sheep Ranch layout next door, a property co-owned by Bandon Dunes founder Mike Keiser and his longtime business partner Phil Friedmann? The answer: Bill Coore and his design partner Ben Crenshaw transformed Sheep Ranch into Bandon Dunes’ newest championship course. Ahead of its June 1, 2020, opening, we asked Coore to take us through the evolution of Bandon’s most scenic spread.

Morning Read: When was the first time you saw Sheep Ranch and what were your impressions?

Bill Coore: When [Ben and I] were building Bandon Trails around 2004, I went over with Tony Russell, who has helped build all the courses out here, including the new Sheep Ranch. It was a horrific day weather-wise with heavy rain, driving winds. It was raining so hard, we barely got out. I think we got out at Five Mile Point and looked around a little bit. I couldn’t see much, but I could make out that the contours were beautiful, and the ocean views were remarkable. Amazingly enough, I never went back until Mike Keiser called Ben and me a little more than two years ago.

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort — Sheep Ranch
Sheep Ranch, the fifth 18-hole course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, features nine greens situated along the one-mile range of cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Morning Read: Since 2001, the Sheep Ranch had been home to a clandestine golf playground crafted with 13 greens by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina and with holes that played informally in many directions, without a formalized routing. Why the transformation, why now and how did Coore-Crenshaw earn the design commission?

Bill Coore: First of all, there simply wouldn’t be a Sheep Ranch — old version or new one — if it weren’t for Phil Friedmann. Phil and Mike bought this property together. As I understand it, they are literally 50/50 owners. Phil is the one who got Tom Doak and Jim Urbina to go build those greens out there at the original Sheep Ranch. It was Phil’s private sanctuary, a place for him, his family, friends of theirs and occasional others to come to enjoy the peacefulness and beauty.

Two years ago, I asked Phil whether he was prepared to give up this sanctuary aspect. He said, “It’s time.” He said that his kids were all grown up, and that none of them come out so much anymore. He told me that the property deserves to be enjoyed by more people, not less. He mentioned that if we can do something really special, worthy of the property, it’s time.

When Mike and Phil came back and said, “Bill, we’d like for you and Ben and the guys to do this golf course,” I couldn’t believe it. To be perfectly candid, it never occurred to me that we would even be considered or would ever be, in any way, in the picture for the Sheep Ranch. We know that Tom Doak and Jim Urbina and Gil Hanse had all done routings. What got us the job? I guess we managed to fit 18 holes into the small site in a fashion that could be not just interesting to play, but enjoyable to play and, quite frankly, safe to play.

Morning Read: Do you consider your Sheep Ranch project to be a redesign, or a brand new course?

Bill Coore: It’s a completely new course, laid on top of what was the original Sheep Ranch. However, we did utilize some of the green sites that Tom Doak and Jim Urbina had put out there. I kidded Jim Urbina, who had built the green situated on Five Mile Point, protruding into the ocean, which is now the 16th hole. I said, “Jim, we stole your green. We just took it.” We made a par 3 out of it. We ended up regrading it, and it was all rebuilt, but it’s right there where he had it. We did that with four greens and half of a fifth.

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Morning Read: What were the routing challenges on such a small, 140-acre site?

Bill Coore: It’s a spectacular and wonderful site, but it was not expansive. Mike and Phil owned something close to 400 acres, but not all of it was available for golf. As we began to study the site in regards to doing a regulation golf course, I remember the permitting engineer telling me one day, “Bill, there is a line on here that was approved all those years ago for golf. It’s just a line drawn on the map. You just have to stay within this boundary.” Even though Mike and Phil own more property, he said, if the golf goes off the boundary of the property that had been permitted for golf, we might have to start another permit process through the State of Oregon. “If there’s any way possible, you need to keep all the golf inside that boundary.”

So it forced you to be where you wanted to be anyway, close to the ocean, but it kept things so compact that when we first started trying to lay out golf holes, we’re thinking, “Man, how are we gonna get them all on here?”

It was a bit of a challenge, for sure. And when you’re Mike Keiser and Phil Friedmann, like you would imagine they would want to do, their direction was also to see if you can get 18 holes on here but use every linear yard of the clifftop, the shoreline, the coastline.

That was the primary consideration. You couldn’t just line up the holes parallel to each other, packed in like sausages. It really was an exercise in trying to figure out how to use the coastline to its greatest potential, how to use these amazing contours to their greatest potentials, and underlying all that, how to fit in 18 holes.

Morning Read: How did you solve the puzzle?

Bill Coore: We solved it with a combination of plans and field work. We studied the site and walked it many times, trying to visualize the holes. But we also relied on our topo maps and boundary map to reinforce that we had to stay within this box. Here’s our playground. We can’t get out of it.

There was evolution on the ground, as always, but the biggest thing was we thought that if we take tees, like the grouping of tees for one hole, and get them extremely close to the grouping of tees for another hole, then those holes can play outward at varying angles from each other. We did that three times here, where people are on the tee playing side by side with people from another tee, on the second and 18th holes, the fifth and 15th tees and the eighth and 10th holes. By doing that, we were able to play outward at angles and increase the width of the areas where the ball was intended to go. Picture a pizza slice or a wedge of pie with the wide portions accommodating the tee shots.

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort — Sheep Ranch — Hole No. 9
Sheep Ranch's ninth hole showcases one of the course's unique characteristics — the lack of any sand bunkers. Course co-designer Bill Coore said that because of the seaside winds, "formal sand bunkers could be maintenance nightmares."

Morning Read: I like the imagery you’ve chosen. Do you have a favorite kind of pie and a favorite kind of pizza?

Bill Coore: I like all kinds of both of them. It’s very tough to pick. OK, I love coconut cream pie. And pepperoni and mushroom on my pizza.

Morning Read: Coore-Crenshaw has a reputation for creating superior bunkers on both strategic and aesthetic fronts. Yet, there’s not a single formal sand bunker on Sheep Ranch. Why not?

Bill Coore: There had been some bunkers here, but it’s not a naturally sandy site. This was going to have to be imported sand that was maintained. With the wind conditions out here, which could be extreme at times, it got us thinking that formal sand bunkers could be maintenance nightmares, because you’re going to have to water them just to keep the sand in the bunkers when the windy days arrive.

Just walking and walking out there, looking at all the beautiful contours, I thought, if we’re ever going to do a golf course with no bunkers, this should probably be it.

Morning Read: Phil Friedmann stated that this certainly has the potential to be the best Bandon course. Is he correct in his thinking?

Bill Coore: It’s distinctly different from any of the other courses. By that, I don’t want to infer in any way that it’s better. It has such a strong identity that I think some people are going to play it and think it’s the best course at the resort. By the same token, some will play it and think it’s the least best of all the Bandon courses. It has no bunkers, it’s on a smaller site and there are no sand dunes on it. But it has this incredible coastline and amazing contours. It’s so different from the other courses. That’s what makes Bandon Dunes — in my opinion — the best golf resort in the world, because every course out there has a strong individual identity different from the others.

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