Why the lore of Bandon Dunes gets stronger with Sheep Ranch, our 2020 Best New winner

Courses

In a year riven with change, with ground shifting weekly and everything from offices to school to food and safety and the very bonds of society open to re-examination, finding consistency in the world of golf-course design is notable.

In golf architecture at least, the advent of this decade resembles the beginning of the last. Before 2010, Golf Digest annually announced Best New Course winners in several categories, including Best New Public Under $75, Best New Public Over $75 and Best New Private as well as for various forms of renovation, going so far as listing the top-10 finalists in each division. But with only a few dozen courses making it across the finish line that year because of the economic calamities of 2008 and 2009, the magazine chose not to officially name a Best New Course in 2010, the first time since it was created in 1983 that no award was given.

It’s humorous now to think that the 40 or so new courses that opened in 2010 didn’t form a critical mass large enough to merit the magazine’s full attention and thus an award. The course-construction recession was considered a temporary squall, but course openings have remained maddeningly scarce over the past 10 years, and this year’s class consists of just 15 graduates. But feeling that new course openings are now more newsworthy than ever, we’ve decided to proceed with the prize—though because of travel difficulties and the extenuating circumstances of the moment we gave each facility that opened in late 2019 or 2020 the option to postpone its candidacy until 2021. (A number of courses took us up on the offer; wait for them next year.)

That said, some remarkable similarities remain between the bookends of the past decade. In 2010, Bandon Dunes, the golf Shangri-La in southwest Oregon, opened Old Macdonald, the resort’s fourth course. Designed by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, Old Macdonald took the “ideal” hole concepts that C.B. Macdonald introduced at the National Golf Links of America in 1911 and blended them into a rugged seaside arena of dunes and gorse. Now, 10 years later, Bandon Dunes has debuted another new links-inspired course, Sheep Ranch, the resort’s fifth 18-hole layout. Old Macdonald did not win Best New Course of the Year back then—remember, no award that year—but Sheep Ranch, in 2020, has.

Sheep Ranch, by any standard, is a worthy winner and a breathtaking addition to the world of golf. Eight greens occupy cliffside positions—nine if you count that of the par-3 third, elevated above the conjoined 16th green offering a box-seat view of the Pacific. It is by far the most open of Bandon’s oceanfront rota—Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and, to a lesser extent, Old Macdonald, each break out spectacularly toward the coastline, but their interior sections play through broken topography with holes tucked in pockets and protected by dune ridges. Sheep Ranch is entirely exposed, its holes rambling across a naked blufftop plain to the north of Old Macdonald. The ground heaves with large and small contours, but because the soil is a heavy, gravelly clay rather than sand—locals call it red buckshot—there’s no dunal protection. The holes wander entirely atop the landforms rather than down and between them.

The relatively small projection of land that encompasses Sheep Ranch—including Five Mile Point, the spit of cliffs where the aforementioned third and 16th greens stretch out over the beach—is one of the windiest spots on the Oregon coast, more so than the other Bandon courses. The persistent gales influenced nearly every design decision made by architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.

“The wind was probably the most significant factor in regards to how we laid out the holes,” Coore says. “I guess you could flip that and say the decisive factor was trying to take advantage of the coastline and the natural, extraordinary contours of that site, but at least equally, if not more so, was the consideration of the wind.” Their thinking was constantly, What’s the wind doing, what’s the ground doing, and how do we marry these two elements to make it not only pretty and even dramatic, but playable?

No surprise, the property was once a wind farm populated with stanchions of towering turbines. It was also, more recently, a different golf course, the secretive Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch, consisting of 13 informal and barely maintained holes laid out by Doak, Urbina and Don Placek when they were building Pacific Dunes in the early 2000s. Few people knew about the course, and fewer had the chance to see it—it was not available to the public—but those who did encountered a humble, originalist version of the game on a playing field that 18th century Scottish shepherds would have recognized.

The land provided enough room for these rudimentary holes that could be played in a variety of directions because of the emptiness of the course. But as Bandon developer Mike Keiser and former business partner Phil Friedmann, co-owners of the Sheep Ranch property, upscaled to 18 holes, the site became suddenly tight, bound by natural borders to the west (the ocean) and on the south end (Whiskey Run ravine), and property lines to the north and the east. The puzzle would be how to best utilize such rare ocean frontage, yet still provide enough room for the holes away from the coast.

“When I first went to the property, the thing I was trying to really study was the coastline,” Coore says. “Mike and Phil were very adamant about it—they said, ‘Bill, you and Ben find a way to take advantage of every foot of it.’ ”

Coore knew that to maximize all the spectacular aspects he had to find ways to run holes out to the cliff edge and back rather than strictly parallel to it. The par-4 sixth with a diagonal tee shot over the beach and the par-4 17th play entirely along the coast, as does the second half of the 15th and the par-3 16th. But the first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth greens all receive crosswind shots coming from perpendicular or oblique inland angles.

Combining certain tee complexes was the second key to generating holes that were wide enough to capture the extreme dispersion of drives screaming along the hardened ground or riding the seasonal north or southwesterly winds. Coore’s a-ha moment was realizing that two holes playing next to each other from the same point but oriented in slightly different directions would fan out into ever increasing space, resulting in fairways 100 yards across in some places. The concept is geometric, a theory of triangles and expanding interior angles. Coore looked at it slightly differently.

“I wasn’t thinking about it so much in terms of degrees of angles or mathematics,” he says. “I kind of looked at it as, well, you’ve got a piece of pizza here. If you put the pointy end of the pizza at the tee, you’ll have a wider place to hit to out there.”

As with all courses designed by Coore, Crenshaw and their associates and shapers, Sheep Ranch is a menagerie of found objects. Five greens are built atop the foundations of the old Sheep Ranch greens, mimicking them but in exaggerated form. Several of the holes away from the ocean—the fourth, 10th and 14th in particular, all muscular par 4s—show off natural ground contours that are equally exciting and audacious. The breadth of these holes, the running turf and the robust shaping of the putting surfaces combine for playing experiences that change day to day depending on the wind, hole locations and personal proclivities.

The 11th might rival the seaside holes for conversational material. Abutting woodlands on the property’s eastern boundary, it’s a par 5 that climbs toward an old quarry that the original design team used to harvest sand. Coore and Crenshaw’s crew collapsed a portion of the quarry’s high earthen wall that enclosed it to expose a large cavity where the green now sits, deep in the pocket and mostly blind from the fairway below. The concept of the eighth green, meanwhile, bulging and rolling on each side of a deep swale, was essentially discovered in the ground when cleared of gorse, and the strong central spine that cuts front to back through the center of the 15th green was part of a construction road that used to run along the ocean bluffs.

Another anomaly at Sheep Ranch is the absence of bunkers—at least traditional sand-filled bunkers. The site was deemed too windy for them, but what’s here are in fact bunkers. They are excavations of earth with irregular-shape edges and grass floors, places beneath the wind that animals would, were they present, scrape ever deeper when harboring from severe storms—which is in fact how golf’s earliest bunkers formed. A bigger playability concern is the space between the holes. When left alone, the native grasses (and the gorse) grow high and thick, adding a lovely visage when billowing in the breeze but also becoming cruel in their appetite for golf balls. Yet the course takes on a stark, abstract appearance when these areas are uniformly mowed. What to do? Call it a work in progress.

The synthesis of wind, ocean holes and extravagant contour gains Sheep Ranch entry into an elite category of American links. Modest as usual, Coore says: “We just wanted to do something there that was worthy of the site and worthy of being a family member of Bandon. Time will tell.” For Golf Digest panelists, the time is now.

Best New Course ceremony without Tom Fazio would be like an Academy Awards without Meryl Streep. Beginning in 1987, when Wade Hampton in North Carolina earned the Best New Private Course prize, Fazio has produced 13 winning original designs and too many additional top-10s to count. That doesn’t include several renovation awards.

Two years ago, Congaree Golf Club in South Carolina earned Best New Private Course, and Fazio is back in 2020 with the silver medal for Troubadour Golf & Field Club. Troubadour, part of the Discovery Land Company’s growing international portfolio, is integrated into a high-end, amenity-rich development 30 miles south of Nashville. (The name is a reference to traveling musicians, familiar figures in these parts.) Sparing no expense, the course is built upon the bones of the former Hideaway at Arrington course, originally routed and built by the firm of von Hagge, Smelek and Baril. Interestingly, nine of this year’s Best New Course candidates were redesigns of existing courses or properties, a sign of the times.

Troubadour’s elevated tees take players on a tour of the surrounding central Tennessee foothills. Though the holes play mostly down through established corridors, the redesign has eliminated much of the previous severity, replacing fields of steep, grassy moguls and ornate bunker clusters with longer, graceful lines. A number of greens were remediated away from hazards to more accessible locations, significantly at par 5s like 3, 9 and 12. Fazio and associate Blake Bickford also pushed the lateral boundaries farther toward the tree line, creating substantially more playing space, establishing greater visibility for their lovely golf compositions and introducing clean, large-format bunkers that guide the eye toward favored landing areas. The highlight is the panorama-rich run of holes 10 through 15 that ride up and down through isolated topography, cross creek ravines and generally look like they’ve existed there for decades, not months.

Our third-place winner is the Pfau Course at Indiana University, another complete remodel, by Steve Smyers, of the school’s narrow, tree-lined 1950s-era layout. Smyers’ views on classical strategy have changed in recent years, particularly as they relate to elite players, and at Pfau he put his evolving design theories into practice.

Traditional strategic paradigms dictate the closer one plays to a bunker or hazard (taking on a higher degree of risk), the shorter the next shot or the better the angle becomes (the reward). Smyers, an accomplished amateur player, believes the best golfers don’t play that way anymore. Instead, they aim away from trouble, and as long as they’re in the fairway they can orient approach shots toward the center of greens and try to work the ball left or right off that spot toward hole locations, a tactic enhanced by the consistency of modern turf conditions.

To counter that at the Pfau Course (and in addition to building 7,900-yard tournament tees), he has attempted to goad the best collegiate players into taking overly aggressive lines off the tee, angling perceived ideal landing zones so they effectively play smaller than other sections of the fairway. He doesn’t want to punish golfers but rather induce them into playing approaches from a short cut of rough that prohibits precise spin, leading to a loss of distance control and slightly longer roll-outs once the ball lands on the greens, which are often sloped away from the line of play.

These are subtle rather than obvious strategies. Students, faculty, alumni and public guests will mostly notice the stroll through a beautiful, wooded property with newly widened corridors decorated with long native grasses and features shaped to reflect a rustic turn-of-the-20th-century aesthetic. They’ll also appreciate 17 greens that are open in front, the comparatively modest contour of the putting surfaces and the shallow depth of the bunkers. The holy grail of golf design has always been to create courses that optimize the greatest fun for the greatest number, but that can also challenge the game’s best. Pfau becomes an attractive addition to that ongoing quest, and along with Sheep Ranch and Troubadour, represents the latest chapter—so far—in the never-ending story of American golf design.

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