Blog 217, 7/3/12 - A 40th Birthday Party at Bandon Dunes (Part II)

Surely the most elaborate and intimidating entrance to any course.
Playing Old MacDonald is a special treat on any day. We thought we were done with blind shots and quirky bounces, but ended up playing it twice in two days. We also thought it would be the best playing experience of the trip. We were completely unprepared for Day Four.
I’m not bragging, but I have made a few connections in the golf world over the last 25 years. When I started inquiring with some friends about how to get on to the mysterious Sheep Ranch near Bandon, I got two immediate replies that pointed us to the same man. Connections were made and we secured our spot for Sunday (thank you Tony, Tom, Monty and Greg for making this happen.) When you get a reservation on the Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch, you get the whole course for the day to yourselves.
There are 12 greens, no tees, and no official routing. You meet a guy at a locked gate and follow him about a mile into the property to the ‘start’ of the course. After learning the history of the place at the tailgate of his truck, you are pointed to a ‘tee’ and off you go. It's like being given the keys to the kingdom for a day; you play whichever holes you want in whatever order.
The Sheep Ranch far exceeded my expectations; I anticipated a mown field with simple green locations. What we found were ample fairways, but punishing rough along the edges. We were given massive greens with huge undulations. There were few bunkers, but they were true hazards. We had a light mist, but the best view of the Bandon Dunes resort you could ever imagine.
I could play Sheep Ranch everyday for a year and never play the exact same routing twice (and never get bored). There are fairways and greens you can’t even see until you get to them. It was maddening to one player in our group who needs to know the exact yardage to everything. It was liberating to me just to guess the direction and distance, then pull the trigger. Not much was said during our time on the property. I don’t know what my buddies were thinking, but it was a spiritual experience for me. It was like golf is supposed to be – no carts, no starter, no clubhouse, no tee times and no signs telling you what you may and may not do (except for the 'No Trespassing' sign).
I thought it would be a fun experience, but I had no idea I'd want to quit the game after playing there. Understand I have had a love-hate relationship with golf for the last 25 years. Once I figured out I could actually play pretty well, I wanted to play at the highest level. Those hopes were dashed in 1996, but I never got it out of my system. I've been looking for an excuse to quit golf ever since, and playing the Sheep Ranch is the perfect excuse. It’s not that the experience made me want to quit because I hate the game. I wanted to quit because I can’t possibly ever have a better experience, and what better way to quit than go out on top?
That was until Monty said we should go to the United Kingdom to play the British Open rotation for his 45th birthday in a few years. Maybe I’ll quit after THAT trip.

(Sheep Ranch trivia: There are approximately 600 rounds per year played on the Sheep Ranch, between November and June. The course is closed July through October. It is manually-watered with an old fire truck. The movie ‘Golf in the Kingdom’ was filmed at the Sheep Ranch and Old MacDonald in 2010 - famed golf course shaper, Jim Urbina, makes a cameo appearance.)

James Hawley is currently in his 15th year of trying to play all Top 100-ranked U.S. golf courses,  and in his third year as a member of Golf Digest’s Course Ranking Panel. Follow James on Twitter @hawleywoodgolf


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