BANDON, OREGON | One of Bill Coore’s current jobs is also among the most interesting of his career. But that has less to do with the dramatic oceanfront land on which he and his longtime partner Ben Crenshaw are working than his clients – one of whom he has known for years and the other of whom is a fairly a new acquaintance – and the ways they are managing the creative process.
“It’s a different piece of property, and it’s different working with both Mike and Phil,” Coore says with typical understatement.
The property is the Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch, better known simply as the Sheep Ranch located just north of the Old Macdonald course at Bandon Dunes. Only 150 acres, the terrain is well-contoured but utterly devoid of dunes. And it runs along cliffs so high and steep they can cause the sturdiest of knees to go wobbly. Forget about the shanks or the yips, vertigo may be the biggest problem on this track. That, and being able to stop gawking long enough at the sweeping ocean views to hit a shot.
As for the clients, Mike is Mike Keiser, the now-74-year-old visionary who believed that Americans would travel great distances to play true links golf and then gave the game such gems as Bandon Dunes (in 1999), Pacific Dunes (2001) and Bandon Trails (2005). Trails represents the first time Coore, Crenshaw and Keiser ever collaborated, and it was the beginning of a friendship that has led to other exceptional layouts, among them Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, Sand Valley in central Wisconsin and Lost Farm in Tasmania. Recently, they began work on a course on the Caribbean isle of St. Lucia.
The other patron is Phil Friedmann. No one should worry if that name does not ring a bell. Until recently, he has been an unknown in the game. But Friedmann and Keiser, who are the same age, have known each other for more than a half century.
They met at Amherst College in the mid-1960s when they both lived in the same freshman dorm. They roomed together their junior and senior years before separating for a spell after graduation. A native of upstate New York and a caddie as a kid, Keiser joined the Navy because his draft lottery number for Vietnam was high. He became an EOD officer specializing in the disposal of explosives.
Friedmann, on the other hand, went to work on Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign after taking a year off to travel the world. He then studied law at NYU.
“I also got involved in some anti-war activity,” Friedmann says. “I was protesting against people like Mike.”
Eventually, they reconnected for a bit of ski-bumming in Vail, Colo., where Keiser had moved with his wife, Lindy. “Phil freeloaded for the balance of the season, and very pleasantly,” Keiser says. “It was during that time that we asked each other what we were going to do next. Eventually, we decided to start a greeting card business using recycled paper. We each put up $500 and moved into Friedmann’s home in Highland Park, Ill., to begin work. His mother cooked most of our meals.”
The golf was delightfully freeform, with people generally playing with only a handful of clubs and pretty much from wherever they wanted to each of the greens. Not surprisingly, word of this unique retreat started to leak.
They called the company Recycled Paper Greetings, and its official founding was on Earth Day in 1971. Within a decade, annual revenues had climbed as high as $100 million. That gave Keiser the financial wherewithal to get into golf course development. He made his first foray into the game in the mid-1980s, constructing with architect Dick Nugent a nine-hole homage to Pine Valley near Keiser’s summer home in New Buffalo, Mich. Then he started buying property and building golf courses in Bandon, Ore. First came Bandon Dunes and then Pacific Dunes.
Around that same time, Keiser also purchased roughly 400 acres that abutted Pacific Dunes to the north – and that would one day be where Tom Doak and Jim Urbina laid out Old Macdonald, a tribute course to the great architect and golf impresario Charles Blair Macdonald. It opened in 2010.
Friedmann thought Bandon to be something of a folly. When Keiser approached him about investing in that endeavor at the beginning, his business partner declined. But when Keiser needed cash a few years later to buy an old wind farm just north of the future site for Old Mac, Friedmann agreed to go in for half. They each put up $2 million.
Turning to his old friend for help was understandable given that Keiser had already purchased hundreds of acres on the Oregon coast and invested millions into course construction (at Bandon and Pacific) as well as the building of a couple of clubhouses and restaurants.
“We were still in the early stages of developing the resort, and while there was a lot of cash going out, there was not much coming in,” he says. “So, I approached Phil. We did not sign a formal agreement. I don’t think we even shook hands. We just did it and without really knowing what we would do with the property.”
Keiser chuckles as he thinks back to when he first met Friedmann. “Phil was selling food out of his room at Amherst instead of studying,” he says. “I did not think much of his food, but I enjoyed his sense of humor.”
One thing Friedmann recalls about those days was Keiser introducing him to golf. “Mike was on the golf team, and I was playing rugby. We both took spring training trips for our respective sports,” Friedmann says. “I went to Bermuda and the Bahamas and came back all beat up and black and blue, while Mike returned fit and tan and totally unscathed. I became interested in the game and asked if I could come along when he played. He said that was fine so long as I played fast.”
The two became good friends and started rooming together. “We got along pretty well, but every now and then we’d come back to our quarters after some rather robust political discussions and box,” Friedmann recalls. “We didn’t always see eye to eye.”
Keiser and Friedmann bought the wind farm about the time that Doak completed Pacific Dunes. While the resort was flourishing, there was neither the money nor the inclination to add a third course to the Bandon collection so soon. So, they asked Doak and his crew to fashion a rough layout that, in the end, included 13 green sites and no particular routing. It came to be dubbed the Sheep Ranch, in part because Keiser and Friedmann let a local farmer graze some ovines on the property one winter.
Half-jokingly, they also thought that by giving it that appellation, they might avoid the more tangled regulatory issues that come with building and operating a bona fide golf course. For the next 15 years, the Sheep Ranch existed as a shadow track – golf’s version of a speakeasy – with Friedmann as the man in charge. Initially, it was his private domain. You had to be a friend of Phil’s to get on. The golf was delightfully freeform, with people generally playing with only a handful of clubs and pretty much from wherever they wanted to each of the greens. Not surprisingly, word of this unique retreat started to leak. As it did, golfers found their way there.
There were no formal ways to book a tee time. It was more a matter of asking the right people at the resort (generally, caddies and bartenders) the right questions at the right times. Friedmann took care of all maintenance costs and capital expenses, leaving Keiser to concentrate on Bandon proper.
Then, Friedmann decided it was time to fashion a more traditional 18-hole course at the Sheep Ranch and to open it up to the greater public. They hired Coore and Crenshaw and when completed, the Sheep Ranch will be the fifth – and likely the last – 18-hole course at the Bandon resort. It is expected to open for play early next summer.
“It’s been good fun working with Mike and Phil,” Coore says. “It’s also been a fascinating study in personalities. Of course, Mike was very much a known element, but I had never done anything with Phil. They are good friends, brothers really, and you can see that. But they also have very divergent perspectives. One likes blind shots on a golf course, and the other doesn’t. One likes gorse, and the other would just as soon see it gone.”
Keiser compliments his longtime friend by saying: “Phil knows what he knows and what he doesn’t know and has been very good to work with.”
As for Friedmann, he acknowledges his shortcomings. “I am the one coming into this without any background while Mike has done this many times before, quite successfully,” he says. “But Mike has been great about allowing me to be part of the process. I have some idea what I am talking about. I did travel with Mike to Scotland and Ireland to look at traditional links courses as he started to get involved with Bandon. Given the state of my game, I have also seen places on these golf courses that no one else has. So, I can relate to what players of that caliber often experience.”
Have there been times when tempers have flared and they needed to sort things out with the pugilistic vigor of their Amherst days?
“There has been lots of back and forth,” Coore says. “But with their being 50-50 owners, they have to find ways to work things out. Which they have been able to do.”
And so far, without ever having to lace up the gloves.
Aerial view of a portion of the under-construction Sheep Ranch on the north edge of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Bandon, Ore. Photo: Bandon Dunes
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