Ballyhack is a name to remember. The Lester George designed golf course, which opened for play in 2009 is billed as a Scottish Highland-type design, but the course at Ballyhack is nothing like anything we’ve seen in Scotland. Nevertheless it’s likeable and memorable to say the least.
Lester George knows a thing or two about designing top Virginian golf courses. He left a legacy at the Kinloch Golf Club in 2001 and his creation at Ballyhack has the potential to follow suit.
Set in a dramatic 190-acre tract of land that rises and falls spectacularly with breathtaking elevation changes, Ballyhack Golf Club is pure golf. Blow out bunkers emphasise the rugged landscape… this is a golf course on a gigantic scale with enormous greens (the 18th is 20,000 square feet).
The only downside to Ballyhack is that it’s a crippling walk – even for the fittest golfer – so Ballyhack is a cart affair which traditionalists will berate. However, the traditionalist will quickly get over it because Ballyhack is unique, compelling, fun and possibly Virginia’s most exciting golf course. Some might say it’s over the top, perhaps a little contrived in places but Ballyhack will definitively leave an indelible impression.
The following article was written by golf course architect Lester George and is an edited extract from Volume Five of Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective. Reproduced with kind permission. To obtain a copy of the book, email Paul Daley at [email protected]
Ballyhack is one of the most balanced and rhythmic designs of my entire career. I am honoured to have had the opportunity to design a true, links-style golf course on a property with such naturally bold and domineering features and a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The natural elevations of the golf course run from about 950 feet to 1,150 feet, featuring prominent elevation changes. I included a myriad of strategies into my design, all created to take the fullest advantage of the existing terrain. Incorporating the dramatic topography, I designed boldly contoured greens. The golf course can measure anywhere from 7,350 yards to 5,000 yards, with rolling links-style fairways as wide as 120 yards.
Ballyhack’s front nine is routed around, and between, several major ridges, creating the ‘high dune’ look. Between the ridges, there is a beautiful moor that we used as a prominent feature to accentuate the 1st, 6th, 7th and 8th holes. The 2nd hole is a 530-yard par five that plays from a high dune to a natural ridge, encompassing the entire ridge. In places, the 2nd fairway is over 100 yards wide. Although the green is 10,000 square feet, it is perched precariously on the ridge-top and surrounded by falloff. Another interesting aspect of the front nine is the 6th hole, a 320-yard par four, which defiantly tempts the player to drive over the moor, toward the green. Playing into the prevailing wind, such a notion will challenge even the boldest of golfers.
The back nine features a double green for the 13th and 15th holes. Players will recognize this feature from the old country. At approximately 25,000 square feet, and separated by a seven-foot swale, this feature fits into the landscape so well I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to build it. The final hole at Ballyhack, a 480-yard par four, plays through the middle of the ravine into a natural punchbowl green that is approximately 21,000 square feet. The finishing touch of the design is the use of all cool-season grasses with native grass dunes, featuring a variety of grasses on wind-blown, ragged bunker faces.
This property fell into my lap not once, but three times: when my client led me to it; when I had a chance encounter with the landowner; and, lastly – even though I could not afford to match a higher offer – when the owner called back and agreed to sell it to me. Purchasing and zoning the property before I had even a whiff of an interested partner was a gamble I felt compelled to make; I did not want to let 370 acres of developable, pristine rolling grassland in the Blue Ridge Mountains slip away. Ballyhack delivers time-honoured, traditional European golf to golfers on US soil. It also brings me a great sense of personal satisfaction, because – even though the project took a meandering path – this course has been in my head and heart for years.
The course and experience is great. Huge undulating greens, the gunch is tough but not unfair. Great test of all your clubs and lots of tee boxes and blends for all players. Playing the goat track par three is a great way to play a second 18 in the summer when it is hot.
Very interesting course. No flat holes, which is a positive. Winds up and down through the hills over a big piece of beautiful property. Several severely sloped greens with multi-tiers. A forecaddie is essential the first time you play it, because it’s rare that you need to aim at your final destination, whether from the tee or on approach shots. Several blind “over the hill” tee shots. We played it in 20-30 mph winds which made the challenge even harder, since some of the greens are totally exposed to the winds.
There are some lines off some tees that you wouldn’t think to take without a forecaddie’s advice. #8 particularly comes to mind. Depending on the tees played, how far you carry the ball, and potential tailwinds (which we had), you can drive it over the hill down the right side and get close to the green, if not on it. There are some options for creativity throughout the course, which is great.
My biggest knock on it would be that they don’t appear to take walkers into consideration at all, likely because so few people would even think to walk it. But I did, and carried. Tough walk for sure, but doable. A number of very steep descents or climbs, and some long green to tee distances. The forecaddie said virtually no one walks it (and they take Golfboards themselves). I don’t mind that it’s a tough walk, but it’d be nice if they’d even mow down the grass so that there are some walking trails. And terraced in some steps, even dirt ones, on some of the steep walks from greens to the next tee (2 to 3 downhill, 14 to 15 uphill, 17 to 18 uphill, and others). Or from tees to fairways (off 4, 11, 13, 17, others). A few simple footbridges over creeks would help. Dormie Club in NC has done an excellent job of making walking routes, and I think Ballyhack could make a few improvements along those lines that wouldn’t be overly costly (they don’t have to be huge bridges) or expensive to maintain. Bit it’ll never be a “walker’s course” due to the hills and elevations. Walking it is only for diehards (like me)
For some the severe slopes may be a bit of a novelty, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and would go back and play it again without hesitation. We stayed in the cottages there overnight and ate in the clubhouse. Both were excellent. Staff and service are excellent.
It’s a memorable and fun course that I would easily go back and play again.
Each time I play Ballyhack I'm reminded why I love this course. It's a world-class, must play course designed by Lester George, one of the best in the industry. Mountain courses are often not fair to the golfer, this course is designed to take advantage of the natural terrain, create memorable holes and an experience you'll be talking about for a long time. From every tee box, this course challenges the player at every level. From the 1st tee (over a ravine) to the 18th, you will not be disappointed with the views, the exceptional challenges and an experience you'll want to come back for again and again. The staff aren't half bad either!
A friend of mine that has played many Top 100 courses had been saying for years that Ballyhack is one of his favorite courses. I thought he was biased because he won a free golf bag from them! I was wrong.
This course is a hidden gem, one that you should plan on playing this year if you've never played it. I am usually not a fan of mountain golf, but Lester George did a marvelous job. The elevation changes are not too severe and the holes are creative and fun. The views are spectacular and so is the hospitality of the staff. I hope to play here again soon, it was a blast.