Ballyneal sounds Irish so it’s fitting that this is a links course albeit an inland links. The dream of Rupert and Jim O’Neal has become a reality and we think that this course, which is located in the middle of a huge Colorado dunescape, will eventually rival Sand Hills. Even the address – Holyoke – sounds like a current Open Championship links venue.
This is what the minimalist architect Tom Doak has to say about the exciting Ballyneal:
“There are more than a hundred links courses scattered around the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland, yet no two of them are very much alike. Indeed, on many great links, the holes at one end are of a much different character than the holes at the other end of the course. Such is the variety of Nature, the infinite combinations of wind and weather which give birth to sand dunes.
Ballyneal is set upon a thousand acres of such dunes, and our goal has been to take them as we found them and build a course which is a product of the land, rather than forced upon it.
Ballyneal is unique in one respect. I don't know another course where large natural undulations are such a big part of the greens and green complexes, and affect the strategy as much as they do at Ballyneal. This was not a concept we started with; it just evolved during construction.
Most of those "natural undulations" were, in fact, modified from their original form so that the ball would eventually come to rest in certain parts of the green. Some of them were that steep! But the natural contours dictated the form of nearly every green, and all of the finished contours tie in to the natural contours on the exterior, so that you can still use the natural contours to get your approach shot into position."
The following article was written by former golf professional Doug Sobieski 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]
Travelling through the high plains of eastern Colorado, rural roads connect dozens of small farming and ranching communities – many of which evolved as the result of railroad expansion a century ago. A few miles before reaching the Nebraska border, Holyoke, boasting a population of 2,400 and at an elevation of 3,736 feet, is not dissimilar to many of these towns.
However, as you continue south down miles of dirt roads, an exceptional landform known to locals as the ‘Chop Hills’ appears in the distance. Hidden within those contours exists Ballyneal, which makes Holyoke distinctly different.
Covering less than five square miles (approximately 3,000 acres), the Chop Hills bear no resemblance to the elegant undulations found throughout most of the Great Plains. Sharp changes in elevation render them unusable for crops or livestock, in complete contrast to the gently rolling land reaching for miles in every direction.
Jim Urbina, Senior Associate for Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design, visited the Ballyneal site in November 2001 to evaluate the opportunity. In spite of being a lifelong Colorado resident, Urbina was unaware that dunes existed in his home state that rivalled those found at the greatest links around the world. The following spring Doak made his initial visit and recognized character in the land that would enable Ballyneal to be included in any discussion of great golf in the United States.
Isolating and cultivating the Ballyneal ‘look’ was a constant consideration from the outset. It was critical to make the edges of the course ‘believable’ by blurring the transitions from fairway to rough, to native landscape. The end result needed to make it appear that there was little in the way of human involvement in the creation.
Bruce Hepner, Doak’s lead associate for the project, mowed the entire course-corridor to a height of six inches in a single weekend. Given the steepness of the slopes and the high centre of gravity of the tractor, this proved to be a more dangerous task than expected. Hepner claims he was nearly killed half a dozen times before they even began shaping!
The team knew that they were part of something special, but they made a conscious effort to avoid such talk, hoping that the course could stand on its own merits. Ballyneal was basically built in just 21 weeks with nothing but a one-page construction plan, a ‘human grading plan’ without detailed blueprints, an irrigation crew of locals and an abundance of design talent.
This gifted group included the entire Renaissance roster as well as individuals normally associated with other design firms (Pete Dye’s and Coore & Crenshaw’s), and architect Kye Goalby too. The result is a collaborative effort that Doak likens to his first job working for Pete Dye at Long Cove on Hilton Head Island. According to Tom, “Ballyneal was just a dozen guys having a great time”.
I was lucky enough to play 36 holes last summer, and Ballyneal is hands down the best experience I have had in golf. We drove in from Denver and pulled in around 2:30 pm. They were kind enough to send us out with the Caddy Master. It was a firm and fast paradise with plenty of width. Some people in my group found the buried elephants in the greens to be a bit excessive, but I thought they fit right in with the entire experience. This was my first Doak course and am dying to play more of them. To top it off, an orange cat named "Bunker" greeted us on the porch after finishing up both rounds (RIP, I saw on twitter he is now napping on that great big practice green in the sky). Play it if you can.
It's truly amazing when you drive through the town of Holyoke, which is simply ordinary and quite flat, you begin to wonder what the fuss is all about regarding Ballyneal. Then you head south for a few miles and you get an initial glimpse of "Chop Hills"-- a dunes scape land mass that is the home location for Ballyneal.
I have always believed no less than 60% of any course assessment rests with the land site which any course occupies. Ballyneal is truly blessed in this regard as the holes which architect Tom Doak and his talented team created fit within the natural folds and rolls of such land.
The second critical component for any overall course assessment is the critical partnership with the overall routing. Here the challenge is to weave a diverse nature of golf holes and, at the same time, hitting all corners of the property to integrate all the topographical features seamlessly. This avoids predictability and keeps players - especially low handicap types -- from simply relying upon one type of stock shot to bring success.
The final item I use when gauging a course is how creative are the overall shots one must need to play to be successful. That means the wherewithal to control one's ball for both trajectory and to work the ball in both directions. Here Ballyneal again showcases a tour de force result.
You get the feeling of how grand the course is with the starting hole. Playing 382 yards the hole commences from an island tee angled smartly to the far left. The player must decide how aggressive or cautious to play. The fairway rises slightly and as you get closer to the green the fairway tapers down considerably. Even with the prevailing wind helping you just have to think through what will work best for your level of game. Get too aggressive and pull your tee shot left and you will be likely re-teeing for your 3rd shot.
Doak has always been a major proponent of ground movement -- not just within the putting surfaces but throughout the fairways as well. Ballyneal excels in this phase -- there is always some sort of movement to nearly all the holes. Often times the premium angle into the green is not gained by being just in the center of the fairway but to one side or the other.
With no trees to intervene, Ballyneal is always subject to varying wind directions and velocities. The firm turf does permit a ground game option but here again you have to be in the right spot in the fairway to maximize your opportunities.
There are a number of excellent holes -- the short part-4 7th is simply grand stuff. Strong players can reach the green but it means nothing unless your ball stops in the right place. Power can certainly help but it is not the end all be all at Ballyneal.
The choke point down the fairway at the par-5 8th is especially well done to keep strong players on their toes or suffer the consequences.
On the inward half you have a fascinating array of different hole types. The par-4 10th is a muscle long par-4 of 510 yards usually playing into the prevailing southwest wind. If you think you have big time distance off the tee -- test yourself against the 10th when the wind is really singing.
Doak and his team brilliantly create change of pace situations. At the 12th you have mid-length par-4 that features a spine-like fairway -- staying left is the better play but the slightest error can have you find your ball down to the lower right side thereby having a more challenging approach.
The par-4 13th runs the other way and again is artfully and strategically defended with interior bunkers that must be dealt with smartly. The long par-14th forces players to stay down the right side so that you can more easily flight one's approach to the green.
The ending is done well with a fine long par-3 at the 16th and its bowl-like green followed by two very strong par-4's at the 17th and 18th respectively.
Ballyneal is a golf chess match. Every space you attempt to occupy has to be done with total thought and high-level execution. It's not just executing one move -- but how they all tie together. There will be various bounces of the ball -- some good and others not so kind. The greens are also the perfect compliment -- itemizing different shapes, sizes and more importantly, different angles. Be aware when you miss a green at Ballyneal the requisite demand to recover is placed quite high.
So how good is Ballyneal? In all the courses I have played -- in excess of 2,000 -- Ballyneal is easily among my 50 finest in the world and is just as easily among the top 25 I have played in America. Candidly, I also see Ballyneal as being certainly worthy to be in the discussion with the likes of Sand Hills which is nearby in Nebraska.
Ballyneal is that rare blend in which top tier players are sufficiently challenged while permitting higher handicaps a reasonable alternative course of action. Credit Doak for doing that and for not dumbing down the nature of the holes so that they would be beautiful looking but strategically deficient. To weave such magic takes a land site that truly inspires and Doak and his talented crew have seen fit to rise to the occasion. As a final note when I played the course the greens were running at a 9-10 speed and frankly if they were to be ramped up to 11-12 a number of potential pin locations would no longer be in play. The key is always to have the turf sufficiently prepared to bring to the forefront all the architectural flourishes.
There are very few inland based courses on the planet that truly convey the links like land which Ballyneal possesses. Sand Hills is clearly one of them. What's simply missing to convey that sort of total similarity would be a large body of water adjacent to the layout. Ironically, Ballyneal has no water whatsoever within its routing.
Golf design can only reach its highest pantheon when the air and ground games are adroitly weaved together. Ballyneal does that in a grand manner. This is that rare course if you were to receive the invite to play -- drop everything and go. It's that good -- and that special.
M. James Ward
Ballyneal is about as good as links golf gets. Ballyneal along with Tara Iti and Pacific Dunes is Tom Doak's best work. This is a course that is always fun to play and plays differently each play depending on the conditions and the pin placements.
Ballyneal is a real thinking golfer's golf course. Unlike most courses, there are many ways to play each hole at Ballyneal and many ways to hit your approach shots due to all the various slopes and undulations in the greens. The course forces you to become creative which is one of the highest compliments you can give a course.
I played 36 holes and didn't play any hole the same either due to differing tee shot bounces, differing approaches to the greens, etc.
The reason it doesn't get the highest marks in my book is due to the conditioning of the course. The course was pretty baked out due to a 100 degree heat wave earlier in the season and the greens were punched. I can see how beautiful the course could be in say the Fall when the heat takes a back seat but honestly the conditioning marred my experience slightly.
Overall this is a great links course and in true Scottish tradition, has blind tee shots, blind second shots and challenging greens all of which makes for a great walk. Check it out if you can!