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”.
Incredible course and experience. Over two rounds, I experienced windy, calm, dry, wet, sunny, and near-dark conditions. A few things that stood out to me:
- The course is not narrow, but has brilliant fairways with strategic bunkers, valleys, and speed slots that help or hurt. It's visually more intimidating off the tee than it actually is, but the teeth of the course is in your approach to the green and shots around the green.
- Doak makes you think about everything related to pin placement - you'll want to be creative in where to land any approach or pitch, knowing that the many mounds on each green can feed the ball near the hole or kick you away from it and make for a challenging two-putt. The greens reward good shots and crushes bad ones.
- The areas around the greens are fair but difficult. Often you must miss the green by a good margin to be in the fescue, which gratefully keeps you in the hole instead of immediately searching for your ball and caving to despair, but you must hit an excellent chip or putt to make par. This is grueling golf, knowing that nothing is preventing you from getting up and down (such as a bad lie), but execution is paramount.
- Conditions are excellent. The fairways are bit burned out in areas, but play like they should - hard and fast. Grass around the greens is short and tight but consistently lush. Greens were rolling very smoothly when I was there in late September.
- Favorite holes: #3, #7, #8, #12, #13, #16. Pictures include #3, #12, and #13.
Jay C - Sounds like the course gave you 99 problems (but getting on wasn’t one).
Is Ballyneal closer to Sand Hills in quality than most rankings would have it?
Hi BB - I actually played quite well and was pleased with my scores, but it was hard earned. I managed to get on through a work event. I cannot comment regarding Ballyneal's standing compared to Sand Hills GC as I have not played it, but if you have a way of getting me on, I'm all ears :)
All of the golf course with far less of the pretension. For those who have played Pac Dunes, this is a better layout.
Stretch it out all you want on the back nine. But the wind can change am to pm, and it is like playing a different course.
Conditions change between May - Aug. It gradually gets firmer and faster. In May it can play soft, and the entire property is a rolling sea of green. By August, you can be playing in the kind of conditions you see at the Open Championship, with firm and fast fairways.
Greens roll about a 10, which is about as fast as you want them. If it is windy, the undulation and the wind can move the ball. If you find yourself on the wrong tier, you are putting defensively to avoid a 4 putt.
Creativity in shotmaking is king here. Leave your 60 degree at home.
Robert - How is Pacific Dunes pretentious?
BB - It isn't. Poor separation of ideas.
Ballyneal is great golf without the pretension usually associated with great golf courses.
I find the layout to be better than Pacific Dunes. And I really enjoy Pac Dunes.
Space and time. Your perception of both will change after a round at Ballyneal. Sublime, Pure, Transcendental. Yes, this golf course is a brushstroke of genius from Tom Doak, but it is more than a golf course - it is a philosophical beacon for those orthodox believers in the greatness of golf. It is a symbol that the history of golf and the future of golf are one in the same.
The rural setting is as bucolic as it is remote; the journey to reach this jewel in the sand hills of Eastern Colorado seems to lead away from the ordinary world to a place too peculiar and pristine for anything other than a golf course. As you ascend the long gravel road to the clubhouse, a commanding view over the endless ridges of yucca tufted sand dunes spreads uninterrupted across the horizon like the open ocean. Free from any significant signage, gates, or fences, the property requires no pomp and circumstance to impress or inspire. A small cluster of buildings, the only structures visible for miles around, include stand alone pro shop, lodging, and a restaurant. This campus closely surrounds a gargantuan putting green fostering a collegial atmosphere in the practice area. Looking around you will see no golf carts, this course is strictly walking, and no tee markers or other tee box furnishing. However, it might be paradoxical to call Ballyneal simple.
Standing on the first tee, a wide and friendly fairway free from intimidating visuals is the calm before the storm. The challenge of this course quickly becomes apparent once you've hiked out of view of the clubhouse - the hard and fast surfaces of Ballyneal are an infinite puzzle of complex mounds and swells. The natural sand hills blend into massive waste areas and deranged bunkers while the lack of trees and the huge views distort all sense of scale. The greens at Ballyneal are more akin to a carnival ride than the average American green complex. Creativity and imagination are required to navigate the putting surfaces, which dip and dive over and across natural topography. Any errant shots will provide ample punishment as the native prairie which encompasses the property is dense with razor sharp yucca and prickly pear cactus. Scoring well at Ballyneal will require not only a complete golf game but also elite creativity and mental fortitude. Walking off the 18th green, there is sensation of accomplishment in completing the wild adventure of traversing this piece of land. The experience is as original as it is timeless - less is more, form follows function, and simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
The restaurant and bar is fantastic, the vibe is casual and comfortable, the food is stellar, the cocktails are well made, and the milkshakes are next-level. The staff is fun to interact with and the outdoor areas are a blast, there are fire pits and a bocce ball area overlooking the first tee. The locker room and amenities are relatively low-key. The pro shop is one of the best in Colorado with top notch brands as well as a sweet selection of casual t-shirts and uncommon items. The lodging is simple and comfortable with a very colloquial layout, after dinner putting contests and bocce ball games are the norm. Overall, yes this is a drop everything and play it type of course. It is a different type of perfection than many other elite golf courses in the United States for all the right reasons and in all the right ways.
Ballyneal is one of the coolest golf experiences I've ever had. Getting there is no easy task. Our day started with a four hour drive from Denver, the last half hour of which is on dirt roads. But approaching the course and its massive sandhills make the trek worth it. When we walked into the pro shop, the pro told us the only other group on the course was on 16 green, so we'd have the place to ourselves. After rolling a few putts on the massive, undulating putting green that is perfect for a post round game, we headed to the first tee. There are no tee markers at Ballyneal, you can basically tee off from wherever, usually on the advice of the caddies. We were lucky enough to have two local kids on our bags who were absolute characters.
My advice for playing the course is take the sign that is indicated by the lack of tee markers or a course rating: don't keep score. Play a match. You're gonna have a four putt and some shots you've never even fathomed before, and I feel like keeping score can distract too much from the beauty of the design.
While every hole is world class in its own, the 16th, pictured here, is one of my favorite holes I've ever played. The par five doglegs between two massive sand dunes and plays to a lions mouth green, unreal.
Had the great opportunity to play here in Sept 2020. Was totally awed by the location upon arrival. Superior customer service. Wonderful layout. Great caddies. We were treated like we were members. It is a course of its own. I would not want to compare it to any other course I have played. It stands on its own merits and rightfully so. I hope to go back one day and stay a few nights in the cabins. Enjoy the CO night serenity and playing golf at sunrise.
My cousins, the O'Neal's built this course with the expertise of Tom Doak. I was fortunate to be able to see it develop and grow into an amazing golf course and golfing experience.
I have played several times and one of the many great things about Ballyneal is that it never plays the same. So many variables out in the "chop hills" of eastern Colorado. Very fortunate to have the opportunity to play this great, great course!
After the success of Pacific Dunes (2001), Tom Doak unveiled Cape Kidnappers, Barnbougle Dunes, St Andrews Beach, Tumble Creek, Stone Eagle & Ballyneal in the period 2004-2006. During this hectic period I was a shareholder and Chairman at Barnbougle Dunes, where I first befriended Mr Doak. In my golfing travels, I increasingly made a point of seeking out the Doak creations around the world
In 2008 I undertook an extensive tour of Canada and the USA , and toward the end of our trip played Tom Doak's Ballyneal . Perhaps it was the fact that we were more than a little weary, but my initial impressions were that the course was not quite to the standard Doak had set with Pacific Dunes, Barnbougle Dunes, Cape Kidnappers et al...
I was to return a few years later to play in The Renaissance Cup in Denver with Michael Robin as my partner. On this trip Michael, who is a member at Ballyneal, invited me out to spend a couple of days at Ballyneal with him prior to the playing of the Renaissance Cup in Denver
We had beautiful weather and the course to ourselves. We played matchplay each day- and because there are so many teeing grounds, the winner each hole chose where to tee up for the next hole.. Michael hits 20 metres longer than I do, so when he won a hole we went back. Needless to say when I won a hole we went forward.. It was great fun!
The pins change each day, having a big impact on how the holes played. The course was in wonderful condition, so we could have happily played there for weeks... The accommodation, restaurant, and bar are all very cosy and welcoming, and with so few people about it was very relaxing.
The course was much better than I had remembered and is a real sister course to Barnbougle and Pacific Dunes in both style and quality. The greens are very natural with significant movement- at times you will have to be quite creative with your short game. And there are some really brilliant holes, such as the short par 4 seventh with it's unique green.. The bunkering is superb and fits hand in glove with the rolling topography
If you are lucky enough to score an invite to play at Ballyneal make sure you stay a few days to fully get to know the course. One day is not enough.
Not surprisingly wind is a big factor at Ballyneal, changing the character and difficulty of each hole from day to day. Multiple plays should be mandatory!
And with superb facilities, the addition of the new Mulligan short course, putting and Bocce activities after the main event- you may not want to leave too quickly
Mr Doak and his team regard Ballyneal as one of their best 10 completed courses. Despite the stiff competition I'd say Ballyneal is close to the top 5 in an impressive portfolio
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
Ballyneal is an awesome golf course. A Tom Doak design it reminds me a lot of Erin Hills. I am sure there are those who would say Erin Hills reminds them of Ballyneal. As others have reported getting to Ballyneal is a commitment and not for the faint of heart. Just when you think you went down the wrong dirt road she materializes. I usually provide moderately in-depth reviews, but I cannot compete with Mark White’s, he is truly passionate about Ballyneal and I can understand why.
It starts with a welcoming first hole that bends slightly left and is uphill. A decent drive will give you an attack wedge approach. The green is protected with bunkers left. The 2nd is a difficult long par 4. Favor the left side off the tee, you may run thru the fairway on the right into the fescue or worse bunkers. The green is quite long, so gauge your yardage appropriately. The 3rd is a reprieve, as it is the shortest and rated the easiest hole on the course. Favor the left side on the first par five all the way through the green. It is reachable, although the green is elevated and long is NG. It is rated the 5th toughest hole, which I disagree with. The 5th is another relatively short par 3. However, it is well protected with bunkers right, left and front. Misses right should release to the green. The 6th is a really tough golf hole. Long dogleg left that seems to beg you to cut the corner. Don’t do it. If you hit the green, that is great, I would bet even money you three jack. The 7th is a short par 4 that tilts left. There is a cross fairway bunker on the left and another one on the inside elbow. Flying the elbow bunker will give you a pitch to an undulating green that can be both helpful and hurtful. There is a lot of room right and the traditional approach will result in more pars. The 8th is an uphill reachable par 5 with a terraced green. Whether you are going for it or taking a more traditional approach the hole will play easier from the left side. The 9th is a good birdie oppty, the hole leans left and is uphill with another tough green.
The back starts with one of the toughest holes on the course. A long downhill par 4 with a long narrow multi-tiered green. The 11th is mid-length uphill par 3. Several bunkers front right and left, whatever you do not miss left. There is a steep dropoff and making a par is extremely unlikely. The 12th is an adventure. It looks pretty benign on the scorecard and on the tee. It leans left a scattering of bunkers on the left side. If you can carry the corner bunker you will have a flip wedge to the green. However, off the tee, there is a lot more room right, albeit, that will leave you with a blind approach. The green is a roller coaster and putting options can vary from traditional to turning your back to the hole. The 13th is my favorite hole, yes, I know, my only birdie of the day. Long downhill then uphill tilting left. There is a lot of room right but the hole will play a lot longer and you will need to contend with a front right bunker. Left off the tee is better, although, you may end up with a blind approach shot. Another multi-tiered green. The 14th is a short uphill dogleg left and an excellent birdie oppty. Big hitters will go left of the fairway pot bunker. I think this just increase the margin of error. Lot of room right and you will still have an attack wedge in your hands. Perhaps the smallest green on the course. The 15th is a long par three between two dunes. While the green appears to be right behind a ridge that has bunkers on each side, it is an optical illusion. A large multi-tiered green with multiple moguls. The tee shot is almost a hit and hope that the contours will be user friendly that particular day. The last par 5 is an uphill dogleg left that can be reachable. The green sits on a ledge with a large deep center bunker in front. Long is death, the green slops hard back to front. My chip from behind the green ended up in the bunker. The 17th is a long, tough dogleg right. Off the tee you can chose the high road left or the low road right. Either way, you will have a long approach to a redan green. The 18th is another left leaning hole. A generous driving landing area, although, the further right the drive, the longer the approach shot. The holes plays uphill so you may want consider an extra club on the approach, especially with the two front center bunkers.
A marvelous course that I heartily recommend
What Tom Doak did on this site in the Colorado chop hills is nothing short of spectacular. The property is so far off the beaten-path that you have to take about 10 miles of dirt road to reach the unassuming entrance. Once on property, all worries go away, other than trying to get your ball in the hole. I played the course in late July and the conditions and turf quality were fantastic.
The course is regularly exposed to wind and historically plays firm and fast. The day I was there, the wind was down, but the firm and fast conditions still gave me numerous options to play different styles of golf shots.
The first 3 holes are a great introduction to Ballyneal. Its' wild and bold, internal and external, contours greet you at every green allowing you to funnel balls into hole locations, or get rejected in the opposite manner. Once done with hole 3, the short walk over the crest to hole 4 tee box will take your breath away. As you look down on the par 5, the chop hills seem to roll-on in the background until the earth drops off. In my opinion it was the best view of the day. Hole 7 is an ingenious, drivable par 4 that lends the golfer a slight view of the wildly shallow, and menacing green from their respective tees. Although it seems easy from looking at the short yardage on the scorecard, this hole can be as cruel as it can be rewarding; it was my favorite hole on property. Hole 8 was a fantastic and challenging par 5. It also doesn't look very long on the scorecard but it plays mostly uphill, into a multi-tiered and multi-contoured green. Cheers to my playing partner who nailed a 50-foot eagle putt over a massive hump in the green!
The back 9 starts with a long par 4 that demands a big drive, favoring the right side of the fairway. My caddie told me the left side of the fairway is named the "pit of mediocrity" as it leaves the golfer with a blind/poor angle to the green. I was happy to stay out of it. The back 9 really weaves its way out into the chop hills more than the compact front 9. Standing on hole 16 green, you feel as if the clubhouse/cabin area is miles and miles away. While I loved the compact routing on the front 9, being isolated in what felt like the middle of nowhere on the back 9 was equally, if not more, peaceful. The back 9 wraps up with a long-ish par 4 that works back towards the pro shop. As is custom at Ballyneal, the losers of the match must carry the winners bags up the hill back to the putting green area.
In all, I feel extremely blessed and lucky to have played Ballyneal. It's a place where you want to head right back to the first tee after your initial round and play until dark.
Tips & Recommendations:
Take a caddie for your first round. You probably won't know which hole you're on if you don't because there are no tee markers/signs.
Play the Mulligan Par-3 course. It is the finest I have seen, and takes the contours on the big-course and puts them on steroids; everlasting fun.
Grab a drink and go around the putting course.
Say hello to the cats that roam the putting green/pro shop area, they are extremely laid back, as you could imagine at a place like Ballyneal.
If you're a beef-lover, get a steak, as you're around the beef capital of the US.
Ballyneal is an amazing example of laying the course in the landforms that the architect was given… The course meanders, dips, rises as it follows the dune formations. It’s a tough “first time” course to play given the many blind or semi-blind tee shots and approach shots. The second time around you’ll not make the mistakes (hopefully) from the previous round. Very creative greens, fun shots abound when using the slopes in the fairways and around the greens. Personally, I’d rate it higher if there were less blind shots that allowed one to see the result of one’s shot.