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”.
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.
Previous recent reviews beautifully describe the magnificence of this World Top 50 course. I first visited the course in 2008 and have been fortunate to play many of Doak’s original courses since then. The last 6 miles or so of the driveway leading up to the club is something you want to do in the daylight. If I hadn’t done it before, then I’d really begin to worry. I even considered calling my wife before I lost signal. Thankfully I knew the road ahead and let out a deep exhale when I finally saw the “Ballyneal” wooden sign hanging on a post like a reward for the journey.
I have travelled the globe playing this game, and without failure, no matter what corner of the world I find myself in, it doesn’t take long for people to identify Ballyneal as one of the most sensational golf courses they’ve played – anywhere. I share that opinion – it’s simply one of the coolest places to be on earth with your golf bag. Each hole will leave a strong mark in your memory, and the flow among the dunes highlights the effortless intelligence of the routing. I was glum when the round was over.
For me, the natural elements of the sand dunes and the shaping of the greens will be the reason why golfers will still be celebrating this course in centuries from now. The characteristics of the putting greens and surrounding aprons at Ballyneal is the closest thing in America to the imagination you need to navigate the precious contours at the Old Course. I have so much respect for Ballyneal, and it rises on my “favourites” list with each visit. Let’s hope it doesn’t take Mr. Doak too long to add another 18-hole course. The onsite facilities and local hospitality just adds to this slice of heaven.
It is hard to objectively evaluate a course where one is a member. I joined Ballyneal in late 2006 after joining a golf trip in early July, 2006 that took me to Sutton Bay, Sand Hills, and Ballyneal. It was on this golf trip that I first met Ric Kayne, later to build Tara Iti, as well as having a long conversation with Ric and Dick Youngscap at Sand Hills. After playing them, I decided I wanted to join one of them.
I knew of Tom Doak before playing Ballyneal, having bought the first edition of his original “ The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.” My first trip to Bandon Dunes was in August, 2004. After playing Ballyneal, meeting Rupert O’Neil, talking to the seven other playing partners who highly praised the golf course, and later talking to Jim O’Neil, I decided it was a club I wanted to join if they would have me.
The club was once owned by Rupert O’Neil, his brother Jim (the head professional at The Meadow Club in California), and a handful of founding investors. It is now owned by Rupert’s brother-in-law, John Curlander, who has since added the par 3 Mulligan course and additional lodging.
I will start this review with some random thoughts….
The main road through Holyoke, Colorado is named “Inter-Ocean Avenue.”
You arrive an at “oasis in the desert” once you make the final turn up the dirt road to the club.
It is complete joy, fun and exhilaration.
It is like playing golf on the moon.
It is a perfect routing for the terrain taking maximum advantage of the Chop Hills.
The greens are large and wonderfully contoured. Perhaps a couple greens are overly contoured such as six and twelve.
When my putter “disappears” on me for too many holes every now and then I use my driver to putt. It seems to reset my stance and focus. One time at Ballyneal, I resorted to using my driver to putt on #12 and #13. I decided for fun to use only my driver for every shot on the next hole to see if I could par it. I parred #14 (par 4), then I parred #15 (par 3) and then #16 (par 5) including using the driver for my third shot from the bunker fronting the green. I bogeyed #17 (par 4) but had fixed my swing for the afternoon round. That is the type of fun one can have at Ballyneal due to the width of the fairways and the green surrounds.
There are scattered “back tees” around the course that few know of.
There is an outstanding variety of holes from long par 4’s to short par 4’s, some for par 3’s. You have to find some of the hidden back tees to add variety to the length of the three par 5’s.
The wind changes everything turning easier holes into very challenging holes and changing harder holes into easier ones. However, given the width of the fairways, wind has less effect than it can have on other courses, particularly seaside courses.
Playing seventeen as a par 3 by using the back tee on eleven is a really cool downhill shot.
Playing sixteen as a semi-blind flick of a wedge from the seventeenth tee is also cool.
I used to think the third hole, a short par 3 was too easy until I double bogeyed it three rounds in a row.
Six is the hardest hole on the course for me. I had never parred it and took a long-hitting friend from Chicago GC who birdied it the first time he played it knocking his approach to 3 feet. Eventually I birdied it by making a 60 feet “snake” putt before I parred it the first time.
The next hardest holes for me are the second, followed by ten, then eighteen and seventeen.
Three and seven are the easiest holes, followed by four, eight and nine.
The front nine plays easier than the back nine as there is more variety in the terrain on the back nine creating different angles and some uneven stances.
The most beautiful spot on the golf course is also the most obvious. One walks up the third to get to the tee of the fourth and sees the 30+ mile view. It is a wonderful view of the hole below you with a view of a road in the distance with the occasional car or truck passing by. While the longer view is of scrubland and endless sky, it is still breathtaking.
Only the bravest climb to the sand hill to the right side of the sixth tee to put a tee down to play this long par 4. It is an amazing tee. My understanding is that Tom Doak wanted to put a tee up there but maintaining it would be a problem.
One time we had a heavy thunderstorm come through in the evening when all of us were staying in the farthest cottage next to the “driving range” a quarter of a mile away. We were stuck in the bar for eight hours with the rain never ceasing. Ultimately it rained something like 5 inches in those eight hours. Eventually we decided to run to the pro shop where there were two carts waiting for the eight of us. With two inside and two hanging off the back, we remembered to turn on the headlights and somehow weaved our way back to the cottage driving as fast as we could with no visibility. The next morning we discovered a quarter of the road had completely washed away leaving a 3 feet falloff to the exposed water pipes. We played a morning round and many bunkers were washed away. By the time of the afternoon round, two-thirds of the bunkers were restored.
Sitting outside of the Turtle Bar near the firepit and watching a lightening storm off in the distance is just beautiful.
The tremendously large and undulated putting green is a ton of fun and a good way to settle bets.
The greens have never been fast except for the steeper downhill parts of the greens. Early in the season and at the height of summer some areas will either not yet be recovered from the winter or burnt out by the heat. This is because if they have them firm and fast they would not be able to be putted in many spots.
The normal green speeds run at the speed of many links courses in the UK and Ireland.
Every trip I plan to Ballyneal I get excited and cannot wait to arrive.
Every time I leave Ballyneal I am happy and satisfied. It does not matter what my scores are.
The accommodations are great, the food is fabulous for all three meals, the caddies are a lot of fun, and the staff from reception to dining to the pro staff are welcoming and terrific.
Just when I think I have a hole finally figured out, I will double bogey it in one of the next three rounds.
It is a very walkable golf course. In the less busy times of the season, one can easily play three rounds in a day. My record is four and could have done more but I wanted to stop and talk with Rupert.
I like to run the golf course in the morning, waving hello to the maintenance teams, and then return, shower, have breakfast, play, have lunch, play a second round, and then take a drink out to play the Mulligan course. Then shower and off to dinner and drinks. As I get older, the run might likely now be 9 holes only.
The course is at roughly 3700 feet of elevation at its highest point so one gets about a 6% advantage on their shots.
I have been told the sand is 80 feet deep in areas.
I do not have a favorite hole. I like all of them for different reasons. The only hole I do not like as much as the others is the fourteenth, but only when I go into that deep bunker on the left or get too close to the lip of the centerline bunker. Is that Tom Doak’s fault I hit my ball there? Nope. Otherwise, I really like the fourteenth.
I prefer the tee off the first on the small raised “island’ just beyond the putting green for the tee shot, creating a sharp dogleg left as opposed to teeing it up in front of the Turtle Bar. But I am okay with playing the second round of the day from in front of the Turtle Bar.
A few notes regarding the holes:
#1 – 382/350 – one cannot go into the bunkers left of the large green sloped back to front and right to left with many depressions. Every other “miss” has the chance for recovery. When teeing off from the “island’ tee and making this a dogleg, a big hitter could have only a sand wedge to the green provided they carry the farthest point left of the left side bunkers.
#2 – 490/470 - one of the most difficult greens on the course particularly when the pin is anywhere on the right side. The big hitters can be left with a wedge as their ball goes down the slope while against the wind I have hit a three metal more than once. This hole can play longer than the 490. Favor the left center of the fairway as balls can run out downhill into the bunkers or rough on the right side of the fairway where you then are likely will have a blind shot. The bunkers on the right side of the fairway are some of the more difficult ones on the golf course.
#3 – 145/135 – always aim for the middle of the green. The wind will likely carry one’s ball to one side or the other and then the slope of the green often brings it back to the middle. Never make the mistake of being short of the green or hitting into the bunkers left of the green.
#4 – 573/562. No matter where you are in the fairway, favor the left side into the elevated green. Do not go over the green as it is a slippery putt or chip coming back due to the mounding on the back part of the green. This is probably the second easiest green on the golf course.
#5 – 165/160 – tee it up wherever you want to create the best angle for yourself. I often play it off the front side of the #4 green. The pot bunker in the front middle of the green is very problematic. A ball hit to the right side will almost always come onto the green provided it avoids the two bunkers. Never, ever hit into the bunkers to the left of the green. The tiers and spines in this green are very tricky.
#6 – 480/420 - take a five and be okay with it. The tee that creates the dogleg left although a semi-blind tee shot is much more exhilarating. From the left tee do not try to hug the left side as there are bunkers there and the fairway is farther right than it seems. The green is one of the most undulating on the course. Do not miss short down that valley to the right of the green because you will have a blind recovery shot.
#7 – 352/341 – the safe play is to the right of the large bunker which reminds me of the large bunkers at Royal St. George’s and St. Enodoc Church. If you land in this bunker, there is a high probability your ball will plug high up leaving no chance of recovery. If it does release, given the height of the bunker, you likely have no chance of recovery. Motto: make sure you can carry the bunker. This is perhaps the most fun green on the golf course, thin in the middle with the high to the left of the green to bring balls back onto the green. The view through the green to #4 fairway is really neat. The putt is equally difficult whether the pin is in the back or front of the narrow two-tiered hourglass green.
#8 – 515/470 – the most photographed hole on the course which gets prettier the closer you get to the narrow green angled left to right. Try to come into the green from the left or middle. Do not go long over the green into the back bunker. Do not go into the bunker on the left side of the fairway about 100 yards out from the green. Better, longer hitters can and do make it through the narrow opening between the rough on the left and the large bunker complex on the right. They often bogey the hole from there as they get too greedy given the narrowness of the green and the undulations in it. Only the front left and a small section back right of the green are smooth.
#9 - 362/351 – after hitting the tee shot, walking to one’s ball reminds me of the walk up #18 at Augusta National given the rise of the land. Of course, visually it could not be more different. Bigger hitters do thread the gap between the high hill on the left and the bunker complex on the right much as they do on #8. This is a large green with lots of undulations and three putts often occur from a putt of 25 feet. Pins can be put into very difficult positions on this hole.
#10 – 509/475/430 – pick the tee right for you for the downhill tee shot. A tee shot to the left will end up in a valley with an uphill blind approach shot to a relatively narrow opening to a very long green. A tee shot to the right tempts the rough area and large bunkers. The green has multiple ripples in it. A par here is a bonus.
#11 – 200/177/165 – pick the tee right for you or depending on how much of the hill one wants to climb to the tee. This is an uphill tee shot where the only acceptable miss is long and right of the green. Missing left of the green will likely result in a blind recovery shot given the steepness of the land. Every other round at least one player will be in the rough area of the hill short right of the green.
#12 – 375/335 – If you play too safe to the right you will go down into a valley with a blind approach shot that has to carry a very difficult bunker complex. Missing the fairway to the left likely means you are in one of the two difficult bunkers. The green is very undulated and despite the shortness of the hole, a par here is well earned. You must hit the green and hope for a “kind” pin position.
#13 – 510/396 – how many can find that back tee on the other side of the #12 green? This downhill tee shot has a centerline bunker to avoid on two shots depending on what happens on the tee shot. These bunkers are deep and remind me of the Devil’s asshole on #10 at Pine Valley. Going left one can find the speed slot but can also end up in another valley with a blind approach shot. Going to the right adds length to the hole. If the pin is on the right behind the smallish hill, one will have a blind shot to a green that is not very receptive to long shots. The large green is in sections of higher and lower levels and is very tricky.
#14 – 362/340. There are acres of fairway right of the bunker. This is a good line even if it adds one-two clubs to the approach shot to the elevated green with another large valley fronting the green. One must avoid the small centerline bunker although the real bunkers to avoid are the ones left of the fairway. I prefer to play the hole more of a dogleg left putting the tee down just off the $#13 green with the restroom to my left. This is perhaps the easiest green on the golf course.
#15 – 237/212. You play through the gap of a blind shot to the green. After the gap the land falls to the green. You can hit well right and a bit left of the green and the ball will come onto the large green. But you have to clear the hill. The large green has a lot of mounds and swales to it.
#16 – 546/494 – I have seen people tee off to the left of the #15 green which adds another 20 yards and creates a blind tee shot of this sharp dogleg left. Unless one hits a long tee shot down the center or right, the next shot is primarily blind and one’s approach line is determined by which fence post you want to aim for on the hill above the fairway to the right. Big hitters can reach this green in two. There is a large bunker fronting the green. Balls hit to the left or long have very little chance at recovery given the green is sloped fairly steeply back to front. The first time I played this hole I did not like it, the second time I loved it.
#17 – 481/464 – either tee, right or left is fine playing downhill to this sweeping dogleg right. The fairway falls off to the right. A ball hit down into the valley on the right will find the bunker and another blind shot. A ball hit down the left will stay on the hill providing a view of the green but it is a long shot and the bunkers on the right front of the green as well as the valley have to be avoided. Longer hitters play down the middle and let their ball release down the slope of the land. This is a very large green that has good undulations to it. It is a sneaky difficult hole.
#18 – 463/425 – there is another hidden back tee here on this dogleg left. Longer hitters will take on the bunkers on the left side of the fairway and can have as little as a wedge. Playing safely out to the right will result in a much longer shot in. The center bunkers fronting the green are very difficult. A safer play is to take an extra club and ensure you get on the green even if slightly long.
#19 - Walk the 150 yards to the pro shop, thank and pay the caddie, and decide the next wonderful thing to do.
Until Tara Iti came along, I thought Ballyneal to be Tom Doak’s best design. I am privileged to play here. After nearly every round I feel as though I have discovered something new and fun about the golf course. There is not much I can critique. Others complain about the green speeds and the bumpiness of the greens at selected times of the years. This is not Cherry Hills or Castle Pines, this is a course set in the Chop Hills and very much in concert with the naturalness of the land.
I wish I was there right now.
What a nice review - a relative stream of consciousness of passion & insight that overshadows any member bias.
Although Ballyneal might have made the job easier, it’d be great to have more regular reviewers appraising the courses where they regularly tee it up.
Just like a top class short par 4, it can offer up different angles, both obvious & subtle.
I know I’m in the minority but this course is very, very good but I certainly I’d not find as intriguing as others top 100 courses I have played. I have played the course multiple times during different times of the year and just have never found the condition of the greens ever to be up to anything but average.
The course is extremely fun to play and I think some of the fun is the adventure to get there and the greatness of the accommodations on site. It is extremely playable and provides you a different look and feel based on where you are playing from ( in the fairway, rough, bunker, etc.), the wind conditions. However, because the difficulty of the course does not truly lie off the tee, but really the approach shot and in - the greens must be better in my opinion to receive a higher rating.
First off I have to say I love Ballyneal, the location, the set up, lodging etc. Everything has been done right. Too bad it’s so far away.
My first visit there was a about 6 years ago during my first visit to the Sand Hills of Nebraska and if I’m honest I had a blast but struggled to remember much about the routing and the course. This really inspired me to head back for a couple more games to try and understand what that was as usually I can remember almost everything if not everything from the great courses I play.
I think I figured it out, I think for starters the overall level of the course is fantastic, even world class but given it’s wonderful setting it may provide a sort of sensory overload. All the holes still blend in a bit for me even though it’s fair to say they are all unique. It’s tough for me to pick out favorite holes here for some reason and perhaps many of the holes would be standout holes at other courses but here they are all good and the net result is that the routing still doesn’t stick in my mind and as I sit to write this 6 months after my visit I struggle to find standout holes. If I was forced to pick a couple I would say the par 5 6th offers one of those big boy moments that drive you to want to swing like a long drive champ. From high up on a dune the valley ahead reveals itself and the you can follow the snaking of this long par 5. It’s a magnificent view. A good drive will push in the direct of 300 yds or more even for the not so long players. Maybe just maybe you are afforded with a chance to swing for this long par 5 in two but the last 50 yds are straight up hill so that shot plays much longer than you think.
The 7th is a short par 4 easily drivable but with huge risk. The drive is played semi blind to totally blind on the Tiger line and the long narrow hourglass green that sloped back to front is a huge challenge. Off the tee the player has to carefully judge the value of ending up in one of the green side bunkers a cactus or the rocks and how difficult the approach or recovery will be.
The back 9 picks up withere the front nine stops and continues the excellent run of golf.
The 19th hole affords a wonderful place to relax before heading back out for another round or if 36 have already been played on the day the new short course awaits and delivers in a big way providing crazy greens well into the setting sun.
Ballyneal – YES!
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