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
Date: November 30, 2018