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.
Date: April 19, 2020