One of six courses offering a total of 90 holes at the Crystal Springs Golf Resort, the 18-hole course at Ballyowen Golf Club sits on a 250-acre site overlooking the Walkill River, with water coming into play at five of the holes. Considered the flagship layout at the resort, Ballyowen is widely acknowledged as one of the best public facilities in the Garden State.
Three of the Crystal Springs tracks – crafted by Robert Trent Jones Snr, Robert von Hagge and David Glenz/Jack Kurlander – were in place before Roger Rulewich set out Ballyowen in 1998 and he has since fashioned the other two courses at the resort: the Wild Turkey 18-hole layout in 2001 and the 9-hole Cascades course in 2009.
Links-like in character, the fairways at Ballyowen can be visually intimidating from the tee but they’re actually more forgiving than might first appear. Greens are generally large in area to accommodate the numbers that play here as well as allowing for a greater number of pin placements.
Some feel the downhill par five 10th could perhaps become a long par four in order to test better players and there’s also a case for that to happen at the 17th hole. Certainly, golfers of all abilities will have their approach play challenged at holes where the greens are raised, such as at the par four 13th.
Ballyowen is typically shown as the best public course in NJ. It is definitely one of the few best. I might say Atlantic City is the best. It is part of a vast complex of golf courses at Crystal Springs. 5 full courses if memory serves. All of them being of a decent quality making the resort a must visit. Ballyowen is a good day out. The course is a great mix of golf holes. It's not a links course by any measurement. The conditioning is usually very good but can be suspect if wet conditions have been present. The turf is very fragile and with it being public, not everybody takes care of their divots properly.
As someone who tries to be a straight shooter in his reviews, I’m embarrassed to admit I may have shot too quickly after playing Crystal Springs—the routing is better than my 2.5, to be sure—but what I played through was truly the worst conditions I have ever seen, and in season! This is not to suggest your score is wrong at all (I acknowledge mine is much more likely to be incorrect) but it’s a topic worth pondering for reviewers like ourselves. As you also mention the “fragile” nature of the course, how to handle a design full of potential...but is also a wreck regularly? Not looking for answers, just musing out loud...continue your good work.
Ryan Book, I have played the best and the worst of this list of NJ courses. There isn't one I would rate as low as a 2 1/2. Conditioning is important, but it shouldn't define your view of the architecture.
When people speak about Crystal Springs it's important to point out that the facility has several different courses. Ballyowen is the flagship course and one I have played countless times since its opening in 1998.
The issue of ratings , as many are likely aware, can be hindered via a one-time only visit. People who base comments solely on a one-time basis are dependent upon the turf quality at that time, the overall weather experienced and if the course was set-up properly, among other elements.
The main issue with Ballyowen is the usage of the name in attempting to be some sort of American equivalent of an Irish course. The name is simply marketing hype. If Ballyowen were called Eagle Springs or some such other straightforward name, the brouhaha would likely be far less. Ballyowen tries to showcase a faux links connection -- replete with a bagpiper playing at sunset.
Architect Roger Rulewich did a fine job in the creation of the holes and when the course is generally prepared with the wispy fescue grasses blowing on the adjoining hillsides flanking a number of the holes the visual dynamics is certainly enhanced.
In terms of course conditioning -- Ballyowen overall is very, very good. Now, I don't doubt if someone had a one-time visit it could very well have been less than stellar for reasons mentioned at the outset or others. People who play ANY course one time are limited to what they experienced THAT day. Those who have played a given course countless times can provide a wider overview and showcase what's truly presented covering a far larger period of time.
Given my experience with New Jersey public courses -- Ballyowen is easily among the top 3-4 public courses in the State and can make a strong claim for the top position.
Let me strongly disagree with the ill-founded assertion -- "but is also a wreck regularly." How does one make such a statement simply via a one-time visit and even if made from multiple visits -- I can certainly say from my countless rounds played there that's completely rubbish.
People opining about their experience are entitled to their opinions -- even strong ones. However, making such strong opinions comes from seeing such courses through a much wider lens. Thereby demonstrating a far more accurate overview that only multiple visits provides.
M James Ward. I love your writing. You are gifted. I have played Ballyowen 6 times over a period of 15 years usually as an early spring getaway from CT. I haven't been back in the past few years. Maybe a return is in order. Thank you for your input.
My comments were not specifically meant about your writing / re: Ballyowen. When I saw the very low rating given by another posted I knew the emphasis provided via that review was skewed heavily on a one-time play.
Your reply to that reviewer was spot on -- sometimes people spend too much time on the conditioning side. I can certainly appreciate the angst anyone would feel when going to a touted layout and the conditioning for that specific round is not what it needs to be. My reply was about providing a longer period of assessment -- something you've done at Ballyowen with multiple visits to the site.
You also have played a large sampling size of different New Jersey courses and your analysis has been good on a number of them.
When I posted my comments -- I meant to highlight how necessary it is for all people to provide some sort of context about a course visit. If the visit is a one-time matter -- then people should state that -- particularly when such a visit encounters conditioning issues which might have been limited to a given time frame.
There's no question conditioning needs to be weighed when a layout is assessed. Your earlier reply to the other reviewed was correct. Conditioning is certainly a criteria of note -- but it must be placed within the fuller context of what a course provides. You were equally right in saluting the work of architect Roger Rulewich for the different types of holes encountered when playing at Ballyowen. The core element is the design itself -- conditioning is the variable that follows that.
Unfortunately, the desire by the facility's ownership to tout a faux links-like experience by using the name "Ballyowen" and having the serenading of the bagpiper playing at sunset is a self-induced fumble which can cause people to question the juxtaposition of the course and the marketing hype.
Ballyowen, from the numerous times I have played the course over the years has not been at optimum firm and fast conditions. Clearly, not at a level comparable to what one experiences from authentic links courses in Ireland and the UK.
Your understanding of the NJ golf market -- beyond Ballyowen -- provides the kind of context more people should follow when doing such assessments.
I’m reminded of a scene from ‘Christmas Vacation,’ where the boss, understanding his guilt, explains to his wife the error of his ways, ironically prompting further admonishment from the gallery.
M. WARD: “That’s low mister. If I had a rubber hose I would beat you...”
R. BOOK: “I changed my mind!!!”
I understand the argument you both make, and I accept it. In fact, I had my initial rating changed to reflect my lesson. It is one I will consider upon reflecting on course conditioning at one-off plays in the future. I hope others will as well.
But I humbly caution against an over-emphasis on the number of rounds played at a course within one’s reviews. No doubt upon its value, but beware the pressure it puts on those who are trying to break into appreciating GCA and also expressing their thoughts on it. I’m ashamed to admit that I have a five-figure job, a three y.o. and a mortgage. I don’t hold it against those who can afford to play more courses and more frequently...but I don’t care for the suggestions (even when they are quite unintentional) that my inability to play numerous courses numerous times waters down the capability to analyze a golf course.
I don’t accuse anyone of intentionally suggesting this. And I truly appreciate the lesson I’ve learned from the commentary above and will be mindful of it.
Oh but if I can be indignant about one thing, let it be that I outed myself for my own shit review...Doug did not out me!!!!
Have to agree with Ryan's comment about single visits to a course - it doesn't necessarily impair your capacity to understand what is laid out before you. All things being equal, multiple visits will allow for a better idea of what the course is all about. But golf course reviewers are not all equal - some do their homework beforehand, effectively priming their mind for what needs to be seen. And some simply have a talent for it. I have played with plenty of people who can insightfully capture the essence of the course we are playing in one visit - something that would take me 4 or 5 plays
Ryan, A tad late but just wanted to say I loved your piece The Hurricane Tree. Wish I could write like you.
Doug, thank you, truly. Hope you're still subscribing to TGJ...there will be multiple features from a certain hack golfer / hack journalist come August and November.
A “Hacker Journalist”™️ movement sounds appealing - could do for golf writing what Gonzo Journalism did for traditional reporting
A true links course lying a reasonable drive from NYC. Big greens, rolling fairways, and excellent conditions. Plays great for a wide range of handicaps, if you are wise enough to pick the right tee box!
Forget the ado going on above, claiming Ballyowen to be a “true links” has to be a corporate crime?
Outside the most snobbish of purists, golf aficionados have calmed down when an American club describes itself as “links.” Although there is a knowing smirk, there is no need for an all-out eye-roll.
It would be unfair to punish poor Roger Rulewich for the branding decisions made by the Crystal Springs Resort, for which Ballyowen serves as the flagship course. His green design may be quite unlike the rolling topography of “true” links, but his plateaued approach is undoubtedly the most fun aspect of the round, rewarding those who value position over a simple GIR stat. More than half of the holes will make two-putts difficult for those land on the wrong level. Among the best are the closer, a par four with a green of three distinct landing zones, stacked snowman-style for 51-yards of fun (or heartache, depending on context). A true gem is No. 13, where players will hit a wedge or short iron uphill to a green where the front plateau is higher than the back, surely resulting in many an anxious hike to review one's birdie chances. It’s the kind of measured blind shot that makes uptight golfers mutter “bastard” under their breath, while inspiring us fun folk to lookforward to "next time" (we’ll do better, surely!). Rulewich’s commitment to the approach shot shows in the yardage; even after jumping to a lengthier set of tees for the back nine, the only thing keeping your correspondent from reaching in two (including the Par 5s) was the fescue, which did in fact live up to the links hype. The course is very playable for its yardage: Your scorecard will either fall apart or come alive on the greens.
It would be nice if those greens played as nicely as Rulewich laid them out.
Across the 18, every green issue imaginable showed its face (literally on one green, where hundreds of little ant faces poured forth from the fringe). Playing dramatic greens like these relies on the player’s ability to control their shot, and the greenskeeper’s ability to control their turf. Where one iron approach lands atop a plateau and ceases to move forward, the next green's surface ushers it aggressively off the putting surface. Although these factors could easily be exaggerated by a player having a bad short-game day (it has happened to us, believe it or not), it’s tougher to discount the unfortunate reality of countless ball dents and spike marks. For a discounted, municipal tee time? Sigh and move on. For the prices Ballyowen asks? Disappointing.
It is easy to overlook questionable “Links” branding when the course satisfies. It is tougher to overlook such branding when cash for potential green conditioning is instead going toward kitschy bagpipe players (and maintaining a glitzy clubhouse). Our experience did not come in the wake of any weather events, but Ballyowen's perennial ranking among New Jersey publics suggest that something was awry. If your experience at Ballyowen matches the hype, please redeem the course accordingly within these reviews!
Having discussed with Doug above (and wracked with guilt for perhaps overreacting upon my original review), I'll posit that this course, design alone, I would rank as a solid 3.5 (I don't want to write a separate review and cheat on my "Top Reviewers" standing). That said, Doug's 4-star review also hints that the grounds appear abused more often than at other locations. It's a fine line to walk, between the potential of the design and the product you are sold. Visit but perhaps tread carefully (literally...lest your foot sink into the fairway around the greens!)
Only a 90 minute drive from central Manhattan in upstate New Jersey stands the Ballyowen course, hard to believe a links style course could be located in the heavily forested rolling hills of the area, when you’re on course it feels very remote and peaceful. Despite the Irish links theme of the clubhouse, staff uniforms and a bagpiper this is not a links course, too much water and elevation change for that but it is an attractive layout which makes great use of the rolling landscape, water hazards and fescue grass which lines most of the fairways.
The course starts with a couple of great par 4’s both of which require large carries over waste areas to find the fairway, the 2nd being a real risk and reward hole, the bolder you are the easier and safer your 2nd shot will be. I really enjoyed the par 3’s, especially those with water hazards guarding the front, the 6th being a highlight. Requires a solid mid iron onto a huge green, especially tough into the wind with a front right pin position, I was fortunate to hole a 50 foot birdie putt from the left hand side but I wouldn’t recommend that as a tactic. The back 9 was more of the same with a cracking downhill par 5 to open the inward stretch, hit a good drive and even higher handicappers can go for the green in 2. The round ends with a great par 5 and tough par 4, even a great drive on 18 will need a high quality approach to make par on an elevated green, very easy to under club and come up short. The greens are all huge, many with severe slopes, find the wrong place on them and you’d better commit to your shot or you’ll be seeing plenty of 3 and 4 putts. They rolled well when we played, still had signs of the spring treatment, understandable given the cool spring weather however it was disappointing to see how many were blighted by numerous pitch marks, I guess being a public course players aren’t so worried about repairing them. Course conditioning was of high quality, despite a wet few days before the turf was in great condition with very few boggy patches, early in the season the fescue hadn’t grown thick and high so it was a little more forgiving than it will become, high summer it will swallow loose shots. I thought the fairways were generous, most the fairway bunkers which made them look tight are pretty well spaced and the rough being more of hazard, the greenside bunkers stood ready to collect anything short or long. They were fun to play out of, not too deep and the quality sand made them relatively easy to escape, a few were suffering from the prior days rain but most were playable.
As you would expect from a US resort course quality service from the moment you arrive, buggies were included in the green fee and I would advise taking one because there is a long walk between holes. Overall well worth a trip, public courses of this quality are rare in the tri-state area.
In the heady days when public golf development was busting out of the seams in the 1990's two men played leading roles in the Garden State -- albeit from different areas of New Jersey. In the southern area Roger Hansen and his effort at Blue Heron Pines. Hansen's vision for daily fee golf sparked numerous other courses to spring up in and around the greater Atlantic City area providing outlets of all different types.
In the north the effort was supplied by developer Gene Mulvihill. Initially, the development of the Crystal Springs Golf Club in 1992 had its genesis through a prior owner. That owner could not sustain their involvement and that paved the way for Mulvihill and his group to get involved and greatly expand the overall scope and range of the offerings proposed.
Mulvihill envisioned a multi-course operation -- something not previously attempted on the scale he envisioned. The base of operations would be the rural area of Northern New Jersey in Sussex County -- roughly 90 minutes by car from New York City.
Seeing how previous "destination" golf areas such as the Poconos in Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York had faded from view, Mulvihill went full throttle ahead in creating a comprehensive resort with golf as its centerpiece.
The opening of Ballyowen marked a pivotal moment in taking what had been a fairly successful operation and ratcheting up its overall standing and visibility into a regional powerhouse.
Other courses would follow -- the amenities became much more diverse, the overall ambience spiked noticeably higher with the inclusion of the Grand Cascades Lodge and its highly acclaimed wine cellar and Restaurant Latour. Internal real estate sales boomed as housing of different types was offered to provide residence - both seasonal and permanent.
Mulvihill hired Roger Rulewich to handle the creation of Ballyowen. Rulewich gained his mark in the architectural world as being the point man for Robert Trent Jones, Sr. When Jones passed away Rulewich continued his own practice.
Ballyowen is situated on 250 acres of land -- set on a plateau and providing wonderful views of the Highlands Region of New Jersey. The land had been a former quarry operation and Rulewich took full advantage in having the holes sweep through the rolling terrain. Interestingly, Ballyowen is an Irish-themed course but it has nothing in common with anything remotely close to vintage links golf -- more heathlands if anything. It was Mulvihill's idea at sunset on weekends and holidays for a bagpiper to stroll the grounds giving golfers the feel of what it would be like overseas.
Rulewich used many of the Trent Jones design themes in creating Ballyowen and it helped immensely to have the land size to incorporate many of these features. The course includes ample fairway widths bolstered by a series of large bunkers -- both fairway and green side inclusion -- in combination with large putting greens blending a range of internal contours. Most importantly, the non-factor of on-course housing gives players a real "disconnect" from outside elements intruding when playing.
What assisted Rulewich's efforts was the inclusion of native fescue grasses just off the fairways and which provided needed definition to the modern style course. The adjoining hillsides were used to provide contrast to the closely mown areas and when the wind escalates -- as it often does -- the blowing grasses add not only a visual appeal but provide for strategic consequences for players not able to avoid their clutching environs.
Ballyowen builds its presence throughout the round. The outward half of holes attempts to get the players into the feel of what lies ahead. The first two two holes are short par-4's -- the 1st winding downhill as a dog-leg left and the 2nd smartly added in the same manner but this time over a portion of no man's land which risk taking golfers need to asses when teeing off.
The design did have a bit of awkwardness when arriving at the par-3 6th -- players reverse course and then head back the same way to reach the green of the par-3 hole. The 6th mandates clearing a frontal pond and handling a green shape providing numerous demanding pin locations -- especially back middle, front left and right.
The next hole that follows has an interesting story. Originally, the 7th played as a par-4 of 400 yards. Styled to be a "cape hole" Rulewich used the same pond from the 6th to form a dog-leg right hole with the water protecting the inside corner of the hole. The original thinking was that golfers would not be able to successfully carry tee shots deep down the right side resulting in a very short pitch to the green. Soon after the hole opened it appeared to me the "cape" element was not really a factor for better players who easily avoided the water and hit tee shots over the corner of the dog-leg with relative impunity.
I mentioned this to Mulvihill during a visit and had him come to the hole to show a small suggestion that might prove useful. There is an entrance road that takes you to the main car park when coming to Ballyowen. The back of the original 7th tee pushes up against this road but there is a bit of land on the far side. I mentioned to Mulvihill that it might prove wise to create a new championship tee on the other side of the road -- thereby adding a good deal more distance to the hole. The new tee would strengthen the challenge for top players as tee shots from the new position would now have to deal with a natural "choke point" instead of easily flying past it from the original back tee.
Given the proposed "new tee's location on the other side of the road it would only be used for special events. Mulvihill was fascinated with this idea and quickly had the course superintendent construct such a tee pad. The new tee added roughly 70 yards to the hole and is rated the number one handicap hole at the course. The hole is also aided in the fact that it generally plays into the prevailing seasonal wind and is the 2nd longest par-4 at Ballyowen.
The final two holes on the front side are also well done par-4's. The 8th is a dog-leg right with a green set in somewhat of a saddle area. The 9th is a gorgeous hole -- playing downhill and also sweeping right. Players cannot attempt to cut the corner because of high fescue grasses that await on that side. The green is nicely elevated - when the pin is placed immediately in the front or on the far right side the approach will need to be played with the surest of skills.
The inward half of holes at Ballyowen presents the most compelling and consistent architectural elements. The 10th starts immediately near to the clubhouse and the dog-leg left short par-5 of 513 yards would likely be better played as a long par-4 for highly skilled players. The hole presents a turning point in the drive zone and if successful the player is aided by a downhill landing area propelling one's ball even further. The green is superbly done by Rulewich -- tilted on a diagonal from lower left to back right. Failure to carry the ball when the pin is placed on the back right area can prove fatal to one's scorecard.
The par-3 11th is a fine hole over a guarding pond but is simply overly shaped and not as natural a look as it could have been. The 12th and 13th are both fine short par-4's -- the former tightens up considerably as you near the green and the latter plays uphill on the approach to a well designed green.
At the 14th you play one of the best holes on the course -- mimicking what one would see at a top tier links in Ireland. The hole commences from an elevated tee and the fairway turns ever so gentle to the left -- fescue rough flanks both sides on this 480-yard par-4 -- the longest at Ballyowen. The green is tucked around a corner and is well protected. If you don't hit your tee shot in the fairway your odds in making par is the same as winning the Irish lottery. Slim and none.
Rulewich smartly used the same water hazard at the 11th and provides another par-3 going in the opposite direction. The hole has a much more natural appearance and when the pin is cut tight to the left side one had best flight the ball correctly.
In my mind, the moist underrated hole at Ballyowen comes with the uphill par-4 16th. Generally into the prevailing wind the tee shot is thoroughly tested. The hole does turn slightly to the right and players who attempt to cut the corner will need their best to do even remotely try. The green is flanked by bunkers and is appropriately contoured.
The 17th is listed as a par-5 but it can be played as a long par-4 for the low handicap golfers. As a par-5 it's simply a vanilla hole. The concluding hole at Ballyowen is a real treat. Playing 411 yards and generally back into the prevailing wind -- the hole turns right in the drive zone and tempts the longer hitter to take on the two fairway bunkers at the corner. Those who opt away from the challenge can hit the fairway but are left with a more demanding approach -- both for length and accuracy. Be forewarned -- the high fescue on the left side of the hole has an insatiable appetite for errant tee shots. The approach is arguably the most demanding at Ballyowen. The putting surface is immensely deep -- roughly 50 yards -- and from the fairway it's particularly difficult to gauge just how much club is needed. The lone sore point I have is the several circle bunkers that inhabit the right side. A more natural appearance and one positioned closer to the right side would have been far better.
One of the best aspects of Ballyowen is the usual high caliber nature of turf preparation. The greens can be quite swift and when the course is playing fast and firm can add considerably to the nature of the shotmaking. It's a fine feeling when one is playing near the end of the day and you hear the bagpipes playing in the background. No one will confuse Sussex County with Ireland -- but hats off to Gene Mulvihill in elevating the status of public golf because I believe the course is the finest in its category in New Jersey. For those visiting the area I whole heartedly recommend staying a few days and sampling all of its offerings.
by M. James Ward