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.
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