Head Golf Professional: Matt Payne
Green Keeper: Dave Hensley
Golfers who grew up watching the Open on television in the mid 1970s through the mid 1990s were nearly always in for a treat. There was the epic Watson vs. Nicklaus at Turnberry which was just the start of Watson’s great run, the thrill of watching Seve Ballesteros, the generation’s most exciting player, win three Opens, the star-studded Open at Royal St. George’s when Greg Norman’s talent went fully rewarded.
Some of the silliness with contrived course set-ups (i.e. fairways that were too narrow) such as at Carnoustie and Royal St. George’s had yet to occur. Rather, man left well enough alone. If the summer was hot and dry, firm playing conditions and hopefully wind provided the challenge. Some years, when Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and the wind died down, the winning score would be quite low like when Nick Faldo dissected the Old Course at St. Andrews – and that was fine too.
Watching Faldo’s complete control over every shot or Ballesteros’s hit it and go find it approach were equally inspiring in their own way, at least a young Jim O’ Neal certainly thought so.
He also thought that the sand dunes down the road from his family’s farm in Holyoke, Colorado weren’t too terribly dissimilar from the ones that he saw on television. Nearly 30 years later, Jim and his brother Rupert have brought this dream of bringing the best playing attributes that the game has to offer – wide, fast running fairways, hazardous hazards, and wild greens – to these very sand dunes near their family farm.
For an architect, they hired Tom Doak and his Renaissance Golf Design. Anyone who has read Doak’s The Confidential Guide knows of his appreciation for such playing conditions, making him an obvious choice. Doak in turn has handsomely rewarded the O’Neal brothers and the founding members of Ballyneal with a golf course that takes as much advantage of the ground contours as any course built since World War II.
As Doak has oft stated within the Discussion Group of this web site, his favorite hazard is short grass as it doesn’t strike fear into the lesser player though it does in the more accomplished one. Be it Pinehurst No. 2, Royal Dornoch, Rye, or the West Course at Royal Melbourne, many of his favorite designs are highlighted not by rough but by wide playing corridors of short grass. Most golfers get on or near the greens in regulation on such courses with the real challenge only just beginning as the green complexes are replete with humps, bumps, hollows, banks and shoulders that send the ball every which way. Played from short grass, the variety of recovery shots far exceeds that of merely hacking out of thick rough. And who doesn’t enjoy the chance to the invent shots and make a fantastic recovery like Ballesteros?
Many modern architects grasp why this type of golf is so much fun. Having the ability to translate this broad ideal into the dirt is quite another matter, with very few modern architects showing the ability to follow nature’s lead.
As much as anything, Ballyneal is about the love of the land and that means different things to different people. To Rupert O’Neal, a long time farmer in Hoyloke, he appreciates what the land will accept including water requirements to keep grass from dying and drainage requirements given that one is building on twenty feet (!) of sand. Also, he knows what times of year the wind is likely to blow the strongest from what directions, which plays into knowing which directions exposed bunkers must face to avoid too much sand blowing out. To his brother Jim, now the Head Golf Professional at the elegant Meadow Club north of San Francisco, it means appreciating the qualities in the ground that lend themselves to good golf, the kind of golf that people never tire of playing. No conversation with Jim on golf lasts too long before he mentions the word ‘fun’ and how much fun the game is meant to be. And to Tom Doak, this project was a dream: 700 acres of sandy dunes at his disposal, no housing considerations with which to contend, and no cart path considerations either as Ballyneal embraces the traditional values of this great – (i.e. walking) game. Plus, at 3,700 feet of elevation, the wind from the high Colorado plain would always be about and the dry summer heat could help promote firm playing conditions.
Holes to Note
First hole, 380 yards; One of the finer positioned tees in golf, the back tee for the 1st hole is just off the practice putting green and creates a thrilling diagonal carry across a valley to a 75 yard wide fairway. The placement of the tee in relation to the fairway may remind one of the famous 1st at Macrihanish. Like all the holes at Ballyneal, the wide fairway does not mean that care need not be taken from the tee in selecting the right line given the day’s playing conditions. For instance, a tee ball that ends up within ten paces of the right edge of the fairway may leave the golfer with a blind approach over a mound whereas a tee ball that hugs the left may be gathered into a bowl, leaving another blind approach shot. The overall effect is near perfection for a golf course architect to seek: the modest golfer sees plenty of fairway and swings away with confidence whereas the tiger golfer appreciates more of the hidden perils and the need for care and thought.
Note: the area between the 1st green and the 2nd tee says much about Ballyneal. The distance is 40 paces and it is maintained as all short grass. The course is replete with many such short green to tee walks, a must as Ballyneal is walking only. The sound of golf carts chugging around is mercifully absent and no cart paths mar the landscape. Despite the undulating nature of the property, Ballyneal is a pure delight to walk, a compliment to Doak’s routing and the work that was done with the dunes. Also, the grass combination of fescues and colonial bent coupled with the ~10 degree slope that feeds off the 1st green is ideal as the ball may end up 5 feet down the slope or 15 feet or perhaps 25. The better golfer will select a different type recovery shot based on exactly where the ball finishes. As the ball will never finish in the same spot twice, all facets of the better golfer’s short game will be tested over time. Other courses in recent times have opted for short grass around their greens too but the slope is often too severe or the grass type is incorrect to yield the desired range in recovery options. The final point worth noting in this area is that Doak’s crew had to fill in several feet in the hollow between the 1st green and 2nd tee and change the bank leading up to the 2nd tee, all for the sake of accomplishing the aforementioned points. Yet, absolutely no one can discern that any such work was done in this area by man, an attribute that puts Renaissance Golf Design at the top of their profession.
Second hole, 490 yards; The prairie states of Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas enjoy wind, a crucial element for any great course and one of the reasons why several of the finest courses that have opened in America in the past decade are found in those states. Of course, the architect must present holes at various angles to the prevailing winds and the holes must play equally well in most winds. Even better is when the architect can use the landforms to make holes play dramatically different from day to day. Bill Coore famously accomplished this at Sand Hills, a two hour drive from here at the 16th which can be a driver/three wood hole in the morning and a driver/three wood/one iron in the afternoon. Similarly here at the 2nd, Doak’s routing takes maximum advantage by incorporating the tumbling landscape into fairway from 200 yards from the tee through to 300 yards. The 2nd tee is the highest point on the course and an evening walk had the 2nd playing driver/ three wood and then some into the wind with the tee ball staying well back up the hill while a morning game had it playing driver/wedge. Imagine that – a nine plus club difference! Clearly, members and their guests will be presented with a course of many different looks and moods during their three or four day stay at Ballyneal.
Third hole, 145 yards; Played at a ninety degree angle to the 2nd, the 3rd is an extremely attractive one shotter. One might think that the bunkers would be cut closer to the putting surface on this modest length one shotter but that is to miss the point. In a windy location, care must be taken with the proximity of large bunkers to the putting surface due to sand blowing. Plus, a tightly bunkered putting surface only accepts a certain type shot. Here, with the green sunk in its own amphitheatre, the tightly mown banks between the bunkers and putting surface provided the golfer with numerous ways of reaching certain hole locations. A much more fascinating array of decisions and possible shots exist as a result.
4th hole, 560/465 yards; Ballyneal’s free flowing teeing areas are most admirable as sharply defined rectangular tee areas would seem silly/contrived/out of place in the wilds of northeast Colorado. Even more interesting is the O’Neal brothers desire to forgo tee markers altogether. The member and his group are free to play the course from whatever tee area they wish, mixing it up throughout the round as they see fit. This freedom of choice makes for some particularly interesting discussions when playing the 4th as it has the largest yardage difference between the back and middle teeing areas of any hole. The 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th holes were the last holes to fall in place for Doak’s routing and the excellence of the 4th green location played a big part in his deciding to proceed with this as his final routing.
5th hole, 160 yards; In complete contrast to the 3rd hole, a single small bunker dominates the play of this one shotter. Though one of the smaller greenside bunkers on the course, its placement flush against the front middle of the putting surface makes its presence play ‘big.’ The ground contours are such that an approach that lands well short of the 5th green can access the very interesting left hole locations.
6th hole, 480 yards; The tee area is below the level of the fairway, leaving an appealingly blind tee ball over the brow of a ridge to a wide fairway. Far too many modern architects build elevated tees ad nauseam with the effect of giving the holes a similar perspective, thus unintentionally rendering the holes less distinctive from one another. One of the great surprises of the course occurs farther ahead at the green, which features very bold interior contours, a rarity for a hole of such length.