Virginia, USA

Tenth hole, 595/570 yards, Rim; Too many three shot holes have a plodding quality to them as they are more about length than character. Not so here as this dogleg plays on top of a plateau that swings right around a ravine. Fortunately, some of the more level stances on the course help the golfer cover the distance. So different is the tenth from the straightaway ninth (also a par five) that the golfer doesn’t realize that he has just played two par fives back to back. Given the firmness of the playing conditions as achieved by Billy Bobbitt (who came over from the Greenbrier), the tiger might even try to slot his second shot through a narrow throat and onto the green. The ability for the ace golfer to pull off such a heroic, gambling shot is the reason that Director of Golf Jonathan Ireland cites this hole as a particular favorite.

The 10th fairway bends right around a ravine with the white flag/green visible underneath the branches. Windy Gap mountain is in the background.

Given that the green is located on the other side of a ravine, the pressure is on to smartly advance the ball with your first two shots.

Twelfth hole, 460/425 yards, Saddle; Long and straight is a formidable combination and it is every golfer’s dream off the tee. At here and the aforementioned fourth, the golfer who possesses the rare ability to hit such tee balls can be the beneficiary of an additional fifty yards (!) in roll down the slopes that start 250 yards from the back tees.

As with many of the holes that bend (e.g. the sixth, tenth, fourteenth, fifteenth and here) the golfer is given a view of the flag from the tee. He needs to avoid be lured by what Behr termed the ‘line of charm’ and force himself to aim his tee ball straight down the fairway, which in this case is some fifty yards to the right of the flag.

A tee ball that slides past the bunkers above that guard the inside of the dogleg is likely to catch a downslope and might run for an additional fifty yards. Note how the fescue grasses in the rough aren’t too thick: They do their job of adding color and texture without causing the need to search long should your ball stray from the fairway.

Thirteenth hole, 230/215 yards, Crossover; Ballyhack wasn’t heavily treed and George did a fine in utilizing specimen trees in varied ways from time to time. For instance, trees partially hide the wide bailout area off the sixth tee while single trees dominate play at both the eighth and eighteenth holes. Here, a stand of trees hides the fact that the thirteenth features a double green, shared with the fifteenth. Not until the golfer approaches the green does he take in the eighty-five yards (!) of width of this shared green as well as the eight sprawling bunkers cut into its long bank.

Today’s hole location is such that the flag melds in with the sand of the back right bunker. Also obscured is the fact that this green is a shared one with the 15th. What is clear is that the elevated tee affords another attractive view of the surrounding countryside.

As with the 3rd green, just because the hole is long, doesn’t mean that George backed off from giving the green character.

Fifteenth hole, 575/545 yards, Chasm; Ever since the Lido Prize was first awarded to a young architect named Alister MacKenzie, golf architects have tried with varying degrees of success to create multi-route holes. Some work but most do not as they either feel contrived or the options simple don’t play right. This hole is a startling exception and it makes 99% of the par fives in the world look absolutely tepid and mundane. The reason that this hole excels where others fail is that those of us who don’t initially decide to take the aggressive line are given equally interesting options for the second shot (i.e. having played safely to the left toward the wide part of the fairway, the golfer still needs to consider whether or not to carry a gulley with his second and if so how). Regardless of the skill of each golfer in the group, no one is ever made to feel like a second class citizen. Instead, each person is continually given an appealing range of options.

Decisions abound at the fifteenth. Decision #1: Should you aim for the flat tongue of area short and right of the bunkers? The green is within reach from there and it certainly opens up nicely from that angle. Part of the answer depends on the wind. Jonathan Ireland has determined that the ‘short porch’ area is too small a target with too much trouble around it to go for in windy conditions. Hence, Ireland goes long left off the tee where the fairway is over sixty yards wide when the valley winds kicks up.

This view from behind the 15th green shows the various criss-cross paths that can be used in playing this original three shotter. Importantly, nothing feels forced or artificial as George perfectly encased the random hazards within the playing corridor so that they take on various meanings depending on your own individual skill level.

Sixteenth hole, 490/460 yards, Cape; ‘Cape’ is the most mis-used name in golf course architecture. By definition, a Cape hole is one whereby the golfer must contend with the same hazard on both his tee ball and approach shot. This rarity fulfills the definition with Ballybrook hugging the right side of the fairway as well as up by the green. Even though the right side is the shorter way home, better players at Ballyhack have already determined that the green opens up best from the left center of the fairway. Speaking of better players, this is the favorite hole for Virginian amateur legend Vinnie Giles who likes how the green is tucked in its own little pocket

A daunting prospect from the tee, the good news is that the prevailing wind comes off of Roanoke and Mill Mountains and is often at one’s back.

The axis of the green points toward the outside of the dogleg. Hence, no reason to hug the right side of the fairway where the worst trouble lurks.

Seventeenth hole, 150/125 yards, Short; The famous master architect George Thomas shared some of his insight into what constitutes great golf architecture in his cornerstone book Golf in America (published in 1927). One enlightening section follows another and one of the best occurs straightaway in Chapter One entitled Different Courses when Thomas breaks down his admiration of Jasper Park in British Columbia, Canada. By charting shots required by the range in yardages of Jasper’s holes (starting with its own little short iron par three to a 600 yard par five), the reader is left with no doubt as to the variety on offer at Jasper Park. The same can be said here at Ballyhack with this little hole being the perfect compliment to the sixteenth and eighteenth. In addition, as at Jasper, the difference in distance from the shortest to the longest par three  is over 100 yards, something that attests well as to the different shot requirements that the golfer faces over the course of a round.

After the burly hole prior, the golfer delights in finding the call for finesse with his short iron into the shallow, heavily contoured seventeenth green. Only a cannily played shot that factors in the green’s slopes will set up a potential birdie putt.

Eighteenth hole, 455/430 yards, Valley; One of the most handsome tee shots on the course is saved for last but it is the green that steals the show. This 20,000 square feet beast is obviously the largest single green on the course with a three foot deep troff running from the front of the green well past its middle, making the green play effectively like an upside down horseshoe. At 63 yards (!) deep, there are innumerable interesting hole locations and the clubhouse presently being constructed will afford the perfect vantage point over the proceedings.

Give George and Landscapes Unlimited their due: the valley of the 18th playing corridor was initially severely ‘V” shaped. As it is now, not even the keenest observer can tell how much dirt work occured here to give the hole its bucolic charm. Note how the specimen oak tree narrows the effective playing width of the fairway.

Ballyhack’s greens possess far more character than any set in Virginia, capped with its massive Home green. The prominent three foot depression that runs up through the front middle of the green is evident.

There is much to praise at Ballyhack. Yes, staunch traditionalists will rightly grouse at the need for taking a golf cart (and the gas carts here make a ruckus) but the up and down nature of the property was such that the course always would have been a tough walk. And yes, some of the uphill holes like the first, fifth and eleventh are too severe, but having said that, as Ballyhack is now, the string of shots that the golfer is asked to hit are too fun and rewarding to think that the land could have yielded any better sequence of holes, walking or not. As George notes,  ‘By giving up on a walking course, we saved about five wonderful holes that would have never been possible.  The views we captured by doing that are one of the reasons people love the place.’ Furthermore George takes great pride in the fact that ‘Ballyhack has been singled out as one of only five golf courses in North America by the USGA that is truly “FIRM and FAST.” This is a philosophy as well as an agronomic practice.  I am pleased that we are one of the first courses in the country to capture a realistic links “feel” by designing so many unique and different approaches to the holes that the ground game is a real option, not just an advertisement.’

This kind of big, bouncy golf is unknown in this region and hopefully, golfers in the bordering states who are accustomed to much more modest golf will be smart enough to embrace it. In particular, the placement of the hazards and how they are incorporated into the holes make the course highly strategic. This is crucial as it allows the golf to become exhilarating with golfers gaining a real sense of satisfaction in plotting their way around them. Get it wrong this round and there is always next round to which to look forward.

Between the construction commencing and Ballyhack opening in June 2009, much changed in the private golf club world. Gone were people looking to join their third or fifth club. Instead, members were walking away from courses that didn’t offer something special, which readily applies to several thousand private courses in the United States. Many of these courses were built in a poor climate for golf and the resulting form of golf was boring: Golfers plopped their tee shot onto spongy fairways, then plopped their approach shot onto soft, receiptive greens (that, by the way, were susceptible to disease). This is but a shadow of the real game of golf, the kind that has held people’s interest for centuries. The game of golf at its core – of flighting the ball from a sloping stance through the wind and watching it bound along the ground, free of outside disturbances – remains as strong as ever.  Ballyhack re-establishes that interaction of the ball with the ground. Be it tee balls that bounce along like at the fourth, fifth or twelfth or approach shots that release and roll for great distances along the green like at the second, third, and seventeenth, golfers are freshly reminded of the game’s roots when they play at Ballyhack.

Looking across the 12th green and down at the 16th, the golfer appreciates how lucky he is to enjoy a game in this setting.

The End