Feature Interview with Jim O’Neal
July , 2006
Jim O’Neal and his brother Rupert developed Ballneal as a private golf and hunting retreat in northeastern Colorado. The course opened for play in June, 2006 and its course profile can be read by clicking here. Designed by Renaissance Design, some consider this to be Tom Doak and his team’s finest design to date. This is the story of how this course and club came to pass.
1. What is your background?
I grew up in Holyoke, Colorado as the youngest of five children. Our Dad was a farmer raising corn and wheat, and our Mom was a housewife that helped on the farm and did a little of everything in the community. Both of our parents were very involved with the various organizations in our small town and were leaders in the community.
I went to college at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, to participate in the Professional Golf Management program. I didn’t know that much about the golf business, but I knew that I liked the environment of being at a golf course and enjoyed the people with whom I came in contact. I worked at four different courses during my time in school and decided that being a golf professional would be an interesting profession that wouldn’t lose its appeal over time.
My first job out of college was at the Olympic Club in San Francisco where I learned a lot in my five years. I was fortunate to get a Head Professional position at Palo Alto Hills G & CC in Palo Alto, CA, where I stayed for eight years. Again, I learned a lot about myself and more about being a head professional. Three years ago, I became the Head Professional at the Meadow Club in Fairfax, CA, which is a 1927 Alister MacKenzie course. When I was working at Olympic, I would make a quick trip north to get out of the fog and truly feel like I was out of the city. It is a beautifully picturesque place, with a great course. It has been a pleasure to be at Meadow Club where I have continued to learn more about the business side of golf and golf course architecture. It has also allowed me to meet many more people who are golf course architecture enthusiasts.
2. When did your brother Rupert and you first see the property that Ballyneal now occupies?
I probably saw the land when I was four or five years old. Our family would drive from Holyoke to the neighboring town of Wray to go fishing, and we would see the “Chop Hills,” as they are known in the area. The area was known as land for grazing cattle and for having a place we called “Old Baldy,” which was a big blowout where we would go on a Sunday afternoon for a picnic. It was like going to a sandy beach without the water. A little different, but fun as a kid.
When I was in high school in the early 80’s, I was getting more and more into golf, so the thoughts of the sand hills as a golf course became stronger. I didn’t have a clue how it would come about, but I stopped a few times on the county line and would walk into the pasture looking for holes. I would watch the British Open (what I used to call it) now the Open Championship, and then wander out in the pasture to find holes that looked like those on TV.
Rupert and I really saw the land up close and personal with the thought of building a course in the fall of 2001. The owners of the land, the Brinkema’s, were nice enough to allow us to drive four-wheeled ATV’s on the land to get a good look one evening.
3. What were your thoughts at the time?
After driving over the very rugged terrain, the sun began to set and it became more and more dramatic. You could sit in one spot and see a great hole, then turn 30 degrees and see another one, and then continue to do that until you could see 8-12 fantastic holes. I was amazed, and trying to explain to my brother how good it was. The other thoughts were how easy it was to get lost on the land, and how difficult it would be to choose which holes were the best and how to fit them all together.
4. Years pass. What triggered Rupert and you to explore in earnest building a course/club on this property?
Rupert had begun a hunt club that was doing well, and he was interested in figuring out a way to have his hunt club members enjoy the hunt, and give them a nice place to stay. I think he and his wife may have tired of them sleeping on his couch. J
Our Mom passed away in August, 2000, and our Dad was battling cancer in 2001 when we started talking about this project. I think their battles and passing may have had an influence on our desire to do something for the community and to create something very special. They were very special people who had done a lot of good. We felt that we had an opportunity to do some good in our home town, and do something that will last longer than our lifetimes.
5. Was the thought always to create a private club or was consideration given to creating a public course?
The thought was always to go with a private club. The population near Holyoke, Colorado, is not large, so that going public seemed to be an even more risky proposition than a private club. We had heard about the success of Sand Hills, and felt that if we could produce an extremely high-level course, give people a chance to hunt game birds at a similar level and provide service in a sincerely nice manner, then we would have a chance to make it work.
6. What was your vision for the kind of course that was to be created?
I thought it would, obviously, be a links type golf course. That is what all the sand and dunes provided. I knew that there were opportunities for a lot of interesting holes that were fun to play. During the process, I learned more and more about links golf and how critical the playing surface was. After learning more about the playing surface, I hoped that we could produce a surface that would allow the golfer to be a creative as their mind would allow.
7. How did you decide to hire Renaissance Golf Design?
Pacific Dunes was just being completed, and I had heard a lot of good things about it, so I did some research about Tom Doak and Renaissance Golf. For our site and our need to produce the very best course possible, I felt that he was our best bet. When I saw that they had a wish list, of places to build a course and that the sand hills were one of them, it made it seem like an even better match.
8. What was your biggest disagreement that you had with Renaissance during construction?
I would guess the biggest time of being uncomfortable, was when we, especially Rupert, had an intimate knowledge of the climate and soil conditions in this area and Renaissance had exceptional experience and expertise in course design and construction. When our thoughts didn’t jive, this lead to our strongest conversations.
9. There are always surprises during construction – what was one particular such challenge that arose during construction?
There were some surprises, but I feel that, as a whole, the Renaissance team and all their interns, the Ballyneal Staff, our consultants and all the sub-contractors did a remarkable job of producing tremendous golf with details that I haven’t ever seen at other courses. It was a great team effort that couldn’t have happened without a lot of people working together with tremendous vision. I’ll say it here, thanks to all those involved.
The biggest surprise was the cost of supplies and materials. I believe the war in Iraq has had an effect on a lot of things, and the supplies for the pipe, wiring, etc. did add to our costs. From what I hear from other course builders, we are lucky to be finished because the prices have risen considerably since last year.
10. The fairways enjoy huge width – what irrigation issues does that raise?
We are judicious in our water usage for a variety of reasons. We asked Tom Doak and his team to build the best course they possibly could, so during the construction process, they had the opportunity to make changes in the field that would make the course better. Some of these adjustments were to make the fairways larger. The course grew about 15% during this process which allowed the course to have that width, create more options for angles of play and be more playable in windy conditions.
There is not doubt in my mind that the holes are better for the change, but it does give us more acres to irrigate.
This spring and summer have been historically hot and dry, so this has presented more challenges for Dave Hensley, our Green Keeper. Our primary concern for irrigation is to produce the highest quality surface for our course. We want it to play firm and fast to give golfers the greatest number of options for every shot. The course is still young, so we are a little more careful with this young turf than we will be in future years when it is more established, but we are still making it work hard to establish deep roots and create long term successful turf. In a dry year like this, the native areas will be sparse, but when we have a wetter year, it will be lush. With either a wet or dry year, our goal will always be to keep the turf playing firm and fast.
11. The site is a windy one. What was the grow in process like?
The grow in went well last year, but there were definitely some challenges. We did have the bank of water to help us with grow in, so that allowed us to water fully and get the turf well established. Even during grow in, we were aware of making the plants work hard to get a deep root system, so there were times when some young plants were working very hard. The American golf course turf culture and the society of golfers have instilled many thoughts about how courses should look (green). Even though we work in a way to not be beholden to the look of the course, our goal is to create the best playing conditions. It is difficult to see plants suffer and not want to do something about it. There are times when a bit of stress will make the plant stronger and tougher over the long haul.
We always want to water at night when possible, but there are times when the wind doesn’t die down below 20 miles per hour, and we don’t water because it would be a waste. The windy days during grow in, as well as now, force us to do more hand watering and to water during the day when the wind lays down enough to allow for effective coverage.
I think what we have found with the irrigation on a site like ours that has wind from different directions and very rolling contours, the traditional methods of irrigation engineering/planning/design can be used as a good place to start, but the people in the field will need to make judgment calls while installing the system as to what is the most effective placement of the heads for each individual situation. We had a great designer of our irrigation system in Larry Rogers, but the experience of the staff while installing the system created even better head placement and coverage as they understood the process and the needs. Needless to say, the randomness of the wind direction and velocity makes it tough to get perfect coverage. That is why we will probably always have some spots that are browner and some that are greener. It will always be an ever evolving process.
12. What grasses were used to allow for ground game options?
We have a blend of five different fescues and some colonial bent. Our agronomist, Dave Wilbur, developed this mix. My understanding of it is that with the nature of our site with its humps and bumps, each different type of grass will succeed in different situations. In the bottom of a hollow, one will thrive. On the top of a knob, another will thrive. On one side of the slope there will be extreme exposure to wind and afternoon heat, where another will thrive. On another side of the slopes where there is more protection and more morning sun, another will be happy. This blend gives us the mottled, look that many of the older courses have. For our turf to be as firm and fast as we want it to be, we need all different types of plants to create a playing surface that is healthy and fun. I am definitely not the person to be answering some of these questions because of my lack of intimate knowledge. I hope that I am giving the right general ideas without sounding like an armchair green keeper. I am dangerous because I have a little knowledge.
13. What allowances have to be made for the wind regarding the size and placement of the bunkers?
The Renaissance team was very careful about their placement of bunkers and the size. I believe their idea was to create bunkers that were strategically well placed, but keep them on the small side. Mother Nature will have her way, so the idea was to get the bunkers into place and see what happens. Some have been changed dramatically in less than a year, while others have no change. It will be an ever evolving process with the bunkers. Our hope is to be able to use some of the technology that we learned during construction to keep anything from getting out of control. There are probably some bunkers that could become extremely deep from constant wind erosion due to the angle they face. These are the bunkers on which we will have to keep the closest eye.
14. The course just opened in June, so you haven’t had the opportunity to play it very much. Nevertheless, what has impressed you so far in playing the course?
I think that I have almost worn out the word, but it all boils down to fun. Fun can be different for everyone, so I’ll define my kind of fun. I am a golfer who enjoys seeing the ball bounce and roll, who enjoys seeing several options for a shot and then trying to create the option that looks best to my eye, and who enjoys having to think a couple of shots ahead to give myself the best chance at a good score. The turf is still young, so some of the options are not there quite yet, but you can sure see them coming. I am looking forward to playing when it is super firm and blowing a bit. The course gives the golfer the opportunity to hit all the shots that they think they can or can imagine. When people talk about Tiger Woods, they usually get to the point that he has more shots than anyone else and he out thinks everyone most of the time. I think that is why he has excelled at the Old Course, and I hope that some day he will have a chance to show off his arsenal at Ballyneal. That would be especially fun to watch.
15. You told me how much you enjoyed all the half par holes that emerged in the final design. Please describe one such hole and what you enjoy about it.
I am definitely a fan of half par holes. To me, they are just more interesting and golfers have an emotional battle to attain the lower of the two scores. When one makes the 3 on the 3 Ã‚½ hole, there is a good boost that you played the smart shots and were rewarded. If a 4 is made on the 3 Ã‚½, the golfer is left with a distaste that they left something on the table. Half par holes seem to affect a golfer’s emotions more than straight forward, plain holes. Of course the conditioning of the course, wind, etc. can affect the effective par, of any hole.
The sixth hole is of particular interest to me. It is a long par four of 480 yards from the back tees with a difficult green which often plays into the wind. A good drive can leave a shot of well over 200 yards against the wind. If a golfer gets on or around the green, it is a huge boost to their confidence. That just leaves a two putt or an up and down. A golfer needs to play four very good shots to make a par on number six. A loose shot with any of them, and bogey or worse will occur. If a golfer can string those four shots together, it will stick with them for the next several holes, and hopefully lead to some birdies on the other half par holes.
16. What do you think the effects, perhaps good and bad, will be for Ballyneal being just three hours from Sand Hills Golf Club?
On a purely practical matter, the location of both of our courses being somewhat remote but fairly close together should allow some people (provided they have access) to play both courses when they make the trip to the high plains region. Granted, the group with access to both may be small, but it will grow over time, and I can only imagine the fun that people would have playing, comparing, dissecting and replaying them over their favorite beverage.
Because of our location, we will, inevitably, be compared with Sand Hills. As everyone knows Sand Hills is an incredible course and will always be known as a classic in the United States and the world. For us to be compared with Sand Hills, and mentioned in the same discussions can only be a good thing for any new club. I know that the courses are very different and always will be, so it is exciting that golfers can journey to middle America, play two (or more) great links type courses, and enjoy how vastly different they play. Some will prefer Sand Hills, and, if we’re lucky, some may even prefer Ballyneal.
I think we are lucky that no holes are remotely similar. It will add to the fun in all the discussions. I’m not sure if this is a product of the difference in the land, or if Tom Doak made a special point of creating new and different holes that were significantly different than what Sand Hills has to offer. It is a joy that two courses have similarities in location, soil, and general appearance, but be very different in other ways.
Mr. Youngscap has been very nice to make contact with Rupert and myself, and to offer good luck for our project. He has been very gracious to us, and we hope that we can offer another type of world-class golf for players to enjoy.
17. Which hole turned out better than you thought it would? And why?
There were many holes that I thought would be good, but this particular one turned out even better than expected. This would be number four.
Walking from the third green to the fourth tee is one of the most dramatic parts of the round at Ballyneal. I had a good idea that this would be a striking view, but I’ve never been a big fan of elevated tees. This is, by far, the largest change in elevation for any one shot on the course, so I was concerned that the shot would not fit with the rest of the course, and I didn’t know how the Renaissance team would work the green site.
As it turned out, the par 5 fairway is the widest on the course â€œ somewhere between 95 and 105 yards wide, but it is deceptive from the tee. Because of the elevation, the wind and the shaping of the native areas, it doesn’t feel like you are hitting to a fairway that wide. The left half of the fairway will definitely give the player a better view of the rest of the hole, while the right half will leave a shot with bunkers and native with which to contend on the second shot. The tee shot has strategic qualities, the second shot has strategic qualities and the green site was left nearly untouched leaving a natural site that fits very well with the dune on which it sits.
The green has considerable slope from back to front, but not overly severe, so there is a strong desire to stay below the hole on the approach shot, but not too far short because of the 12-15 foot upslope in front of the green. Each position makes you think and produce a quality shot, or you will be faced with a more difficult recovery. There are a lot of subtle breaks in this green that are difficult to see the first time around, so it will be interesting for many, many loops.
Different times of day will produce many different views of this hole, as well as, the playability of the hole. The variety will always make it a challenge, but good shots will be rewarded with many pars, birdies and the occasional eagle.
18. Ballyneal is a walking only course. What does that say about the kind of membership/club that you are building?
In a way, it has allowed people who are interested in Ballyneal or any walking-only course to do a self evaluation. When they do this, they make a conscious decision that they prefer to walk, play with a caddie and experience golf as a wonderful passing of time where there is time to talk with playing partners and explore and experience everything fully. Other golfers make a conscious decision that they prefer a different type of golf that has other positives and negatives. For Rupert and me, Ballyneal is a very special place that we hope to be able to share with many people. For those that are unable to walk due to physical limitations, they may only be able to experience Ballyneal once or twice, but it isn’t a club for them to join. For those who want to be totally immersed in the feel of the course and the club, they need to be a walker and experience the course on foot. Those are the people who are interested in membership and who often enjoy the strongest traditions of the game.
We have been very pleased with the membership we have attracted to date. We hope to continue building our membership with wonderful people who have a true passion for the game of golf in general and firm, fast, creative golf in specific.