7147 YARDS (PAR 71)
COURSE RATING/SLOPE: Not Rated
COURSE ARCHITECT: Tom Doak (2006)
COURSE WEBSITE: http://ballyneal.com/
ROUNDS PLAYED: 15
LAST PLAYED: July 22, 2013.
LOW SCORE: 75 (+4)
– Golf Club Atlas 147 Custodians of the Game: #21
– Golf Magazine Top 100 Courses in the World 2020-21: #57
– Golf Magazine Top 100 in the U.S. 2017: #41
– Golf Digest America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses 2019/20: #46
– Golfweek Best Modern Courses 2019: #4
– Top100GolfCourses.com Top 100 Golf Courses of the World 2019: #47
– Top100GolfCourses.com Top 100 Golf Courses of the USA: #22
“Of all the courses we’ve built so far, Ballyneal might be the most fun to play. Its wild natural contours come into play on every approach shot, rewarding the player who knows his way around and who can use the bold slopes to backstop his shot or feed it to the hole, while non-thinking golfers play the victim. For the average player, it is not hard to get around, but the good player will always walk away thinking he has left a couple of shots out there, no matter his score.”
– Tom Doak, Golf Course Architect, Renaissance Golf Design
The club represents a dream fulfilled by two brothers, Jim and Rupert O’Neal, both of whom grew up in the neighbouring town of Holyoke, Colorado.
When they were children, their parents would take them through the ‘Chop Hills’ on the way to go fishing. This name refers to the jagged and immense sand dunes that pop up all over the landscape in this Northeastern section of Colorado near the Nebraska border.
Jim ended up getting into the golf business as a professional, relocating to California and settling down at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, among others while Rupert stayed home on his family’s ranch and started a local hunt club.
The dream really started to take shape in 2001 when the brothers got permission to walk and ride around a huge piece of property in the Chop Hills. This got the juices flowing and the brothers felt like building a golf course would be a great way to build their legacy in the region and give back to the local community while also continuing to build on the goodwill started by their parents, who were quite influential in Holyoke.
They decided to hire Tom Doak and Renaissance Design, fresh off widespread acclaim for their design at Pacific Dunes in Oregon and Ballyneal would open to accolades of its own in 2006.
My trip to Ballyneal was six months in the making, as I received an email invitation from an unbelievably generous member in early December 2009 for the trip that would ultimately take place in mid-June 2010.
I was able to bring a guest with me and Harry was the fortunate one who got to ride shotgun on the trip of a lifetime. At Ballyneal, we’d be hooking up with about 12 other architecture aficionados, none of whom I had met in person before.
Harris only recently has jumped aboard the golf course architecture bandwagon so he was a bit more nervous than I was, I’d imagine. I think our excitement to see a couple of world-class golf courses in person trumped any nerves.
We were able to grab a pretty inexpensive flight out of Buffalo on a Thursday evening and the trip started on a very promising note right from the beginning. We grabbed some chicken wings and a beer at the Anchor Bar in the airport and I actually got ID’d!
I’ve been drinking age for pretty much half my life now so needless to say, I was more than happy to hand my passport over to the bewildered waiter at the restaurant. Wicked start to the vacation!
We had a brief layover at Midway in Chicago before flying into Denver, arriving about an hour late due to major lightning storms in the area. We scored a nice upgrade on our rental car, getting bumped up from a Ford Taurus into the much larger Flex, a nice little surprise.
We were committed to playing as much golf as humanly possible on this trip and we made arrangements to meet up with the other guys at Ballyneal on Friday morning at 7:30am or so for breakfast. We had booked a night at a Super 8 near the airport in Denver and got a wakeup call for 4:30am, with plans to be on the road for Ballyneal by 5:00am for the approximate two and a half hour drive.
At this point, it’s important to note that the weather forecast looked absolutely dreadful for the entire vacation, with heavy rains scheduled from Friday right through Tuesday. And it was going to get cold too – we went from 30 degrees Celsius on Thursday night at the airport to a scheduled high of 12 degrees on Saturday, so pants and rain jackets would likely be the norm but I was in shorts on Friday morning under sunny skies.
We made the decidedly unremarkable drive up the interstate and made decent time all things considered, as there was a lot of construction and a few speed traps in a couple of the smaller towns once off the freeway. We’d arrive at the club a little before 8:00am, plenty of time to socialize with our host and his other guests in addition to hitting a few putts as well.
The setup at Ballyneal is pretty unique, with the pro shop, restaurant and the two main lodges all in a little amphitheatre setting right off the first tee, with a bocce ball court right in the middle of everything.
The picture above was taken from the second floor deck at Terrapin Lodge, just outside the Turtle Bar and you can see the Ringneck Lodge on the left, the restaurant in the middle and the pro shop on the right.
You can see another building off in the distance well down the road from the restaurant and that’s the Meadowlark Lodge, the first building you encounter when entering the facility.
The pro shop, shown above, was very well-stocked and I’d end up buying a cap, an expensive divot tool that would break on me within a week (boo!) and a couple shirts during my stay. They have some locker facilities there I believe as well downstairs, although I didn’t venture there and the caddies also have a room to hang out down there as well.
Ballyneal is notable for its walking-only policy, something I was pretty excited about to be honest and I was very much looking forward to having a caddy at least one round per day. My first round looper was Lucas, a very capable bagman despite being a relative newcomer to the caddy scene. He also had a young daughter that just started at the club as well in the same role so right away you can see how much of an intimate feel you get at a club in such a small town.
Our host Jim paired us up with Bill, a native of Pensacola, Florida for our first round. The weather was actually excellent during our first round, with gorgeous sunny skies and seasonably cool temperatures, perfect! A major storm was brewing though and our caddies indicated that we’d be lucky to get our round in without delay, something that just didn’t look possible at the moment.
“Storms move in very quick out here”, Lucas informed us in an ominous tone.
Harris and I settled on our normal ‘golf vacation’ wager: 36 holes of match play for dinner that night. Much has been said about my success at said wagers, as I didn’t even need to pull out my wallet during our last trip to Palm Coast, Florida, eating on Harry’s tab the entire vacation. There was even talk of some wagers back at home among our other friends like Cal, driving Harry a bit batty!
Needless to say, he had a score to settle!
Harry and I would venture to the back tees for this round while Bill played the middle deck, with his first tee shot played from right beside the Terrapin Lodge, as seen above. Harry and I hit solid tee balls, with his going down the left side and mine down the middle while Bill was in solid shape with his breakfast ball after a poor first effort.
The course was magical – I’ll be going through the course on a hole-by-hole basis in part two of my Ballyneal recap, coming up in my next blog post. The topography was mind-blowing and the crazy green undulations that I heard so much about were very real and remarkable.
This course just oozes fun, with so many different shots available at every stop with the firm and fast conditions. It’s very similar to Sagebrush in that respect, although Sagebrush’s greens are kept much faster due to less severe internal contouring.
We’d finish the first 18 holes in less than four hours and I shot a solid round of 79 (+8) on my first go at the place and held a slight 1up lead on Harry at the midpoint of our match.
With the weather noticeably turning, we took a break for lunch in the restaurant, with me downing an incredible chicken burger, something so tasty that I’d order the exact same thing the next day for lunch.
This was the first taste we got of the unprecedented service you see at Ballyneal as well, as all staffers try their best to learn the names of all members and guests and it truly makes it feel like you are part of the family, even for a few days. It’s also a bit jarring when you realize that they don’t bring out a bill after your meal is over – they just keep track of everything you order then you settle up the entire bill at the end of your stay.
Just remarkable stuff.
It was starting to rain lightly as we finished our meal and that turned off a few of the guys. Our host and his two best friends Jeff and Jim decided to take a little catnap before heading back out and our third, Bill, decided to sit out the second round due to a nagging injury.
So it was just Harry and I venturing out on our own for the last half of our grudge match, carrying our own bags this time as well.
One other thing to note about Ballyneal: like Sagebrush, there are no set tee markers, only free-flowing decks where you can decide on a hole-by-hole basis where to play from, usually based on the wind conditions. It’s meant to be a match play course so the winner of the previous hole gets to pick where the group plays and it makes for a very unique experience.
In addition, there are no yardage markers anywhere at Ballyneal and they also didn’t have yardage guides available. They do offer handheld GPS units for all players but we decided to play ‘blind’ for our second round and just eyeball yardages, something that proved very difficult to say the least!
Both Harry and I blew up a bit on our second round, with me shooting 82 (+11) and Harry 84 and I was pretty fortunate to be able to prevail in our match 4&3, winning dinner on our first night! I didn’t make a birdie all day and actually would switch putters for the second day of the trip.
Remember, I had all my equipment stolen just two weeks earlier and was playing with a couple old putters from my garage, with neither of them working out in the past and neither one working in the present either! Meanwhile, Harry was a lot more ‘up and down’ than I was, making two birdies on the first day and also an eagle three on the par five 8th hole during our first round after almost losing his tee ball. He’d make a few more doubles than I did on the first day though, leading to his demise.
Harris took a steam after our rounds then went and played a bit of bocce while I checked out our digs at the Ringneck Lodge. Our room was really well-appointed, with two queen-size beds, a flatscreen television with DirectTV, a marble countertop in the washroom and really nice Jack Black amenity products.
From there, I checked out the two common areas at Ringneck, first heading upstairs to a room with leather couches, a large flatscreen television, a roaring fireplace, sink and refridgerator and a number of great books on architecture on the shelves.
Then I checked out the common area down on the lower floor, where we were staying and it was equally as comfortable, with the leather sofas, fireplace and many great books to sit and read.
We’d make our way through the light rain to the restaurant for dinner with the entire crew. The conversation was flowing as were the beverages, as I started with some imported beer before moving on to the wonderful house Shiraz, which complimented my excellent steak dinner quite nicely. Thank you Harris!
We basically stuck around until the staff kicked us out and slept like babies that night.
We’d wake up early the next morning in preparation for our early tee times around 7:30 or 8:00am and were especially excited about our breakfast after hearing so much about the famous ‘Ballyneal Bacon’. Well, it was tasty for sure but didn’t really live up to the hype…maybe just an off-day in the bacon department! Canadians are very picky with their bacon…hell, we have bacon named after our country so you know we’re going to be hard to please!
Harry and I were matched up for the first round with Ballyneal member Matt – we had to coerce him to come out with us, as he was a late arrival the night before and I think wanted to get some extra sleep. He came to breakfast late but we were ecstatic to see him head out and join us for our round – we were hoping to meet as many people as possible and didn’t relish the thought of starting our day just as a twosome again like our second round the day previous.
It was really quite cold on Saturday and we were all bundled up, with some even wearing wool caps. I had my rain jacket on over a long-sleeve undershirt and a golf shirt and I was still freezing! The rain was lightly falling as well intermittently and the wind was blowing pretty hard.
It was going to be a heck of a challenge today!
We had new caddies for this round: I got a really good amateur player named Augie, who has evidently played in a US Senior Open in the past while Harry struck gold with a young guy named Andy who proved to be infinitely better than the rookie he got saddled with the day before.
Harry was down one in our match early and on the tremendous 7th hole, he decided to increase the stakes, including our playing partner as well.
“I’ll take on both of you guys, two on one”, he gloated.
We looked at him with stunned looks on our faces.
“How much?”, Matt inquired.
We’d settle on ten bucks a man, with Matt throwing the extra dig at Harry by saying when we won, he’d want it in Canadian so he could frame it on his wall at home.
The game was on and it was a fierce battle, so fierce that at one point late in the match, Matt had a 30 footer on Harry’s line, with Harry inside him only 20 feet away.
Matt went to line up his putt, stood over the ball then backed off.
“Um, yeah, I’m picking up”, Matt hilariously said.
We were all on the ground literally laughing our asses off by this point, as Matt and I exchanged high-fives at the stroke of genius on his part. Even Harry could appreciate this and was rolling as well.
We were having a hell of a time out there!
To his credit, Harry made it all the way to the 18th hole but just came up short on the last, losing to us one-down. He’d pay off his bets (in American to Matt I think just to piss him off) and after a quick lunch we went out to continue our personal match for dinner that night, which currently stood at all square after 18 holes.
By the way, despite shooting a decent score of 80, I still went without a birdie, my third consecutive round without one. My putting was absolutely atrocious at this point, as I simply couldn’t square either of the putters I brought on the trip. Fortunately, I was hitting a lot of greens and avoided three-putts for the most part, keeping my score relatively respectable.
Despite the cold, the rain was pretty much non-existent by this point so we figured there was a decent chance of getting in more than 36 holes on this day. We decided to take caddies again for the second round and we told Augie and Andy that we’d retain their services. We told them we’d be about an hour as we grabbed lunch and off I went to eat that delicious chicken burger for the second day in a row.
I grabbed my camera before heading back to the tee, knowing this might be the last chance I get to take pictures without rain, as the forecast looked ominous to say the least for the rest of our stay.
We’d also get paired up with someone new for our second round, Andrew from Chicago and a member at the esteemed Kingsley Club in Michigan. Andrew had Lucas, my first day looper as his caddy but Augie and Andy were nowhere to be found.
Turns out they headed into town to grab lunch and were running about ten minutes late.
Harris decided to carry his own bag until Andy made it back to the course but I wasn’t so accommodating. If I’m paying for a caddie, he should be there on time so I was given young Drayton, who I would quickly find out was a rookie at the club.
I ran all over hells half acre to get as many photographs as possible, taking over 100 during our time on the course. It thankfully didn’t affect my game and I’d finally make my first birdie of the trip on the glorious par five 4th hole, making a tough downhiller from the fringe to go one under on the round after starting with three solid pars.
The round ended up being more notable for the finish. I was three up in my match with Harris with only four holes to play and quite obviously in the drivers seat. That’s precisely the time when Harris got ridiculously hot.
The 15th is a really tough par three and the pin was hidden well left behind the dune. I’d pull my tee shot left on the hillside while Harry safely hit onto the green about 30 feet away. I’d pitch nicely to about ten feet but would watch in shock as Harris sunk his long putt for birdie to win the hole.
Two up with three to go.
Now onto the long par five 16th, playing that way due to a strong headwind. Harris hit two great shots but ended up in the little deadly pot bunker in front of the green.
I had been in that bunker twice already on the trip and knew it was in a tough spot so I let out a big cheer when his ball listened to my “GET IN THE BUNKER!” shouts of encouragement while in the air.
Meanwhile, I laid up and hit a nice wedge into about 12 feet. In the drivers seat…or so I thought!
Harris would hit a glorious bunker shot inside my ball, settling about six feet away. I’d miss, unsurprisingly…and Harry made. I’m only one up now but still not really worried.
That changed on the long par four 17th. Harris hit his in good shape down the left side but I came out of my drive and went well right into the Yucca, the name of the native area plants that gobble up balls and chew up your legs.
I hacked it out then hit into the deepest bunker you can imagine just short of the green on the right, while Harris came up short with his 4-iron. He’d hit a poor chip shot as well, leaving about a 20 footer for par so when I hit a great bunker shot to six feet, I thought I was still in control.
Well, that bugger Harris MADE HIS PAR PUTT and as he chased it down, he started BLOWING ON HIS PUTTER, fanning the flames if you will.
Andrew and the caddies are going nuts with laughter and I’m sitting there with a stunned grin on my face.
“Oh, yours is good”, Harry gloats as he marches to the 18th tee, now improbably all square.
The weirdest thing was I knew I was toast. He was two under on those three holes and I was one over and only six over on my round but I knew I was done. Still, I tried to gut it out and hit a good drive right alongside Harry’s, right down the pipe. I’d kind of smother my approach and it came up a bit short.
Harris, meanwhile, hit one right at the stick and pronounced the match over as the ball was in the air!
Hahaha! Awesome…even I’ll admit it!
I told him not so fast and in reality, I had an easy pitch to the center back hole location. I’d hit a decent shot…not great, not bad, leaving about a seven footer.
Harry would hit a nice putt from 15 feet and I’d concede his par putt, meaning I’d need this putt for the halve.
Not today…not with this putter.
I’d not even scare the hole and I’d go from three up with four to play to losing one down.
Harris finally had his free dinner. Oh, the horror! He definitely earned it, shooting a lights-out 73 (+2) in the second round to go along with his first round of 79. Great shooting!
We shook hands as the rain started to come in and headed back up to the tee. Most of the others were sitting out the rest of the day due to the rain coming in but not us – Harry grabbed us some beers and the three of us, Andrew, Harry and myself went back out for our third round of the day, sans caddies.
It wasn’t pretty, as the rain came in hard and fierce, so hard that we came up with a match for drinks that night where only birdies counted. Thankfully, I made a couple during the torrential downpours in our round and they combined for none, at least salvaging something for me on a day where I’d have to buy dinner for the first time for Harry. I’d shoot 82 for that third round of the day versus Harry’s 87.
We also seriously contemplated playing one extra hole to give us 55 on the day and break our host’s record for most holes in a day at Ballyneal. But we decided that tying the record was good enough – of course, I just read that a couple staffers at the club recently played 100 holes in one day out there, mutilating Jim’s record. I have a feeling he’s already thinking up a strategy to outdo them the next time he’s out there!
We had another great dinner, with Harris getting lamb (I think) and me getting a pasta dish. We hung out with the guys again until we got booted out of the restaurant and hit the bed, dreaming of more great golf in the morning.
The club got absolutely blasted with rain all night and into the morning, with so much rain that Harry slept in, knowing we weren’t going to be playing at our scheduled 7:30am time.
I went for breakfast and Harry joined me a bit later and the whole group tried to wait the storm out. Around 10am or so, guys started making their way out onto the course despite extremely cold temperatures (maybe 10 degrees Celsius) and constant rain, although it was more of a sideways drizzle at the moment.
We were paired up again with Bill from Pensacola and we made our way to the 10th tee right behind the triumvirate of Jim C, Jeff T and Jim T. With water dripping off our faces, we just sat there on the exposed 10th tee, thinking about whether this was a good idea. We got drenched the day before and were pretty much the only guys out on the course during that storm and we weren’t really anxious to head back out again in similar weather.
While I was ambivalent, Harry made the executive decision to pack it in and Bill seconded the motion, so we headed back in for some coffee and contemplated an early lunch.
That’s Harry and Bill in the photos above. Our little rain delay gave me the chance to look around the restaurant at more great photos, like the course routing shown below, along with many pictures of the golf course construction.
After eating lunch, we made our way over to the Terrapin Lodge to check out the Turtle Bar, which we hadn’t seen during our trip as of yet.
It was a gorgeous facility, with wood grain everywhere and just a very warm feel to the place. They accommodate bands from the look of it there and I think I even saw a piano in the corner of the room.
Meanwhile, the rain continued on and off, giving Harris the chance to reconsider his decision not to play about 50 times in a one hour period, as he must have been intentionally trying to drive me crazy!
That’s Harry above, contemplating the meaning of life while gazing into the magnificent chop hills. I was kind of thinking we made the wrong decision too at one point but just walking out to the car to put my luggage into the trunk made me realize that we indeed made the right decision.
I know that the course drains exceptionally well but man, was there a lot of water around! I actually had to move the car out of a mini lake, as the water was up past my ankles as I tiptoed my way into the driver’s seat!
After a bit more time in front of our lodge, we decided to finally check out. The club made a few errors on our bill but we got them corrected in no time. We’d see our host as he came off the back nine and thanked him for the wonderful time, said our goodbyes and headed on the road to our next destination, which was three hours away in Nebraska.
We had time to stop one last time on our way out to get some photos for posterity.
Our time at Ballyneal will never be forgotten and I can say that it is one of the finest clubs I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. I think we made about 12 new friends on the excursion as well and I truly hope we can all get together at some point again down the road.
For my full course pictorial and review, please click on the link below.
BALLYNEAL GOLF & HUNT CLUB – Read Part Two Here