Ballyneal is a private golf club located a few minutes from Holyoke Colorado. Ballyneal opened in September 2006 and I was privileged to play the course before it officially opened. Holyoke is a very small town in North Eastern Colorado, roughly 12 miles from the Colorado/Nebraska border. You would never be able to find Ballyneal if you were simply passing through the town of Holyoke and wanted to stop by. To get there you need to drive about 15-20 miles through a maze of dirt farming roads which provide farmers access to the thousands of acres of cornfields in the area. You’d have an easier time finding the course if you chartered a small helicopter.
Designed by Tom Doak
Ballyneal was designed by my new favorite golf course designer: Tom Doak. Tom Doak is probably most famous for his design at Pacific Dunes in Oregon. I have yet to play Pacific Dunes, but since I’ve experienced Ballyneal it’s at the top of my golf course to-do list.
After doing a little research on Doak my ranking was solidified even more when I found out he designed one of my all time favorite courses: Stonewall in Elverson Pennsylvania. Stonewall is an amazing course and has the dubious distinction of bringing my game to it’s knees worse than any other course has.
The area which Ballyneal occupies is in the middle of thousands of acres of cornfields. The course itself lies in a rough, hilly, moon-like area. These rolling hills are covered with a two major forms of vegetation, yucca plants and sunflowers. Looking off into the distance you can see shades of green and yellow rolling over these Scotland-like rolling hills.
The course’s contours take full advantage of the rough landscape and the rolling hills. Like Stone Wall, there’s a buffer area where you’re not sure where the native rough terrain begins and the grass rough ends. The fairways are fairly wide, providing a fair landing area for your drives. The fairways are anything but flat though, as they roll along with the contours of the terrain.
The bunkers are not your typical clover leaf shape with pristine, filtered sand and finely manicured edges. Instead, these bunkers are very rough and jagged around the edges with sand from the native area. Like the grass rough, you’re not sure where the bunker ends and the native rough begins. It’s not uncommon for the yuccas or other vegetation to be growing around the edges of the bunkers and even IN them. If your ball finds its way into one of the bunkers at Ballyneal it’s wise to get out the easiest way you can find, regardless if that’s in the direction of the green. Just get out any way you can.
The greens at Ballyneal are quite large and when I played there they were fairly slow. I’d say they were around an 8 on the stimpmeter, very slow by PGA Tour standards. In the course’s defense, with the size of these greens and some of the large bowls and tiers, a stimpmeter rating of 10-12 would make 2 putting some greens completely impossible. 8 was a good speed.
The routing of the course was spectacular. “Routing” is a term for the way the course makes it’s way through the area it occupies. There are no “afterthought” holes or holes you play which make you think the design was flawed in any way. The one odd routing situation was where the back tees of one hole set you up to tee off right over the previous hole’s green. Don’t blade one there your you may kill somebody. I suspect though that as exclusive and remote as Ballyneal is, there likely won’t be anyone that close behind to worry about.
Playing the course
Playing Ballyneal was probably the funnest pure golf experience I’ve ever had. I had my own caddie, as did the other 4 people in my group. No worries about a 5-some, since we were the only group on the entire course. I found the visuals you get on the tee boxes amazing as I looked at the rolling hills, sunflowers and the spots of fairway and green in the distance. Teeing off on par 4′s and 5′s there were slight elevation changes to fairways at a slight angle from the tee. There were some slightly hidden landing areas which you couldn’t see from the tee (thankfully).
Driving the ball, even from the back tees is not extremely difficult at Ballyneal. If you can hit a fairly straight tee ball you’ll find a piece of the fairway. If you do manage to miss a drive and find the native sand, that’s where the teeth of the terrain will take a bite out of your score. I managed an even par front 9, primarily due to some great putting and keeping the ball out of the native areas. On the back 9 I started hitting a few bunkers and some native areas and my score did suffer a bit as a result.
I was on fire with the putter that day, starting with a 1 putt birdie on the first hole. My caddie was smart enough to only volunteer me reads on the putting green when I asked for them. I only confirmed my read with him a couple of times all day because I was in the putting zone. He told me that I didn’t need any help and he’d be happy to give it to me if I asked. That’s a smart caddie right there.
My 75 at Ballyneal was quite a rewarding round. It’ s very nice to shoot a decent score on a course you’ve never played, let alone a world class track like this one. I almost felt a bit like the priest in Caddy Shack, wondering when I’d get struck by lightning and reality would kick in. Fortunately, the fantasy lasted the whole 18.
I’ve told this story a few times in previous posts but it deserves this air time in case you missed it. One of the guys in our 5-some aced the 6th hole from about 162 yards. Eddie Peck, owner of Black Mesa golf course in New Mexico, knocked in an 8-iron for not only his first hole in one, but Ballyneal’s as well. A historical event to say the least and I was there to see it. When that ball went in I got goose bumps on my arms. I didn’t have the nerve to tell Eddie that I had the honor on the tee box and he hit out of turn though! Why mess with a free beer, right?
When I pulled my car up to the pro shop I was told to leave the keys in the car. I assumed that some “valet” guy would park it in the parking lot for me. But the course is so remotely located and so exclusive, my car stayed right there, no worries. In fact there were only 4 cars parked there all day. All 4 cars were from our 5-some.
There is basically no driving range at Ballyneal. There are a few range balls sitting on the #1 tee if you want to hit a few warm up shots off into the rolling hills though.
Ballyneal is about golf. The pro shop, locker room and eating facilities are small but more than adequate for the limited number of players the course will see on a daily basis. After the round we had a nice beer on the back patio courtesy of Eddie the ace man. A chef whipped up custom grub for our group on the BBQ, whatever we wanted. It was a nice touch and hard to believe there was a staffed chef there for the 5 players on the course.
Me hitting a shot out of a fairway bunker
In all of my reviews I try to play devil’s advocate and find some kind of negative or room for improvement. I might question some course design issues which I don’t like, problems with the amenities or anything I can find where there’s some work left to be done. I can’t think of a thing I’d change about Ballyneal. I just need “The Perfect Club” spokesman to chime in with his deep low voice saying “it’s perfect.”
Ballyneal Photo Gallery
There are over 130 photos of Ballyneal in the Hooked On Golf Blog Ballyneal Photo Gallery.
Ballyneal is a golf purist’s heaven from the intimate pro shop and amenities through every tee shot, approach and putt. On nearly every tee I’d look out over the amazing terrain and say “Wow, look at this hole. Wow, look at this green. Wow, look at that bunker!” In fact, some of the muscles in my face were actually sore from smiling so much that day. From the second I teed off on #1 to the last gulp of beer I had on the back patio I couldn’t wipe the cheesy grin off my face.
If I had to walk the 1000 miles Ballyneal is from my home to play there again, I’d start walking now.