My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
#1, Par 4, 320-382 Yards
With a wide fairway that begins to narrow 100 yards from the green, this short opening hole allows players to leave the driver in the bag and hit an iron to a comfortable yardage. Once in play, there will be a relatively easy approach shot to a green that slopes right to left. This hole will ease you into the challenge to come. Don’t miss left!
The first concern I had when making the trip to Colorado was how much would I have to adjust for the thin air. While Cherry Hills is over 5,000 feet above sea level, the first entry to Colorado golf would be from a bit less--Holyoke stands at 3,750 feet above sea level. With that said, I'm not a high ball hitter, so I wasn't sure how much the mountain air would really impact me. Time would tell. The first hole is a fairly stress free opener, and since most folks don't hit range balls before heading out, it's an appropriately fair starting hole. The best line is down the left center of the fairway
Since the club is walking-only, it's a reasonable idea to save your swings for the course. Once I was ready, I met up with my caddie and it was off to the first tee. Ballyneal requires unaccompanied guests to take a caddie on their first round, which makes good sense, because there are some spots where it's not 100% obvious where to go next, as you're walking over and around dunes on a consistent basis. There are no tee markers at Ballyneal, so there was no need to make a formal decision where you play. The course stretches from 5,210 yards to 7,147 yards, playing firm and fast. Since there are no sets of tees, there are also no USGA ratings or slopes, which means you can't post scores to your handicap from Ballyneal. This was true at Sand Hills too, and I hear it's also the case at Augusta National--the only ones I know of.
My caddie was a great local kid from nearby Holyoke and had been working for several years at Ballyneal, so I told him I'd like him tell me what tees to play. When I headed out for my second round, I'd decide if I wanted to try things differently. The scorecard shows a yardage range on each hole, which I'll include in the header. I'll also copy the club's hole descriptions from their website, in italics:
#17, Par 4, 365-481 Yards
My other favorite hole on the course, this is just a glorious long two-shotter. The fairway has an upper deck on the left and a valley on the right side … the ideal tee shot will split the difference and get around the corner. The approach shot should be played to the left front, so it can take the slope at the front of the green just as it expires.
Time to hold on for dear life, as the last two holes are both very difficult pars. The second-to-last hole is long, and when I was there, it played into the wind as well. I couldn't get home in two. Over the green is a huge collection area. The shape of the land makes for a really good hole.
#4, Par 5, 360-573 Yards
Reachable in two for some players, but it will take two perfect shots. Lesser mortals should lay back to the left side of the fairway with their second shots, unless they can chase one up to the foot of the green.
The fourth hole offers one of the most commanding views on the golf course--the Colorado prairie just opens up before you. Due to the scale of the open land that faces you, the landing area appears a bit smaller than it really is. Keeping it on the left side is generally good advice all the way from the tee to the green.
#15, Par 5, 135-237 Yards
A big par-3 in a big setting. The saddle of fairway between the bunkers is deceptively about forty yards short of the green … if you carry just past that, the ball will usually scoot down to the front part of the green, effectively reducing the length of the hole. Or, you can just try to hit a hybrid club into the back of the green, where most shots will feed to the left unless you hold up on the right-hand plateau.
The tee boxes you select at Ballyneal have a major impact on what your experience will be. From the back tees (first picture), this was a long shot to me on an awkward line, where it felt like a draw was necessary to get anywhere close to the hole. From the other tee boxes (second and third pictures), it's more of a straight shot into the green that's less intimidating. The green is very large and has lots of internal contours to get in the way of making an easy two-putt.
#13, Par 4, 330-510 Yards
There are acres of fairway here, but you’d like to drive it down the left if possible, because half the green is hidden behind a front right-hand bunker and it’s very difficult to get to that side from the right of the fairway … in fact you probably should just play to the left of the green from over there.
#12, Par 4, 240-375 Yards
One of my favorite holes on the property. A good tee shot (not necessarily a driver) will hug the left side of the fairway for a better angle and a better view … if you leak to the right you’ll be playing the second from a deep hollow. This is a WILD green and it’s important to know where the flag is … the left-hand hole locations are in a hollow and it should be easy to miss to that side, but keeping the ball on the right-hand plateau takes a very good shot.
Like the 10th hole, it's important to be on the correct side of the fairway to avoid a hollow that makes the approach blind. Missing the bunker in front of the green is key on the approach.
#2, Par 4, 360-490 Yards
This hole will play 100 yards shorter downwind than into the wind, when it’s a three-shotter for many players. Try to drive to the left-center. For the approach, the right distance is paramount, as the green is very deep.
There is a gate way off in the distance--that's your target from the tee. This one is supposed to be a relatively long par four. The landing area for most tee balls is quite wide, though it tightens up when you get closer to the hole for the bigger hitter.
After my first 18 holes, I talked with the caddiemaster/starter to see if it was busy out there. He said there were a few groups that had gone out, but if I wanted to head right back to the first tee, I was welcome to head out again. I'd carry my own bag on the second round, and the serenity out in the Colorado prairie made for a special experience. After finished up, I was exhausted. I had gotten out of bed at a little after 3 AM Eastern time to catch my flight from Detroit. After landing in Denver, I headed straight to Ballyneal to walk 36 holes, and would head right back to Denver immediately after putting my clubs back into the trunk to be able to make by 7:00 AM tee time at Cherry Hills the next morning. Needless to say, when I finally made it to my hotel in Denver and laid down to go to sleep, I was asleep in short order!
Ballyneal was a very fun experience. I didn't think it was as good as Sand Hills, but it sure was a course that every serious golfer needs to see. It's a course that you could play round after round and not get tired of. Between changes in wind direction, strength, I'm sure each day is a different challenge and one that would be a blast to continually face. Thanks for much to TP for calling me in as an unaccompanied guest...it was a great time!
#8, Par 5, 340-515 Yards
This fairway narrows to hourglass dimensions at just over 300 yards from the tee, so even when it’s reachable in two, pulling driver takes on some risk. The safe play to the green is to stay left of the flag, since most of the green is terraced up from left to right.
#5, Par 3, 110-165 Yards
The bank at the left front of the green is the most severe hazard here. Just make sure you carry the pot bunker in front, and take your chances from the back of the green.
Not much to add here. I was able to make a stupid up-and-down par from a bunker way left of the green, but I wouldn't advise trying that.
#9, Par 4, 315-362 Yards
Another hourglass fairway … the main thing is just to get the ball in play off the tee with whatever club makes you happy. The green is generally receptive although there are two very tough hole locations, at the very front and on the back right shelf.
Heading back up the hill, as it says above, just keep it in play off the tee and you'll have a good chance to finish off the opening nine with a good score.
#6, Par 4, 370-480 Yards
The longest and toughest par 4 on the course; into the wind, you should be content to get up short of the green in two and try to save par with a chip and a putt. Very tricky green … if the hole is on the left you can use the slopes to your advantage, but when it’s top right you just have to play a precise shot onto the plateau.
#3, Par 3, 90-145 Yards
A very short three with the green in a natural bowl. Green tilts away to the back right, so hedge to the left of the hole, and stay out of that back bunker at all costs.
The first one-shot hole on the course is a fun one. Playing it off of the left side will definitely kick balls toward the middle.
#16, Par 5, 410-546 Yards
A hole with two different strategies depending on the wind and the tee you’re playing. From the back it’s usually a three-shotter, and the key is picking the right line for your second shot over the big ridge on the inside left of the dogleg. If you’re playing up a tee, the hole can be very reachable in two, but a bold drive down the left side makes all the difference.
Turning the corner on this dogleg left presents a really cool view into the hole. A great hole, and the possibly the last chance to make birdie for the difficult 17th and 18th holes.
#7, Par 4, 285-352 Yards
Lots of players are tempted to drive it up in front of this green, but it’s easy to leave yourself with an awkward distance and a bad angle. A safe tee shot to the right lets you use the bank at the left side of the green to contain your second shot and bank it back close to the hole. The bank can also come in handy on recovery shots from anywhere to the right of the green.
Tom Doak and his crew have built some fantastic short par fours, and this one is definitely among their best. The green is tucked behind a dune, and in the shape of an "E" with a fairly steep slope to the left of the green that lets you use the bank to putt from one spoke of the "E" to another. A super fun hole that you can play over and over and keep enjoying.
#18, Par 4, 375-463 Yards
It may look obvious now, but we moved the tee and green a couple of times before we figured this hole out. The drive is open, but it will swerve away to the right if you stray right of center, leaving a longer approach. The green is quite steep from back to front, more so than any on the course, so beware the pace of your putt … nobody likes to three-putt the last green.
The guest house in the distance was my line on this one. Two good shots and you have a chance at par, but it's definitely not easy, especially when it's into the wind as it was for me.
#11, Par 3, 125-200 Yards
A strong one-shotter to a high plateau green. NEVER miss left of the green, as there is a 20-foot drop on that side. This is the only green where I ran the bulldozer myself, so you can blame me if you misread the putt.
The words of Tom Doak above. Having played with Mr. Doak, I can tell you that he's not afraid of any putt--it's the strength of his game. Nicklaus is famous for designing holes that cater to his left-to-right ball-flight. Doak builds courses that demand a good putting stroke. His advice says not to miss left, which honestly, missing to the right isn't all that much better with two nasty bunkers waiting to swallow a shot missed that way.
When I was sitting at the computer typing up reviews in the winter of 2017, I had no idea where the year would take me. I had a couple ideas of states to try to attack, but Colorado wasn't on the agenda until I received an invite to join a friend at Cherry Hills. Of course, I'd happily be accepting that invite, but didn't know how the trip would go down. When I started to research the trip, my first thought was to make Cherry Hills a day trip, which sounds silly, but it was practical given changes in time zones when going from East to West. However, when we learned of the likely tee time being in the 7 o'clock hour, this quickly become impractical. Therefore, I'd have to fly out the day before.
A little while before heading out to the Centennial State, I would hook up with a guy who invited me to the Philadelphia Cricket Club. We'd be playing Philly Cricket in May, but it turned out he was also a member at Ballyneal. As we traded emails, I learned that he could easily set up an unaccompanied round for me for the day before Cherry Hills. Heck yeah! This was quickly turning into an awesome trip.
The only problem with an itinerary like this is it provided a few travel challenges. You see, Ballyneal is not in Denver--in fact, it's barely in Colorado! Sitting in the "Chop Hills" of Northeast Colorado, the club is about two hours and 45 minutes from Denver International Airport and only about 15 miles from Nebraska. I really didn't know tons about the geography of Colorado before making this trip, but learned that Denver is basically the city that divides the state between mountains and plains. To the West of Denver is the Rocky Mountains, but once you head east, it's mainly flat land as far as the eye can see. However, once you arrive at Ballyneal, the land is not flat, but quite rolling and perfect for golf. The history of the club (from the club's website) is as follows:
Circa 1979, Ballyneal was simply a vision of a young, local golf enthusiast, Jim O’Neal. Jim recognized the swath of sand dunes just south of Holyoke that the locals call the “chop hills” as being reminiscent of the dunes in faraway Ireland and Scotland where golf was born. The dream of creating an authentic links course stayed on the back burner until older brother Rupert fanned the flames of creation when he brought up the idea of building a course to compliment the family-owned hunt club.
The two purchased 700 acres of land from a local farmer and in 2002 hired Tom Doak of Renaissance Golf Design (who had just finished the highly regarded Pacific Dunes course in Bandon, Oregon). Tom and his Renaissance team studied, discovered and refined the routing for two years before construction finally began in earnest on Ballyneal. Letting Mother Nature dictate the flow instead of forcing the flow was paramount in his approach to routing the course.
The fescue sward that defines Ballyneal took hold better than anticipated and Tom Doak struck the first ball in summer of 2006. The course has since matured to become one with the native sage and yucca that abound in the Chop Hills. What’s most striking to players is the variety presented by the combination of the design, the playing surface and the conditions. The fescue surface and the gusty conditions promote true links style golf where a ground game is often the best approach.
The one thing Ballyneal has proven is that a great course will withstand the test of time. Despite the financial headwinds that many private clubs faced in the years following the 2009 recession, Ballyneal emerged with a change of ownership as one of the top destination golf clubs in the world. Its ‘village’ where play starts and completes boasts four lodges in addition to the pro shop, restaurant and reception buildings. They all surround the Commons, a putting complex, where friends new and old meet to swap stories and laugh about the day’s play and the shot that nearly went in.
As said above, Ballyneal is a destination club. The only likely reason a golfer would pass by it is en route to another destination club (Sand Hills or Dismal River). Otherwise, you need to make a point to get out there. However, once you're there, you're rewarded with a tremendous golfing oasis. Members and their guests often spent many nights in the club's onsite housing and play golf from dawn to dusk. There are 56 rooms in the club's cabins, and around 75 people can be housed at a time. The fun includes the big golf course, plus a brand new short course called The Mulligan Course. Moreover, there is a huge putting course right in the middle of it all where bets can be settled and matches played with cocktails in hand. It's rustic, but for a serious golfer, it's a slice of heaven.
When I arrived, I checked in with the concierge and made my way over to the pro shop. I had arrived a little earlier than planned, so my caddie wasn't there yet, which was no problem because I wanted to hit a few balls to loosen up anyway. The range doesn't get much use at Ballyneal, because most people conserve their energy to play 36 holes or more.
Looking from the 2nd tee across the first green out into the prairie that surrounds the club.
#10, Par 4, 380-509 Yards
There is a hidden bit of fairway on the upper right for aggressive drivers, but be sure you’re on the right tee to make that carry! Many players will have a blind or semi-blind second shot from the hollow on the left; keep the shot on line and you’ll be fine.
Keeping it on the right side is the only way to have much of a view of the green. From the blind side of the fairway, you need to just trust your distance and make a good swing. After walking up the hill on the ninth hole, the tenth offers a commanding view to begin the second nine.
#14, Par 4, 300-362 Yards
This is the simplest looking hole on the course, but it’s an awkward length and a very small green, and you can find a lot of trouble if you get aggressive with it. I’ve seen several players drive it within 50 yards of the flag but leave their second shots in the hollow to the right and make 5, or worse.
Avoiding the small bunker in the middle of the fairway is the key to avoiding disaster on this hole. Do that, and you're looking at possibly the easiest par on the side.