Ballyneal is a happy place. For some, it is THE happy place. An interesting phenomenon happens to every seeker who makes the trek to the Chop Hills. Telltale signs are the permagrin, the sun and wind burned skin, and the stories of victories and defeats at the hands of what some consider to be Tom Doak’s greatest creation. Something special happens at Ballyneal – a reconnection with the fun of the game that hooked us in the first place.
On occasion, a fellow golf traveler will come back and, high on recency bias, claim that Ballyneal is the best modern golf course in the land, including that track over in Mullen. This is exactly what happened with friend of The Fried Egg Jon Cavalier (@linksgems) after his most recent visit to Holyoke. We get it, but we found it appropriate to put him in time out with a suggestion that he come back to us when the Kool-aid wore off. He did, and conceding that Sand Hills is the purest modern golf course in America, made a modified claim. “There is no place that is more fun to play golf than Ballyneal.”
That is a take we could get on board with, and it deserves unpacking (with the help of Jon’s photos).
Before diving into the reasons that Ballyneal is so fun to play, it is important to give some credit where it’s due. First, to the Club. Ballyneal is the golfiest club I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. The ownership, the staff, and the membership love golf and love their club, and they are happy to share it with those who “get it”. With the addition of The Commons putting course and The Mulligan par-3 course, Ballyneal is a golf fantasyland. The place exudes the joy of the game.
Second, from all accounts, Superintendent Jared Kalina and his crew have the course in the best shape it’s ever been. The design is predicated on firm, fast and true conditions, and Jared allowed Doak’s brilliance to come through by nailing it this year.
These critical elements duly noted, several aspects of the course itself max out the fun. If by chance the drive out to the club has not melted away your stress and worries, the routing will certainly do the trick in short order. The course is an adventure. It is a place to get lost, in the hills and in the moment.
Another factor that contributes greatly to the fun is contour. The Chop Hills terrain provided the perfect palette for the Renaissance team to make contour king at Ballyneal, from the tees all the way through to the green complexes. Uneven lies are to be expected, which make players think and get creative with shotmaking. Wildness is maxed out at the greens. Jon describes the experience well, “The entertaining green complex contours mean that every approach and chip shot presents an infinite number of options and requires real strategic decision making. There are many holes and positions where the best play might be 90 degrees from the flag to let the slopes and contours bring the ball back to the hole. You can putt from almost anywhere if you want to. It is the antithesis of aerial target golf, and that fun stuff is available to golfers of all skill levels. I think this is my favorite overall thing about the place.” Again, the fun of these contours is maximized by ideal conditions. As Jon points out, “Ballyneal was the firmest and fastest course that I played all year, and maybe ever.”
Who doesn’t love the thrill of taking on a great one shotter? Yet another fun factor at Ballyneal is the collection of par-3s. They are beautiful, challenging, and varied as a group. Taking a look at the holes illustrates just how much variety they embody.
HOLE #3 – 145-90 yards – downhill, west
HOLE #5 – 165-110 yards – flat, northwest
HOLE #11 – 200-125 yards – uphill, northwest
HOLE #15 – 237-135 yards – flat, northeast
Speaking of numbers, they don’t matter much at Ballyneal, which is the cherry on top of this fun sundae. The course is designed for match play, with half-par holes, and multiple teeing options that allow the winner to call the next spot. Check the uptight card-and-pencil vibe at the door. This is a place to play matches, play games, play alternate shot, and play emergency loops while the Colorado sunsets.
Having considered these fun factors, and futilely racked our brains for a rebuttal, we concede the point to Jon. If it’s fun you’re after, Ballyneal will most certainly deliver.