A Colorado cousin to the Sand Hills rota, this Doak masterpiece is every bit its equal

The following story is part of a larger feature, American Safari, which chronicles one man’s golf journey across the Nebraska prairie, and the five courses that shape it. View the full feature here.

We joined Ballyneal Golf Club—our second one in the area—in 2014, seizing the opportunity for wonderful golf halfway between Denver International Airport and the Sand Hills. The first 120 miles to Ballyneal is prologue. Interstate 76 to Sterling, home of the largest correctional facility in the state (highway sign: “Don’t Pick Up Hitchhikers”), to Route 6. From there, 47 miles of two-lane road through Fleming, Haxtun and Paoli (watch the speed trap) to Holyoke, population 2,200, elevation 3,750 feet.

The last leg is almost a letdown, mostly flat farmland with pivot-irrigated cornfields surrounding unpaved County Roads 10 and 43. The first hint of magic is at the entrance, marked by a weathered wooden sign—BALLYNEAL—above an open pasture gate. The unpaved entrance road gains elevation, cresting to reveal the first views of the Colorado chop hills—tan prairie grasses and green fairways flowing through wavy hills. Ahead lie the lodges and dining facilities of one of America’s great new(ish) golf clubs. 

The chop hills are a geological cousin of Nebraska’s Sand Hills, a narrow stretch of sand dunes that dot the farmland for about 80 miles. In Holyoke, the brothers Jim and Rupert O’Neal knew the area from hunting, and Jim noticed the resemblance to British linksland. In 2002, they purchased 700 acres from a farmer, with the idea of building a golf course to complement the family’s hunt club. They invited a young architect named Tom Doak for a visit just after he completed Pacific Dunes in Oregon. 

Jim went on to become head professional of the Meadow Club in San Francisco, while Rupert stayed in Holyoke and worked with Doak and the Renaissance team to create a course worthy of comparison to Sand Hills and Pacific Dunes. Opened in 2006, Ballyneal remains a fixture on most lists of America’s best golf courses.

Despite that lofty company, Ballyneal exudes an inviting, almost casual atmosphere. The large greens with signature Doak undulations are adjacent or a short walk at most to the next hole, making the all-walking course doable for those playing 36 a day. The tee “boxes” are actually runway tees, long stretches of turf with no markers so players themselves choose where to hit from. I learned all of this from Rupert himself, when there were only a few of us in the dining room one night and he joined us for a chat.

The first tee flanks the Turtle Bar & Restaurant, inviting more chance encounters. Waiting my turn during a recent trip, I struck up a conversation with a golfer whose belt caught my eye. “You played Cape Kidnappers?” I asked admiringly, referring to the famous New Zealand course also designed by Doak. “Yes. I built it,” deadpanned Bruce Hepner, Renaissance Golf’s lead associate, who also led construction at Ballyneal and Streamsong Blue, and was a shaper at Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald. “Ah,” I said, sensing an opportunity. “Would you be free for a drink after golf?”

Drinks flowed into dinner, where Hepner revealed that Ballyneal was his favorite Doak course and that he was a dues-paying member. He shared with us and our buddy “Snakey” Swenson construction stories of jumping ATVs off the mound at the center of the 15th green and the unexpected shaping of the green on No. 7: After a rough start, there was only one piece of unbroken equipment when Doak arrived for an inspection. Frustrated, he single-handedly crafted a devilish complex—with only the one remaining excavator. Insiders call it Doak’s Angry Green.

The joy of Ballyneal comes from its playability. There’s room for good, bad and indifferent golfers. While a staple bucket-list venue for low-handicap buddy trips, the variable tee lengths, firm turf and general lack of forced carries permit over-the-ground navigation to the greens. Which doesn’t mean it is not challenging for those who have games with which I am not familiar. The tips play 7,147 yards, fairway lies are rarely flat and the hard greens are not receptive to flag hunting. One of my three all-time favorite aspirational shots is the par-3 15th from the way-back tee position: 230 yards between two yawning bunkers to a punchbowl green. Despite a success rate that hovers near the Mendoza line, I inevitably opt for the shot. It exemplifies what the course inspires: Have some fun—go for it!

Wildlife abounds. The Terrapin Lodge and Turtle Bar & Restaurant pay tribute to the western box turtles that roam the property. Coyotes howl at night. They most likely took out Bunker, the storied orange tabby cat who reigned as Ballyneal’s iconic ambassador and mascot for eight years. Sandy, his worthy successor, lasted two seasons. Poa and Fescue are entering their sophomore years. Everyone is rooting for them. Bullsnakes (good because they eat rattlesnakes) slither by. My friend Randy Swenson earned his nickname by recording the rare “snakey” par—the reptilian equivalent of a “sandy”—on the par-4 14th, with a lofted approach that was backstopped by a 6-footer sunning itself on the green.

Good times continue into the evening. The view from the dining porch presents striking sunsets to the west and a full-on view of lightning and thunderstorms that blow in from the east. During one evening storm, we struck up a conversation with three couples also admiring the show. They were on their way to the Sand Hills Club the next day. “Our fourth dropped out. Would you care to join us?”

The economic downturn of 2013 took ownership away from the O’Neals, but brother-in-law John Curlander took control, maintained stewardship and filled membership to capacity. Curlander also led the way on Ballyneal’s photogenic, Doak-designed 12-hole short course inside the routing of the front nine. Measuring from 85 to 180 yards, with undulating greens designed with a sense of humor, the course is meant for fun. To underscore the point, the tee markers are wrought-iron drink holders. It’s named the Mulligan Course to honor the course’s legendary caddie, Charlie Mulligan (his real name), who handed out intricate, personally drawn yardage books and homemade prickly pear cactus jam to members.

Reflecting the Western ethos and Rupert’s personality, I call it cowboy golf: unstuffy adherence to etiquette with respect to pace of play. We recently let a foursome with their two dogs tee off ahead of us, confident they wouldn’t hold up our twosome. Jim Smith Jr., director of golf at my home Philadelphia Cricket Club and a man who has traveled far and wide for golf, said it well: “The people of Ballyneal could be walking around with their chest out like, ‘We have a great golf course,’ but that’s not what they do.”