After cutting my round at Castle Pines a little short, I headed to Denver to check into my hotel for a good night’s rest. It had been a very long day. I awoke the next morning well rested and ready to make the drive from Denver to the middle of nowhere and then some. The next round of golf on my Top 100 Golf Course Tour was schedule for the afternoon at Ballyneal. To get to Ballyneal from Denver you drive to the middle of nowhere, take a left, then drive several more miles and take a right. After traveling down a narrow and dusty road, you will come upon some grain silos on your right. The entrance to Ballyneal is on the left just past the silos. There is an open metal gate and a wooden side on your left as you make the left turn and a single black mailbox on the right. You continue on the winding dirt road and beyond the sandhills and dunes in front of you lies a golf experience like no other.
I remember how upon my first visit to the Grand Canyon I thought to myself that no pictures, no description no matter how eloquent can fully prepare you for what you experience when you stand on the north rim and look over the endless vastness of what nature, wind, water, time and pressure had created. As I drove over the sand hills and dunes on the winding dusty road, and look upon what had been created at Ballyneal, I felt that same way. There is nothing that can prepare you for the beauty of the streams of green fairways and green that flow through the sand hills and dunes covered and surrounded by the golden and varies shades of green native vegetation that coat the ground in this northeast corner of Colorado.
I got out of my rental car and stood and took it all in. If I never swung a club during my visit to Ballyneal, I would not have been disappointed. The view itself was worth the drive.
I made my way to the Pro Shop where I was greeted by Caleb, one of the assistant pros. Caleb took me to Kent’s office to introduce us. Kent is the head pro at Ballyneal. I had discussed in a phone call with him my quest to play the top 100 courses in the US in one year. Kent was more than happy to allow me to experience Ballyneal. He had worked together just during the previous week to finalize plans for me to play the course. I very much appreciate his willingness to assist me and make it possible for me to play the course.
After my discussions with Kent, Caleb took me to introduce me to my Caddie for the day. Travis had come to Colorado to be close to his child that he’d fathered with a girl he had met when she was visiting his home state. Once in Colorado he met another girl who was to become his wife. He then began caddying at Ballyneal. Travis and I made our way over to the practice range. Like all other aspects of the Ballyneal golf experience, the driving range was also unique.
The practice range at Ballyneal was the antithesis of the manicured practice ranges with Bermuda, bent or zoysia grasses that I’d experienced at places like Augusta National, Flint Hills National, Dallas National, Baltusrol and so on. The practice range at Balyneal was completely natural. It was a field amongst the sand hills and sand dunes with a swath cut out to form the short grass for the balls to land. There were no greens or close cut landing areas and there were no flags. The distances were marked by an increasing number of fence posts.
After warming up, Travis and I headed to The Mulligan Course, another unique golf experience. Mulligans is a new par three course at Ballyneal that had just opened to great fanfare the month before. Mulligans uses some of the tee boxes and greens from the main course with a few new ones though in to form a twelve hole par three course. You are provided with a map to guide you from tee box to green to tee box, but you’d better have an experience caddie or a seasoned member to navigate the flow of the course. Travis had only been caddying for a month. We managed to play all nine holes but I’m not certain we played them in the right order or always used the right tee box to match the designated green. It was a fun experience and provided an opportunity for me to understand how the greens on the course played.
I finished The Mulligan and went back to talk to Caleb. I had asked him earlier to see if he could pair me up with someone for my round on the main course. He had determined a couple of options for groups that I could be paired up with. I then asked if there was a place that I could grab a light snack before my tee time. I do try to eat at least once a day and I hadn’t eaten since my hot dog at Castle Pines on the afternoon before. I try to remind myself to eat each day because I know that if I don’t, I’d eventually die. I like living so it’s a good motivator.
Caleb walked to over to the grill on the second floor of one of the lounges onsite. We went upstairs, and he introduced me to the staff in the grill. While we were exchanging names, Caleb overheard a member talking to his guest about preparing to go out for their round. He mentioned to them that I was looking for a game. He told them about my quest and asked if they would mind if I joined them. They said they would be delighted to have me join. They were finishing their lunch and would then head to the practice range. They said I could join them on the first tee after they warmed up.
Gary, the member introduced himself and then introduced his brother Tony. Gary lived in Denver and Tony still lived in their home state of Minnesota. Gary practiced law in Denver and Tony is in the financial industry.
Another part of the uniqueness of Ballyneal is that there are no tee markers on the tee boxes. The course can play from 5200 yards up to nearly 7200 yards. You decide what total distance you want to play, and your caddie tells you where to tee off from on each hole. Gary decided to play near the tips, Tony and I decided to play a total of around 6800 yards. On each hole Travis identified the location for me to tee it up. I used my Garman watch to measure the straight line distance on each hole and added it up at the end of the round. The total straight line distance was right at 6600 yards. Each hole played longer than the straight line distance so I’m assuming that we did play at about 6800 yards. There is no rating nor slope shown for the course.
Tom Doak probably realized that golfers would be awe struck standing on the first tee, so he eases you into the course with a short and simple par four. While the fairway has a lot of undulations, its width is generous. The fairway bunkers are either to close to the tee box or too far away to come into play on your drive unless you are a very long hitter who decides to play from the most forward tees. The two far fairway bunkers on each side should also be out of play on the approach shot. The hole plays slightly downhill on the drive and slightly uphill on the approach. The green is protected by greenside bunkers on the left.
The first hole measured 350 from our position on the tee box to the middle of the green. I ripped my first drive 285 yards down the left side of the fairway, leaving only 55 yards to a front left pin position.
I pitched to just short of the front of the green, then putted to 5 feet past the hole. I made the comeback putt to open my round with an easy par.
Mr. Doak wasn’t as nice on the second hole as he was on the first. We moved from the short par four first hole to the long 460 yard par four second hole. The fairway narrows just a little bit and there are several bunkers that come into play on the drive on both sides of the fairway. And again since we are playing a course with fairways that flow over sand dunes and sand hills, there is plenty enough undulation in the fairway.
I did not hit my drive as well off the second tee. My drive landed in the sandy rough on the right side of the fairway so there was no roll, just 235 yards of carry. I was closer to the tee box after my drive than I was to the slightly up hill green. I hit a five wood to the middle of the fairway, leaving 70 yards to the flag. My approach shot hit right next to the flag, but then rolled 35 feet away. I two putted from there for a bogey.
The third hole is shortest of the four par threes on the course. From our position in the tee box the hole played just 125 yards. Travis and I spent a lot of time on deciding between a sand wedge and a pitching wedge for the tee shot. On a straight line a saw wedge isn’t enough club and on any line a pitching wedge was too much. The pin was positioned at the front of the green. In the end we decided that it was better to me short than long. We chose the sand wedge.
My tee shot landed on the green on a slope just left of the flag. The ball rolled toward the hole. I quickly wondered if this would be my first hole-in-one during my Top 100 Tour. I’ve had two previous holes in one during my thirteen years of golf. The ball peaked into the hole, we are not sure how it didn’t drop in, but it didn’t. It rolled just 10 inches past the hole and stopped, making for what should be a very easy birdie.
As we talked toward the green, Gary told me a very touching but warm story about his best friend and a fellow golfer. Tom, also known as TC as diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in 2012. He was just 44 years old. TC became allergic to the chemo after 80 treatments. As a result, he could no longer receive the treatments. He then started with radiation treatments that helped ease the pain from tumors that had developed near his spine and in his brain.
Through it all, TC continued to love and play golf. Gary said he spent a lot of time with TC during the last year. He recounted a round of golf with TC and two of TC’s other friends at Glen Falls Country Club in upstate New York. When they came to the third hole which was the first par three on the course, Gary told me that he said to everyone “today is the day, we need a hole-in-one today.” Well no one came close to a hole in one on the third hole nor the next two par threes. But on the final hole on the course, something magical and special happened.
The hole was playing exactly 136 yards. The other two friends in the foursome hit first and hit good shots onto the green. Gary then hit his tee shot to the green. As TC stood over the ball, Gary told everyone to think “ONE.”
TC hit a great looking shot, they all froze and watched very closely. The ball landed on the green and released to the hole. The ball then tapped the flag stick and stopped on the lip of the cup, but for less than a split second. As they watched everything stood still except the ball, it dropped into the cup for a magical ace!
They all erupted in joy as they were filled with emotion. Gary said that the first thing TC said after things settled down was that the number 136 which was the exact distance that the hole was playing, was his house number growing up. TC told him that when ever he had that yardage on the golf course, he always thought of his father. 81 days later, and just threes short of the five year anniversary of his diagnosis, TC lost his battle with cancer. This had not been TC’s first hole-in-one nor his last swing of a golf club, but it was certainly a special and magical moment.
My heart swelled with emotion as Gary finished his story. I thanked him for sharing it with me and asked if he’d mind if I shared the story in my blog. He said I could. I tapped in the 10 inch putt for birdie and we moved on to the fourth hole.
The fourth hole is a par five with a generous fairway. The left side of the fairway is open and safe, but lurking on the right side of the fairway are a lot of double bogey over here locations, mostly in the form of nagging bunkers. But there is one other nuisance on the right. I think Gary called it Bledsoe’s Corner. It’s a place where golf balls go to die. My first drive disappeared over there, never to be heard from again. Gary said I should take a mulligan since they had been talking about it just before my swing. I did just that and drove the ball to the right rough, just off the fairway.
I took advantage of the do over on the hole. I was 310 yards out. The ball was sitting up in the rough. I laid up to the middle of the fairway with a 5 hybrid to 135 yards out. I then hit my pitching wedge right at the flag. The ball stopped 18 feet past the pin.
I missed the downhill left to right breaking birdie putt by a foot to the right and made the next putt for par. Well, par with an asterisk.
The fifth hole is the second par three on the front nine. Tony and I played it from 147 yards. The hole has a very large green. The pin was tucked behind a small bunker protecting the right side of the green. There are also green side bunkers on the left and right, but you’d have to miss the green by a lot for them to come into play. None of that mattered after I hit my tee shot thin and the ball rolled off the back of the green. A chunked pitch, a chip, and two putts later, I’d made a double bogey. My first one on the front nine.
My short game woes continued on the sixth hole. The hole is possibly the flattest and most straight forward par four on the course. We played the hole from 435 yards out. Gary gave me a great line for my drive and I hit the ball perfectly on a line 10 yards to the right of left fairway bunker sitting about 230 yards from our position on the tee box. This left about 205 yards to the middle of the green.
oI hit a 3 hybid that was held up by the wind and landed short and to the right of the green. I pitched onto the green, but too far as the ball rolled to the back of the green. My first putt rolled back down the slope. It took two more putts to get the ball to the bottom of the cup for my second double bogey.
The seventh hole is similar to the first hole in that it is a short par four with a very generous fairway. However, unlike the first hole there are fairway bunkers that come into play. I hit my five hybrid to just short of Tony’s bunker on the left side of the fairway. I call it Tony’s bunker because on the tee, Gary made it very clear that we needed to avoid that bunker. Tony was not as fortunate as I was. His tee shot landed right in the middle of the bunker.
The bunker was massive and 125 yards from the middle of the green. It has a very steep face that left a blind shot to the green. A blind tee shot from in the bunker and from outside the bunker. Tony hit a great shot to get out of the bunker and advance the ball toward the green. I hit my approach shot onto the green, but 40 feet to the left of the pin. I two putted from there for par.
The 8th hole is a short par five, yet a very complex hole. There is a lot of trouble on the hole in the form of bunkers and fairway undulation. A bad lie could turn a good shot into a bad one very quickly. I hit my drive to the right side of the fairway into a very strong wind, leaving 260 yards to the green. I then hit a 3 hybrid into the same strong wind to lay up to 100 yards. It took my 130 yard club to get the ball to the green from 100 yards out. I two putted for a par on the hole.
The ninth hole is another short par four. We played it from 355 yards. Now this is a short but tough hole, especially into the strong wind that had come up. My drive on the hole landed in the fairway but traveled a mere 185 yards.
My approach shot sliced and land on the hill to the right of the green with a very tough lie. It took me two shots to get to the green. I two putted for a double bogey to close out the front nine with a 42.
After a reasonable performance on the front nine, I got off to a bad start on the back nine. The 10th hole is long par four with some serious bunkers to avoid, which I didn’t manage to do. We played the hole from 430 yards out. I hit my drive into the right fairway bunker which was only 200 yards from the tee box. My only shot was a shot back toward the tee box. This left 235 yards to the middle of the green. I then hit my driver off the deck to the right of the green. I chipped on and two putted for a double bogey to start the back nine.
I also made double bogeys on the 11th and 12th holes. We played the par three 11th hole from 175 yards. The hole plays up hill to what is probably the smallest of the par three greens. The green is protected by bunkers on the left and the right, but there is short grass from the tee boxes to the green, so you can find a line to hit alone that gets the ball to the green without going over any trouble. I hit my tee shot to the right of the green. I pitched onto the green with my second shot, but the ball rolled the other side and off the green. I failed to get up and down from there, resulting in a double bogey.
The 12th hole could be played as a short par four, but we chose to play it from all the way back at a distance of 380 yards. I hit a drive with a 240 yard carry that ended up in a fairway bunker. My approach shot plugged in the right greenside bunker.
I hit my sand shot onto the green, but then three putted. This hole had a case of hitting good shots that ended up in bad places. I made solid contact on my drive. A couple of yards to the left was a safe landing zone for the drive. A yard to the left on my approach shot would have put me on the green. This is how I end up with scores in the high eighties and low nineties. Better misses when I make solid contact with the ball can save two to three strokes a round. Such is golf. It’s a game of inches. A game where a 240 yard drive counts the same as a 1 inch putt.
On the 13th hole we move back up a tee box. This par four hole could be played as far back as 510 yards. We played it from 440 yards. In addition to being a long hole, there are several bunkers in the middle of the fairway, creating the potential for good drives to end up in trouble. I smashed my drive. It was my best drive of the day. It wasn’t my longest, but it was my best. I carried about 240 yards and rolled another 20 yards in the middle of the fairway, leaving 180 yards to the middle of the green.
I hit a good solid approach shot that landed short of the flag, but rolled just off the back of the green leaving me with a 40 foot putt. My birdie putt from off the green was on a good line, but five feet short. I missed the five footer and bogeyed the hole.
We played the fourteenth hole from all the way back. I made bogey on the hole after hitting my drive to the native grass to the left of the fairway and taking 3 shots to get onto the green. Fortunately, I made a one putt for bogey and avoided the double.
As we walked from the fourteenth green to the fifteenth tee box, Gary and Tony told me a little bit about their childhood. What stood out most to me was that they had three other brothers and they all shared one bedroom. Gary and Tony shared a bunk bed. I have seven siblings. Given our ages, there were never more than five of us living at home at a given time. At one point five of us shared a bedroom and slept in one bed. Three of us would sleep at the head of the bed and two would sleep at the foot of the bed.
Meeting people and sharing stories is one of the best parts of this journey that I’m on. Ballyneal was the 25th course in my quest, putting me at one fourth of the way to my goal of playing all the 100 Top Courses on the 2017-18 Golf Digest list. I thought it fitting to mark this milestone with two great guys like Gary and Tony who had such great stories that they didn’t mind sharing.
The fifteenth hole is the last of the par threes on the course. It is by far the longest and most difficult. I hit my tee shot to the front right bunker. My sand shot landed on the green and I two putted for another bogey.
The sixteenth hole is the only par 5 on the back nine. We played it from just under 480 yards. This was a difficult hole for me to visualize the lay out from the tee box. Gary, Tony, and my caddie Travis all said I needed to hit my drive to the right side of the fairway, but in my mind’s eye, it looked like I needed to hit it to the left. That is where it appeared that the very narrow opening in the fairway was for the second shot. The tee box on the hole points you to the right. The only opening to the green from the fairway appeared to be about a 10 yard gap at about 330 yards from our tee box. I thought I needed to hit toward that gap. We were again hitting into a strong wind. I followed their guidance and hit my drive to the right side of the fairway.
Travis then gave me a line for my second shot from 280 yards out. I hit my ball on the line he gave me. He then seemed worried about the shot. I thought I’d hit a good shot because I made solid contact and hit it on the line he gave me. When we got to the place where we thought the ball would be, we couldn’t find it. I then let my emotions get the best of me and got a little upset that I hit a solid shot on the intended line and we couldn’t find the ball. I asked Travis why he’d have me hit on that line. It looked like there was a lot of trouble on that line. We eventually found my ball. It wasn’t Travis’s fault that we initially couldn’t find the ball. It was my fault and the wind’s fault. I thought I’d hit the ball about 200 yards, so we were looking in an area 200 yards from where I hit the ball, we found the ball at about 175 yards from the spot where I hit from. While I’d hit a good shot, the wind apparently affected the ball more than I thought it did. I apologized to Travis, regained my composure and pitched the ball back to the fairway.
The most I could advance the ball was 30 yards. I then hit my 60 degree wedge high into that strong wind, uphill from 75 yards out and right at the flag. It was one of my best shots of the day. The ball landed three feet from the pin and rolled to 12 feet away. I made the 12 foot putt to save my par.
We played the par four 17th hole from 450 yards. I hit my drive into the fairway bunker on the right. The fairway narrows near the bunker which is about 265 to 275 yards from the tee box we chose. I would have been fine with a slight shorter drive or one that was a few yards farther on the right. I hit out of the bunker to the fairway.
I then hit onto the green and two putted for a bogey.
We played the final hole from the back tee box at about 460 yards. My 240 yard drive down the left side of the fairway landed in the left fairway bunker which was over 220 yards from the flag. It took three shots to get to the green. I again two putted once on the green and ended my round with a very disappointing double bogey resulting in a 48 on the back nine and a 90 for the full round.
I ended the Colorado portion of my Top 100 Golf Course Tour without breaking 90. Gary and Tony invited me to join them for dinner. After dinner, I retired to my lodge on site to get a good night’s sleep before my early morning to Nebraska to play at Sand Hills.