One of Sand Hills’ hallmarks is its extremely wide fairways, which make it playable in strong winds; on some holes Coore and Crenshaw tweaked the dunes to open up sight lines and keep blind shots to a minimum. Ballyneal’s fairways are even wider than Sand Hills’, but they put a higher premium on positioning because Doak chose to frame the short grass with the towering chop hills. A timid or poorly executed drive may still find the fairway at Ballyneal, but more often than not it won’t leave a clear look at the target. I learned this on the very first hole, a stunning 380-yard par four that conjures Machrihanish’s famous opener, thanks to a fairway that doglegs diagonally to the left around a gully full of long, untamed prairie grasses, what the caddies call “the native.” Cutting off the dogleg and keeping your drive down the left side leads to a straightforward approach shot, but I bailed out to the right. My ball was on the edge of the seventy-five-yard-wide fairway but I couldn’t see the flag, and after flying the green I was lucky to make bogey.
It is on and around the greens that Ballyneal carves out its separate identity. Sand Hills’ greens are big, relatively flat and very fast, with edges that often run off to devilish, tightly mown chipping areas. Ballyneal’s greens are often flanked by scary bunkers that are so natural looking they seem at one with the prairie landscape. The putting surfaces themselves are even more memorable. Of many classic courses, whether it’s Oakmont or the Old Course, you often hear it said that “you couldn’t build greens like that today.” Well, Doak has at Ballyneal. They have to be seen to be believed: multitiered and full of humps and hollows and all manner of undulation. At 12 on the Stimpmeter, Ballyneal’s greens would be unplayable. At 9.5, they’re a gas.
“‘Fun’ is not a dirty word to us,” Doak says of the staff architects at his Renaissance Design firm. “It’s a compliment. If you enjoyed playing the greens it’s because we had fun building them.”
Ballyneal has embraced another nontraditional idea with its tee complexes. Every hole has a number of different tee areas, but rather than being set up in a straight line they are scattered hither and yon. There are no tee markers on the course, so it is left to the player with honors to decide where the group will tee it up, a decision that can dramatically alter the length and playing angles of any given hole.
Wild greens, thought-provoking tees—clearly Ballyneal is striving to be unique. But the course’s biggest departure may be in something as elemental as its grass. After college Doak caddied at the Old Course, and he fetishizes the ground game. There was never any doubt that Ballyneal would strive for the firm-and-fast turf conditions that define British links golf. Ballyneal’s bump-and-run ethos is integral to its seventh hole, a 335-yard par four with a thrilling green. The left side of the putting surface is banked like the turn of a Nascar oval. The right side seems to melt into a pair of nasty little bunkers. The day I played Ballyneal, the flag on seven was in the middle of the green. A drive too far to the right forced me to go over the bunker with an approach that I hoisted in the air long and left of the flag, using the contour to let my ball trickle to within fifteen feet. Rupert, my playing partner, hit a more educated drive down the left side, and for his approach he bunted a tricky little shot that landed twenty yards short and fed up the left side and back toward the pin. Diametrically different shots, yet our balls ended up two feet apart.
The fescue in the turf (mixed with bent grass) encourages this kind of shotmaking, but it is a delicate grass vulnerable to damage by golf carts. So Ballyneal made the far-reaching decision to be walking-only, part of its unmistakable effort to out–Sand Hills Sand Hills. “Everything we do is to make the golf experience as pure as possible,” says Rupert.
The decision to be walking-only may please traditionalists, but it has not proven to be a blockbuster recruiting tool for Ballyneal. Near the end of last season, despite a relatively reasonable initiation fee of $50,000 and fast-spreading acclaim, the club had only seventy-five members. What the O’Neals are discovering is that when golfers make the schlep to a far-flung destination, they generally want to play thirty-six holes a day, because there isn’t really much else to do. But walking thirty-six a day is more than a lot of golfers can handle, because of maladies ranging from balky backs to bad attitudes. Currently Ballyneal houses thirteen beds in a lovely stone lodge, and two more lodges are under construction; by summer the Ballyneal bed count should be up to thirty-two. But bunking there and playing only eighteen holes a day leaves an awful lot of time to kill. A modest spa is in the design stage, but right now there are no other amenities except the hunt club. Logic suggests that traipsing through long grass after pheasant is even more physically demanding than walking the golf course.
As a remedy, the guiding forces at Ballyneal are hoping to build at least one more golf course, on which carts would be permitted. Keeping with his man-of-the-people bent, Rupert is leaning toward a course that would be open to the public. A longtime Deadhead, he has already picked out a tentative name for the course: Grateful Dunes.
If the simplicity of sand hills and Ballyneal is designed to help you get away from it all, the Dismal River Club has tried to import everything your sybaritic heart might desire. Even before you see the golf course, you can’t miss the massive clubhouse, set high on a hill affording a glorious view of the club’s eponymous river and the dramatic basin that contains it. By contrast, first-time visitors to Sand Hills are often struck by its unpretentious trappings—after parking your car, you check in at a structure that has the architecture of a motor lodge and houses a restaurant with a decor and menu that calls to mind Denny’s. Dismal River’s clubhouse, with its soaring twenty-two-foot ceilings and rustic timberwork, makes an entirely different statement.