A Day at Ballyneal and the inaugural No Laying Up Summit at CommonGround GC
Well I made some friends, Lord,
That I won’t soon forget
Well some are down under
And some are rambling yet
But as for me
Well I’m headed for home
Back to high Colorado
Never more to roam– My Proud Mountains, Townes Van Zandt
The drive from Denver to Ballyneal Golf Club, designed by legendary Architect Tom Doak, takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes. The travel time is aided somewhat by the generous speed limit of 75 mph on Interstate 76. For the most part, the route is through gently rolling prairie, with only the occasional small town along the way to interrupt the expansive grazing land. After about 2 hours on the main road, you exit at US Highway 6 and drive until you reach the village of Holyoke, the closest town in proximity to Ballyneal. Well to be honest, it’s the only town in proximity. The last 8 or 9 miles are on a dirt/gravel road through ranch and farmland, until you reach a simple wooden sign at Ballyneal Lane. I have often said that the anticipation of something is half the fun of doing it. The last segment of the drive to Ballyneal is near the pinnacle of golf anticipation.
There are many great “reveals” in the world of golf – the first view of Cruden Bay as you exit the car park, the drive along Sweetens Cove Road and that first great panorama from The Shed at Sweetens Cove, the first glimpse of The Old Course as you walk around the corner from The Dunvegan come readily to mind. Ballyneal fits easily into that category. Cresting the ridge near the end of Ballyneal Lane, the entire world of the “Chop Hills” (a relatively small geographical area of massive rolling sand dunes) is laid about before you. It is not a stretch to say that you could be at fabled Machrihanish Golf Club, without the benefit of the Atlantic Ocean. It would not be wrong to question if the rest of the day will live up to the excitement and anticipation of this initial introduction.
The trip to one of the world’s great golf courses was a happy addition to the main reason for my visit to Colorado. I came to Denver for the inaugural No Laying Up Summit, the first tournament held by the NLU boys to benefit the Colorado Golf Association’s caddie program and the Evans Scholarship. The event was held at CommonGround Golf Club, another Tom Doak design. As you might expect with NLU, the main focus of the event was to have fun and celebrate the game of golf. They succeeded on both accounts.
I arrived early on Thursday at CommonGround and immediately ran into Gary Albrecht of Denver. Gary is an excellent amateur golfer and served as the unofficial host for the event. He turned down his spot in the US Senior Amateur due to his commitment to the NLU Summit. He was busy directing last minute preparations, but found time to give me the story of how the CGA came to be involved in CommonGround. You could sense his pride in being able to introduce the course to so many new golfers.
The festivities were kicked off with a Par 3 Contest on the delightful wee short course at CGC. Paired with NLU’s DJ Piehowski himself, we were mindful that no winner of the Par 3 Contest had ever gone on the win The NLU Summit. This no doubt led to a couple of purposeful double bogeys by DJ and another member of our group, Utah’s own Payton Broadbent. One of the most literate men in golf, DJ Pie is as an enthusiastic and fun playing partner as you could ever hope to find. We laughed all the way around the fun 9 hole layout. Having never played golf at altitude before, I provided much of the comic relief by flying the second green by about 50 yards.
After catching up with Tron Carter and the other NLU guys, there was a fun welcome party and a live NLU podcast with Tom Doak. It was enjoyable to hear Doak talk about the creation of CommonGround and how the design developed. The main 36 hole event began in earnest early the next morning. The format was 2 man teams, with 18 holes of FourBall in the morning and 18 holes of Scotch Foursomes in the afternoon. I was paired with the excellent writer from espn.com, Kevin Van Valkenburg. I knew that I’d like Kevin as soon as I saw his Walton Heath pullover. As Big Randy of NLU adroitly observed, it was a “comfy pairing” for the two of us. KVV was great to play with and we talked college football and golf all day. We even got some commentary from “Gary Player” throughout the round. If you’ve never heard, KVV does a hilarious Player impersonation.
Author Tom Coyne was also in our morning group. Tom and I share a love of links golf, especially the lesser known places like Anstruther GC in Scotland. It was a pleasure to walk and discuss Scottish/Irish golf with him. His partner was Brett Highley, who put on a display of driving unmatched since Greg Norman’s final round at the 1993 Open Championship at Royal St. Georges. The only time I’ve ever witnessed that many dead straight 350 yards drives in person was during a round with Justin Thomas. Tom and Brett played a near flawless Best Ball round.
For the afternoon Foursomes session, we actually played Sixsomes. Our group included DJ Pie once again, along with 2 friends from The Ringer event at Sweetens Cove – Joe Zwickl of Pinehurst, NC and the endearingly manic David Margolis of Winston-Salem, NC. The interplay between these 2 characters during Alternate Shot was like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. DJ Pie had secured the services of a Commonground caddie for the afternoon, a local high school student. The smile on her face when she was subjected to some rather unfortunate language, after a particularly wild tee shot by Joe, may been the highlight of the day. I predict she will be a future Evans Scholar.
Alternate shot is arguably the most fun, challenging and strategic of all golf formats. KVV and I played much better in the afternoon session for some reason, even making a brief run to the top of the leaderboard. One of the beauties of this format is the wonderful speed at which you can progress around the course. Playing as a single, I was once overtaken by a Foursome match of members at Muirfield. I had to let them play through and they were gone from sight in 5 minutes. I wish this format was played more in the States.
Commonground GC was a perfect venue for this type of event. Doak and the CGA have created a rarity – great, affordable public golf. The course is playable and fun for the average golfer, yet capable of hosting significant amateur or professional events. The wee Par 3 course is a perfect place to take your kids to learn the game. Gary and the Colorado Golf Association were genuinely welcoming hosts and the inaugural No Laying Up Summit was a home run. Being around some of the boys and girls that are part of the CGA caddie program was an unexpected treat. The NLU guys continue to promote what is great about the game of golf.
With the tournament complete, my thoughts turned back to Ballyneal. A good friend, Greg Milam of Seattle, flew into Denver to join up for the Saturday round. We met in the pleasant Moxy Hotel bar and were able to catch up again with Soly, DJ and Gary Albrecht. Gary gave us a hole by hole description of Ballyneal and left us with this one piece of advice – “Whatever you do, you have to play the Mulligan Course.” Greg, with his customary generosity, picked up the bar tab for several of us.
The joys of Ballyneal are numerous – the old school caddies, the massive putting course, the unassumingly casual bar and dining room with a stunning view of the sandhills, the warm welcome by the great GM Dave Hensley and his staff. These things are secondary to the golf, but when provided in such an understated and casual way, they only serve to enhance the overall experience. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say that Ballyneal just has the vibe of pure golf. Places like this, while plentiful in Scotland, Ireland and England, are exceedingly rare in the United States.
After making a significant donation in the pro shop, we met our host for the day, Ross Harmon of Denver. Ross is a wonderful ambassador for Ballyneal Golf Club and gave us the grand tour with genuine enthusiasm. We were also joined by his young son Brooks, whose sheer excitement for being out on the course with his Dad was contagious.
Our caddie, who was doubling up for both Greg and I, was Jeff Bunch. I could easily digress into an essay on caddies here, but there aren’t many more enjoyable things in golf than playing with a truly great caddie on the bag. The highest compliment I can give Jeff is that he is one of the 3 best caddies I’ve ever had, the other 2 being at Prestwick and Muirfield.
Finally, to the course itself. In the simplest terms, it is beautiful, fun and challenging. Ross noted that the members play almost exclusively match play, which is easy to understand. It’s a perfect match play course. The wind was a constant 20 mph all day. You would lose your mind if you had to keep score here all the time. Apparently these are the base line wind conditions at Ballyneal. Going out, we played mostly downwind. The 4th and the 7th are the two particular standouts for me. The 4th is a stunning downhill par 5 that reveals the entire panorama of Ballyneal. It is reminiscent of standing on the 7th tee at Royal Dornoch. A blind, drivable par 4 with a wildly sloped green, the 7th was my favorite hole on the main course. It’s one of best holes I’ve ever played.
I should mention a unique design feature at Ballyneal. There are no tee markers. There are multiple teeing areas on each hole that are generally chosen based on the conditions of the day, or by the winner of the previous hole. This is an altogether brilliant concept.
The back 9 seemed to play more uphill and into the wind. It was extremely testing. The 12th, 14th and 17th stand out in my memory and notes from the day. The 12th and 14th are great moderate length par fours, with tee shot placement being critical to get the best angle into the green. The 12th hole sits so naturally in the dunes, it’s hard to imagine that any earth was moved in order to create it. It also has a wild green, even by Ballyneal standards. The 14th green site was one of my favorites. A smallish plateau green, it dropped off precipitously to the right. The tee shot on 17, a brutally long par 4, was perhaps the best tee shot on the course. If your drive catches the correct line off the tee, it could roll an additional 50 yards or more. Based on your line, the green could be virtually impossible to reach in 2 or you could hit a 9 iron in. Ballyneal is a stunning, brilliant and natural inland links.
After a nice lunch with Ross and Brooks, we were met with a dilemma: Go back out and tackle the main course again or play The Mulligan Course, a 12 hole short course that opened in 2016. Thinking back to Gary’s parting advice from the previous night, we decided to take 4 clubs and play The Mulligan. This was the best decision of the day. This has to be the great short course of the world.
Set amongst the best sand dunes on the entire property, and located within the interior of the main course routing, virtually every hole is stunning. Walking among these dunes, with one perfect natural green site after another, is like being at Dunaverty or Machrihanish in Scotland. This is the highest praise I can offer. Every hole is great. There really is not a single letdown. The 6th and the 10th stand out especially in my memory, but the 5th hole is in the top 10 holes that I’ve ever played. Like the 4th at Dunaverty or Cruden Bay, it’s just a brilliant, perfect and fun par 3. The walk around the Mulligan Course at Ballyneal is one of the great walks in the entire world of golf.
We had a wonderful dinner in the refreshingly casual bar/dining area, running into Joe and David from The NLU Summit, and retired to our cabin to get some rest before an early Sunday flight. The accommodations at Ballyneal fit perfectly with the overall experience. If you ever go, you should stay the night.
I must admit that Colorado was a glaring omission in my previous golf experiences. What the Colorado Golf Association has created at CommonGround GC is a model for great and affordable public golf. Ballyneal is one of the truly unique and special places in the game. I will leave the last word to the great Townes Van Zandt:
So friends, when my time comes
As surely it will
You just carry my body
Out to some lonesome hill
And lay me down easy
Where the cool rivers run
With only my mountains
Between me and the sun
Yeah my home is Colorado