Geeked on Golf

A Celebration of the People & Places that Make Golf the Greatest Game

A September to Remember – Oakmont, Ballyneal & Sand Hills

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2016 has been yet another wonderful year of golf adventures.  The season culminated in late September with a stretch of dreams come true in this golf geek’s life with visits to Oakmont Country Club, Ballyneal Golf Club and Sand Hills Golf Club.

In a word, Oakmont is mystique.  From the turn into the parking lot, through the clubhouse, and on each of its 18 holes, a palpable aura surrounds and permeates the place.

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In a word, Ballyneal is joy.  Golfing the ball around this wonderful facility is guaranteed to reawaken a childlike love of the game.

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In a word, Sand Hills is majesty.  On land that is as big and beautiful as the sky above, it sits like modern minimalist royalty on a throne.

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Although these clubs and courses are quite distinct, they share common threads.  They are all breathtakingly beautiful.  Each features a wealth of interest from the grand scale all the way down to the smallest details.  They possess an enjoyable combination of challenge and fun.

And perhaps most important, their memberships love and respect golf, are welcoming, and have just the right kind of pride in their home clubs.  The spirit of the game is alive and well at Oakmont, Ballyneal and Sand Hills.


OAKMONT COUNTRY CLUB

For a golf history and architecture geek, there is simply too much to take in in one visit to Oakmont.  Especially with a knowledgeable and gracious host like mine, sharing stories as we walked the fairways, my head was spinning.  Having had the full experience, I hope to make a return trip some day to get to know the course better and just play.

In discussions of Oakmont, much attention is paid to the group of holes across the turnpike, which includes the par-4 3rd, with its iconic church pews.  And of course, the closing stretch from the par-4 15th through the par-4 18th is as strong and storied as they come.

I found myself particularly taken with the holes that occupy the center of the property between the clubhouse and the turnpike – the 9th through the 13th.  The ground has surprising elevation change and beautiful movement to it, and the holes are packed with interest and variety.

#9 – Par 5 – 462 yards

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This three-shotter plays much longer than the yardage on the card, uphill and often into the wind.  The drive is blind, the fairway guarded by bunkers and ditches, and the large green transitions seemlessly into the practice putting green.  Playing up this hole toward the iconic clubhouse is awe-inspiring.

#10 – Par 4 – 440 yards

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The tenth tumbles downhill through a minefield of bunkers over some of the most undulating ground on the property.  Approaches into the green, which runs away, are extremely difficult to judge.

#11 – Par 4 – 328 yards

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The eleventh heads back uphill and the player has to decide how aggressively to flirt with the ditch that cuts across the hole at an angle.  The elevated green needs to be approached deftly, especially when the wind is blowing.

#12 – Par 5 – 562 yards

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This beast can play in excess of 650 yards downhill to a fairway that slopes severely from left to right.  Simply put, hit three good shots here or you are looking at a big number, as the green is not one that allows for easy up-and-downs.

#13 – Par 3 – 153 yards

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Finding the green on this beautiful little three-par is just the beginning of the adventure.  The putting surface is both canted and contoured, which means a line/speed guessing game when attempting to hole an elusive birdie putt.

To conclude that Oakmont is just a hard golf course is to miss the subtle brilliance of Mr. Fownes’s design.  Oakmont is not a one-dimensional brute.  For those who can maintain focus, think strategically and execute boldly, Oakmont is a multi-dimensional puzzle beckoning to be solved.

For much more on the history of Oakmont Country Club, its course and championships, visit the video archive here for Kyle Truax’s compilation.


BALLYNEAL GOLF CLUB

From the moment we passed the front gate, my companions and I were grinning from ear to ear.

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I have never experienced a friendlier reception than the one we got at Ballyneal.  Every member we met seemed happy to see us, and genuinely excited for us to experience all aspects of their club.   It is the golf-geekiest place I have been to date, and I loved it!

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The course map hanging in the pro shop illustrates how Tom Doak routed a wonderful adventure through the Chop Hills. Of the eight TD courses I have played thus far, Ballyneal is my favorite.  It has the boldness of Pacific Dunes coupled with the adventurous feel of Apache Stronghold.  It has variety aplenty, some unique and creative holes, and just the right amount of Doak funk.

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(Click on images to enlarge)

#1 – Par 4 – 350 yards

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Walking to the first tee, we discovered one of the many aspects of Ballyneal that makes it a joy to play – no tee markers.  Holes have multiple teeing areas and players are given the freedom to choose their own adventure.

We played the opener from the left tee which requires a carry over a valley up to the angled fairway.  The green is guarded by bunkers left and tight runoffs right.

#2 – Par 4 – 483 yards

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The fairway on the second is wide, but angles do matter when approaching the green, which is surrounded by slopes and bunkers.

#3 – Par 3 – 135 yards

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The first of Ballyneal’s strong one-shotters is a shorty played over a sea of sandy gunch to an island of beautifully contoured green.

#4 – Par 5 – 562 yards

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The par-5 fourth features a thrilling downhill tee shot to a rollercoaster ride of a fairway.

#5 – Par 3 – 160 yards

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With the wind blowing, judging the distance on the tough fifth is a challenge.  I can imagine playing anything from a pitching wedge to a 3-iron on this hole depending on the conditions.

#6 – Par 4 – 420 yards

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The uphill sixth is straightforward off the tee, but challenging on the approach.  Running approaches are a fun option into the firm green complex.

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#7 – Par 4 – 341 yards

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The seventh is one of the coolest short-4s I have ever seen.  Wind and pin position combine to pose strategic questions from the tee.  The green is divided into three distinct sections and is nestled between a large mound left and bunkers right.  There are many ways to play this hole, but no “right” way.  Brilliant.

#8 – Par 5 – 470 yards

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The evening light reveals the sea of mounds and ripples that extend from the tee of the 8th all the way through the back of the green.  No level lies to be found here.

#9 – Par 4 – 351 yards

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The short ninth provides options off the tee.  A large mound cuts in front of the green, reminding the player that an architect doesn’t always need bunkers to mount a defense.

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#10 – Par 4 – 475 yards

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The tee shot on the tenth is tough.  Players that don’t summon the courage to take on the nasty looking bunkers that guard the right side of the fairway will find their ball coming to rest in a deep swale left.  The approach into the big green is blind from down below.

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#11 – Par 3 – 177 yards

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The par-3 eleventh was one of my favorite holes on the course playing uphill to a green that looks as if it is impossible to hit and hold.  I love the thrill of trying to overcome the story my eyes are telling me, letting the shot fly, and then walking up to discover the outcome.

#12 – Par 4 – 335 yards

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The 12th is another devilish short par-4 whose contours create a riddle of tee shot, approach and putt that must be solved over repeat plays.

#13 – Par 4 – 420 yards

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I am a sucker for centerline bunkers, which feature in the minefield that must be navigated from the tee on the thirteenth.  Pick a line, and let it fly!

#14 – Par 4 – 340 yards

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Plenty of room right is afforded to the player who desires safety on the short dogleg left fourteenth.  Opportunity for a pitch and putt birdie on the elevated green are available to the bolder of spirit.

#15 – Par 3 – 212 yards

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The wind and length conspire to crush weakly played tee shots on the 15th.  A large, undulating green leaves plenty of flatstick work to be done for those who find the putting surface.

#16 – Par 5 – 494 yards

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My favorite hole on the course, the sixteenth features a blind drive to a narrowing fairway.  The elevated green is reachable, but guarded by slopes and a funky little bunker that is immensely cool.

#17 – Par 4 – 464 yards

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Depending on the wind, the par-4 seventeenth can play longer that the par-5 sixteenth.  There is plenty of room to play, and it looks straightforward, but contour throughout provides ample challenge.

#18 – Par 4 – 425 yards

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One last heroic tee shot to an angled fairway awaits at the closer.  It plays down and then back up to a green set at the base of the hills.

At times throughout the round, I was not sure if holes were par-4s or par-5s.  I completely lost track of what hole we were on on both the front and back nines.  These are signs to me of the greatness of Ballyneal.  It is a place where one can get deeply into the joy of planning and playing each shot.  It is a course that brings you powerfully into the joy of each moment.  What a gift.

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The Mulligan course is taking shape and growing in.  It appears to be packed with fun and heroic challenge.  The main course and The Commons putting course were reason enough for a return visit, but the short course conveniently provides an imperative to plan another trip.


SAND HILLS GOLF CLUB

If there is perfection in American golf, Sand Hills is it.

What is more difficult for an architect – squeezing good holes out of a mediocre piece of land, or finding the best holes on a piece of land so great that good holes are everywhere?  That is a question for geeks to debate that cannot be definitively answered.  At Sand Hills, Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw took on the latter challenge and uncovered 18 great holes that work beautifully together and inspired an architectural renaissance for which geeks like me are eternally grateful.

There is not a remotely weak hole at Sand Hills, but the course is much more than the sum of its parts.  I was particularly struck by the rhythm of the routing and order of the holes, specifically with the 6 straight par-4s in the middle.  The course begins dramatically, settles down a bit in the middle, and then ends with a closing stretch that is my all time favorite.  Playing Sand Hills is like listening to a perfectly composed symphony.  It is transcendent.

Conditioning is not typically high on my list of determinants of greatness, but it is appropriate to give credit where it is due in this case – the work that Kyle Hegland and his team do at Sand Hills is outstanding.  The course plays firm and fast, the greens are as true as they come, and they fight the good fight against the wind to keep the bunkers looking beautiful.  They are an A-team of pros, and I know that the membership at Sand Hills is grateful to have them.

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On the day of our visit, we played from the morning until it was too dark to see.  If the day had been six hours longer, I would have happily kept playing.  The course is beautifully routed and a delight to walk.  Paths cut through the native areas, and the green-to-tee walks are surprisingly short for a course that feels so big.

Sand Hills is a place to get lost, blissfully going around and around and around…

(Click on images to enlarge)

#1 – Par 5 – 521 yards

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The opener is a stunning introduction to the scale and movement of the land, complemented by blowout bunkers.  The tee shot is played to an angled fairway and the approach well uphill to a green set in the saddle of two hills.  The first of many wows to come.

#2 – Par 4 – 368 yards

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The blind tee shot on the second plays up to a windswept fairway that sits atop one of the highest spots on the property.  The hole culminates with a two-tiered infinity green, the setting for which provides endless views of the surrounding hills.  This green is not only my favorite at Sand Hills, it is one of my favorites from C&C anywhere.

#3 – Par 3 – 216 yards

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This long one-shotter plays shorter than the yardage on the card as the left front slope can be used to run shots into the green.  The player has to catch a bit of luck to end up in the right section of the green, which features a large contour that makes long putting extremely difficult.

#4 – Par 4 – 409 yards

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A tee shot to another angled fairway followed by an approach into a green elevated and benched into the side of a hill with a huge blowout bunker.  As do several of the holes at Sand Hills, this par-4 brings to mind the work of the Maxwells at Prairie Dunes.

#5 – Par 4 – 387 yards

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The center bunker on this four par must be challenged and the wind judged expertly in order to get into position for the approach to the green.  A tee shot in good position leaves the player with options for a ground or aerial attack.

#6 – Par 3 – 198 yards

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Being such a fan of Coore & Crenshaw, it was fun to finally to see the “original” holes that have since inspired others.  The canted and contoured green on the sixth looks almost triangular from the tee, bringing to mind other favorites of mine from Old Sandwich, WeKoPa, and Sand Valley.

#7 – Par 4 – 283 yards

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The seventh is the first of two straight drivable par-4s.  The player can lay well back, or have a go at this well-defended green that has a large bunker left and deep runoff right.  Missing right leaves the player with another set of choices on how to try and navigate the slope to gain a birdie chance.  So much substance to such a little hole.

#8 – Par 4 – 293 yards

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The short eighth features a fantastic green surrounded by bunkers, and fronted by a lion’s mouth.  Again, line and distance options abound from the tee, with the pin position and wind factoring heavily.  Strategic golf at its best.

#9 – Par 4 – 371 yards

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The third of six straight par-4s, the ninth has a blind tee shot followed by an approach into a green set below Ben’s Porch.  The green and surrounds have subtly maddening contours that must be overcome.

#10 – Par 4 – 426 yards

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The two shot tenth flows gently downhill to a green that doesn’t look like much from the fairway.  Watching too-bold approaches and putts roll and roll and roll some more reveals just how difficult this green can be.

#11 – Par 4 – 348 yards

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A huge, gorgeous bunker guards the entire left side of the eleventh and dictates play from the tee.  To gain the advantage of a short approach into the elevated green, that bunker must be challenged as the fairway slopes hard from left to right.

#12 – Par 4 – 354 yards

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The twelfth is wide from the tee, but tee shots must be placed precisely in the right third in order to avoid having to deal directly with the large bunker that flanks the right side of the green.  Like many holes at Sand Hills, slopes short and in the green surrounds are there to be used for the creative shot-maker.

#13 – Par 3 – 185 yards

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The par-3 thirteenth sits majestically atop a hill, completely exposed to the wind.  The setting provides a thrilling tee shot, beautiful views of the surrounding hills, and an exciting start to the all-world final stretch of holes.

#14 – Par 5 – 475 yards

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The three-shot fourteenth winds over heavily undulating ground, through nasty bunkering, to a tiny green set partway up a hill.  Balls above the hole on this green are dead – plain and simple.

#15- Par 4 – 453 yards

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The fifteenth plays over a cross bunker and then uphill to a saddle green.  The right must be favored off the tee to earn the ideal approach angle.

#16 – Par 5 – 563 yards

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This might be my all-time favorite par-5.  The player has to decide on the tee how much of the enormous bunker left to take on.  A speed slot awaits beyond as a reward for the boldest of tee shots.  The firm slope short and left of the green, makes it reachable in two for the longer player.  Those laying back have to decide how to contend with a pronounced mound right in front

 #17 – Par 3 – 150 yards

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There is good reason why this is considered one of the best shorties in the world.  The elevated green is incredibly difficult to hit and hold in the wind.  Par is truly a good score here, and birdies are to be cherished.

#18 – Par 4 – 432 yards

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The finisher at Sand Hills provides one last WOW, as the player has to face the gigantic bunkers running down the entire left side of the fairway.  The eighteenth plays uphill to a green set in a punchbowl among the hills.  Plenty of challenge, visual stimulation and a lasting impression of the experience of this masterpiece.

I must admit that I was a bit skeptical that Sand Hills could wow me more than Friar’s Head, Essex County, and my other favorites.  My skepticism was greatly misplaced.  For me now, there is this course, a gap, and then the other greats that I have been so fortunate to experience.


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A brush with history, a club that felt like home, and my new all-time favorite golf course – with experiences like these, it is tough to imagine a month ever being better than September 2016.

Wherever my golf adventures take me going forward, the memories of this magical month will endure and continue to bring a smile to my face.

9 thoughts on “A September to Remember – Oakmont, Ballyneal & Sand Hills

  1. Pretty strong month! Your pics from Sand Hills are awesome!

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  3. Hoping to line up a CO/NE loop this summer, so I’ve been checking out some great photos of these places to get me through the winter! Hoping for SH, Dismal, Ballyneal, Prairie Club, and working on Castle Pines. We will see what comes to fruition, but your post motivates me to see this part of the country! Keep up the good work–Alex

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  4. Jordan – I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Sand Hills 4 times and have played over 15 times! I have played at other amazing places as well, Pebble, Winged Foot, Spyglass, Butler National and even Augusta National but Sand Hills is the best golf course I’ve ever seen. Not only that, but the actual place is epic; unpretentious with great people and food, itis my favorite spot on earth. It’s beautiful in a way that must be seen to be appreciated. Great write up and I hope you get back there soon. I’m headed there this summer! Your pictures are better than mine! I’m sorry you didn’t get to meet Tom, who for years manned the grill at the turn. The best burger ever, with NE beef, great golf and your friends. As you can tell, I love it there 😉

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    • Thanks for reading Brad. We did in fact get one of those tasty burgers, which tastes even better after hiking around 18 holes. You are right – it is a unique and wonderful place in every way.

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