Ballyowen Golf Club

6,508 yards, 130 slope (from the Golds)

Course:  Located in the mountains of Sussex County, New Jersey, Ballyowen is one of the seven courses that comprise the Crystal Springs Resort.  The resort is about 1.5 hours west of NYC and provides a nice get away for all of those metropolitan folks nearby.  Old Bally is the crown jewel of the Crystal Springs courses, even notching the best public course in New Jersey from Golfweek.

The clubhouse

Ballyowen was designed by Roger Rulewich in 1998.  Rulewich apprenticed with Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and has done work at venerable Yale, Palmetto Dunes and Metedeconk.  Bally was his first design and you can tell the attention he put into this course.  I heard really good things from those who played it, so I decided to check things out for a 36 hole day recently with a few friends.  Another scenic drive to the course as the sun rose kind of made me think back to the drive to Pasatiempo.  Very different landscapes, but I realized golf gets me experiencing a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise take in.  The point is it’s a great way to start a full day of golf.

Bally is a links style course, with fescue and long grass just off the fairways, while mounds and contours create blind shots and corridors.  There are also a number of forced carries over water and ravines, which distinguishes this course from most typical links or links style courses.  Bunkers are prevalent, but pale in comparison to the main hazard feature; the rough and long grass.  With the uneven terrain, you’ll face many uneven lies in at least a few inches of rough, all of which compounds the difficulty of this course if your shots go off fairway.  The greens promote creativity with the short game while the short par 4’s give you opportunities to strategize the shots you feel like hitting to get in scoring position.  Although course management is required, one of the main features I felt this course did well was require you to hit a number of different shots.  Low running, high lobs, left to right; the list could go on and on.  This in itself probably makes repeat play here a real advantage, but also makes it compelling to play.  I found it to be an interesting, distinct and challenging course that was scenic and emphasized an accurate tee to green game.  I’d also say it’s probably a little overly penal that it needs to be.

When I drove in, there was a sign for a bagpipe guy, who apparently plays every now and then (I never heard him).  The starter was in a kilt and the workers were pretty much argyled out.  I found all of this fun, instead of actually trying to emulate what you’d find in the old country.  The clubhouse was grandiose and after finding the pro shop and checking in, I headed out.  We played Bally as the second of our 36, so were warmed up and ready for battle at the First tee.  The starter gave us a big lecture on pace of play, which turned out to be super ironic because the round took over 5 hours.  Folks searching for balls in all that long grass tends to add up.  After said lecture, we all striped our tee shots and I immediately really liked the place.

The First is a 351 yard par 4 (from the Golds).  A terrific opening tee shot that’s quite elevated looks down on to a fairway that your tee shot must carry.  The fairway rolls right to left and down hill, dog legging left to the green, which is protected by a bunker carved into the hillside on the left.  The green is quite large and undulating, allowing for a lot of interesting pin positions.  A very good opening hole.

The First
Approach shot territory

The Second is a 312 par 4 with a lot of great things going for it.  The tee shot overlooks a craggy hillside, with the green straight ahead and the fairway off to the right.  If you’re a big hitter, you have a shot at the green from the tee.  Most of us have to figure out how much of the hillside to take on to get to the fairway, keeping in mind that driver straight out right will probably go through the fairway.  The approach shot must carry a ravine, which separates it from the fairway.  A very well done hole.  It helped that I hit my approach within 6 feet of the hole, but still.

The Second

Approach shot territory

My approach shot

The Third is a 546 yard par 5.  The tee shot is elevated, with the fairway angled off to the right.  There are bunkers on the right to collect those slices.  The second shot is blind, as the fairway snakes down to the left and narrows considerably between some mounds, before rising back up to an elevated green, which is fronted by bunkers on the right.  I literally pointed and swung for my second shot, hoping for the best, and ended up in the fairway.  My approach shot was also blind, as the mounds and bunkers block the view of the green.  The green is large and again, had a great approach shot.

The Third

Second shot territory

Approach shot territory

The Fourth is a 180 yard par 3.  For those scoring at home, the routing thus far is 4-4-5-3.  It had my attention.  The tee and green are on level footing, but the ground in between is downhill before gradually ascending to the green.  The green itself is incredibly wide, with a larger bunker in the front center, a run off area to the left and long grass off to the right.  There are multiple ways to attack the green, and multiple ways for your ball to fall off the green.  I really like the opening series of holes here; variety, character and challenge all put before you from the the get go.

The Fourth

The Fifth is a 530 yard par 5.  Going right back to the long hole after a one shotter, with a par 5 two holes before, that works for me.  I only have a photo from the tee because I hit my tee shot in the long grass and as I was walking to the my third shot, I realized I was bit by a tick.  So I was dealing with that, then had to hit my shots and just too much going on before I realized the hole was over.  At any rate, the hole is straight, with long grass then water on the right and OB on the left.  Once you get near the green, it’s in a quasi amphitheater, with bunkers abounding.  A little easier and demanding less creativity than the first four holes, but a good refresher hole.

The Fifth

The Sixth is a 174 yard par 3.  You have a forced carry over water to the green, but there is short grass coming up the left side if you want to wimp out.  The drop zone is actually a forced carry as well, so there really is no escape; you must get aerial on this hole.  There is a bunker on the far side of the green, to collect those over enthusiastic shots, with the green running from back to front, giving most shots a downhill putt.  I got over the water, but landed in the rough between the green and water, leaving myself with an uphill chip.  I wish I could say I planned it that way, but was just happy I got over the water.

The Sixth

From the Gold tees

The Seventh is a 384 yard par 4.  Water is along the entire right side while the fairway heads straight out, then makes a hard right turn to the green, which is multi tiered and water is on its right side.  You could try to go over the water at some point, but a well struck drive gets out far enough that your approach is clear of the water.  The green was the most interesting feature of this hole, as it invites so many different ways to attack, all while minding the water on the far and right side.

The Seventh

Down the fairway

The green

The Eighth is a 395 par 4.  The fairway is wide, but the rough is on both sides is nasty.  The fairway then dips down and slightly to the left before ramping up to the green, with bunkers wrapping up the right side and a downslope with rough on the left of the green.  Another refresher hole of sorts.

The Eighth
Down the fairway

The Ninth is a 393 yard par 4.  The tee shot is elevated, with a hill side blocking the view of the right side.  Although the hole screams for a fade off the tee, especially with bunkers along the left side, I think you could draw it over the hill side and it would drop on the blind side of the fairway.  The hole then turns right and climbs to the green, with the clubhouse in the background.

The Ninth

Looking back at the fairway from the green

The front nine was very good, with excellent routing, an outstanding opening series of holes and each hole was a different beast.  It looped nicely around the hilly terrain and set you back at the clubhouse.  I’d say it is one of the better public nine holes in the area.  Ranking them, I’d go 3, 2, 1, 6, 4, 7, 9, 8, 5.

The back nine starts with the 482 yard par 4.  The tee shot is blind for the most part; you see it start rolling downhill and curving left in front of you, but then it drops out of sight and bunkers on the near side become the focal point.  There is more than enough room over the bunkers.  The fairway continues downhill, right to the green, with the green sitting on a terrace and water beyond.

The Tenth

Approach shot territory

The Eleventh is a 161 yard par 3.  This more or less a forced carry over water, with the green perched above the tee, bunkers nicely placed on both the left and right and a bail out area short and right, leaving you with a difficult chip shot uphill to the pin.

The Eleventh

The Twelfth is a 328 yard par 4.  The tee shot is elevated to the fairway below, which is shaped liked a bowl, albeit a wide one.  The only thing complicating the tee shot is if you hit it too far right.  A rock pile/mound/gathering blocks your view and access to the green.  If you land on the left side of the fairway, you have a much less impeded view and shot of the green and the hole only gets complicated at that point if you miss the green, since rough, uneven lies and OB await.

The Twelfth

Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 360 yard par 4.  This one is uphill, with a fairway that’s generous, I imagine because the approach shot is to an elevated and well protected green.  If you’re going to miss on your approach, miss long (although that’s still not a preferred option).

The Thirteenth

The Fourteenth is a 448 par 4.  This hole reminds me of the Third; an elevated tee shot, but a blind approach shot from the fairway snaking through the mounds to the green.  There are bunkers on each side as you clear the mounds and get closer to the green, but you really don’t know about them until you’re in them, since it’s impossible to see them from where you’re hitting your second shot.  It’s a nice hole, and one that is probably worth playing a few times before figuring out how best to play it.

The Fourteenth

Second shot territory

Coming up to the green

Looking back from the green

The Fifteenth is a 167 yard par 3.  It’s essentially a forced carry and although there is some leeway left or right, anything too short or long is dead.  It’s an exacting shot that comes at the right time of the round.

The Fifteenth

The Sixteenth is a 420 yard par 4.  This hole requires a well struck tee shot, as the fairway climbs uphill to the green, making it play longer than the stated yardage.  The angle of the fairway from the tee, the bunkers along the right, and rough on the left and the longer approach shot all means anything not on the short grass is essentially playing for bogey.  A very challenging hole without being too obvious about it.

The Sixteenth

Approach shot territory

The Sixteenth green

The Seventeenth is a 490 yard par 5.  You tee off over the road to a fairway that curls left and down to an elevated green.  The tee shot is a glorious one, as I believe it’s the highest point of the course.  It’s also a good hole to score on, as it’s all downhill and it’s fairly conceivable to reach the green in two.

The Seventeenth

Down the fairway, with the green in view

The green

The Eighteenth is a 387 yard par 4.  It’s a dog leg right, with bunkers and long grass on the right for anyone that tries to take off more they should going up the right side.  The fairway snakes between a bunch of bunkers as it climbs to the green, with the clubhouse in the background.  Anything to the right of the green is almost done, as the rough and bunkers are almost directly below the green, at about 15 feet.

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory

The back nine loops around the other side of the course.  I don’t know if they intended it this way, but the front nine loops around in front of the clubhouse while the back nine loops around the rear of the clubhouse.  At any rate, the back nine features good par 3’s, a variety of short and long par 4’s that set themselves apart and a fitting closing hole.  I felt the front nine was stronger, but the back nine holds up its end and closes out well.  Ranking them, I’d go 14, 10, 18, 16, 17, 15, 13, 11, 12.

Generally, Ballyowen is a well designed course that straddles the line of difficult, fun and interesting.  There are no throw away holes, nor are there any I felt were hastily thrown together.  I liked how the course opened and closed, while the strategy lay in how to stay out of the rough and around the greens.  There were certainly a lot of fun shots to pull off as well.   The long grass and rough probably could be a tad lower and still serve its purpose, and the long round here was directly due to most groups searching for balls that were most often just off fairway.  Regardless, it’s one of the better courses I’ve played in New Jersey, and makes great use of the terrain while inserting enough design to give a nod to those Irish links across the pond.

Gripes:  Pace of play was terrible.  There weren’t rangers and most groups were held up looking for balls, which backed up the entire course.  The clubhouse was closed for a wedding and they had no area for the golfers coming in to grab a drink or eat.

Bar/grill:  No idea, I couldn’t get to it.

Clubhouse:  Large, some what decadent, and a reminder of some of the structures the golf boom of the late 1990’s brought us.

Practice area:  No idea on this one as well.  We arrived within minutes of our tee time and went straight to the First.

Getting there:  It’s part of the Crystal Springs resort, about 20 minutes off Route 80 west of NYC.

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