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Ballynizzle, Part Dizzle (Ballyneal Part Two)

10/06/2008 1 comments

Ballyneal is one of those once in a lifetime courses. A once in a lifetime course that I somehow managed to visit twice in one year. I've gotta be the luckiest guy in the world.

When Jefe and I made it out there this past June, we felt awful about going without his brother Jimbo. Of course, that didn't stop us from having one of the all-time great golf experiences in our lifetime, but we did feel bad about it. Honest.

I knew I had to get Jimbo out to Holyoke. Ballyneal is a place that needs to be seen and experienced first hand to be believed. The pictures simply don't do it justice. So I scooped up the opportunity to head back out there last week, and it only took about 2 seconds for Jimbo to decide he was in. 6th grade Global Studies class would be getting a sub on Friday, because Mr. Tang is off to Ballynizzle!

One of the huge advantages of Ballyneal over some of the other remote destination courses like Sand Hills, Dismal River, Sutton Bay, Bandon Dunes, etc., is that it's not quite as remote as the others. For those of us who slum it by flying commercial, Ballyneal is a relatively hop, skip and a jump. There are tons of flights from Chicago to Denver, and the course is only 2 1/2 hours by car from the airport. Jimbo and I were on the 6 am flight Friday morning and were hitting off the first tee by 11:45 without any rush. To me, this is a huge advantage as it allows for 36 holes both on the day you get there and the day you leave. 6+ rounds over a 3-day weekend is easily doable. Head out to Bandon via Portland and you're spending a day on travel each way.

Of course, you can't drive to Holyoke from Denver without passing through Sterling, aka the home of Jimbo's future in-laws. I was very tempted to try to find out where Shayna's parents live so Jimbo could stop by and make a good first impression. However, Jimbo is still apprehensive about the 14-year age difference between he and his bethrothed. I have provided nothing but sound relationship advice to Jimbo over the years, but he never listens. So what if she's a senior in college (and now has a serious boyfriend), Shayna is perfect for him.

It didn't take long for Shayna to become a distant memory, because once we got to Ballyneal, Jimbo set his sights on another female employee. I've never seen the guy so smitten before. He was ready to drop down on one knee in the parking lot. Although the potential for free golf could've been a contributing factor.

But more on Jimbo's love at first sight in a second. We gotta talk about my true love...the golf course. It's safe to say that I've been thinking about Ballyneal every waking moment since I left back in June, to an unhealthy degree that probably adversely affected my work, marriage, etc. It's crazy to like a golf course this much. But as the months passed, I began to wonder if it was really as good as I first remembered. Maybe I was wrong about the whole place.

After heading back, I realized that I was wrong about Ballyneal. It was even better than I remembered. Ballyneal truly is one of those special courses that gets better with each round. You could play 1,000 rounds here and never get bored. We played 7 rounds in 3 days, and with varied wind conditions, a liberating lack of tee boxes, huge fairways and lots of interesting pin positions on each hole, it never felt like the same course twice.

Because I played so poorly the first time out, I don't think I got a full appreciation for some of the holes. The long par 4's, in particular, really stood out more in my mind than last time, probably because I actually got to experience them from the fairway instead of a yucca plant. What a world of difference.

I was interested to see if Jimbo felt the same way. Of course, if he didn't like the course for some reason, it would've meant the immediate end of our friendship. But both Jefe and I, knowing Jimbo's love for Tom Doak's Pacific Dunes (and home of Bernie, his beloved tufted puffin headcover), were confident that he'd enjoy another one one of Tommy D's growing list of masterpieces (to put it bluntly...Tommy D is the balls).

Sure enough, Jimbo was hooked. I put the over/under on him becoming totally head-over-heels by time he reached the 2nd fairway, but it might have occurred even before that. If not, he was certainly on board by the time he climbed up the ridge to the 4th tee. I didn't want to spoil it for him, so I just walked alongside and waited for his reaction. There's really only one suitable and universal reaction to seeing the 4th tee for the first time, and Jimbo nailed the Keanu Reeves perfectly: 'Whoa.'

I tried to let Jimbo discover the holes on his own, but I couldn't help myself from an offering a 'This next hole is awesome.'. After doing that for 5 holes in a row, eventually I just had to tell him, 'Alright. From now on just assume the next hole is awesome unless told otherwise.' He never had to be told otherwise.

Our golf games left a little to be desired. Jimbo had a tough time judging the greens, never quite getting the pace down until the very last round of the trip. He actually hit the ball as well as I've seen him hit it all year, but the diabolical Ballyneal greens were his demise. Take solace, Jimbo, you aren't the only one.

Amazingly, it had been exactly one month since I had even swung a golf club...hard to fathom, I know. Let's just say that working for one of the largest banks in the world during unprecedented financial turmoil doesn't leave much time to work on one's golf game. Also, a couple weeks ago I had to deal with the trauma of going to pick up my car at the train station parking lot only to find two dudes using my car as a canoe launch. Needless to say, it's been an interesting month. Golf has been on the backburner.



Despite the rust, I was determined to better my showing from last time, where I embarassingly never even finished a round with a score. Goal number one: finish a round. Goal number two: break 90. Goal number three: walk 6-7 rounds in 3 days without a stroke, heart attack or being attacked by a snake. Two out of three seemed like a reasonable goal. Thankfully, I had a number of stipulations for Jimbo in exchange for getting him on the course. Stipulation #1: he would have to carry my bag (he's a caddie in the summer, he could easily double loop it). Stipulation #2: he'd have to give me a foot rub after each round. Stipulation #3: no matter how poorly I played, he would have to let me beat him. You know...basic stuff. These would definitely help in my cause. Apparently, he never got the memo though. What a jerk!

Sans caddie, footrubs and footwedges, we burned around the first 18 in about 3 hours, 20 minutes and I somehow managed to shoot 84. Two down, one to go! We still had about 3-1/2 hours left of daylight, so 36 looked like a shoe-in. However, on the the 5th hole of round two, a storm started brewing just beyond the property. Our sunny, 85-degrees day with little wind now turned into dark, dreary and blustering by the time we reached the 6th tee. As we finished up the 7th hole, lightning struck in the distance. We're heading in boys! (Although my plan for a storybook ending is to drop dead on the 7th hole at Ballyneal, I hope it's when I'm 94 and not 34.) We hurriedly played the 8th and 9th (one positive: they were both now extremely downwind) and hustled into the pro shop to wait it out. Unfortunately, it never really did blow over (nor did it ever rain, strangely) until it was nearly dark. My dream of 36-54-36 was dead. My cost-per-round pro formas were now completely out of whack.

With little else to do and about 90 minutes to kill until our dinner reservation, the focus shifted to landing Jim his future wife. What followed was the saddest display of pick-up moves since A Night at the Roxbury. And you thought our golf games were bad.

Playing the role of Wing Man was yours truly. I think my singles antannae disintegrated about 15 years ago. I don't know much about the dating scene, but I do know this: when picking a Wing Man to help you out at the bar, you probably want to avoid the anti-social, married with three kids, 34-year old numbers cruncher who doesn't drink and can only talk intelligently about golf, fantasy basketball and pilates. Poor Jimbo didn't stand a chance.

Just as Jimbo was trying to get comfortable, one of the assistants (perhaps trying to make his own move) suggested that we head over to the restaurant early. That seemed like a far better alternative to me than hanging out at the bar for an hour, so I immediately decided, 'Alright. Let's go eat,' completely oblivious to what Jimbo was trying to accomplish. His look was priceless: 'You idiot!'

Later on at the restaurant, said female target came over to the restaurant to fetch a bottle of wine and asked if we were heading back to the bar after dinner. Again, I was completely clueless to the whole thing, so I responded with a non-committal 'We'll see.' Not surprisingly, Jimbo gave me that same look again, this time while shoveling in his rigatoni at break-neck speed. Had I ordered dessert (and trust me, I wanted to since Jimbo was graciously buying), Jimbo would've stuck a fork in my jugular.

Thankfully, we did make it back to the bar after dinner and she was still there. Unfortunately, Jim was still Jim and Jimbo was still Jimbo. Below is an actual transcript of some of Jimbo's pick-up conversation.

Target: 'I work here five days a week. The rest of the time I'm on call as an X-Ray Tech nearby'
Jimbo: 'So what do you do?'
Target: 'I give X-Rays.'
Jim: 'Cool. Did you know the RPI is deeply flawed?'

Okay, I threw in the last part. But I'll let you guess how this one turned out.

DAY TWO: PAM AND THE PUSH CARTS

Saturday morning brought back two pleasant memories from my first trip in June: Ballyneal bacon and Pam, the schoolteacher/caddie. First, there's bacon, and there's Ballyneal bacon. It's worth the trip to Colorado alone. Second, I requested my ol' buddy (and now facebook friend) Pam, the choir teacher and F.O.S. (friend of Shayna). With Jimbo's mind and heart elsewhere and Shayna off at school with some boy toy, it was up to Pam and me (I almost typed Jim and Pam) to keep any chance of the Jimbo/Shayna union alive. It was looking pretty grim. So grim, in fact, that Pam started trying to set Jimbo up with her 25-year old daughter in Boston. C'mon, Pam! You're killing me here!

Oh yeah, first and foremost, we were there to golf, not to shop for engagement rings. Saturday morning started overcast, breezy and cool, but soon the sun came out and it was the perfect day for golf. Man, there really is nothing better than being the first group off on a world-class golf course. I love this game! My round started well, including after a birdie on the 7th hole (still my favorite hole on the course and one of the best short par 4's in the world.) However, starting mid-way through the 8th hole, I started topping the ball uncontrollably. I couldn't stop. I tripled the 8th hole from the middle of the fairway, played the six-hole stretch from 8-13 10-over par, and completely blew any chance of breaking 80 on this course. It may never happen. Amazingly, I righted the ship and somehow managed to par the last 5 holes. But the damage was done.

Pam and I had our teary goodbyes, Jimbo and I had lunch then headed back out to the first tee for round two. The round was a pretty much a blur, but I know it contained a lot of bogeys. Fittingly, I finished the round +18. I've completely morphed into a 10-handicap. The putting madness finally got to Jimbo and I think he stopped keeping score (I've been there).

Most rational people who stop after 36, especially playing as poorly as we were. But we soldiered on. As I was about to head to the first tee, one of the club-provided pull-carts caught the corner of my eye. Now, it's been at least 20 years since I've taken a pull-cart. I was reluctant to even ask Jimbo if he wanted one, but he, too, saw the light. I felt like the biggest idiot pulling (pushing, actually) that thing around, but it did the trick. I couldn't help but keep thinking about my sister-in-law's pull cart with a little pull-down stool on the side. Now all I needed was a purple, paisley embroidered cart bag and the look would be complete. Equally embarrassed, Jimbo had a stipulation of his own, 'No one must ever know that we took these things.'

Of course, that didn't stop me from snapping the following picture of Jimbo on the 4th hole and sending it to Jefe.


The picture invoked the following response from Jeff:

'What...is...that...thing...on...three...wheels? What are you two DOING out there!!!'

I knew he would be shocked and appalled. But this is Jefe we're talking about here. The same guy with the claw grip and two gloves. A point that Jimbo had to make in a follow-up text message.

Jimbo: 'For the record, BOTH of us had pull carts. And it was only after 36 holes. Besides, don't you wear two gloves?'

Jefe: 'Yeah. But I'm quirky.'

It takes a big man to admit that. I'm glad to see Jefe making real progress.

To try to speed things up, Jimbo and I decided to play match-play. However, it didn't really help the pace of play as we both continuously had 4-5 foot testers to halve or win holes. I was all set to concede the first hole after Jimbo had a 15-footer for birdie and I had a 9-footer for bogey. But then I remembered it was Jimbo we were dealing with here. Predictably, he ran his birdie putt 5 feet past and missed it coming back. I curled my putt in for a halve. This happened three times in nine holes as I cruised to a 1-up win for nine holes (although Jimbo mistakenly thought his par on 9th squared it up.)

In one of the few signs of intelligence all weekend, Jimbo decided to call it quits after 45 holes. I took one look at the wide-open back nine, the blue skies and the late-afternoon sun and there was really no choice. I had to keep going. My dogs were barking, but it was the best decision I made all weekend. As the sun set, the course was magnificent. 12, 13 and 14 looked absolutely amazing. I tried taking pictures with my camera phone, but it was hopeless. Right then, I knew all I could do was stick these images into the memory banks. No picture could do it justice. No matter how I tried to describe it, no one would fully grasp it. All I could do was call my wife and tell her I wished she were right there with me.

Not surprisingly, when you're soaking in the view and just having a great time, your golf tends to improve as well. I was in auto-pilot and something resembling my regular golf game returned. Tap-in pars, a concept so unfamiliar to me after 8+ rounds at Ballyneal, now became the norm. (Tap-in pars at Ballyneal are an achievement here. They feel like half-birdies.) After doubling the 10th hole (I should just write down 6 on this hole and move on), I had good birdie chances and routine pars on 11-14. He's back!

On 15, I caught up to a twosome teeing off and joined up. A group ahead of them combined into a fivesome, so finishing 18 before dark was going to be a serious issue. Fortunately, the guys I joined had already given up trying to solve the Ballyneal greens, so it made for some quick holes. Their '20-foot gimme range, 35-feet if breaks less than three feet' rule made me want to reconsider my choice in golf buddies.

These guys got on to Ballyneal through some friends. Immediately after the round, they were all heading to Mullen, Nebraska to go play Sand Hills the following day. As we walked back up to the clubhouse, I half-jokingly asked if they had room for two more. What if they had said 'Yes'? How would Jeff reacted had Jimbo and I played Sand Hills without him? Do you think we'd ever heard from him again? Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending how you look at it), we didn't have to find out. [Note: my guess is Jefe would've immediately jumped in his car and drove all night to Nebraska had the opportunity presented itself. We're not normal. Especially not Jefe.]

DAY THREE: HAPPY LEARNED HOW TO PUTT

Saturday's late afternoon nine was the highlight of my trip, but man I was paying the price for those 54 holes the next day. Whereas Jimbo slept like a baby and was out cold by 8:45 pm, I was tossing and turning all night. My legs from the knees down throbbed, and I couldn't get comfortable. I guess this is why most people take Advil. I'm going to have to stock up next time. This just in...I'm getting old.

Not even an i.v. Of Ballyneal bacon could resuscitate me on this day. The good news was Sunday was beautifully sunny and calm. Perfect scoring conditions. The bad news was I had nothing left in the tank. And I was moving like a 95-year old man.

For some reason, we decided to eschew caddies on the final day. First off on the tee...two guys walking a combined 3.5 miles per hour. It was not a pretty sight. I couldn't feel the bottom half of my big toes (and now, two weeks later, they are still numb. Probably not a good sign.) But we soldiered on. This is what we do. Eat, Sleep, Golf. Or in my case…Golf. Lay in bed. Eat bacon. Golf some more.

Not surprisingly, my golf game suffered as well. After only two three putts in the first 81 holes, I promptly three-jacked the first two greens. I just didn't have it. On the front nine, I gave away six strokes on unforced errors. On #4, I was 80 yards from the green in two and ended up making triple. Miss on the wrong side on some of these greens and you’re toast.

I'm convinced Jimbo and I must've switched places. After two days of being completely baffled by the greens, he started to get the pace and slopes down. He conquered his personal nemesis, the first hole, by rolling in a long birdie putt. The flood gates were open.

As we walked up to the 11th green, somebody was there to greet us. Rupert O'Neal, one of the co-owners of the club (along with his brother Jim.) He got there just in time to see me skull my tee shot about half way to the hole (but then get up and down with a nifty chip that used the slopes to feed towards the cup.)

Rupert joined up with us from the 12th hole on. A farmer first, golfer distant second, Rup Doggy Dogg is the primary reason Ballyneal had the unpretentious, laid-back vibe that it does. You might think you need to be on your best behavior when playing with a proprietor of one of the best golf courses in the world, but Rupert immediately put us at ease and let us be ourselves, which is good because we don't know how to be anything other than golf-obsessed idiots. Over the last 7 holes, we learned a lot about the development of the course, the working relationship with Doak, and the process for getting the turf just right. We even talked about my blog...where Rupert openly applauded Jimbo going after Shayna.

On the 17th tee, after Jimbo had hit his drive, he asked us the following question:

'Have you guys ever tried the Happy Gilmore swing?'

'Yeah sure. Back when the movie came out like 12 years ago,' I replied. (by the way, Happy Gilmore is my wife's all-time favorite movie. And although he probably wouldn't admit it, I think it's my father-in- law's favorite movie as well.)

Then Rupert proceeded to walk-up to the ball and smash it right down the middle, a good 25 yards past Jimbo's normal drive! What a shot. It was immediately apparent that he must do this with every group he plays with. He should just stick with the Happy swing because it's better than his real one.

Of course, I had no choice but to give it a try. There was a 108% chance that I was going to throw my back out, but I reared back, walked up and...missed the ball by about a foot and a half. I did get bonus points for a Sandler-esque 'so long sucka!!!' during the swing though. I'm happy to report that I did make contact on the second try, but nowhere near as impressive as Rupert's drive.

Jimbo was next. (let the record show that he had to be goaded into giving it a shot.) Just then I had the brilliant idea of using the speed-frame on his camera to record the entire swing sequence. Take a look below.











Jimbo made solid contact on the first try, but blocked it well out to the right. In the pictures, you can see he is perfectly in the slot right before impact. Dare I say, he looks a lot better here than in his real swing.

We skipped lunch after the round and headed straight back out to the course (Again, because that's what we do. Now eat and sleep have been removed from the equation.) A large outing of guys from Cherry Hills had just arrived and were teeing off on #1, so we started on the back. It was smooth sailing, but more of the same from a golf perspective for me. Maybe someday I’ll break 80 on this course, but it ain’t happening in 2008.

As I mentioned, one of key strengths of Ballyneal is the number of different ways you can play each hole, and the number of different ways the course plays based on wind strength, wind direction, time of the year, pin positions, etc. After playing the par 5 16th hole a bunch of different ways, both good and bad, I found a new one during the final round. My third shot just missed clearing the deep front bunker, and plugged just under the top lip. Jimbo seized the opportunity to capitalize on my misery with a little swing-sequence payback. Check out the nine-picture sequence below, which Jimbo later described as a 'greek tragedy.'



There was a good chance that if I tried to hit the shot standing up, I would've either fallen over down into the bunker, or the ball would've shot straight up and hit me in the face.





Dorf on Golf!





The ball popped straight up in the air. What you don't see here is that while it was in the air, I took a second swipe at it but whiffed.





These last two are priceless. I love the 'what just happened?' look on my face. You'll notice that my club is gone. Where's my sand wedge?



There's my sand wedge.



I followed up my ‘Dorf on Golf’ shot by nearly holing out the next one, lipping out what would’ve been an all-world par (if you don’t count the penalty for tossing the club into the hazard and probably another one for attempting to hit the ball while it was still in motion.)

Jimbo kept his hot putter going in round two, looking like he had finally gotten the hang of the greens. Happy learned to putt! Lo and behold, not three-putting every other hole can have a dramatic positive impact on your golf score. Jimbo had the gall to beat me handily, shoot the low round of the trip (80), and match me in total birdies with 5 after his bird on #7 (with the pin all the way back nonetheless. In the morning round, Jimbo’s approach was on the front right portion of the green and he tried to chip it over the bunker and to the back pin. I strongly urged him to putt the ball around the bunker and use the giant banked slope to get it back there. Jimbo decided to chip, ended up chili-dipping the ball into the bunker and took a big chunk out of the green. The whole event seemed to happen in slow motion for me. ‘Nooooo!!!’ Four hours after defacing one of the great greensites in all of golf, he birdies the sucker.)

Despite the poor play, the hitch in my giddy-up, and the fact that I’ll probably have to have my big toes amputated at some point in the future, 117 holes at Ballyneal in 3 days was completely worth it. Golf just doesn’t get any better than this. There may be a handful of golf courses as good as this, but I’d be shocked if there are any that are materially better. Jimbo and I hit the road at 3:30 pm and headed back to the airport for our late-night flights home. And then it was back to the normal routine of thinking about Ballyneal to an unhealthy degree and pining for a return visit. The only difference is before I thought Ballyneal was ‘that’ good. Now I know it is.

 
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