HOLYOKE, Colo. - Lost doesn't begin to explain how we felt sitting in the middle of the road in remote eastern Colorado.
Our GPS said that we had 'arrived' at the celebrated Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club. Our eyes told us a different truth. We were in the middle of nowhere. The nearest crossroads were a mile, or more, in either direction. There were no buildings in sight, only hills lined with sagebrush. We drove a bit before we found a utility worker, who had no idea where the private golf course was either.
A reboot with a different directional app eventually revealed the right path to one of golf's greatest hidden kingdoms. Ballyneal was the highlight of a recent four-day whirlwind golf tour through Colorado. More than anything, the trip showcased a golf scene as diverse as any in the country. Perhaps only Oregon, North Carolina and California have similarly unique landscapes where both dunes and mountains can be found on their golf courses.
Day 1: Mountain golf
I hadn't been to the Broadmoor in so long that I had the nerve to request a tee time on the Mountain course, a track that closed several years ago. This year, the Broadmoor celebrated its 100th birthday in style, hosting the 2018 U.S. Senior Open, its eighth USGA Championship. The defenses of the Broadmoor's long-standing East and West courses are three-fold: Thick rough, difficult-to-read greens influenced by the nearby mountain and the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, which can chime in the middle of your backswing at a moment's notice.
Upon check in, Brandon Tucker, Golf Advisor's managing editor, and I headed straight to the first tee of the West course. Although it's shorter than the more famous East course, it's by no means a pushover. Like the East, the first four and last four holes belong to the Broadmoor's original course by Donald Ross from 1918. The other holes across the road were designed by Robert Trent Jones in 1952, climbing up to the top of the property at more than 6,400 feet in elevation. The return down the mountain is the best part of this narrow, winding layout.
Dinner back at The Grille inside the impressive clubhouse was an obvious choice for any golfer.
Day 2: A century of luxury
The final exam came the next morning on the East course, which hosts all the major events. Hitting the parade of elevated greens was a daunting task. Water intervenes on the three holes near the clubhouse, but I managed to rinse a pair of balls anyway. Still in our cart after our round, we ran into a surprising playing partner - a young black bear frolicking in the woods near the 18th fairway. Golf course staffers chased it away before things went too wild.
The rest of the day was spent exploring the iconic resort. The Broadmoor feels like a college campus centered around Cheyenne Lake. We stayed in the West wing across the lake from the main pink building. Surprises await around every corner - precious artwork, paintings, sculptures. Don't forget to always look up to admire the ceiling art. Two hallways are especially worth finding - one lined with pictures of famous people who have stayed (from presidents to actors) and another one stocked with dozens of the old whiskey bottles they probably drank.
Diversions away from golf include a bowling alley, an outdoor pool overlooking the lake and an award-winning spa. The Penrose Room - named after resort founder Spencer Penrose - serves the epitome of five-star dining. Our group kept it casual at The Summit, which had a nice menu and an innovative wine and cocktail program. More drinks are a tradition at The Golden Bee, the cheery 19th century British Pub where patrons get "stung" by the staff who fling bee stickers at you. As golf resort bars go, it ranks among the best anywhere. The ragtime piano will get you singing patriotic tunes like it's the Fourth of July.
Day 3: A mulligan at Ballyneal
Checking out of the Broadmoor is always depressing, especially when you've got a four-hour drive ahead of you. When the destination is the ballyhooed Ballyneal, though, it's motivation to leave. We actually drove past Ballyneal without even realizing it to find lunch at Happy Jacks Barbeque in tiny Holyoke. We didn't know it at the time, but our caddie stood in line behind us.
Ballyneal bills itself as a private golf resort for members. It's a weekend retreat, where golfers gather for several days to celebrate their relationship with the game and one another. Ballyneal looks like a boutique Bandon Dunes.
The Ballyneal Village of four lodges surrounds a massive putting green called "The Commons," a new addition last summer. Its wild slopes suit post-round or after-dark putting contests. Glow balls are available. We arrived just in time for a sunset walk on the Mulligan course, the new par-3 course with 12 greens, offering multiple loops with holes ranging from 85 to 180 yards. I'd argue it's even more fun than the Preserve par-3 course at Bandon Dunes. The afternoon winds that whip up make club selection harder than a calculus problem.
That night we got our first taste of the food and fellowship of the Turtle Bar & Restaurant, where the milkshakes and steaks provided by Bledsoe’s Corner, a nearby cattle ranch, are legendary. My bed was merely a few steps away on the second floor of the Terrapin Lodge. Two new four-bedroom cottages debuted this fall as perfect hangouts for a buddies trip.
Day 4: An inland links
With no tee markers, firm conditions and gusty winds, Ballyneal's big course delivers links style golf in its purist form. The sweeping landscape provides uninterrupted views for miles. It's a demanding walk through this wild dunescape, although Doak made it remarkably fun with serious shaping around the greens. The blown-out bunkers look like they've been molded by the winds across centuries. You can certainly find some treacherous lies in them or in the scrub lining the wide, twisting fairways. The final three holes ratchet up the challenge, setting up the club's best tradition. The loser of any match is required to carry the bag of the winner back up the steep hill to the village, even if you've hired a caddy. A true walk of shame. I love it.
Access to play Ballyneal has never been more difficult. There's a waiting list to become a member after a lull during the recession. The club does offer a one-time loophole - any non-member can play the course once, if there's availability and if you pass the club's standard of decency. How I got in, I'll never know.
After lunch, it was time to hit the road again, this time to suburbia north of Denver. The Embassy Suites by Hilton Loveland Hotel Conference Center & Spa was no Ballyneal, but its spacious room was comfortable enough. Dinner in downtown Loveland at Door 222 was an eye-opener. Brew pubs line the walkable main street, providing an enjoyable night out back in civilization.
Day 5: A shiny new toy near Denver
Having played my fair share of TPCs over the years, I admittedly had low expectations for the new TPC Colorado, the first new course built in the state in nearly a decade. I was expecting another cookie-cutter, real-estate course with mounding, soul-less par 4s of 460 yards and lots of bunkers. Boy, was I blown away with what's really there - an impressive linksy layout of sod-stacked Durabunkers backdropped by sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains and the Lonetree, McNeil and Welch Reservoirs. The developing 800-acre golf community will eventually have all the bells and whistles of a golf and lakeside retreat home to a massive clubhouse, a community center, pool, fitness facility and lake access on one of the reservoirs for boaters.
Yes, the 7,991-yard course, a design by architect Art Schaupeter, was built for tournament golf. It will host The TPC Colorado Championship at Heron Lakes, a new Web.com Tour event held the week of July 8-14, 2019. But it will also serve its 200-plus members very well. Currently, tee times are available to the general public for $170.
Dynamite water holes and short risk-reward holes are its calling cards. Three short par 4s in the first 11 holes on any tournament venue is rare indeed. Three excellent watery par 3s all sport their own unique design elements - a biarritz green at No. 2, a long narrow green on the edge of a reservoir at no. 8 and the stunning 16th hole, a 140-yard tee shot down to a well-bunkered target.
Looking back, it was a quite a smorgasbord of courses - a coveted private club, an iconic resort destination and a modern, engaging tournament venue. Colorado, color me impressed.