The Plainsmen

Engaging, earnest and a touch eccentric, Ballyneal founder Rupert O’Neal shares his vision.

“It’s about an eight-turn hill,” Rupert O’Neal says as he peers down the steep slope of a massive dune off the ninth tee at Ballyneal Golf and Hunt Club. “Come back this winter and we’ll ski it.”

The 48-year-old course owner flashes a sly smile from behind transition lenses that have darkened in the late summer sun and now reflect the green and gold latticework of a two-year-old golf course that already appears on numerous Top 100 lists. His gray hair belies an impish, almost goofy, youthfulness. You get the sense that not only would O’Neal ski the hill—but that he probably already has. To him, Ballyneal’s broad, heaving expanses hold limitless possibilities.  

Considering his connection to the property—which covers 700 acres of sandy chop hills south of his family’s Holyoke corn farm—you can’t blame him. In a story that is by now familiar to much of the golf world, but bears retelling, the idea to build a course here came about almost 30 years ago when Rupert’s brother Jim, then a high-school golfer, noted similarities between the dunes near their home and terrain of the links courses he’d seen during British Open telecasts. 

Years later, after Jim had gone to become the head professional at Marin County’s Meadow Club and Rupert had taken over the family farm and started a successful upland bird hunting club, Sand Hills Golf Club appeared in the remote town of Mullen, Neb. The buzz surrounding the private, minimalist Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw layout reminded Rupert about his brother’s observation. Seeing an opportunity, the two purchased the 700 acres, and in 2002 hired Tom Doak, fresh from his triumph at Oregon’s Pacific Dunes, to design the course. 

Doak saw the same potential the O’Neals did. So did Denver investors, who put up $1 million to help get the course, clubhouse, restaurant and lodging complete by 2006 to trump the opening of another private Nebraska sand-hills design, Dismal River Club. Word about the compound spread quickly. By 2007, Golfweek had Ballyneal ranked 43rd among modern courses; in the following year’s ratings it shot to 13th, ahead of Castle Pines Golf Club. Golf Magazine put it 82nd among the Top 100 Courses in the World and 46th in the United States.

More than 100 members have joined, 18 of whom joined this year. They hail from as near as Sterling and as far away as Hong Kong. The majority of them come from out of state, driving the 2.5 hours from Denver International Airport or flying privately into Holyoke Airport, where Ballyneal’s shuttle ferries them in 10 minutes to the course. They stay in one of two dozen bedrooms in three plush but unpretentious lodges—the Ringneck, Meadowlark and Terrapin, the latter of which also houses the Turtle Bar and a spa with a Jacuzzi, steam room and massage therapist.

To enhance the member experience Rupert hired Mizuna owner and golf aficionado Frank Bonanno as executive chef, a role he’s since ceded to club gamekeeper Rich Cummings, whose pheasant sausage has become the most talked-about menu offering since Bonnano’s lobster macaroni and cheese.

Cummings’ BLT with fried egg isn’t bad either, as I find out during lunch with Rupert. A dozen golfers, mostly guests of a member, have the slightly weathered but happily sated look that follows a brisk round and a hearty lunch. Many of them, spotting O’Neal, come by to compliment the course and thank him. They’re all heading back to walk and play another 18 holes.

“These guys get it,” O’Neal says between bites of his prime rib au jus sandwich. “They appreciate the experience of playing a great golf course, eating great food and enjoying great company.”

But a lot of people don’t get it, according to O’Neal. “And that’s fine. I don’t want them as members.” He laughs at a recent snotgram: “I think the guy wanted his shoes shined while he was on the john. He complained that we didn’t have the blue disinfectant for the combs. To guys like that I always write back, ‘How sorry for you that you couldn’t enjoy a great day of golf.’

“We’re not Augusta,” he explains. “We’re not going to change the course every few years. We’re not trying to have the coolest locker room attendant. We want to be Palmetto (Golf Club), where 100 years from now we’ll still be cool.”

What’s cool about O’Neal is his commitment to his vision. “We’re more of a club in the country than a country club,” he says, adding that this inviting, homey atmosphere diverged from the grander notions of his initial investors. “Sometimes relationships outlive their usefulness and end in divorce,” he says, matter-of-factly, without divulging too many details. “They were fiddling with my ability to run my club. Even the members they brought in saw that. They said they liked what I was doing and were invested in it.”

“Rupert has deep and loyal support from original founders,” says Boulder-based attorney Steve Taffet, who has known O’Neal—whom he calls “the savviest corn farmer you’ll ever meet”—for two decades. “They have become more committed financially and emotionally as the course has come into existence.”
O’Neal sees Ballyneal serving a greater purpose than just a paradise for golfers and hunters. A University of Colorado alumnus, he’s hosted the CU golf teams and plans to stage a three- or four-team collegiate tournament because he’d “love to watch these kids just tear my course up.” On a grander scale, the construction and maintenance of the course and buildings, along with the hospitality infrastructure, has provided myriad jobs for the local community. The number of those jobs could very well increase if he elects to build more courses—among them one he wittily calls “Grateful Dunes”—and transform Ballyneal into a sort of Pebble Beach of the plains. “The build-out of the property will come with time,” Taffet volunteers. “They’re not done making Ballyneal a high-plains treasure and a gem of a place to go away to.”

Perhaps the most philanthropic use of Ballyneal comes in the form of its caddie program. Recognizing that many local students might not have the means to attend college, O’Neal has committed himself to informing counselors at Wray, Holyoke and other nearby high schools about the Eisenhower-Evans scholarship program, which is administered by the Western Golf Association and Colorado Golf Association.  

This spring three Ballyneal caddies earned full tuition and housing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and O’Neal was elected to be one of the WGA’s four Colorado directors. “Rupert’s a breath of fresh air. He brings a different look to it, and different ideas,” says Colorado Eisenhower-Evans Scholarship Recruiter Erin Bessey. “People like him make my job easier. He’s volunteered to let kids from Denver come to Ballyneal for the summer and caddie. He thinks 10 kids from Ballyneal will apply next year.”

“Rupert’s kind of hippie meets golf pro meets golf-course designer meets hotelier—just an enthusiastic blend of all those things,” says Bob Webster, director of the Western Golf Association and a governor of the Colorado Golf Association. “It’s amazing, the personal interest he has in helping kids in the community. He has such a clear vision.”

Part of O’Neal’s attitude can be explained by his brother Jim, who said in a recent interview that the loss of their parents in 2000 and 2001 “may have had an influence on our desire to do something for the community and to create something very special. They were very special people who had done a lot of good. We felt that we had an opportunity to do some good in our hometown, and do something that will last longer than our lifetimes.”

Back on the course, Rupert and I—both bogey golfers—have done some good, parring the tricky par-three 15th. Playing quickly as a twosome, we’ve crawled up the backs of one of the foursomes we saw at lunch. Instead of waiting or asking to play through, Rupert climbs to the back tee on 16, where he turns toward the green on the par-four 10th—only in this new configuration, it’s a funky par three.

We play in from there—the par-three 11th and the par-four 12th and ninth. That last one—with its eight-turn hill —marks our 19th hole.

The weird thing is, you’d never know you were playing the holes out of order. They flow seamlessly into each other, without tee signs, tee markers, directional arrows or yardage markers. Creating thousands of different holes from the 18 that Doak built, you could conceivably play—or ski—forever.