Golf Course Review - Ballyowen Golf Club

FACTS AND STATS: Course Architect: Roger G. Rulewich (1998). Year Opened: June, 1998. Location: Hamburg, N.J. Slope: 131. Rating: 73.6. Par: 72. Yardage: 7,094.


1 - Par 4 378 Yds 10 - Par 5 513 Yds

2 - Par 4 342 Yds 11 - Par 3 195 Yds

3 - Par 5 567 Yds 12 - Par 4 350 Yds

4 - Par 3 196 Yds 13 - Par 4 395 Yds

5 - Par 5 560 Yds 14 - Par 4 480 Yds

6 - Par 3 203 Yds 15 - Par 3 212 Yds

7 - Par 4 473 Yds 16 - Par 4 451 Yds

8 - Par 4 420 Yds 17 - Par 5 520 Yds

9 - Par 4 423 Yds 18 - Par 4 416 Yds

Par 36 3,562 Yds Par 36 3,532 Yds

Awards Won: Top 50 Public Courses in the United States - Golf World, #1 Public Golf Course in New Jersey - Golfweek, #1 Public Golf Course in New Jersey - The Jersey Golfer, #1 Public Golf Course in New Jersey - PubLinks Zagat, #1 Public Golf Course in New Jersey - New Jersey Monthly, One of the Best Resort Courses - Golfweek (2012), Top 50 Most Popular Courses in the United States - Zagat, Ranked #2 Best Courses you can Play (NJ) - Golfweek (2011), Ranked #3 Best Courses Near Your - Golf Magazine (2008), Rated 4 1/2 stars by Golf Digest - Best Places to Play.


HISTORY: Ballyowen became the fifth of seven courses designed under the Crystal Springs Resort umbrella when it opened in 1998.

By the time the first tee shot was struck at Ballyowen, it had already received plenty of accolades, including the No. 1 public course in New Jersey by several golf publications.

Now in its second decade, the course still maintains a high standing in the state, boasting a No. 2 spot by Golfweek and 4 1/2 stars by Golf Digest.

Course architect Roger Rulewich was given the task of designing a course that would stand out amongst the hills of the north Jersey landscape, using the native grasses and an old abandoned sand and gravel quarry to carve his masterpiece.

"We wanted a course with some real challenge, but one that everyone could handle and enjoy," Rulewich said. "The building of the course was labor and equipment intensive. We had to move a lot of earth and rearrange the terrain, excavate the lakes and create the contours for golf. The previous mining of the site left few trees, so we started by moving earth."

After many years working under the tutelage of the great Robert Trent Jones, Sr., Rulewich formed his own design group and over the years has designed and renovated over 125 courses around the world.

"Obviously, 34 years with Jones was more than a learning experience," continued Rulewich. "The one thing that enabled Jones to do so much work and do it well was having his own shapers, supervisors and construction crews on all his projects. His focus was on the design of the greens, the heart of any course."

Some of Rulewich's most revered work includes some of the wonderful layouts in the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, along with Saratoga National in New York, Fox Hopyard in Connecticut, Crumpin-Fox in Massachusetts and, of course, Ballyowen. "The greatest time of my career was the work on the 24 courses of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama," Rulewich said. "I'm proud of them all."

Often called the crown jewel of the resort, Ballyowen was Rulewich's first independent design.

"When I saw the site, I knew we had a winner," Rulewich said. "A partially restored sand and gravel pit, great views, no housing and all the materials on site to work with. Here was our chance to shine! I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity and we put our best effort into making Ballyowen a special place."

Gene Mulvihill, a pioneer in the mutual fund arena and visionary financier, and who recently passed away in October, was the driving force of Crystal Springs and his edict for Ballyowen was simple: give him "wide fairways."

Rulewich and his team were ready to comply. "We agreed on the clubhouse location which worked beautifully for the routing and overview of the course," Rulewich said. "His mantra, which he repeated over and over again, was for 'wide fairways.' Once we established the ground rules, Gene let us go and stayed out of the details. I realize now that his constant presence was to make sure that he was getting our best effort. Nothing less would be accepted."

To say that Mulvihill was pleased was an understatement. "He gave us wide fairways and a hell of a lot more," Mulvihill said of Rulewich. "After less than five months of construction, what is now Ballyowen Golf Club opened in 1998 as the flagship of our collection of courses."

The passing of Mulvihill will be difficult for the region. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might have said it best. "Gene Mulvihill's contributions to the economic development of Sussex County are unquestionable. His unique vision and entrepreneurial spirit will be greatly missed."

Hearing about Mulvihill's death came as quite a surprise to Rulewich. "It was a shock, to say the least. Gene was sometimes tough, outspoken and a bully at times, but sometimes a pussycat. We've had an interesting time working with him and he was always a great fan and promoter of our work. We will miss him."

Ballyowen is situated on 250 acres that overlooks the Walkill River. Although virtually devoid of trees, the vegetation and visual display is stunning. The links-style layout features Bentgrass throughout, wispy native fescue in the rough, bold bunkers and, yes, wide fairways.

In addition to Ballyowen, Rulewich added Wild Turkey and the nine-hole Cascades course to the Crystal Springs resort.

"I wasn't surprised, but was certainly pleased with the results," Rulewich said. "I think we did what was demanded of us and we created a great course. Gene and his people did their part, gave us everything we asked for and went first class with the clubhouse, the grow-in and maintenance of the course and all the little touches that make Ballyowen special. Then they promoted the course well, always naming me as the architect.

"What more could I ask for from a 'first design'?"

HOLE-BY-HOLE REVIEW: From an elevated tee, the opening hole at Ballyowen is a sweeping hole that bends from right to left toward the green. Just 378 yards in length, this par-4 requires a fairway metal off the tee, so to avoid the bunker down the left. In addition, this club choice will enable the player to reach the widest part of the landing area. Take one less club for your approach, as you're still situated well above the green. The putting surface is 45 paces in length with several ridges and humps throughout, so make sure you pick the correct stick, otherwise you'll leave yourself with a lengthy first putt.

The second is a great, risk-reward par-4. Only 342 yards from the black markers, this dogleg left can provide plenty of angst off the tee. Two fairway bunkers on the opposite side of the landing area are wonderful targets to shoot at. Cut off as much as you can to leave the shortest of approaches, or go for the green if you dare. The bigger hitters can certainly have a go, but it will be hit or miss, as fescue and a dismal abyss await for the errant play. The minuscule putting surface has a ridge in the center, running from top to bottom, so play to the correct side for your best shot at birdie.

From the shortest par-4 to the longest par-5, the next hole is a 567-yard monster that serpentines around several fairway bunkers on either side on its way to the green. A generous landing area off the tee awaits, but beware of the right fairway bunkers. Your layup will be played down into a valley of sorts, as the putting surface is elevated some 30 feet from the fairway. Going for the green in two is a risky choice, as it's protected by a 60-yard long bunker in front. The approach shot will require an extra club for the elevation change. What makes this play so difficult, is that you can only see the top of the flag, which makes judging the distance very tough. A ridge again dissects this green, which is just 32 paces long. A front-right pin position will bring the bunker into play, so make sure you have enough club.

The first par-3 comes in the way of the fourth hole, a 196-yarder, usually played into the wind. This hole will set the stage for the three remaining one- shotters, as they all play to roughly the same length. Although the green is very shallow (29 paces), it's quite wide with plenty of undulations. One trap guards the front-center portion and will make life quite difficult if the pin is placed in the back-left corner.

Hole No. 5 is a fairly robust par-5, reaching 560 yards. The key here is the tee shot, which must avoid the lake down the right, some 269 yards from the tips. Although the water runs through the second shot, the landing area is quite generous, despite the bunkers left and right. Your approach will be with a short iron or wedge to a slightly elevated putting surface that runs from back to front. The green is quite wide, but only 29 yards in depth. A back- right flag is fun and treacherous at the same time, so play to the center and take your par.

The next tee box is situated in the center of the lake that runs along the fifth and seventh holes. Roughly the same length as the previous par-3, No. 6 is all carry over the water to the putting surface. The green features multiple pin placements and can be stretched to 40 yards from top to bottom and almost twice that from left to right. The putting surface runs from back to front and left to right, so try to stay below the hole. A three-putt is not uncommon.

The seventh is the most difficult hole on the course. An awesome par-4 of 473 yards, that generally plays directly into the elements. And by the way, water covers the entire right side from tee to green. Despite the absence of sand off the tee, you'll be hard-pressed to find the fairway and even when successful, you'll have a long iron or fairway metal to the green. Speaking of which, the putting surface is quite long and narrow with several tiers and quadrants. A greenside bunker, short and right, might save your off-line approach, but that will leave a difficult play to a safe par. All shots run toward the water, so be careful.

With the wind at your back, the eighth is not as difficult as the 415 yards might indicate. Sand on either side of the landing area does come into play, but the fairway is generous to a fault. Your approach to the green will play downhill to the longest putting surface on the front side, a whopping 44 yards in length. Sand, which sits well below the promised land, guards the right side of the green and should be avoided at all costs. Thick fescue runs the entire right side from tee to green, so steer clear, otherwise your scorecard will suffer.

The closing hole on the front side is one of six par-4s over 400 yards in length at Ballyowen. From an elevated tee, this 423-yarder swings hard to the right. Although the fairway is charitable, landing area bunkers on the left are certainly in play and receive plenty of action, as the fairway angles to that side. A medium iron will be required to reach the elevated putting green that features three distinct sections divided by ridges. With sand left, it's easy to bail out right, but be careful, there is a severe drop off and you'll be hard-pressed to get up and down.

An exciting hole for sure, the 10th is as good a risk-reward hole as it gets. Doglegging sharply to the left, the key is the tee shot, which must cut the immediate corner to have any shot at getting home in two on this average- length par-5. Just 266 yards to clear the left fairway bunker. Sounds like a lot, but it's downhill from tee to green, so definitely doable. A decision will be made for your next play, as you decide to either go or lay back. The landing area tightens as you get closer to the green, so laying up at the 100-yard mark makes sense. If you're going for the green in two, you'll need to clear the front bunker that covers most of the entrance to the putting surface. The green is a whopping 47 paces in depth and quite narrow. The bottom line: it's a real test. Word of caution, do not miss long, as the green falls off sharply.

Another one of the stellar holes at Ballyowen is the par-3 11th. Reaching as much as 195 yards, the entire hole is played over water to the green, as it shares a lake with the 15th. The real trick here is the putting surface because it features three distinct sections. The green is quite wide, especially on the right side. However, it's just 16 paces in depth on the left, making this the most difficult pin to get at. Toss in a back pot bunker and the enormous ridge that runs through the center and you'll be guessing as to where to hit your tee shot. Although it's rated as the easiest on the course, it's not. Trust me.

The 12th is an enjoyable par-4 that plays from an elevated tee. One of several holes that require thought, not brawn. The fairway is quite generous and necessitates just a fairway metal off the tee, as a large, gaping bunker looms left and a rock formation and bunker are right. From the landing area, your approach will be uphill to the putting surface, which is just 29 paces in depth and quite undulating from back to front. Sand covers the left portion of the green and sits well below the pin. A birdie hole, but you must be below the hole.

Despite its length of just 395 yards, the 13th is quite difficult with its snake-like fairway and its incredibly long putting surface. A mishit off the tee, either short or right will cause issues, as sand stands guard on the right and your approach is to an elevated green. To make matters worse, the putting surface is a whopping 43 paces in depth, features a ridge in the center and bends hard to the right. By the way, from the fairway, you won't be able to see the bottom of the flagstick, so depth perception is out the window.

In contrast, the 14th is a very long par-4, doglegging to the left and it requires every bit of your strength. No fairway bunkers come into play off the tee, but you'll need to bust one to have any chance of getting on in regulation. In addition, any drive down the left side of the fairway will have your approach blocked by massive mounding. If that wasn't hard enough, the green is quite wide and shallow with a bunker fronting 80 percent of the surface. Another ridge in the left quadrant of the green will make for a difficult two-putt. Play this as a par-5 and you'll leave happy.

The final par-3 on the course is another all-carry over water. Reaching 212 yards from the black buttons, you'll have the wind to contend with as you stand on the tee. With water covering the entire left side, be careful not to miss even just a smidgen left, as your shot will carom down the hill and into the lake. The putting surface is quite long and features subtle undulations throughout. Bailing out right is not a crime, but you'll have to contend with a pair of bunkers.

Hole No. 16 is the hardest hole on the back nine, without a doubt. Reaching a robust 451 yards, this par-4 bends hard to the right and generally plays directly into a stiff wind. Two fairway bunkers guard the corner of the fairway and need to be avoided at all costs. From the landing area, it plays slightly uphill to one of the longer greens on the course, a whopping 43 paces. The key here is making sure you take the right approach club, otherwise you're facing a three-putt ... or worse.

Although rated the 10th-most difficult hole on the course, the 17th is a real birdie opportunity. The final par-5 is just 520 yards in length as it swings down and to the left from the tee box. Another generous fairway awaits, but be aware of the two landing area traps on the left and the aiming bunker straight ahead, where the short grass tightens at the 300-yard mark. With a successful tee ball, a fairway metal might just get you home in two, but you'll have to bypass the fronting bunker that guards the slightly elevated putting surface. The upside-down Mickey Mouse-shaped green has plenty of movement, especially when going from one quadrant to the next.

The closing hole is a wonderful, dogleg par-4 that winds to the right and finishes uphill toward the green. Plenty of fairway awaits, but trouble lurks right with sand, so play out to the left. It will leave a longer approach, but a lot safer. A medium iron should enable you to climb the elevation to the longest green on the course. Three distinct levels and 53 yards in length can be tough to negotiate, so let's add in a narrow and slick surface running from back to front. To top it off, any play short of the green will roll back down the fairway. A classic hole to finish a classic round of golf.

FINAL WORD: The seven courses at the Crystal Springs Resort, all within a five- mile radius, are rock solid, but there is no doubt that Ballyowen Golf Club is on the top of the list.

Several factors are key to this observation.

First off, the conditioning of the course is top notch. Smooth, silky fairways are always a pleasure to play on. Green speeds that run around 10-11 on the stimp, dense sand traps and rough that's not a back-breaker certainly help.

It never hurts that you have five sets of tees, so now all levels can play this track. Ranging from 4,900 yards to as much as 7,094 yards, Ballyowen will most definitely challenge the best player and the novice will not feel overwhelmed.

In addition, Crystal Springs is home to the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in the Northeast. Known as the world's No. 1 golf instructor and coach, Leadbetter has taught some of the most famous players in the game of golf from around the world.

The commitment and quality of the staff, along with the services provided are an added bonus to your stay.

The bottom line for me is the layout itself.

"With my design and all the same construction crews that I had worked with for Jones, I had a new freedom to get what I wanted," Rulewich said. "At first it was deja vu, but I gradually became aware that this would become my first sole design and had to showcase our talents."

Not often will you find a links-style course situated in the northwest corner of New Jersey. Plenty of elevation changes and carved into the rugged landscape, Rulewich decidedly made his mark in his first solo effort.

To say that Rulewich was happy with what he crafted is an understatement. "I wasn't surprised but was certainly pleased with the results. I think we did what was demanded of us and we created a great course."

"The transition from working for Jones will always be a milestone in my life, and Ballyowen as the first of the courses with my own name attached will always have a special place in my heart," Rulewich added. "I was lucky to have that site and a client who wanted the best."

Some owners are quite picky and dictate the architect to return over and over again, but that was not the case with Ballyowen. "We have not had to return for any significant refinement of the course," Rulewich said. "I guess we got it right the first time!"

Visit for a day or for a week, but either way you'll be more than satisfied, so make sure Ballyowen is on top of your list.

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