The thin line between genius and madness begs the question: Is it not madness to spend millions to build a high-end private golf course in an economy that has sent other private golf clubs reeling?
Golf architect Lester George and his partners in Ballyhack, a soon to open drama queen of a golf course in Roanoke, VA, clearly do not think so. With 40 members signed on pre-opening, plenty of interest from others, and a surefire best course of 2009 designation awaiting, the $13 million investment in Ballyhack could turn out to be inspired. The course design certainly is.
Just for openers: From the first tee at Ballyhack, you get a taste of things to come.
My son, Tim, who has corresponded with Mr. George via the architect wonk site GolfClubAtlas, was invited to take a look on Saturday. His dad came along for the cart ride. I'm glad I brought the camera. It was hard to take a bad photo, even with the grand opening of the course a month away and a few bunkers still requiring sand and some black plastic barriers in evidence. Ballyhack, which is named for a section of Roanoke County that the course occupies, takes full advantage of the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills site.
The dramatic changes in elevation are all the more remarkable for the few blind shots that will confront club members. (Just two or three tee shots disappear behind fairway swales but there is plenty of room in the landing areas.) Greens in the distance on the long par 4s and 5s are still visible from the tee boxes. I counted no "breather" holes until the par 4 16th, which still required an approach over a ravine. Although the fairways are wide at Ballyhack -- as much as 150 yards wide -- many are cantilevered sideways to the tee boxes, giving the appearance of narrower landing areas than are actually the case. Challenging as the tee shots appear from on high -- and all but one or two tee boxes look down to the fairways -- the overwhelming challenges at Ballyhack are in the approach shots and, should those challenges be met, in maneuvering around the mostly enormous and severely sloped greens.
Groups of menacing looking sand bunkers protect virtually every green at Ballyhack. In those cases where architect George has seen fit to place just one hazard at greenside, count on it being at front and center of the green. Where the bunkers don't block the view to the putting surfaces, those greens are apt to be two-tiered and smaller than the rest; the hazard there will be in negotiating the slopes. The 18th green, the largest on the course except for a double green (13th and 15th), is a full 20,000 square feet. On Saturday, for the course's coming out party during a special outing for the Virginia Tech football program (coach Frank Beemer is a partner in Ballyhack), Mr. George had placed the pin at left center, at the confluence of a severe slope from the left and gentler slopes from right and behind. Any shot within 20 feet fed toward the pin; any shot outside that radius presented a putt almost impossible to get within five feet.
Ballyhack is expected to start building an "arts and crafts" style clubhouse later this year, as well as a group of private four-bedroom cabins for visiting members. An adjacent neighborhood has been parceled into 42 lots, 25% of which have already sold, all with views of the dramatic course and priced from the $170s to the $250s. Expect construction costs per square foot in the $175 to $200 area for high-quality fittings.
Tim and I have been invited back to play the course later this summer, after its grand opening in late June; I won't say more here pending that visit and a review after giving it a go with the sticks. I am glad I have already taken my photographs; I will need to concentrate fully on my play in order to survive a course whose slope rating will surely be in the mid 140s.
Ballyhack, 3609 Pitzer Road, Roanoke, VA. Ballyhackgolfclub.com. Par 72, 7294 yards from the Big Lick tees; 6,755 yards (Ballyhack), 6,131 yards (Ridge), 5,637 yards (Star) and 5,108 yards (Valley). Contact Jonathan Ireland, director of golf operations, at (540) 427-1395.
National membership deposit $15,000 and dues of $2,500 annually; member's personal residence must be more than 50 miles from the club; other benefits and restrictions apply. A limited number of National Founder memberships are available at $105,000, with no dues for five years or until a member level of 275 is reached (whichever comes later). Founder membership can be transferred to a member's child; other benefits and restrictions apply. All member plans include the ability to sponsor unaccompanied guests.
Top, The bunker that guards the front of the par 5 2nd green at Ballyhack may be small, but it will do big damage to short wedge shots. Bottom, most greens are visible from the tee boxes (this is the par 4 4th), even if a few landing areas are not. The distant green is at middle right of the photo.