Treeless, fescue challenge - not bagpipes - makes Ballyowen sing

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

HAMBURG, N.J. - It starts as many drives do in northern New Jersey, whizzing past a series of strip malls. No need to look out the window. Everyone's seen these traffic sights.

Before long the Highlands -- Jersey's version of a mountain range -- come into view. Nice enough to be sure, but this is still highway driving, still urban congestion at its finest. It's hard to appreciate nature's majestic beauty when the guy in the Toyota balancing a cup of coffee, a bag of Dunkin Donuts munchkins and newspaper swerves toward your lane.

But then the strip malls fade, the Highlands loom larger and the sprawl gives way to a windy two-lane highway. A hairpin turn -- blink once and you'll miss it, blink twice and you're liable to be five miles past it before you realize it -- later and you are careening onto the road to Ballyowen. A young man in blue knickers meets your car. If you come at just the right moment, you might even get the guy in full Irish kilt and tam o'shanter cap cheerfully blaring away on the bagpipes.

Neat, little hokey touches to be sure, but you would expect such from a golf course with some of the higher green fees in the area ($100 weekdays, $125 weekends). A college kid in knickers and a grown man who knows bagpipes are not enough to bowl you over. Not here at the Ballyowen Golf Course, the crown jewel of the Crystal Springs Golf & Spa Resort complex.

Then you step out of your car. Then you look. And look. And look. The New Jersey traffic is nowhere to be found. A road is nowhere to be found. Heck, even those grand houses that ring some of America's most picturesque courses are nowhere to be found. It's just green and more green, stretching as far as the eye can see (which is pretty far considering there are virtually no trees blocking things either).

"It's a surreal feeling," says Adam Donlin, a manager/pro at Ballyowen who still sometimes finds himself surprised by the change when he steps through the gates. "It's pretty isolated here. A lot of people say it's hard to believe you are still in New Jersey."

Back at the clubhouse, Anne Murphy -- the Queen of Ballyowen (more on that later) -- boasts that it is like taking a trip back in time. In truth, it's more like taking a trip to an alien planet where grass is God. Less than an hour from some of the busiest roads in the country, and another world away.

This isn't about pretty postcards, however. This is about golf. When a golfer wants a postcard he waits for his aunt to take a cruise. When he wants a game, the course better offer a lot more than a view.

By the time you reach the second tee and the college kid in knickers ask you how you want to negotiate the ravine, things look promising. At 342 yards even from the black back tees, the second hole is the shortest par 4 on the course. It also might be the hardest, more than capable of producing double, triple and quadruple bogeys from even seasoned golfers who miscalculate. Use too much club and you will be in ravine. Use too little and you'll be pussyfooting your way to an unsatisfying bogey.

While you're thinking this over, the caddy is liable to point out that anything hit into the ravine is out of play. Like you were going to climb down into this hole that looks more like a cavern and try to chip out a la Payne Stewart at the '99 U.S. Open.

With the ravine in the rearview mirror, it is right on to the longest hole at Ballyowen, the 560-yard (from the back tees) par 5 No. 3. If you have not met the fescue grass by now, prepare for an introduction. It lines the course, its blades long and lean, waving in the early evening breeze. In the summer time, the fescue turns golden brown, providing a sharp contrast to the lush green fairways. It's a sight that has made more than a few groundskeepers go misty-eyed.

"It's beautiful this time of year," says Donlin, the earnest-looking man at your side.

Donlin is a graduate of Penn State, one of the country's leading turf grass institutions. He could talk about the fescue all night long.

Only now that you are thigh deep in the fescue, searching and searching for your wayward tee shot, it doesn't look so lovely anymore. It looks deep, thick, almost like the stubborn weeds you yank out of your own humble lawn, season after season.

"Getting the fescue just right requires a lot of work," Donlin informs gleefully, almost a little too gleefully. Pardon the man who briefly considers the parameters of justifiable homicide at this moment.

For that is when you know you are golfing, when the scenery becomes more of an obstacle than a marvel. And Ballyowen's fescue is definitely a barrier, capable of making you feel as mad as you did back in the traffic. Only instead of cursing a distracted driver chomping on munchkins, you're cursing the groundskeeper who first fell
in love with fescue.

For this is an unforgiving and harsh beauty, one prone to fits of temper. A bad bounce or two in this stuff and you can forget about sniffing anything close to par. That is if you even find your ball. On this day, even the Ballyowen-veteran Donlin gives up on looking for a few of his shots in the fescue rough. Instead he emerges with other balls long since abandoned, fossils of good rounds gone bad.

"I wonder how long this one's been out there," Donlin says, returning with a particularly mangled Titleist.

Architect Roger Rulewich scattered almost 80 bunkers around Ballyowen's 18 holes. But it's the fescue you really have to worry about. That and the dare-you water shots. Three of the four par 3s carry over water. None are more daunting than the peevishly pesky 203-yard sixth, which presents a green on its own peninsula. Somehow, even after you have played Ballyowen a few times, that peninsula appears closer than it is.

Serena McGannon -- a Futures Tour player and Ballyowen regular -- joins our parade of lake plops.

"That's wrong!" McGannon shouts when her tee shot splashes two inches from the green's edge.

Ballyowen is a rare, refreshing example of how you do not need trees in the way to make things challenging. It is billed as a links course, the closest thing you can find to a British Open look on the East Coast, and if you haven't been to Europe, the illusion might hold up. And even if you have, the par-4, 350-yard 12th will not disappoint. There you are at the tee, taken in by the sheep grazing just off the rough, and you fail to notice just how skinny that fairway is.

It is all part of the game at Ballyowen, unexpected nature seducing unexpecting golfers for 7,094 yards.

All lorded over by a Queen.

That is what course regulars call Anne Murphy, the smile behind the bar and the day-to-day enforcer of the Irish-links theme. That's Irish. Any who see the bag piper and kilts and assume Scottish ... well they've gone and crossed the Queen.

"Oh, I hate it when people call it a Scottish course," Murphy says in an accent that could still pass on the streets of Dublin. "We're Irish 24 hours a day here, which means we're having a good time 24 hours a day."

Murphy is so fanatical about staying true to Ballyowen's roots that she even insists on ordering the potato chips from her native Ireland. This clubhouse may be the only place in New Jersey where you can munch on Walkers chips.

Some find it staged. But in the right mood, it is all part of escape. Linger long enough and you might be forsaking traffic for good, politely asking the sheep if they have room for a boarder.

The Verdict

With five sets of tees capable of making the course measure from 7,094 to 4,903 yards, Ballyowen is definitely playable for a variety of skill levels. Swing from the back tees and you will be in for one of the more challenging courses in the region. Rulewich and good old New Jersey countryside have combined to create a temperamental beauty. If the wind is whipping across the treeless layout, you will be making frequent futile visits into the fescue.

Even on a calm day, this is a course that forces you to carry -- and use -- a full bag. The middle irons are essential to successfully negotiate the narrow, twisting fairways. Trying to go John Daly and just blasting away here will get you nowhere fast. This is a thinking man's course. Expect to have frequent, lively strategy discussions in your playing group.

The par 3s can be tricky, introducing water hazards into the fescue, bunker mix. There is not a lot of water on the course, but it's well placed. The par 5s are the only real disappointment, playing sort of ordinary. Until you get on greens that is. These are greens built for speed. Get on the right line and you can be rewarded with some long birdies. Just be careful of the severe breaks, as much as seven to eight feet.

No matter where your ball goes, you aren't going to beat the view. Green stretches everywhere with no houses in sight. It gives a welcome illusion of isolation close to some of the most crowded parts of the country. The fact that the tee times are carefully spread out, insuring a very unJersey-like brisk pace of play only adds to that sense.

Places to stay

Ballyowen is part of a resort complex of five courses in a five-mile radius. The resort offers a 174-room facility with seven pools and indoor/outdoor tennis courts ( (973) 827-5996).

The Mountain Creek Resort at 200 State Route 94 ( (973) 209-3300) or The Mineral Resorts & Spa at Route 94 and Chamonix Drive ( (973) 827-5996) are nearby alternatives.

Places to eat

This northwest corner of New Jersey is a tad isolated, so the options (at least within 20 minutes drive) are not plentiful. All the resorts offer dining rooms. In addition, if you've been dying to try a real Jersey diner there is the Franklin Diner on 94 State St. ( (973) 827-5588). For something a little livelier, there's the Blue Water Café on 191 Woodport Road in nearby Sparta ( (973) 726-0010).

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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