By Ian Thompson
In our last issue of GolfSouth I wrote a piece on the then imminent opening of Ballantrae. This course has subsequently opened to much acclaim and I now wanted to take an in-depth look at the course. First, allow me to reprise some of my previous story by way of an introduction to Ballantrae.
“I wanted to make the city of Pelham a destination rather than just a place people passed through. We built the Civic Complex, a world-class tennis facility and felt we needed one more thing,” long-time Pelham mayor Bobby Hayes said.
That one more thing would be Ballantrae, an 18-hole golf course, part of an extensive subdivision of the same name. Developer Steve Mobley has grand plans for 3800 homes and there are currently lots of homes coming out of the ground.
This Bob Cupp-design opened for public play early June.
“I’ve played a lot of golf and designed a lot of golf courses,” Cupp said. “I know what works. You need a course to flow, to get people around without getting beaten up. Ballantrae was built with two purposes: to make money for the city and provide a fun test of golf.
“You’ve got to make it functional and sustainable. Ballantrae has a wonderful Scottish feel. I tell you it’s like no municipal course I’ve ever been involved with and a lot of that is down to one man, mayor Bobby Hayes.”
A little more background on the Ballantrae, Pelham project is in order. The Weatherly development in this area was slated for a golf course on the same property some 10 years ago. The subdivision materialized, but the course never did.
“From day one they said they would build a golf course, but were not able to fulfill that promise,” Hayes said. “They (Thornton Properties) donated the land earmarked for the golf course to the city for us to build a golf course or a massive park. Then developer Steve Mobley bought the surrounding land to develop into Ballantrae (the subdivision). We moved forward with the plans to build the course (which was built mostly on the same property to have been used for the ill-fated Weatherly golf course).”
The mayor’s office and Pelham City Council voted to go forward and they chose Cupp and his lead associate Billy Fuller to design the course.
The city authorized a bond issue of $10 million to finance the golf course, clubhouse, roads and various other infrastructure.
Ballantrae offers annual memberships, as well as daily fee play.
“Pelham has been good to us and I hope I’ve been good for the city. We couldn’t have accomplished anywhere near this much without a very aggressive and progressive council. They are always looking forward,” Hayes said.
My first impressions were very positive with an outstanding practice area one of the first things you see as you sweep downhill to the facility. Double Oak Mountain provides quite a backdrop to boot.
A very solid opening par 4 begins my journey around Ballantrae. It sweeps downhill before you to a fairly generous landing area guarded by dense trees either side. Then comes an open second shot with a short iron to a small green.
Two of the next three holes are par fives, sandwiched around the first par 3. In fact the front nine has a fairly unusual configuration of an equal number of par threes, fours and fives.
The second hole makes you think as a creek crosses the fairway in most people’s landing area off the tee. Depending on which tee you choose and how far you can carry the ball you can fly over it in one shot and leave a shot at the green in two, but for most people it would make far more sense to lay up short and play it as a three-shot par 5. Also the green has as much movement in it as any on the course.
The long par 3 third is no pushover either, as a long iron or fairway wood will be needed. But the target is open and large.
Play No. 4 along the treeline that rises up to join Double Oak Mountain. This view reminds me of similar ones found at Greystone’s Legacy Course. The tee shot is wide open to the left and you will also want to position your layup to the left half of the fairway to leave a better angle for your short iron third to the tiny green. This small green is somewhat of a calling card of Cupp’s, particularly on par fives.
The fifth is a scenic short hole, only a short iron to a green with plenty of bailout to the right and trouble in the form of a creek left and short. At this open point on the golf course you can see holes 4-7, with the greens for Nos. 4, 5 and 7 all in relatively close proximity to one another.
No. 6 is a stout par 4 which plays uphill. A slight right to left trajectory off of the tee is optimum, but don’t overdo it as dense trees will gobble up anything too far left. Then you face a substantially uphill second shot to a long, narrow green with a sharp drop off right. Par here, on the toughest hole thus far, will always be acceptable.
No. 7 is the third par 5 in six holes, but it is the first one that should yield the opportunity to be reached in two shots. Although fairly long, it plays shorter as it rolls through a valley. A swale in front of the green will stop some balls reaching the short grass, but many from long distance will run through it.
The eighth and ninth are long holes, a par 3 and a par 4 respectively. The majestic and expansive practice facility runs adjacent to No. 9; this looks like an area where it would truly be a pleasure to work on your game.
Cross over to the back nine and keep your driver in your bag on No. 10, a short par 4. Position rules over power on this hole as it doglegs sharply from right to left and too much club will see you through the fairway and through the corner of the dogleg. It’s a birdie hole as you ought only to have a short iron second downhill to the green. Look across the water off to the right and you see the pump house, but it’s not the usual nondescript building housing this necessary equipment to irrigate the course. Far from it as it is resembles a castle (a rook, for all you chess fans).
Next comes the wide open and eminently reachable-in-two par 5 11th. I rate this as the easiest hole on the golf course and a definite birdie opportunity.
The downhill lengthy par 5 13th follows the sharply uphill 12th, which requires a draw off the tee to stay in the fairway. A definite plus given the difficulty of this particular putting surface.
No. 14 is the pick of the five par threes. Any time a par 3 rates as the No. 3 handicap hole, then you know it’s a tough nut to crack. In fact I applaud this ranking as, to me, it is without doubt in the top three hardest holes at Ballantrae. So often it seems that par threes are automatically ranked as the easiest holes on a course, when too many times this is way off.
The following ingredients on No. 14 all add to its challenge: a pond to the right of the green with the lay of the land sloping toward the water, 200-plus yards, and did I say water to the right of the green?
This is a dastardly combination as a long iron and water right often equals splashdown. Have the courage to commit to your shot, which is ideally aimed at the left bunker and faded back toward the center of the large green. Par here will win more bets than it loses.
No. 16 is a shorter par 4, with the challenge all in the layout of the green which is very narrow, angles away from the fairway and slopes sharply off to the right. A shortish birdie putt should be forthcoming, but is no means automatic.
Tee off on the final par 3 (No. 17) with the aforementioned water tower/pumphouse to the left off the tee adjacent to a small lake which should not be in play on this straightforward one-shotter.
Cupp leaves the hardest hole to the last, which is akin to a double-edged sword. The No. 1 handicap hole may well come too late for many matches settled holes before, but it does present one heck of a challenging finish.
Downhill and wide open off the tee, a right to left tee ball is preferred to shorten the hole considerably. Turn the corner of the dogleg and the imposing medieval castle style clubhouse looms in the distance beyond the final green. You will most likely face a long to medium iron slightly uphill to the closing green and will be well pleased to end with a par four.
The Dixie Section of the PGA flag flies proudly over the facility, which has become the permanent home of this association that represents club professionals throughout Alabama and Northwest Florida.
The two-story structure encompasses some 9000 square feet, with the Dixie Section housed in 1600 square feet of it. They took up residence in early August, with access provided through the main clubhouse and also by a separate stone staircase.
Section Executive Director Dave Berry couldn’t be happier with the move with ample space for his staff and the opportunity to host various Section events at Ballantrae down the road a distinct possibility.
“We feel you can’t pay for the publicity we’ll get as the home of the Dixie Section,” Hayes said.
With Director of Golf Phillip Wright (formerly at the Capstone Club and Tuscaloosa Country Club) firmly in place and superintendent Gary Bush keeping the course in fine condition, the future looks bright for Ballantrae.
I know I’ll be back soon for another crack at it.