The Forgotten Plains
Colorado's high prairie has long been ignored, passed over for the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Here, we pay homage to the flat expanse east of the Front Range, home to an independent, humble, rugged way of life.
An orangey-pink sun sets against a navy sky, and for as far as my eyes can see, the shimmer of twilight glances off the land below as it rises and falls in a radiating series of small earthen mounds. It's so strangely beautiful that blinking away even a second seems like a slight to Mother Nature's handiwork—yet here is Rupert O'Neal, standing silent next to me, his head tilted back, his eyes closed.
He's seen it all before: the dreamlike image of sunlight receding across the sand dunes south of his hometown of Holyoke, the scrub brush, yucca plants, and prairie grasses riding the wavy terrain of this unusual piece of land just a stone's throw from Nebraska's straightedge border. O'Neal knows these rolling hills, this soil, knows it like a child knows his own backyard. He's dreamt of this property, imagined it, fantasized about it since he was a lanky teenager roaming the dirt roads in this farming community of 2,000.
O'Neal, you see, has always been a dreamer. When his mom was alive, she swore up and down that he'd been like that since he was a child—some dreams lasting a day, others a week, few making it more than a handful of months. Except this one. This dream was different.
The story goes that at 12 years old, Rupert's younger brother Jimmy mentioned that the sand-hill terrain near Holyoke looked just like the rolling geography at St. Andrews, Carnoustie, and Turnberry—all storied British Open golf courses that Jimmy had seen on TV. Rupert's young mind swirled, images of a rural golf course flashing before his eyes. He fell hard for the idea of creating his own piece of golf history right there on the sand hills—and never let it go.
Opening his eyes, O'Neal breaks the silence to tell me that this particular sunset ranks six out of 10 when compared with some of the skies he's caught recently from our perch next to the first tee box. Staring west across fairway number nine, the 49-year-old owner of Ballyneal Golf and Hunt Club takes a sip from his glass, draws a deep breath, and lets out a slow sigh. The 700 acres spread out before us, the land that he fixated on for more than two decades, has been his for five years now. The ultra-exclusive private golf club he built atop his dreamland has been open for three.
He's proud of the golf course and club—you could tell that even if he weren't running his mouth about how great Ballyneal is, which he often does. Not that you can blame him—it's near to perfect with its inviting bar, its cozy restaurant, its well-appointed rooms. It's just that out here, in this humble part of the state, his confidence stands out among a plainspoken folk that altogether seem to lack O'Neal's relentless bravado.
But maybe that's what it takes to coax a dream into reality, especially in a place where dreaming big is often considered nothing more than a frivolous waste of time. Maybe brimming self-confidence goes a long way in convincing investors to buy into a cockamamie plan. Maybe an unequivocal certainty helps lure a first-rate architect to mold a lost landscape into links-style fairways and greens. Maybe the belief that you can succeed helps you pick yourself up after a brush fire tears through your property. Maybe a little faith in yourself—and a lot of faith in a childhood dream—helps you do things others say you cannot.
There were others, of course. Some locals thought "Rup" was crazy to sink more than $10 million into a venture that was apt to fail because of its location a little east of nowhere. The older farmers grumbled about unwanted change. Others weren't pleased about having international high rollers in their midst. O'Neal wasn't surprised by the reactions. He had expected them from the people in and around town, who he says fear anything new and different. He had counted on the blowback—and then, when it came, he ignored it.
It's not that O'Neal doesn't love Holyoke or the people who call it home. He's chosen to live in the one-stoplight town most all his life. He still runs a farm and grows mostly corn on a wide tract of land that's been in his family for 100 years. He and his wife, Claire, raised three kids here. He even did a stint on the town council a few years back. But it's safe to say that O'Neal doesn't fit in here.
That's OK for now, because most people in Holyoke, even those not so fond of O'Neal, seem to understand that he was right about his dream. Arguably one of the best 50 courses in the world, Ballyneal has put Holyoke on the map in ways that being a sweet little agricultural town never would, or could, have. Ballyneal has infused energy, money, jobs, and new blood into this corner of Colorado. The club's caddie program has even sent five local kids—kids who might otherwise never have seen a college campus—to the University of Colorado on scholarship. The same can't be said of the prevailing farming industry.
What the farming industry does have that Ballyneal doesn't is a product people need, and a long history. O'Neal says his club is strong financially, and that he needs only 26 more members to reach the club's goal of 130. Yet, recent restructuring of debts and altering of investor stakes in his club suggest that although dreams may come true, they don't come without hiccups.
O'Neal has been more than willing to weather the bumps along the way. His dream may seem out of place—an exclusive, expensive golf club surrounded by a blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth town—but Ballyneal doesn't come off as snooty or formal; if anything the atmosphere is causal, easygoing, the kind of place you'd want to watch the sunset with a beer in hand. And that's exactly the ambience O'Neal set out to create. For Ballyneal to appeal to the kind of person willing to shell out $70,000 for membership, the club had to be just the right amount of fancy, just a little highfalutin, just a bit out of reach. It had to be a little like the man who dreamt it up: different from nearly everything that surrounds it. —LBK