I’m a big fan of northwest Montana and a long-time advocate of the pristine golf found in this remote neck of the woods, a place I’ve visited dozens of times over the past 45 years. I first ventured to the expansive Flathead Valley when I lived in Billings during the mid-1970s. Recurring trips from my current Seattle home involved driving 500 miles to include this area west of the Continental Divide in my book, Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest.
My wife, Anni, and I once flew there via Horizon Air. Hands down, this is the way to go: an hour and a half of travel time versus eight or nine hours by car. We arrived refreshed – not stooped over with a backache – and ready to go. Unfortunately, heavy rains washed out our Tuesday afternoon tee time.
But this gave us a chance to settle in at Kandahar Lodge, situated in the charming town of Whitefish. Forty miles away lies shimmering Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake by surface area in the contiguous U.S. The European-style lodge – located at the base of 7,000-foot-high Big Mountain – is reached by driving up a steep 6-mile-long switchback.
Full Spectrum of Golf Covered Here
Thankfully, the weather turned and our itinerary of playing four courses – Iron Horse, Northern Pines, Eagle Bend and Whitefish Lake – over the next four days was on. The lineup was intriguing because of its differences. On the one hand, there’s Iron Horse, a Tom Fazio design within an exclusive 850-acre enclave below Big Mountain and above THE Whitefish Lake, another sizable waterbody. Play at the Fazio layout (his second in Montana; the other is Stock Farm in Hamilton) is restricted to those who purchase a residential lot (priced in the millions) or a “cottage” (around $750,000), and a $125,000 membership. The course, which has 250 international members, receives under 10,000 rounds a year, owed mainly to the area’s brief April-to-October golf season.
Then there’s Whitefish Lake GC, long recognized as a bargain for all its offerings. Affordable annual single, married couple and family memberships are available. Comprised mainly of local folks and part-time residents, members enjoy unlimited golf on 36 wonderful holes. The facility also boasts one of the best junior golf programs anywhere, one that’s spawned multiple individual state high school champions, Montana Women’s Amateur champs, and boys and girls team state winners. These kids began taking up the game when Whitefish Lake’s junior golf program launched in 1977.
Perhaps the city-owned facility’s biggest surprise is the wonderful restaurant in the clubhouse, which was built in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration. White linen, impeccable service, fresh seafood, stellar steaks (an expectation in Montana), and an exquisite wine list all make it a popular place to dine.
Somewhere between the demographics of these two courses are two venues: Northern Pines in Kalispell, whose 18 holes were designed by two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North and his architect-partner Roger Packard, and semiprivate Eagle Bend, a 27-holer on the scenic northeastern tip of Flathead Lake in the town of Bigfork.
Fazio & Whitefish
Iron Horse’s general manager paved the way for our round. I informed him of my desire to add the course to my book, as well as rate it for Golfweek. He assigned a young starter to guide us on our round. While waiting for the kid to arrive, who should pull up – in casual gray sweat pants and matching shirt – but David Graham, the 1981 U.S. Open winner. I greatly enjoyed my low-key chat with the friendly Aussie. Turns out that Iron Horse had at the time three PGA Tour players as members, with Graham living here year-round.
Fazio did a masterful job with the site, one involving a whopping 500 feet of elevation change. Fazio fit the golf course on the land, moving a relatively meager – for him – 300,000 yards of dirt during construction. America’s eminent golf architect took what God provided and created a Northwest-y layout characterized by towering trees, spectacular vistas, wildlife (deer, eagles and black bear among them), natural areas, and tilted topography. One par-3 juts into space; in the distance is an unfolding Flathead Valley.
I learned during my round, which was interrupted by a visit from the then head pro, Matthew Swarts – who came here from fabled Pine Valley in New Jersey, that the maintenance crew was removing trees and scrub along fairways so wayward golfers could enjoy some escape-ability. I’m not sure if this was a help, but it’s important to keep the members happy at Iron Horse. And all the better if it meant opening up more Big Sky vistas.
A Walk in the Treetops
On Thursday, we met up with Dan Virkstis, a Stowe, Vt., native who drove out to Whitefish in the late ‘90s and stayed. Dan served as the coordinator for my writer-inviter trip, and he arranged for the two of us to take a “Walk in the Treetops.” We were driven by a pair of guides in a creaking, diesel-smoke-belching five-ton truck to a remote forest owned by a local timber company. There, we received a brief lesson, teaching us how the harnesses we’d be wearing and the belay clamps would keep us from falling 100 feet out of towering trees onto the forest floor below.
This quarter-mile-long “walk” – the only one in the continental U.S. – involves crossing foot-wide planks lashed to trees. Overhead cables are used to secure the clamps, with lower cables serving as hand grips. The stretches of planks are separated by old-growth trees ringed by wood platforms. At these junctures, you must detach one of the two clamps, stretch it around an imposing tree trunk to reattach it to the next cable on the other side, then affix the second clamp before the guides’ signal it’s okay to proceed.
The walk along the swaying planks is exhilarating. The resident guide-naturalist provided insight into the forest ecology during our walk above the forest, pointing out plants used for centuries by Native Americans as medicine and food. Blessedly, since we did the walk before the Flathead’s prime tourist season, it was just us two and the guides. (For more info, visit www.wildcenter.org.
Growth of Big Mountain
We then headed to the Village at Big Mountain, where cranes and construction crews were noisily reshaping this Northwest skiing hub. A multi-million-dollar expansion was underway at Big Mountain, a project seeking to rival it with Whistler Resort in British Columbia. Unlike that much larger ski town, however, prices stay reasonable at Big Mountain as the operators try to lure year-round tourists to a village that has grown from 1,600 “pillows” (beds) to 5,400.
Andy North’s Course
After a quick lunch, it was on to 18-hole Northern Pines. North was a partner in the course with a group of investors. By this time, a fellow writer – the fun- and bet-loving Steve Turcotte, editor of Inside Golf magazine – had already started the round with his friend, Curt Maguire. Anni and I took off after hurried introductions in the pro shop and soon joined Steve, Curt and their local escort in a fivesome.
Northern Pines rolls across former farmland between Whitefish and Kalispell. It’s bordered by western Montana’s major north-south arterial, U.S. Highway 93, on the east, and a meandering Stillwater River to the west. The first part of the course is accessible, with concave fairways channeling borderline shots into tenable positions. That friendliness changes, however, at Northern Pines’ version of “Amen Corner.” The 14th through 17th holes consist of two par-4s of 404 and 454 yards, a 193-yard par-3, and a daunting 555-yard par-5.
The Stillwater is woven into these holes, lending an altogether new element to Northern Pines’ prior links-like demeanor. The 454-yard 15th is a dandy dogleg-right that winds past the largest concentration of turtles in Montana, which reside on a sandbar in the river. (My first visit to the course was when it was under construction. I toured the site with the project manager, who learned from state officials about the need to protect the turtles’ habitat.)
Later that night, we met up at Tupelo Grille, a Cajun-style restaurant owned by a Louisiana couple. I’ve always marveled at how Montana attracts people from all over the globe. Other culinary outings in the Kalispell-Whitefish area were as adventurous and rewarding as Tupelo, which, as would be expected, has a spicy and rich menu. These included the aforementioned Whitefish Lake Golf Club restaurant; Quickie’s – a sandwich shop with awesome Philly steak sandwiches; Grouse Mountain Lodge – where steak is king; Truby’s, a pizza joint of the first order; and the Wasabi Sushi Bar in Whitefish, owned by a lady from San Francisco.
Where Eagles Fly
Friday brought us to Eagle Bend in Bigfork. I first came here in the mid-1980s while researching the first (of three) edition of my book. I remember a woebegone trailer that served as the clubhouse/real estate office, and dense stands of trees slated for removal and development. My sense then was that the place had a future, but I’m still surprised at how far Eagle Bend has come. I’ve played the course several times, including a memorably arduous round on the day after the final round of the 1994 U.S. Men’s Public Links Championship (think deep, USGA-championship-style rough and ultra-quick greens).
Eagle Bend is now semiprivate, but the public can make tee times. Dues-paying members enjoy free access to Northern Pines, as both courses are owned by the same company, Golf Montana. It boasts three outstanding nines – the first 18 designed by Bill Hull & Associates and a third nine by Jack Nicklaus, Jr. – as well as a marina on the lake and other amenities, all within clear eyeshot of Glacier National Park. (Sad to say, its “permanent” clubhouse burned down in February 2020; a new structure will replace it in 2021.)
Interesting holes include a nifty and short (300-yard) par-4 that tunnels through dense forest; epic par-5s with broad, treeless fairways and muscular white-sand bunkers; significant water hazards (seasonal resident, 14-time PGA Tour winner and Aussie Bruce Crampton, once installed a large “complaint” box in the middle of an Eagle Bend lake); and dandy par-3s both short and long. On this trip, I was painfully reminded that the Lake Nine’s 200-plus-yard 6th – especially in a facing wind – is one of the toughest one-shotters around.
The Putting Game
We played Eagle Bend in wet and windy conditions. There were quite a few unlovely shots. But, as with all things with me and golf, I had fun. The four of us – me, Anni, Steve and Curt – played a putting card game that’s a favorite at our Seattle golf club, Sand Point.
It’s a game that even if you lose any golf bets, you may still come out ahead. It works like this: Everyone counts their putts during the round. In our case, that was 27 holes which led to a decent pot for a foursome. Each player kicks in $5 for the ante. An extra buck goes into the pot for anyone who three-putts a hole, and each one-putt earns an extra card. At the end of three nines, Curt had something like 17 one-putts, so he was entitled to 22 cards. The best five-card poker hand wins. Guess who raked in the $34 pot?
Whitefish Lake – One of the West’s Best Munis
On Saturday, it was just Anni and I for 36 holes at Whitefish Lake, as Steve and Curt took a rafting trip in Glacier National Park and played Meadow Lake Resort in nearby Columbia Falls that afternoon. On a previous trip to “The Flathead,” we stayed at Meadow Lakes and played the resort’s Richard Phelps-designed course a couple of times. Before teeing off one day, we were asked in the pro shop to complete our round by 3:00 in the afternoon as a concert was going to be held on the 16th fairway. Later that evening, we – along with 3,000 others – returned to the closed 16th hole for an Emmylou Harris concert, one of the best multiple uses of a golf course I’ve ever seen. Sadly, the local cultural group that initiated the pop-concert series eliminated these when a new director arrived. They shifted to classical music events, which were soon halted due to low turnouts.
All was right with the world as I carded a pair of respectable 81s at Whitefish Lake. We were joined in our first round at the North Course, a traditional layout built by WPA labor in the mid-1930s, by a father and son from Duluth, Minn. Both were named Tom Kolar. At the time, 19-year-old Tommy Jr. played center for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the U.S. Hockey League, which bills itself as “America’s Tier 1 League.” The Kolars own a house in Whitefish, and traveled to Montana for summer stretches. Back in Duluth, they were members at private Northland Country Club, which opened in 1899 and was renovated by famed architect Donald Ross in 1927.
As often happens with good athletes, Tommy had a loose, powerful swing that he couldn’t always harness. And, as might be expected for a hockey player, he was none too happy when shots went awry. But father Tom kept his cool, letting young Tommy blow off steam before calmly telling his son that getting angry wasn’t worth it. Once, his father suggested,” Why don’t you just enjoy the time with me?” The kid rejoined, “What’s so big a deal about that? I’m with you all the time!” In our cart apart from this father-and-son exchange, we chuckled at Tommy’s frustration of accurately hitting a tiny ball to a far-away target versus slapping a puck around a well-padded guy into a net.
Ring that Bell
One of the redeeming features of playing Whitefish Lake’s North Course is, at the conclusion of the round, ringing a large bell to loudly signal you’re through and warn players on the 10th hole of your impending passage. The exit from the 18th hole parallels the 10th, so it’s a good idea to bang the gong before walking off.
Without pause, we ventured through a tunnel underneath Highway 2 East and headed to the South Course’s first hole, where we were joined by Jerry and Rick from Calgary. Rick also had a home in Whitefish, which he rode to on his Harley-Davidson nearly every weekend from Alberta, Canada, about a 4-hour jaunt.
As the sun set on our final round in Whitefish and the wind slowed to a whispered hush, the shadows danced across the South Course’s low-cut fairways. The initial nine is particularly memorable, as it curls around Lost Coon Lake before heading into hills where the most difficult holes lurk. I believe Whitefish Lake’s South Course is the best work done by golf architect John Steidel, a prolific designer of courses in the Northwest. His portfolio lists the well-known Apple Tree (the one with the famous apple-shaped, water-ringed green in Yakima, Wash.) and a fine muni, Canyon Lakes, in his hometown of Tri-Cities, Wash.
Montana & Sushi?
Just what everyone expects on a Saturday night in Montana: raw fish and cold beers at a sushi joint. But Wasabi’s owner flew in fresh fish every morning from San Francisco, so no jokes about uncooked rainbow trout being the focus here. The owner stopped by our table and informed us that this unlikeliest of Montana dining establishments would soon be adding an oyster bar (and not one featuring the Rocky Mountain variety).
So ended another memorable trip to Kalispell and Whitefish. In 1916, the Whitefish Pilot newspaper extolled the town’s charms by declaring it the “fastest growing and most progressive little city in the constellation of bright stars that stud the sky of hope in the great West.”
Such sentiment remains today. This surprisingly sophisticated area shines quite brightly in the galaxy of golf destinations.