Montana's Longest Drive

Teeing off at Hickory Swing

Course #1 Hickory Swing

Kelly Gilligan made the move over to playing at Hickory Swing about six years ago and after watching him hit it to six feet on the first hole, I can understand why.

Gilligan, as a surname, is synonymous with golf around Montana. Kelly himself is a Montana State Golf Association Hall of Famer, a winner of three consecutive Montana State Amateur Championships, and was the AA State Champion his senior season at Great Falls High before heading off to Washington State to play PAC-10.

Hickory Swing is a par 60 executive golf course on the westside of Great Falls. It sits in the shadow of a hundred plus foot grain bin and crisscrosses its away around the railroad tracks that used to transport that grain.

It had been about ten years since I played Hickory Swing. Back then it was a nearly defunct goat track called Emerald Greens that had severe budget issues and even worse greens. With four other courses in Great Falls, Emerald Greens was in a difficult position.

Then Billy Thompson took over and got to work. As Kelly explained in his best golf version of Field of Dreams, “If you’ve got good greens people will come”. And come they did.

As the greens have improved and the course has found it’s niche in the area’s golf market. It’s a short track with good greens that forces players to strengthen their iron game.

When it comes to the iron game, not many are better than my first round playing partner. Kelly Gilligan has been a well-known ball striker since his high school days.

“I grew up on the golf course, basically, it was my home from 8AM to 8PM and sometimes later.”

On a summer day in his youth, Gilligan would be at Meadow Lark Country Club by 8 AM and hit a drawstring bag of balls. Then he’d go eat breakfast and play eighteen holes. Then he’d eat lunch, hit another bag of range balls, and head back out for the second eighteen. Then it was dinner, and maybe another nine holes if time allowed.

“It was the life, let me tell ya. I owe a lot to my parents for letting me grow up on the golf course like I did,” said Gilligan.

Gilligan would go on and play for Great Falls High and win an individual State AA Championship for the Bison before venturing out to Washington State to play in college.

For Gilligan, Washington State was an opportunity to get out of Montana without being too far away from home. After two years at Washington State, Gilligan came back to Great Falls and won three consecutive Montana State Amateur Championships at Green Meadow in Helena, Whitefish Lake Golf Course, and at his old stomping grounds Meadow Lark Country Club.

The question Gilligan admittedly still ponders is “what could have been” if he had tried to turn professional.

“I still think about that sometimes, the where would I be now, but I think it all worked out. I really considered it, but it takes a lot of money to try and do something like that. And I didn’t want to borrow money from people and end up not making it and having to pay them all back,” remarked Gilligan.

Before we teed off I had mentioned how Kelly was five-for-five on his up-and-downs when we last played and he jokingly said, “If I miss five greens today I’m not going to be happy.”

Well, Kelly Gilligan didn’t miss many greens as we made our way around the little course on the westside of Great Falls.

Gilligan has spent his life around the game that he loves both as a player and working on the grounds crew. He spent seven years on the grounds crew at Meadow Lark before completing a Turf Management Program at Rutgers University and becoming the Superintendent at his home course.

“The Turf Management at Rutgers really was something,” said Gilligan. “I learned so much out there from such impressive people. That experience back east was a great one for me and then coming back to Meadow Lark as the superintendent was great.”

As we made our way around the little executive course and talked about experiences and swing thoughts, the conversation and golf kept getting better and better. Gilligan is as crafty as ever with his irons and Hickory Swing compliments the strengths of his game.

After 18 holes with one of Great Falls’ best ball strikers, I can understand why my friend and MSGA Hall of Famer Kelly Gilligan likes to call Hickory Swing home.

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