Montana's Longest Drive

“It’s a Small World” at Yegen Golf Club

The small world of golf in Montana got even smaller when I got a phone call from the Head Golf Pro at Yegen Golf Club in late April. As soon as I heard the name Jared Strickland I was instantly transported some six years back in time to the Butte Country Club.

My freshman season at Montana Tech my first college tournament was at the Butte Country Club. Intimidated was an understatement as I stood on the 6th tee and introduced myself to the other college golfers I would be playing with. One of the golfers playing for Rocky Mountain College was Jared Strickland.

He was a senior and I was a freshman, but he was kind and friendly as I navigated my first college tournament. We walked and talked about what I could expect from college golf and many other things.

So, it was a neat thing to have Jared invite me to play Yegen along my trip. He set me up with a couple of playing partners and a morning tee time at Yegen for Saturday.

I’ve always enjoyed playing Yegen. A par 71 course in the heart of Billings, Yegen can cater to any type of player. Playing at 6,600 yards from the tips and 5,000 yards from the forward tees it can present a challenge to anyone with a set of clubs. Narrow fairways and fast greens make Yegen a great place to get a round in.

Walking along with the twosome Jared had paired me up with, I remembered why I love this golf course so much. For myself, it’s a course you hit a lot of drivers and wedges at hoping you’ll shoot a low number.

The 4th hole at Yegen is a dogleg left par 5 with mounds on both sides of the fairway and a wall of tall trees on the left. Playing at 528-yards it can be reachable in two if your drive is in the fairway or has a clear shot from the rough on the right. The elevated green is protected by a bunker in the front left and slopes back-to-front.

The 308-yard 14th hole is a drive-able par 4 that requires a tee shot that can carry the large pond on the left of the fairway while also not finding the pond to the right of the green. This dogleg left hole is protected by a bunker on each side of the green and can easily give golfers an easy birdie with a good tee shot but also can undo a round with a poor first shot.

The second to last hole at Yegen is the long and challenging 194-yard par 3 17th. Almost always playing into the wind this tee shot must clear a large pond that juts out in front of the green with the danger of O.B. on the left of the hole. Always playing a club or two longer than anticipated, this hole is one where walking away with a par is victory.

Yegen Golf Club in Billings is a great golf course. With challenging risk-reward golf holes and many opportunities for birdies it’s a real fun one to play.

Just make sure when you’re there to say hello to Jared Strickland for me. That will make the small world of golf in Montana even smaller.

Thank you to Jared Strickland and the staff at Yegen Golf Club for a great day of golf in Billings and wonderful hospitality. 

Montana's Longest Drive

“The Heavy Stuff Isn’t Gonna Come Down For Quite A While” at EagleRock Golf Course

With how far I’d come, I wasn’t going to let a little rain stop me. But this was more than a little rain.

Playing in a heavy drizzle for a majority of my last nine at EagleRock Golf Course outside of Billings, Montana, I had grown accustomed to traipsing through the deep puddles and suddenly apparent rivers that were running down the fairways.

The rumble of distant thunder was suddenly upon me as I hit a 4-iron to a narrow stretch of fairway on the 429-yard par 4 9th hole that wasn’t under water. I threw my club back into my bag and began to run with my golf bag slung over my right shoulder through the now underwater fairway and rough as rain began to pelt my back. First the drops were small, then larger, then gigantic and falling by the thousands. With the rain came small chunks of hail. Golf carts from all over front nine were speeding toward the clubhouse to escape the torrential downpour and storm as I continued my frantic rush to finish what I had started.

After essentially crossing the Delaware to get to my tee shot and being completely soaked from the pouring rain I instinctively reached for my rangefinder to figure my yardage into the green. Looking through the eyepiece of the rangefinder I realized that it had been ruined by the heavy downpour. So, with a rough guess at the yardage I hit my ball up near the green. My path to the green grew even more difficult as jumped over small rivers and trudged through endlessly long puddles that pushed water clear up past my ankles.

As painful bits of hail flew almost sideways and hit me, I pulled my hat down to protect my eyes and chipped up near the pin. A four-foot putt stood between me and the most waterlogged par of my life. So I took my time and carefully read it to break a smidge to the left. With wind, and rain, and hail, and my whole body soaked, I calmly knocked the ball into the rainwater filled cup.

Walking toward the clubhouse I had to be quite the sight for the folks holed up in under the awning. One of them asked, “What in the hell were you doing out there?”

“Finishing out. I wasn’t gonna let a little bit of moisture stop me,” I replied.

Mother Nature wasn’t going to win today, not with all the work I had done to get to this point.

When I first got to EagleRock, I was told I was only going to be able to play the back nine. With the front nine really soaked the staff at EagleRock wasn’t going to allow carts or anything of the like on the lower nine holes.

I started off on the 10th tee and made my way around the back nine with relative ease. Sure, I had to find alternative routes to some of the greens and had to take the long way around a couple of puddles, but it was worth it.

The 16th and 17th holes at EagleRock are fantastic golf holes. Both playing around 330-yards from the blue tee boxes they are back-to-back dogleg lefts that force the players to weigh the option of cutting the corner or playing safe and smart by finding the fairway with a long iron. The 16th features a pond on the left of the fairway and in front of the tee that you must clear. A crowned green awaits a short wedge shot if you can find the sloping fairway with your tee shot. The 17th has a stream with tall cattails on the left-hand side of the fairway and is protected by a deep bunker in the front left of the green. This large green slopes back-to-front and requires you to be below the hole to be aggressive on a birdie putt.

Nearing the end of my first nine I played down the middle of the fairway of the 18th hole and decided to lay up short of the green to give myself the best chance at birdie. Unfortunately, where I layed up to was a twenty-foot-long and twenty-foot-wide puddle of rainwater that had accumulated from the storms the previous evening. There was my ball, a lonely Titleist sitting submerged just out of reach in the middle of the fairway, waiting for the next golfer to come up the 18th hole on a day that is a little less damp.

After the front nine, I had to beg and plead with the staff to get permission to play the front. After about a half hour of watching me pace outside the shop window they decided to let me go out with one of their members who was only going to play a few holes.

So, I caught up with a man with long gray hair named Dale who was originally going to hit the driving range only to find it closed. We played and visited for the first four or five holes before Dale wisely said, “I think this storm is moving in, I’m going to get out of here before it hits. Are you going to come in?”

“No, I think I’ll stick it out,” I joked and quoted the line from Caddyshack. “I don’t think the heavy stuff is gonna come down for quite a while.”

Four holes later, I was soaked to the bone and carrying a golf bag that was dripping with rainwater as I walked back to my car. I threw my bag in the back and laid a towel over the seat before driving back into Billings. As I started my car, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror and busted out laughing.

Staring back at me was a windburned face with drops of rain still running down my forehead and a large “that was great fun wasn’t it?” grin. It was great fun and a little bit of a torrential downpour wasn’t going to stop me.

Carl Spackler would’ve been proud.

Thank you to the staff at EagleRock Golf Course for being so accommodating and helping me complete another step in my journey to play every golf course in Montana.

Montana's Longest Drive

“A Golfing Garden of Eden” at Hilands Golf Club

Nestled in the middle of a residential section of Billings is an immaculate nine-hole golf course called Hilands Golf Club. This private course was constructed in 1922 on a plot of land selected by golf’s legendary Walter Hagen.

This parkland style course features narrow fairways lined by the tallest of pine trees that demand precision tee shots. Walking around the course of Hilands has you thinking that the Garden of Eden must look a lot like this. Green grass, a gorgeous blue sky, and small ponds and creeks that meander throughout the nine-hole track make you forget you’re in the heart of Billings.

Continuing my day of golf with Sean Ryan and Nate Royer from our morning round at Yellowstone, I stood in awe at some of the beautiful holes that Hilands hosts.

Holes like the par 4 second, that can play as a drive-able par 4 if you’re willing to risk hitting it into a pair of small ponds that protect the front of the green that sits in front of the patio of the clubhouse. Measuring in at 275-yards from the back tees this shot is less about power and more about accuracy. Laying up with a long iron or hybrid will give you a short wedge shot in to the small green that features small undulations that can sometimes go unnoticed until after you’ve missed your putt.

The fourth hole at Hilands plays as a par 4 on the front nine and a par 5 on the back measuring in at 469-yards. The tee box sits in between a pair of little ponds where small ducks sit and quack without a care in the world. A tee shot that finds the large inviting fairway allows you to go for the sloping and undulating green in two if you’re careful not to hit it out of bounds on the left.

The most exciting hole at Hilands is the par 4 fifteenth hole that is 290-yards long and doglegs right near the green. A high fading tee shot can find the green in one with a good chance at eagle if you can negotiate the tall cottonwood trees that drape over the left-hand side of the fairway and protect the putting surface.

As we finished our round at Hilands and put our clubs in our cars we eventually ended up in the clubhouse bar telling stories to one another and to a large group that had formed around our table. I even ran into my old high school buddy and teammate Gabe Gaudreau working in the pro shop at Hilands. Montana really is such a small world.

Hilands Golf Club is a masterpiece of a nine-hole golf course that knows exactly what makes people want to golf. It provides a gorgeous experience in a parkland setting with tall pine trees and receptively soft greens and a great atmosphere around the entire acreage.

No wonder Walter Hagan picked this plot of land to build a little golfing Garden of Eden.

A special thank you to Eddie Kavran and the staff at Hilands Golf Club for letting me experience this magnificent golf course on my trip.

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Montana's Longest Drive

“Two Sean Ryans” at Yellowstone Country Club

About a year ago I drove the long driveway up to Yellowstone Country Club in Billings for the first time. I walked onto the perfectly manicured driving range and began to warm up before the Pro-Am I was supposed to be competing in on a beautiful May day. After hitting practice balls on the range, I grabbed my bag and walked back toward the clubhouse to put some putts down on the notoriously fast and firm greens at YCC. Stopping by the golf cart with a sign with my name on it, I was surprised to see a set of golf clubs on the cart that weren’t mine.

Confused, I walked into the pro shop and said, “Hey, my name is Sean Ryan and I think you’ve got clubs on the cart I was assigned that aren’t mine. I just want to make sure I don’t take the wrong cart.”

The two gentlemen working behind the counter in the pro shop looked at one another and said, “Oh, you’re not our Sean Ryan.”

I laughed, “Nope, I’m not. You guys have a Sean Ryan?”

Playing in the Pro-Am with my Aunt Deb and her friends, the running joke whenever I missed a putt was, “The other Sean Ryan probably would have made that one.”

After finishing the Pro-Am my Aunt and I were waiting for the scores to come in and sitting around laughing about our enjoyable day of golf when I figured I better ask someone who this other Sean Ryan character was.

The gentleman behind the counter pointed out the window of the pro shop and said, “Well, he’s actually on the putting green out there if you want to meet him.”

Not wanting to miss out on this opportunity I walked up to the other Sean Ryan on the putting green and asked, “Are you Sean Ryan?”

“Yea, who wants to know?” replied Sean.

I shook the other Sean’s hand and said, “Sean Ryan, pleasure to meet you.”

From that moment on, I knew when I played Yellowstone Country Club for Montana’s Longest Drive, I had to play with Sean Ryan.

So, Wednesday morning when I stood on the first tee at Yellowstone Country Club I heard the loudspeaker announce, “Next on the number one tee, Mr. Sean Ryan, Mr. Sean Ryan, and Mr. Nate Royer.”

Sean had organized a fantastic morning of golf at Yellowstone for my second trip around the famed golf course that sits underneath the Rimrocks on the eastern edge of Billings. He had convinced one of his best friends Nate Royer to join us and I’m so thankful he did.

Nate, Sean, and I made our way around the impeccable golf course that plays roughly 6,800 yards from the blue tees. The first at Yellowstone is a difficult starting hole that measures in at 433-yards and features two fairway bunkers on each side of the fairway. Lined with skyscraping cottonwoods and dense pine trees, if you get too far off the fairway anywhere on the course, you’ll be in for a number of punch shots back to the fairway. The greens at Yellowstone are firm and fast and feature some big breaks and slight undulations that make every putt daunting.

Throughout the front nine our group was tested and challenged by the greens and tight fairways of Yellowstone. We finally seemed to find our groove near the middle of the front nine. One of my favorite holes on the course is number six. It’s a dogleg left par 4, that plays around 345-yards over a trio of bunkers that jut out from the left rough around 250-yards from the tee box. The slightly elevated green sits in the shadows of some high cottonwoods and is protected by two bunkers in front and one bunker in the back.

Sean was quick to say, “This course sets up for a guy hitting a draw. It really does.”

And he wasn’t lying as most tee shots rewarded a drawing ball flight and that seemed to fit my eye. Tee shots like the one on the par 4 ninth hole, that plays 436-yards and turns left after a couple of sets of bunkers that sit 250-yards off the tee. The green at the ninth is a crowned surface with a large false front that will quickly send any golf ball zipping back off the front of the green if it doesn’t carry far enough.

Nate, Sean, and I worked our way around Yellowstone’s gorgeous layout and up some of the rolling hillsides we continually told stories and remarked about people we knew, how confusing it was having two Sean M. Ryans in the group (Sean’s middle name is Miller and mine is Michael), and how funny it would be to play a member-guest golf tournament with two Sean Ryans.

After casting my drive into the left rough and among the trees on the dogleg left par 4 closing hole it took me a few strokes to get onto the fringe. Needing to chip in to save far I looked at Nate and Sean and joked, “Well I’m just going to make this if that’s ok.”

I clipped the ball with the grooves of my wedge and landed it on the green left of the pin and it slowly turned its way right into the cup.

We hooted and hollered and high-fived at my first chip in of this long golf trip and laughed about how I had called my shot. After our round we went to get a bite to eat in the temporary clubhouse that YCC has set up while they are building a brand-new venue for their clubhouse and pro shop that is set to open next summer right before their member-guest tournament.

As I sipped on a cold beer and had a burger with my two new buddies Sean and Nate, I had to think back about how the golf gods had made this happen. It all started with golf clubs being put on the back of the wrong golf cart. I might never be the Yellowstone Country Club’s Sean Ryan but being the Sean Ryan who is friends with Yellowstone’s Sean Ryan and Nate Royer is more than enough for me.

A special thanks to Yellowstone’s Head Golf Professional Bob Eames PGA, his staff, and to Yellowstone Country Club for a great day of golf on one of the best courses in Montana! 

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Montana's Longest Drive

“Playing with the Good Sean” at Briarwood Golf Club

Going into my senior year of college at Montana Tech I wasn’t expecting to be labeled old, but that’s what happened when Sean Benson showed up to play golf for the Diggers. All the sudden, Sean Benson was being referred to as “Good Sean” and I was being called “Old Sean” by our teammates.

It seemed only fitting that I paired up with “Good Sean” to play his home course of Briarwood Golf Club in Billings.

In the beautiful hills outside southern Billings sits a golf course that will give you the best test of golf along with scenic views. Across rolling green hills, over the open range, and under a beautiful blue sky, Briarwood weaves its way around Montana’s southeastern wilderness.

Sean and I started in the late morning at Briarwood under some slight cloud cover on the first tee at Briarwood Golf Club. The first hole of Briarwood offers you a glimpse into the next four hours of precision and placement golf as you tee off from an elevated box down a steep hill laying up before Blue Creek that meanders its way across the course. A slight dogleg left after the initial creek promotes a layup shot before attacking the pin that is protected by a pair of black sand bunkers with a wedge in your hand.

Briarwood’s holes slowly work their ways up hillsides until dramatic elevation changes are wreaking havoc on your tee shots. The third hole at Briarwood is one such hole that features a near 100-foot drop from the tee box to a green protected by a bunker in the back left on the 145-yard hole. This is not the most dramatic of elevation changes however as the par 3 sixteenth hole features a monumental drop from an elevated tee box to a wide green protected by three black sand bunkers. The hole measures in at 190-yards but plays to only 140-yards from the high elevation.

As “Good Sean” and I made our way around Briarwood and talked a bit about the course he has grown up playing we reminisced about the good old days of playing college golf together. We talked about how things had changed since we were both teammates and all the trips and courses we had played.

On the back nine, Sean wisely got a cart as most members at Briarwood do, but I kept on huffing it up the winding trails and fairways. I scoffed as the first three holes on the front nine weren’t too difficult to walk and thought, “I’m not so sure what everyone was warning me about. This course’s hills aren’t too bad.”

Boy was I wrong. The 13th, 14th, and 15th holes at Briarwood are affectionally called the B$%#@es and for good reason. These three par 4s feel as if they are played straight up a mountain to small landing areas and brutally tough greens that slope in several different directions. Just as I would catch my breath and hit my shot I would have to do my best impression on someone summitting mount Everest and hall my clubs up another couple hundred yards of steady incline.

Greeting you by the green of one of these holes is a wooden bear carved out of an old tree that used to protect the 14th green. It stands tall and ever watching your second shot in from its post between the cart path and the undulating green.

After the round at Briarwood, “Good Sean” and I ventured inside for lunch at the Black Bunker Bar & Grill named after the black sand protects Briarwood’s greens. Inside the spacious bar that offers view of the expansive course and practice areas we visited about our round and tallied up our scores.

As I looked down at our scorecard and I came to a realization that has been some time in the works: I am never going to be “Good Sean” as long as I’m friends with Sean Benson.

Montana's Longest Drive

“A Place to Party” at Fort Custer Golf Club

Just fifteen miles from the area where Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer drew his last breaths is a golf course named for the commander of the ill-fated 7th Cavalry called Fort Custer Golf Club.

The Fort Custer Golf Club sits just a mile north of Hardin on the Crow Indian Reservation which is the largest Indian reservation in Montana. The ranchland and prairie that sits in the wide valley gives way to a bevy of trees as you make your way down a dirt road to the golf course.

Out front of the clubhouse I watched a steady stream of parents, grandparents, and kids carry all the essentials for a graduation party in the front door. Orange and black balloons were tied to the picnic tables outside and little kids chased the bigger kids around the lilac bushes and collected grass stains on their clothes. Older folks sat in the shade and visited about all the usual stuff and laughed as the children dove in and ate the overly frosted cake with wide eyes and smiles on their faces.

It was a beautiful night for a graduation party and great weather to play golf as I met my playing partner Chris Seder. Chris is a Hardin native, the reigning Club Champion at Fort Custer, and serves on the golf board at the course. He was the perfect tour guide and playing partner for a nine-hole round at Fort Custer because of a couple things. He was extremely knowledgeable about the golf course and community and had tremendous eyes for helping me find my wayward tee shots in the deep rough at Fort Custer.

Fort Custer Golf Club begins with a straightforward 477-yard par 5 from a tee box that smells of the fresh lilac bushes immediately to your left. Small trees dot the left rough and can make second shots difficult into the sloping back-to-front green.

The narrow fairways of Fort Custer got the best of a poor day off the tee for myself and forced a number of difficult second shots from the rough into extremely small greens. This course is quite the challenge if you’re game isn’t sharp.

Making your way back near the clubhouse you find the seventh tee home to a 149-yard par 3 protected by a large front right bunker and bushes on the left. A large green provides for a great chance to get on the putting surface and putt for a deuce in the setting sun out of the West.

The ninth hole at Fort Custer is a slight dogleg left par 4 complicated by a row of trees that sit in front of the left-hand side of the crowned green. At only 360-yards the hole should make for a short wedge in, but the long dangerous rough can leave you grabbing for more club just to clear these ball-eating trees.

After our trip around the links at Fort Custer, Chris and I went inside for a beer and met a large crowd of parents and relatives of graduates enjoying themselves at the old bar. The stools were mostly full as folks visited with each other and chased after the kids running through the confined quarters.

It was in this moment that I truly realized why Fort Custer Golf Club is such an important place for the community of Hardin. It’s a place where people of all ages can come together and have a great time in great company.

Now if only I could have convinced some of those young kids to help me look for my wayward tee shots in between their games of tag, then we’d be in business.

 

Montana's Longest Drive

“The Birthplace of Montana” at Signal Point Golf Club

In territorial Montana, Fort Benton was the region’s last trading post along the mighty Missouri River. Steamboats would power their way against the current from St. Louis to bring supplies and people to the West. It was where cowboys and cavalries would walk the same streets and where supplies heading for the mining camps in Helena and Virginia City would be loaded on stagecoaches for the rest of their journey.

Fort Benton is the birthplace of Montana.

High above this birthplace sits Signal Point Golf Club, a beautiful nine-hole golf course with an even more spectacular view of the one-time frontier town. Named for the landmark directly adjacent to the golf course where lookouts could first spot the next steamboat due for Fort Benton. Signal Point Golf Club was built in 1967, one-hundred years after the town’s post office was established.

My Sunday morning foursome at Signal Point read like a bad joke. I was playing golf with a doctor, a bar owner, and an engineer. Scott Meissner, Thad Stinson, his daughter Josie Stinson, and myself were the first to tee off at Signal Point on a sunny windless day high above Fort Benton.

With a foursome that sounded like the lead in of a bad joke there were plenty of laughs to be had that morning. I couldn’t keep track of number of times I doubled over in laughter from one of Scott or Thad’s one-liners during the round.

The first hole at Signal Point is a straightforward 400-yard par 4 with trees lining both sides of the fairway and an elevated green protected by a pair of large bunkers on the right and left.

The greens at Signal Point Golf Club are consistently some of the best in the state. Elevated, undulating, and hard to hold without a wedge in your hand the greens are always remarkable in Fort Benton.

The fourth hole is the first par 3 you run across at Signal Point, at 152-yards long with a crystal clear blue pond to your right and a pair of bunkers in front of the green. Your tee shot has to get up quickly to clear the pine tree on the edge of the pond that blocks out the front of the green from your vision.

The closing hole at Signal Point is the dogleg left par 5 ninth that offers spectacular views of the whole Missouri River valley and the Little Belt Mountains on the horizon. A tee shot too far left will leave you blocked out by trees and a tee shot too far right leaves you an impossibly long second shot. The tiered green on the ninth sits in the shade of the cottonwoods with bunkers in the front left and front right.

The historic town of Fort Benton is home to not just any nine-hole golf course, it’s home to Signal Point Golf Club. It is home to hundreds of cottonwoods, perfect greens, and views that transport you back to territorial Montana.

When a steamboat would fight the current of the mighty Missouri River to get to Fort Benton, the birthplace of Montana.

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