Montana's Longest Drive

“A Caddy and a Carnivore” at The Yellowstone Club

No one else has ever carried my clubs. Not a soul, other than myself, has ever slung my bag over their shoulder, until I played the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Montana.

Driving through the gated entrance into the exclusive resort property and up the paved mountain road toward the clubhouse, I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Yellowstone Club. It was a course I had heard of, I had read about, and one I had even Google Earthed a time or two, but what I played was so much more than you could imagine.

In the Pro Shop of the Yellowstone Club I met the Director of Golf William Ciccotti and the Head Golf Professional Drew Glover. It was Drew who promised me that I my experience at the Yellowstone Club would be unlike any other, and he was right as he introduced me to Les, my caddie.

A semi-retired former Yellowstone National Park Ranger, Les wore full length white bibs with YELLOWSTONE CLUB emblazoned across his shoulders in green letters. As we stood on the first tee, I explained to Les that I’d never had a caddie before, let alone someone to carry my bag and he just laughed and said, “Well, I’m glad I’m your guy then.”

I was glad Les was my guy as well. Instead of fore-caddying like he usually does for golfers at the Yellowstone Club, he and I were able to walk and talk about the game of golf, life, and so much more. I told him about my journey and how he wasn’t just carrying my golf bag but also the obituary of one of my best friends who was tagging along in spirit. We connected, Les and I, on a level I doubt most people do with someone lugging around their golf clubs.

As Les guided me along the Tom Weiskopf designed course that blended the mountains and trees with the scenic backdrop that Big Sky provides, we started on the back nine on the dogleg right 10th hole that plays 443-yards from the tips. An uphill tee shot must negotiate a fairway bunker on the right-hand side and leaves you a severely downhill shot into a tricky green protected by a pair of bunkers to the right.

Concluding the back nine with the par 5 18th that plays 576-yards up a large hill before twin bunkers at the crest of the hill make you choose between trying for this well protected green by hitting a drawing shot past the bunkers that catches the slope and rolls to the front of the green, or to hit to the top of the hill to the right of the bunkers and give yourself a downhill wedge into this sloping green.

It was on the front nine where the most memories were made for me however. The signature hole at the Yellowstone Club is the 434-yard par 4 4th hole. From a tee that overlooks the whole Yellowstone Club a fairway opens to the player with a bunker on the left and large icy blue pond on the right. A tight fairway between these two hazards leads to an elevated and crowned green protected by twin bunkers on the sides.

After playing the par 5 5th hole at Yellowstone, two employees of the club made their way towards Les and I. Before any conversations were had, they tossed Les a can of bear spray and said, “You might want that. Apparently, there’s a bear on the next hole.”

The four of us rushed to the par 3 6th hole that has five bunkers surrounding the green and a small pond in front that is fed by a gorgeous cascading waterfall to the left of the green to see if we could spot the bear.  Sure enough, moseying its way across the cart path and taking a little swim in the pond was a cinnamon colored black bear.

As the bear swam, Les looked at me and said, “I think it’s about a 7-iron to the green from here, Sean, but you might want to wait.”

“Les, why would I wait? This is the only chance in my life to hit a tee shot over a bear!” I laughed. “But I think I’ll hit the 6 just to be safe.”

Les and the others laughed and took photos as I teed my ball up and hit my iron shot over the top of the bear who had begun climbing out of the water and headed up the hill toward the next hole.

As my ball fell from the sky and found one of the greenside bunkers I laughed, “Well, I would’ve hit the damn green, but I was a little concerned about hitting a high cut over a carnivore.”

After the bear had scampered up the hillside and out of eyesight and I settled for a bogey Les looked at me and said, “You can blame that one on the bear.”

When our round had ended and Les and I were regaling the shop staff with our stories of the bear and the tee shot that was hit over it, we both looked at each other and smiled as people laughed at our doozy of a golf tale. As we exited the shop I shook Les’ hand and thanked him repeatedly for being my first caddy. With a twinkle in his eye he said, “Anytime Sean. It was my pleasure.”

What Les doesn’t know is the pleasure was all mine. It was a fantastic experience playing the world-renowned Yellowstone Club made even better by having Les on my bag.

I’d never had anyone ever carry my clubs before. And I’d never hit a tee shot over a bear.

That is until I played the Yellowstone Club.

Thanks to William Ciccotti, Drew Glover, and the rest of the staff at the Yellowstone Club for such a wonderful day at their amazing golf course. And a special thank you to my friend Les for being my first caddy.

Montana's Longest Drive

“In Wonderous Awe” at Spanish Peaks

With the windows rolled down on a sunny afternoon, I followed a two-lane road past the tiny mountain sky town of Big Sky and headed deeper into the mountain forest. Rounding corners and climbing higher up the mountainside, I finally rounded a bend to see the clubhouse of Spanish Peaks.

An immaculate log building that overlooks the 18th green of the Tom Weiskopf course, it stands high and tall over everything else in the valley, much like the Spanish Peaks for which the club is named. Inside the clubhouse, I met with Spanish Peaks Head Golf Professional Tim Phelps who gave me a brief overview of the course.

A young man named Jackson gave a ride down to the putting green and handed me a can of bear spray saying, “I sure hope you don’t need this.” Jackson and I visited while I putted around on the practice green for a few moments before his Walkie-Talkie went off and he was headed back to work.

I played the tips at Spanish Peaks because I wanted to hit from the back tee on the 1st hole. One of the most unique tee boxes I have ever seen, the 1st at Spanish Peaks doesn’t tee off from a normal tee box, but from off the putting green where a black metal tee marker is planted in the putting surface that reads 433-yards. This downhill par 4 turns slightly left to right with bunkers along the left rough 300-yards from the tee. A downhill second shot into an undulating green with a large horseshoe shaped bunker on the left makes this a great opening hole.

One of my favorite holes on the course was the par 5 2nd that plays 527-yards from the tips. This downhill hole turns left in the fairway past a large pond filled with age old pine trees who have succumbed to the tough winters and now sit submerged just under the surface of the blue water, before making a right-hand turn past a line of trees towards a well-protected green. This par 5 is best played as a three-shot hole leaving players a wedge in to this bowl-shaped green.

Continuing to gaze in wonder at some of these magnificent golf holes designed by Tom Weiskopf that incorporated the mountainous terrain without losing the natural luster of this area, I realized the clouds behind me had overtaken Lone Peak and turned a nasty deep black color. Small raindrops fell from the sky sporadically before they came down in waves, then the waves turned into icy hailstones. Halfway through the par 4 5th hole, and with nowhere to I hide, I finished out the hole before finding my way into a snack shack located near the 6th tee.

Inside I found a group of guys from the Chicago area waiting out the worst of the storm. Joining them and trying to warm up after the temperature had dropped 15 degrees in the last few minutes, we visited about the rest of their friends who had decided to go on a float trip that afternoon.

“I bet they wish they had gone golfing now,” one of them joked as the hailstones pelted the windows of the snack shack.

After the hail stopped, I continued my round in the drizzling rain until it quit as I started the back nine. A gorgeous back nine that carves its way through treelined corridors, it features some of the best par 3s I have ever played. The 15th is a prime example, as this 210-yard downhill par three has a pond to the left of the green and is surrounded by four deep bunkers. Playing a club or two shorter than the listed yardage, this undulating green rewards the tee shot that finds the center of the putting surface.

With clear skies and that after rain smell and freshness blanketing the course, I found myself taking deeper breaths of the mountain air and savoring this gorgeous golf course. Walking back toward the clubhouse, a slight mist still hung in the mountain air.

Spanish Peaks was a spectacular blend of natural beauty and golf course design. This is what golf in the mountains should be like. Making you feel suddenly insignificant as you watch a storm cloud roll over the top of a peak and completely at peace once the rains have stopped.

I had went into the mountain forest today with my golf clubs and came out in wonderous awe of Spanish Peaks.

Thanks to Tim Phelps and the staff of Spanish Peaks for a wonderful day of golf and hospitality for Montana’s Longest Drive.

Montana's Longest Drive

“A Most Magnificent Hike” at The Reserve at Moonlight Basin

There comes a point when you are so tired from climbing up steep hills that your ears begin to ring. With my heart pounding and my heavy breathing drowning out every natural sound of this beautiful area, I finally summitted the top of the hill and stood atop the 5th tee at The Reserve at Moonlight Basin outside Big Sky, Montana.

In hindsight, walking this course wasn’t my brightest idea. When I arrived at the spectacularly beautiful stone façade clubhouse with views of the practice area in the foreground and the mountain peaks in the background, I was greeted by bewildered looks as I said, “I’m walking today.”

Their responses were mostly:

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

“I’ve never seen anyone walk this course.”

“You’re going to walk?”

Before starting my round, Moonlight Basin’s Director of Golf Greg Wagner, handed me a can of bear spray and gave me quick instructions on how to use it.

“Pull this cap off and fire from the hip, so you don’t shoot the spray over the bear. And you should be good to go.  I doubt you’ll see one, but here you go just in case,” Greg said.

I laughed as I put the bear spray in an open pocket of my golf bag on the first tee and said, “Well it’s always better to have it and not need it, then to need it and not have it.”

The first hole at Moonlight Basin offers a fantastic view of the whole mountain valley from an elevated tee. A 200-foot drop from tee to fairway on this dogleg left par 4 with a bunker protecting the end of the fairway makes club selection on this 463-yard hole important. After the first portion of the fairway another elevation drop lays between the fairway and the undulating green that is protected by a deep bunker to its right.

Continuing my trek down the steep hillsides for the first few holes, I remembered something that made my calves tense up, “What goes down, must come back up.”

After the 470-yard par 4 4th hole, that turns slightly to the left on the gradual uphill fairway and is crossed by a creek 110-yards short of another tough green protected by a bunker in front, I started one of the toughest hikes of the day.

With my clubs on my back, I trudged up the path from the 4th to the 5th hole. The steep grade got my blood pumping and my lungs feeling as if they were going to burst at any moment as the trail continued to wind its way up the hill. Ten minutes into this climb, I realized why no one walks this mountainous course as I finally spotted the next tee.

As the miles added up and my legs grew wearier from the consistent climbs up the mountainside, I arrived at the long par 5 13th hole. At 628-yards this hole doglegs right 280-yards from the green and climbs its way up the hillside. Protected by eight bunkers inside of 100-yards, going for it in two isn’t a smart decision. This wide green features a high ridge in the front right and a number of swales that create intimidating pin positions.

On a course that offers nothing but spectacular mountain views, I found myself standing for an extra moment on every tee box and taking in the grandeur of Moonlight Basin. Talking with Director of Club Operations Mike Wilcynski after the round, the course was designed by Jack Nicklaus to offer the best of views from every tee. One of the best views on the course is the 16th hole at Moonlight, a downhill par 3 playing around 200-yards with a mountain peak in the backdrop of the green.

Walking back up another steep path that switch-backed its way up the mountainside toward the clubhouse, I took a moment to look back down the mountain valley that houses the Reserve at Moonlight Basin.

The 10.6-mile hike that covered 1,200 feet of elevation change and the reactions I got from some of the staff when I walked back to the clubhouse was worth it.

You can’t beat the views at Moonlight Basin, but next time, I might take a cart.

Thanks to the Greg Wagner, Mike Wilcynski, and the rest of the staff at Moonlight Basin for hosting me for a great day of golf.

 

 

Montana's Longest Drive

“First Day on the Mountain” at Big Sky Resort Golf Course

With a roaring river to my right and a rough rock face to my left, I drove up the two-lane highway from Bozeman and climbed higher up the mountain road. Waves crashed over the front of the whitewater rafts below the highway as the mountain town of Big Sky came into view.

With Lone Peak at the top of the magnificent mountain backdrop, I arrived at Big Sky Resort Golf Course. An Arnold Palmer design measuring 6,800 yards from the tips, this public course sits in the heart of the Big Sky community. Holes weave their way through homes and small neighborhoods throughout this whole mountain course.

Arriving at the course, I was paired up with a pair of recently retired brothers named Trav and Kevin who hailed from New Hampshire and their younger roommate Louie who recently moved to Big Sky from California. From the first tee, the three of us absolutely hit it off. Outgoing and hilarious, the threesome I joined was as much fun as I’ve ever had.

With thick New England accents, the brothers spouted off one-liners I wish I would’ve written down that had the whole group laughing on every hole.

At Big Sky Resort Golf Course, keeping the ball in the fairway is very important. On every hole, thick bushes and trees line the periphery while a small creek works its way through the first few holes and returns to line the 17th and 18th.

The 1st hole at Big Sky features an elevated tee box right below the clubhouse lining up a slight downhill dogleg left with out of bounds to the left of the fairway and a trio of bunkers surrounding this undulating and large green.

One of my favorite holes at the course was the 423-yard par 4 7th hole that doglegs slightly right. Tall fescue rough sits on the left of the fairway while a row of trees lines the right. A large fairway bunker sits in the landing area on the left and a pair of bunkers sit in front of a back-to-front sloping green.

As we rounded the turn and continued to laugh our way around this course, Trav, Kevin, Louie, and I found ourselves on the closing stretch at Big Sky. The group agreed the last three holes on the course were the best of the bunch.

The 16th is a short uphill par 4 with a fairway that sharply turns right near the 100-yard mark on this 334-yard hole. A number of bunkers line both sides of this fairway while another bunker sits behind the elevated green.

The 423-yard 18th hole is a fantastic finishing hole that forces you to lay up short of the pond that cuts across the fairway 100-yards short of the green. An elevated green with a deep pot bunker in the front right slopes from back-right-to-front-left and offers a variety of scary and dangerous puts if your second shot isn’t where intended.

As a dark storm cloud littered heavy drops of rain on my car and the whitewater rafters paddled their hearts out below the highway trying to outrace the storm, I realized that whatever recreation you choose to do, Big Sky is one heck of a place to do it.

And hopefully you run into a hilarious crew of guys like I got to play the Big Sky Resort Golf Course with.