Montana's Longest Drive

“Steak Night” at Stillwater Golf Course

Driving along the two-lane road between Joliet and Columbus, I bobbed up and down the winding highway on my way across the roaring Yellowstone River to Stillwater Golf Course during a hot afternoon. Tonight, I was going to going play alongside the men’s league at Stillwater Golf Course while completing my tour of golf courses in Montana.

My connection to join the league at Columbus for one night, was Blake Haug, who is my brother-in-law’s brother-in-law. Suddenly I feel like I’m quoting Spaceballs here in this story when trying to describe how I’m not really related to Blake.

To make things simpler, Blake introduced me to everyone around the course as his brother-in-law and it was as simple as that as I hopped onto the back of his cart to get a ride out to the 8th tee where we would be starting and eventually finishing our league round. Blake’s partner was the two-time club champion at Stillwater Chris Rasmussen and the showed me around their home track.

Starting on the 8th hole that plays now as a par 4 on the back nine, we had to be wary of the ditch that runs across the fairway right where a driver would land. With a pond and trouble to your right the tee shot needs to find the fairway before you travel up a slight hill to an undulating green that is protected by water behind it and to the right.

As an honorary member of the men’s league on a beautiful night in Stillwater County, a setting sun provided picturesque views of the golf course as we stood on the number one tee. The 1st hole at Stillwater is a dogleg right par 4 that plays about 330-yards if you decide to cut the corner over the driving range that is out-of-bounds. Thick cottonwoods cast shade over the green and hang their long limbs over tee shots that don’t get past the corner pine trees on the drive. This green on the first hole is protected by a bunker on the front left and features an undulating surface that can house many difficult pins depending on the greenskeeper’s mood that day.

As the league night went on and I walked alongside Blake and Chris as they maneuvered their way around the course, we shot the breeze about everything golf and sports. Thankfully they instructed me on the safe play to take on some of the more difficult holes at Stillwater that can really chew you up if you aren’t laying up to the right spots.

One of those risk-reward holes is the dogleg right par 4 5th hole that measures 395-yards from tee to green but has a large pond running the length of the left rough. A good drive can carry this water but as I found out, the risk wasn’t worth the reward. Through the fairway a straight drive that runs too far will find water as well as the best option is to lay up with a long iron to ensure a mid-iron approach into an elevated back-to-front sloping green protected by bunkers.

After we finished our round, I was treated to what Blake called, “The best meal every week when I was a single guy.” The post round feed of pasta salads, potato salads, and the like was put on by one of the league teams as they all rotate nights and the golfers bring their own steaks, burgers, or what have you, to grill on the barbecue after their done golfing.

Blake and I and some other golfers sat outside for about an hour as the sun crept down closer to the horizon on a beautiful early summer night. Stories were swapped about everything you could think of with golf being the most popular genre and a great night was had by all.

Sitting on that patio with the cool air of a summer night, I figured I could get used to a league night like this. I’d just to have to remember to pack a couple of steaks for after the round to pay back my not quite brother-in-law Blake.

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

“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

“An Evening Without a Driver” at Exchange City Par 3

Lost in the hubbub of all the fancy golf courses around the world is the role of the par 3 course. A place to refine the mid-iron and short game for players of all skill level, for beginners to fall in love with the game, and for old timers to bet their dimes and quarters on closest-to-the-pin contests on every single hole.

In the late evening of a warm cloudless day, I walked into the pro shop of the Exchange City Par 3 course in Billings and asked if I could get out for a quick 18 and quickly joined up with a pair of retirees named Dave and Lionel on the first tee. Dave was the more experienced golfer, but Lionel provided more entertainment as we took our best shots at each and every pin at the short course.

A par 54 layout the par 3 course plays extremely well with great greens, a fast pace of play, and several challenging tee shots over water, around trees, and up and down hillsides. With the amount of play the greens at Exchange City get they didn’t show much wear and tear at all. They were receptive, green, and putted true.

The first hole at Exchange City plays at 212 yards from the back tees and works away from the clubhouse and through a line of pine trees to an elevated green pitched back-to-front. Only one hole plays longer than the first at Exchange City and that is the eighteenth that measures in at 218 yards along a wall of pine trees on the left and some small deciduous trees behind the green.

The shortest hole at Exchange City is the 16th that plays at a little less than 110 yards back and allows you to take dead aim at the pin or play a shot to spin back down the sloping green and towards the hole if enough spin is applied.

As Dave, Lionel, and myself ventured our way along this short course and tried our best to make an ace, we visited about what brought them out to the Par 3.

“For me, I just love this golf course. It’s perfect for my game and not too long for a duffer like me” said Dave. “And it doesn’t take too long to play your way around here in the evening. It’s perfect.”

After our round, I had to agree with Dave’s sentiments about the Par 3. It is a perfect little place to work on your golf game and meet new people. Without the hubbub of needing a driver.

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.