Montana's Longest Drive

“Of Loss & Love” at John’s Golf Course

“Hit this one high over the house and drop it on the green,” Steve Espinoza said from the seat of his utility cart. “And make sure you don’t break my windows.”

I steadied myself over the ball and was just about to take the club back when Steve reminded me again with a laugh, “Make sure you don’t break my windows.”

These were the same instructions he’d given to Sir Nick Faldo years ago when he arrived to play an exhibition at John’s Golf Course outside of Eureka, Montana and had given to countless others over the years who’ve played the course surrounding the Espinoza home.

The story of John’s Golf Course begins with a tragedy. In 1993, the Espinoza family was woken up at 3 in the morning by a Highway Patrolman. Michael Espinoza, 20 years old back then, was killed in a car crash outside of Eureka returning from dinner with some friends in a nearby town. Michael was the second of their children that Steve and Juana had lost after losing an infant daughter almost two decades earlier.

For Steve, a disabled Vietnam veteran, the loss was crushing. It broke his heart even more to tell his son John who was born with Cornelia de Lange syndrome which is a very rare genetic disorder that causes a range of physical, cognitive, and medical challenges to those diagnosed with it. John had looked up to his older brother Michael with the same loving admiration as all younger brothers do and now he was gone.

About a year later, John walked into Michael’s room and grabbed a golf club of his brother’s and took it downstairs to his parents and asked his dad to teach him how to play golf. Part of John’s disability is a lack of a range of motion in his wrists, so in the front yard of their house Steve teed up a ball for John to hit.

“Not knowing how to teach someone to play, I just told John to hit the ball,” Steve said with a twinkle in his eye. “And he did, he hit it clear across the yard! And I said, ‘John, my god! What a shot! Do it again.’ And he did it again, it was amazing.”

So, Steve took John to a nearby golf course to play but John got too nervous with all the people in front of them and behind them.

“I got so nervous. I got so nervous my very first time. People kept rushing me and telling me to hurry up. I told my dad I wanted to go home,” John recalled.

“On the way home John said, ‘I wish I had my own golf course.’ So, I got home and stepped out of the car and saw the front lawn and said, ‘I’m going put a green right here for my son,’” Steve said of the beginning of John’s Golf Course.

And Steve did just that for his son on his 10-acre property. Asking for help from courses in the area and then eventually all around the world, he got seed, used equipment, and tips for building and maintaining a golf course from course superintendents.

John’s Golf Course played all around the Espinoza home with holes spread around the 10-acres that John could play whenever he wanted, after of course he helped mow the greens and fairways with his father. John would play the course from sun up to sun down and his game showed it as he went on to win 10 Montana State Special Olympic Championships and took home bronze from the Special Olympics World Games in Dublin, Ireland.

With John and Steve riding in the golf cart and giving me directions on how to play the remnants of the holes left at John’s Golf Course, I played all the holes including the one requiring a shot up and over the house. I was extra careful to not break any of Steve’s windows on this over-the-house par 4.

Leaving John’s Golf Course was tougher than I thought it would be because it had warmed my heart. Meeting Steve and John and having them show me their course and tell me their story was something I will cherish for the rest of my life.

John’s Golf Course was built in a front yard using earth, sand, and seed, but it was really built with love. The love of a mourning father who wanted to give his special needs son a place to learn to play the greatest game on earth.

That’s what love is. Love is John’s Golf Course.

Thanks to the Espinoza Family for having me out to play John’s Golf Course and for sharing your stories with me. It is a memory I won’t forget.

Montana's Longest Drive

“You’ll Leave There Inspired” at Polson Bay

It isn’t every day you get to play with a champion, but at Polson Bay Golf Course I got to do just that when I teed it up with 4-time Montana State Special Olympics Champion Robbie Hayes and his stepfather Roger Wallace.

The Championship Course at Polson Bay is an amazing track that stretches down near Flathead Lake and offers up some of the best views in Montana from a number of tee boxes including the opening hole. The 1st at Polson Bay is a 404-yard par 4 that doglegs left past high cottonwoods and a bunker on the left corner of the fairway. From an elevated tee box, this picture-perfect opening hole requires a solid opening tee shot to set up a mid-iron into an undulating green protected by a bunker in the front left.

As Robbie, Roger, and I played our way around the front nine at Polson Bay, Robbie told me all about all the medals he’s won in Special Olympics. Not just a golfer, Robbie has also won medals in a variety of track events at the Special Olympics State Games.

“I’m super fast,” Robby explained on the 3rd hole after using his lefty swing to hit one down the fairway. It caught me off guard that Robbie hits the ball left handed but putts right handed.

Roger laughed as he explained, “Robbie used to really slice his putts when he putted left handed. It was just something we noticed when Robbie was putting around in the pro shop. He actually putted the ball better from the other side.”

So, with 13 left handed clubs, one right handed putter, and with his stepfather Roger as his caddy, Robbie has proven to be quite the player. He’s also proven to be quite the inspiration. I can’t be sure there are more people I admire in golf than Robbie, or Roger for that matter who has taught Robbie everything he knows about the game.

The par 5 6th hole at Polson is as great a visual hole as it is playable. A long dogleg left along the lake, this par 5 can be reached in two but traditionally plays as a three-shot hole. A narrow landing area lined on the left by hazard and a pair of bunkers along the right demands an accurate tee shot before the hole turns left and plays uphill to a green protected by bunkers on both sides.

Finishing our round on the Championship Course on the 528-yard 18th hole that bends slightly right-to-left, Robbie, Roger, and I capped off a perfect morning in Polson. Reachable in two, the green is protected by a large bunker in the front right of the undulating putting surface.

After the round, Robbie and I had lunch and visited about golf and his favorite holes on the Championship Course before he and Roger left to go camping for the weekend and I headed out to the Olde Course.

My playing partner for the Olde Course was 8-year old Max Milton. Max is the son of Polson’s Head Golf Pro Cameron Milton and a pretty darn good stick. He recently won the state competition for the Drive, Chip, and Putt competition in Missoula and as we played the first couple of holes on the Olde 9 Max told me he wants to play on the PGA Tour and eventually win a major.

Being a betting man, I made a wager with Max who was raising funds for his trip to Washington to compete in the regional Drive, Chip, and Putt competition. The deal was, I would play the tips and Max would play the junior tees and we’d play straight up. If he beat me, I’d give him $100 for his trip but if I beat him I’d give him $50.

Early in the round at the Olde 9, Max might’ve had me on the ropes as his game was as consistent as it gets. With the straps of his small golf bag draped across his shoulders the aspiring major winner played down the center of every fairway while I had to wrangle with my drive on a few holes.

Luckily, I made a few putts and tossed in a birdie or two against the 8-year old who was able to brag in the clubhouse about the $50 he won in our match. I was just relieved I could register a win against a future major winner.

Hours later I was driving around Polson and decided to head by the course and work on my putting on the practice green. I found Max on the putting green, practicing his short game late into the evening and he and I played a few putting games for about an hour before the street lights came on and he hopped on his bike to head home.

Looking across the course at Polson Bay Golf Course and seeing Max ride his bike down the cart path, I don’t think I could’ve had a better day of golf. In such a spectacularly beautiful place I found some amazing and inspiring people in Robbie, Roger, and young Max.

If you’re looking for a place to inspire your golf game, Polson Bay is that place.

Thanks to Cameron Milton, Roger Wallace, and the rest of the staff at Polson Bay for a fantastic day of golf and memories at such a great course.