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.

 

Montana's Longest Drive

“The Links” at Northern Pines Golf Club

Growing up in Great Falls I know a thing or two about the wind.

First things first, it sucks. Secondly, it can wreak havoc on golf shots if you’re not prepared. Always feeling like the wind in your face was a common theme in my youth and I think it prepared me for links golf.

Northern Pines in Kalispell is as good a links golf course as I’ve come across on this trip. At over 7,000 yards from the tips, this Andy North design has long fescue rough bordering every hole and large greens protected by deep bunkers that require flighted irons and creative plays around the greens to score well.

With the breeze into your face on the 384-yard 1st hole that bends left past some rolling hills that hide the fescue rough that sits through the fairway ready to eat any tee shots running through the short grass. A low spot along the fairway on the left serves as a collection area for tee shots leaving a slightly uphill second shot into a green that slopes from back right to front left an dis protected by a deep bunker in the front of the putting surface.

An excellent links course presents challenges to golfers that in turn have to use creativity to carve their way through the rolling hills and fescue with success. Northern Pines is a links course that gets the little imagination working while you play the course by presenting multiple ways to play some of the shorter holes.

An example of this is the par 4 9th that plays 430-yards, usually downwind, but has dangers all down the right side of the fairway. If the deep bunker at 260-yards down the right side doesn’t dispel players from taking an aggressive line on this hole that doglegs slightly to the right, the deep grass bunker past the sand bunker will leave you sorry you didn’t play it out safely into the left side of the fairway. A pair of bunkers in the front left are to be avoided when hitting into this undulating and tiered green.

The 404-yard 14th at Northern Pines is my favorite hole on the course. A slight dogleg right from an elevated tee box, this hole has a string of bunkers running down the right side of the fairway and a hazard running down the left. A lone bunker in the front right protects this green that slopes harshly from back right to front left that sits near the meandering river and in the shade of some tall trees in the backdrop.

Battling wind and fescue, my first time playing Northern Pines was an absolute treat. Links style golf courses will always hold a special place in my heart because of the shots they require and the elements you are forced to battle.

The wind of course is old hat for a guy who grew up in windy Great Falls, but the dangers of Northern Pines were a new and exciting challenge I would take up any day.

Thanks to Northern Pines Golf Club for a wonderful day of golf on this great links style track.

Montana's Longest Drive

“An Evening 18” at Village Greens Golf Course

Evening golf is sometimes the best golf, and at Village Greens that was just the case. A par 70 course in Kalispell, this wonderful course that features rolling fairway hills and small lakes around a track that stretches to 6,401 yards from the tips, Village Greens is an enjoyable course.

The opening hole at Village Greens is a 586-yard par 5 and is listed as the toughest hole on the course. A dogleg right with a lake to the right of the fairway, twin bunkers midway through the fairway after the dogleg narrow the apron of the undulating green that is protected by a bunker in the front left.

The 4th and 5th holes at Village Greens are back-to-back par 3s playing 180 and 140-yards apiece. The 180-yard 4th plays to an undulating green protected by long rough on all sides while the 5th requires the golfer to carry the water that protects the front of this green slopes from back-to-front and will feed shots hit too short down the hill and into the water.

On the beautiful summer evening, my playing partner Shay Smithwick-Hann and I were playing at a great pace. It wasn’t too long until we had made our way onto the back nine in less than an hour-and-a-half and stood on the tee on the tough par 4 13th.

A 467-yard hole that plays from an elevated tee down the hill and back up to an elevated green, this challenging hole has a fairway that is sandwiched in between a large pond on the right side and a diabolical bunker on the left.

After such a tough par 4, the reward is a short par 4 that plays 387-yards from an elevated tee and meanders to the right past the same pond, this time on your right, to a green stuck on the sidehill above 13th tee.

Village Greens plays to a par 70 because it has five par 3s and only three par 5s on the course. It was a perfect course to play in the evening with quick greens, a variety of different and challenging holes, and a great pace of play.

Thanks to Village Greens for a great evening of golf on such a fun and enjoyable course in Kalispell.

Montana's Longest Drive

“I’m Framing That $15” at Eagle Bend Golf Club

Eagle Bend Golf Club

I’ve never framed money before, but the $15 I won at Eagle Bend might just have to hang on my wall for some time. Golfers always seem to have a game going. A skins game, a best ball, a Nassau, or what have you. Contrary to what Judge Smails said in Caddyshack, there is gambling at Bushwood Country Club and everywhere else for that matter.

The game at Eagle Bend was a 2-man best ball $5-dollar Nassau, with $5 going to the winning team on the front nine, on the back nine, and for the 18 hole round.

The partners for the match at the magnificent Eagle Bend Golf Club were my host Greg Barkus and his partner Lon Hinkle. Hinkle, 68, played professionally on the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour where he accumulated six professional wins. Taking on the Eagle Bend members with me was my friend Jim Hann.

The first hole at Eagle Bend is a dogleg right with trees lining the right side that can block out second shots if the tee shot doesn’t carry far enough to the corner of the fairway. A pond sits through the fairway past the corner of the dogleg leading up to a kidney bean shaped green with a deep bunker in the front left on this 413-yard par 4.

The finishing hole on the Eagle nine is a is a 461-yard downhill par 4. A blind tee shot that will chase down the hill if hit far enough, the hole bends slightly right-to-left with a wide fairway. The large green is protected by a bunker left, right, and behind.

One of the best holes on the course is the par 4 14th that plays 416-yards uphill and past a bevy of bunkers along the left side of the fairway. After the first trio of bunkers, a pond sits in front of the deep greenside bunker below the elevated green that has a number of swales running through it.

After playing the Eagle and Bear nines at Eagle Bend with Lon, Greg, Jim, and myself, we settled up our bet. Luck was on our side as Jim and I made a number of birdies and ham-and-egged our way around the course to finish ahead in the match on both the front and back nines and win the total match.

After a quick lunch with Greg, Jim and I finished the day playing the Osprey nine at Eagle Bend. Making its way around the lake and the meadows near Flathead Lake, the Osprey nine is one of my favorites. It begins with a 347-yard par 4 with water all along the right side of a fairway that bends to the left and is lined by trees on the left. A deep bunker on the right side protects this opening hole on the lakeside nine at Eagle Bend.

Perhaps my favorite hole on the Osprey is the 412-yard par 4 7th hole that plays along an inlet of the lake. To the left of the fairway that doglegs from right-to-left sits a marina filled with boats and yachts in the crystal blue water. The best tee shot is just to the right of the tree along the lake on the left of the fairway and will set up a wedge or mid-iron into this large green that slopes back-to-front and is protected by three greenside bunkers.

After finishing the 27 holes at Eagle Bend, I was asked by someone what my favorite course in Montana might be. I think out of all the courses I have played Eagle Bend might hold that distinction. With three different nines to choose from and perhaps the best greens in the state, Eagle Bend is a course I would play every day if I had the chance.

Some years from now, I think someone might ask me why I have $15 framed on my wall and I’ll have to tell them the story of playing my favorite course in Montana and taking some money off a retired 3-time PGA tour winner.

Thanks to Greg Barkus, Head Golf Professional Michael Wynne, Lon Hinkle, and the rest of the great people at Eagle Bend for a wonderful day of golf on this fantastic course.

Montana's Longest Drive

“Better Than a Swim Meet” at Meadow Lake Golf Course

Standing on the 16th tee at Meadow Lake Golf Course, there aren’t many prettier holes in Montana. This par 3 plays at 161-yards from the tips and is all carry over a beautiful pond that looks like glass early in the morning. Behind the green, the 16th is protected by a pair of bunkers that will penalize any shots that are too long on this short hole.

Overall, Meadow Lake is one of the most beautiful courses in the Flathead Valley. With half of the holes playing in the open meadow and the other half of the holes playing into the forest. The 1st hole at Meadow Lake is a 418-yard par 4 that turns slightly right-to-left with a pond running the length of the right side of the fairway.

The par 5 3rd hole is the first on the course to make its way into the forest of pine trees. Playing 579-yards this tight fairway is lined with skyscraping pine trees and bends to the right before a slightly elevated green is protected by a bunker in the front right.

My playing partner for the round at Meadow Lake was my cousin Pat. Earlier in the week before I had s set schedule for Kalispell, Pat texted me and explained he was in Columbia Falls for a swim meet but would like to sneak away to get some golf in during the long days of watching heats in the pool. Well, it was more of a “I don’t want to sit in the hot sun watching swimming all day, let’s play some golf.”

One of the best holes on the course at Meadow Lake Golf Course is the uphill 613-yard par 5. A true three shot hole, this uphill monster plays slightly left towards the hole and if played correctly can give golfers a wedge in from a relatively flat landing area on the fairway. This long sloping green is protected by a pair of bunkers in the front left.

Of all the beautiful courses I’ve played, Meadow Lake Golf Course might just be the most gorgeous. In a beautiful setting, this course contours both the meadow and the forest on every hole and leaves you immersed in the round without distractions.

Just take a moment when you get to the 16th hole and watch the reflection of the flagstick in the water. That’ll beat the hell out of a swim meet any day.

Thanks to Meadow Lake Golf Course for a wonderful day of golf in such a beautiful area.

Montana's Longest Drive

“Behind Jerry’s Saloon” at Meadow Creek Golf Course in Fortine, MT

Meadow Creek Golf Course

A large billboard for Jerry’s Saloon greets drivers along the highway as they head north from Whitefish. Promoting golf, a restaurant, and an RV Park, one has to think, what more could you need in Fortine, Montana?

Down a dirt road in Fortine, the log cabin exterior of Jerry’s Saloon and a pair of flags both blowing in the wind, one Canadian and one American invite you into this rustic bar. For just 15 dollars, that you conveniently pay at the bar, you can head out behind the bar and begin your round on the nine hole Meadow Creek Golf Course.

Beginning with a 125-yard downhill par 3 past a tall pine tree on the right from a tee box that is just paces away from the back deck the Meadow Creek Golf Course has something for everybody. A short course that will be perfect for newcomers or the settle bets made inside the bar, Meadow Creek and Jerry’s Saloon are a hidden treasure along Highway 93.

Working my way around the par 3 course in a short amount of time, I finished my round on the 145-yard par 3 9th which heads up a hill toward the side of the bar. A turtleback green awaits your wedge shot on this closing hole where bets can be settled before heading back into Jerry’s Saloon.

Meadow Creek Golf Course behind Jerry’s Saloon is worth a stop for just the story of playing golf behind a bar in Fortine, Montana. Just watch for the billboard promising golf, a restaurant, and an RV park and you’ll be on your way to a great par 3 course.