June 23, 2003 – Whitefish, Big Sky Country

By: Jeff Shelley

I’m back after a prolonged absence. Maybe it was the mental evisceration of writer’s block (see April 25’s entry), or perhaps it was just trying to keep the content up on two websites (the other word eater is golfconstructionnews.com). But I feel recharged following a whirlwind six-day trip to Montana’s Flathead Valley June 10-15. So here goes a glimpse of that underappreciated area of American golf – and other stuff.

My wife, Anni, and I flew out to “The Flathead” thanks to an invite from the Whitefish Convention & Visitors Bureau, a compendium of merchants at Flathead Lake’s north end who strive to promote their lovely area and its myriad charms. In golf writer-speak, this is generically called a “fam” (short for familiarization) trip, a junket arranged by local tourism groups that brings golf (and/or travel) writers to be wined and dined so they’ll write good things about the host area.

This is the second “fam” trip I’ve taken to Montana, but the first in 10 years or so. Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t need a “fam” trip to be sold on the Flathead Valley. I’m a big fan of Northwest Montana and a long-time advocate of the pristine golf in this remote neck of the woods. I’ve been to this part of Northwest Montana about a dozen times over the past 30 years, first venturing here when I lived in Billings in Eastern Montana in the mid-1970s. Subsequent trips involved driving the 500 or so miles from Seattle, where I moved after a three-year stay in Billings.

For me, one of the key reasons for loving these courses is their freshness. Like a favorite vice, overused golf courses will soon lose attractiveness. That won't happen here as the Flathead courses enjoy brief six- or seven-month seasons (though golfers in Polson at the lake's south end played 10 months this year). The turf sits fallow under snow half of the year, insulated by nature's best blanket.

This is big for someone who lives in a place with year-round - albeit moist - golf. Watching the ball bound down the fairway is quite good. Doing so at elevation is even better. And having friends along in much ambiant beauty is best. Try it. You'll like it.

Because of its wonderful courses and amazing scenery, I always made sure Northwest Montana was included in the three editions of my book, Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest. My first publisher in 1990 questioned that decision, saying, “Who plays golf in Montana?", but I persisted and got my way. I’ve also received flak from people in Southern Idaho, an area that, if I covered all of the golf courses there, would have made my book bulge unwieldily and only fit for those huge golf bags with the cheap clubs in pro shops (the last edition was big enough at 640 pages - grrr!).

So Montana’s Flathead Valley has a life-long champion here, and it was without delay that I accepted the invite. We flew via Horizon Air this time and that is – hands down – the way to go. An hour and a half of air time versus the eight or nine hours by car. Arriving refreshed, not stooped over from a hot-butt backache, and ready to go. Unfortunately, heavy rains washed out our Tuesday afternoon tee time.

But the respite gave us a chance to get oriented and get settled in at Kandahar Lodge, way up above the town and Whitefish Lake. In the distance is a shimmering Flathead Lake, 40 miles distant. The European-style lodge – located at the base of 7,000-foot-high Big Mountain, is found after driving up a steep and twisty 6-mile-long switchback.

Both Ends of the Spectrum

Thankfully, the weather turned and our itinerary of playing four courses – Iron Horse, Northern Pines, Eagle Bend and Whitefish Lake Golf Club – over the next four days was on. This lineup is intriguing.

On the one hand, you’ve got Iron Horse, a Tom Fazio design that’s part of a tony 850-acre enclave below Big Mountain and above THE Whitefish Lake. Play at the Fazio layout (his second in Montana – the other is Stock Farm in Hamilton) is restricted to a lucky few who must purchase a chunk of earth (priced upwards of $3 million) or a “cottage” (around $750,000), and a $125,000 membership. The course, which has 250 members from around the world, receives a mere 6,500 rounds a year. The membership cap is 375.

You’ve also got Whitefish Lake GC, long recognized as offering one of the best deals in American golf and a primary reason why many came to love playing here. For $350, “members” (mainly local townspeople and part-time residents) enjoy unlimited golf on 36 wonderful holes. The facility also boasts one of the best junior golf programs anywhere, one that’s spawned 11 individual state high school champions, three Montana Women Amateur champs, and 21 state boys and girls team state champions.

All these players learned the game here, dating back to the launch of Whitefish Lake’s junior golf program in 1977.

Perhaps the facility’s biggest surprise is the outstanding restaurant in the course’s 1936-built lodge-clubhouse. White linen, impeccable service, fresh seafood, stellar steaks (no surprise in Montana, but done well here), and an exquisite wine list all make for a wonderful and deservedly popular place to eat.

Fazio & Whitefish

After making about a dozen phone calls before our trip, I finally got ahold of general manager Jim Campbell, who kindly paved the way for our round at Iron Horse. I informed him of my desire to update my book, as well as rate the course for Golfweek. Thus prepared, our arrival was not unexpected – something I very much dislike at any course, particularly potentially stuffy ones like this. These fears proved for naught, as Jim and his staff were friendly and accommodating throughout.

After some chit-chat, we were assigned a young starter, Steve, to escort us around the track. While waiting for Steve in our cart, who should pull up – in gray sweat pants and matching sweat shirt – but David Graham, a former PGA Tour pro and sometime player on the Champions Tour. Turns out that Iron Horse has three Tour players as members, with Graham spending time here virtually year-round.

Fazio did a masterful job with the site, which involves a whopping 500 feet of elevation change from top to bottom. But Fazio matched the golf course with the land, moving a relatively meager – for him – 300,000 yards of dirt. America’s eminent designer took what God provided and created a Northwest-y layout rife with towering trees, spectacular vistas, wildlife (deer, eagles and black bear), natural areas, and tilted topography. One par-3 juts into space like hand in glove, its background an unfolding Flathead Valley.

I learned during my round, which was interrupted by a visit from the pro, Matthew Swarts, who came here from Pine Valley in New Jersey, that the maintenance crews were removing scrub growth from along the fairways to allow the wayward better escapability. I’m not sure if this will help them, but it’s important to keep the members happy at Iron Horse. And if it means opening up more Whitefish vistas, all the better.

A Walk in the Treetops

On Thursday, Anni and I met up with Dan Virkstis, a Stowe, Vt., native who drove out to Whitefish in the late ‘90s and stayed. Dan served as the PR coordinator for our trip, and he’d arranged for the two of us to take a “Walk in the Treetops.” After meeting with Dan, we were driven by our two guides in the back of a creaking, diesel-smoke-belching five-ton truck to a remote forest owned by a local timber company. There, we had a brief lesson from the guides, learning about the harnesses we’d be wearing and the belay clamps that would keep us from falling 100 feet out of the trees and onto the forest floor below.

This quarter-mile-long “walk” – the only one in the continental U.S. by the way – involves navigating across foot-wide planks lashed to trees. Overhead cables are used to secure the clamps, and lower cables are used as hand grips for the walk along the planks. The stretches of planks are separated by huge trees ringed by wood platforms. At these junctures, one must detach one of the two clamps, stretch around the imposing tree trunk to the next cable on the other side, then repeat the process with the other clamp before being given the go-ahead by the guides to proceed.

The walk along the swaying planks was exhilarating, and our resident guide-naturalist provided great insight into the forest ecology and, during our walk through the forest, the plants used for centuries by Native Americans as medicine and food. Blessedly, since the Flathead’s prime summer season had not yet gotten into full swing, it was just us and our two guides.

A Growing Big Mountain

We then headed back to the Village at Big Mountain, where huge cranes and construction crews were noisily reshaping this Pacific Northwest skiing hub. A multi-million-dollar expansion is underway at Big Mountain, a project destined to make the popular winter getaway a “mini-Whistler.” Unlike the much larger ski town in British Columbia, however, prices will stay low to moderate at Big Mountain, as the operators hope to lure year-round tourism to a village that will grow from 1,600 “pillows” (beds) to 5,400 “pillows” over the next few years.

Andy North’s Course

After a quick lunch with Dan and his boss, Michael, it was on to Northern Pines, a newish 18-holer designed by Roger Packard and two-time U.S. Open champion and current TV commentator, Andy North. North is a partner in the course with a group of investors called Golf Northwest. By this time, our fellow “fammer,” the voluble, fun-loving and gambling Steve Turcotte, editor of Inside Golf magazine, had arrived with his friend Curt Maguire. Anni and I took off after hurried introductions in the pro shop and soon joined Steve, Curt and their escort, Golf Northwest’s CFO, Wayne, for a fivesome.

Northern Pines rolls across former farmland between Whitefish and Kalispell, located to the south of our headquarters that week. It’s bordered by Western Montana’s major north-south arterial, U.S. Highway 93, on the east, and the meandering Stillwater River on the west. The first part of the course is readily accessible, with concave fairways channeling borderline shots into workable positions. This equation changes, however, at Northern Pines’ “Amen Corner.” The 14th through 17th holes consist of two par-4s of 404 and 454 yards, a 193-yard par-3, and a daunting 555-yard par-5.

The Stillwater is woven into these holes, lending an altogether new element to Northern Pines’ prior open-links demeanor. The 454-yard 15th is a dandy dogleg-right that winds past the largest concentration of turtles in Montana, whose habitat is on a sandbar in the river. (I think I’m the only who knows this arcana. The last time I was at the course it was being built and I got a tour from the project manager. State officials told him about the protected turtle habitat during course construction.)

Later that night we met up with Rhonda Fitzgerald, the head of Whitefish’s visitors’ bureau, at Tupelo Grille, a Cajun-style restaurant owned by a couple from Louisiana (Montana sure has a knack for drawing people from all corners of the globe). Rhonda is also the proprietor of The Garden Wall, a highly acclaimed bed and breakfast in downtown Whitefish.

Our other culinary outings were just as adventurous as Tupelo, which, as would be expected, has a spicy, rich menu. They included the aforementioned Whitefish Lake Golf Club restaurant, Quickie’s – a sandwich shop with the best Philly steak sandwiches in the Northwest, Grouse Mountain Lodge – where steak is king, Truby’s – a pizza joint of the first order, and the Wasabi Sushi Bar & Grille in Whitefish – headed by a lady from San Francisco. Each place serves outstanding fare – and I’m not just saying this because it was all hosted. I invite you to talk to anyone who has visited this neck of Montana’s woods and, they’ll agree, the food here is awesome.

Where Eagles Fly

Friday brought us to Eagle Bend, a 27-hole club in Bigfork that is also owned and operated by Golf Northwest. I first came to Eagle Bend – located on Flathead Lake’s northeast corner – in the mid-‘80s when first researching my book. I remember the woebegone trailer used as the “clubhouse,” and the dense stands of surrounding trees slated for removal and development. My sense then was that the place had a future, but I’m still surprised at how far Eagle Bend has come. I’ve since been back – including a memorably difficult round on the day after the final round of the 1994 U.S. Men’s Public Links Championship – marveling each time at the place’s evolution.

Wayne told us that Eagle Bend may be going private. And why wouldn’t the members want to enjoy this place for themselves? They have three great nines – the first 18 was designed by Bill Hull & Associates and the third by Jack Nicklaus, Jr. – as well as a fine restaurant, a marina on the lake, and other amenities all within clear eyeshot of Glacier National Park.

Eagle Bend’s closing to the public would be a loss to Flathead Valley golfers as virtually every kind of hole found in the Pacific Northwest is on tap here. There is a nifty but treacherous short (300-yard) par-4 that tunnels through a dense forest; epic par-5s with broad, treeless fairways and muscular bunkers; significant water hazards; and dandy par-3s that range from short to long and virtually unparrable for mere mortals. On this trip I was painfully reminded that the Lake Nine’s 200-plus-yard 6th – especially if there’s any facing wind – boasts one of the toughest tee shots in Northwest golf.

The Putting Game

We played Eagle Bend in wet and windy conditions. My game went to Missoula that day along – as is happening too frequently – with my attitude. But, as with all things with me and golf, by the end of the round I said screw it and began having fun again. The four of us – me, Anni, Steve and Curt – played a putting card game that’s a favorite of ours at our home club, Sand Point.

It’s a game that even if you get your butt kicked with the golf bets, you can still come out ahead. It works like this: Everyone counts their putts during the round. In our case, that was 27 holes and a good pot for a foursome. We all kick in $5 for the ante and basic five-card deal. An extra buck goes in the pot for three-putts, and all one-putts are good for an extra card. At the end of three nines, Curt had something like 17 one-putts, so he was entitled to 22 cards. The best five-card poker hand wins. Guess who emerged the winner and took home the $34 pot? Your guess is right.

The Pacific Northwest’s Best Muni

On Saturday, it was just Anni and I for 36 holes at Whitefish Lake, as Steve and Curt took a rafting trip in Glacier National Park, playing Meadow Lakes Resort in nearby Columbia Falls in the afternoon.

(On our last trip here, we stayed at Meadow Lakes and played golf there one day. Before teeing off, we were instructed to complete our round by 3:00 in the afternoon as a concert was going to be held on the 16th fairway. Later that evening we – along with 3,000 Whitefishians – descended on a closed 16th hole for an Emmylou Harris concert, one of the best multiple uses of a golf course I’ve ever seen. Sadly, the local cultural group that initiated the pop concert series eliminated them a few years ago when a new director arrived. They shifted to classical music concerts, which were soon halted due to low turnouts.)

All was right with the world as I carded a pair of 81s at Whitefish Lake, two rounds that could’ve been better if the putter was working. We were paired in our first round at the North Course, a traditional layout built by WPA labor in the mid-1930s, with a father and son from Duluth, Minn. Both were named Tom Kolar.

Nineteen-year-old Tommy plays center for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the U.S. Hockey League, which calls itself “America’s Tier 1 League.” The Kolars own a house in Whitefish, often traveling to Montana for stretches in the summer. Back in Duluth, they’re members of the private Northland Country Club, a Donald Ross design built in 1899.

As often happens with good athletes, Tommy enjoys a loose, powerful swing that he can’t always harness. As expected for a good hockey player, he wasn’t too happy when his shots were sent to unintended places. But his father Tom kept his cool, letting Tommy blow off steam before calmly telling his son that getting pissed wasn’t worth it. Once, his father suggested,” Why don’t you just enjoy the time with me?” The kid rejoined, “What’s so big a deal about that? I’m with you all the time!”

In our cart apart from this father-and-son give-and-take, we quietly laughed at Tommy’s callow comparison of hitting a tiny ball toward a far-away target and slapping a hockey puck into a big net.

Ring that Bell

One of the redeeming features of playing Whitefish Lake’s North Course is, at the conclusion of the round, ringing a large bell to loudly signal you’re through and to warn players on the 10th hole of your impending passage. The exit from the 18th hole parallels the 10th, so it’s a good idea to bang the gong before walking off the course.

Without pause, we ventured through a tunnel underneath Highway 2 East and headed to the South Course’s first hole, where we were joined by Jerry and Rick from Calgary. Rick also has a home in Whitefish, which he drives to nearly every weekend from Alberta, Canada, about a 4-hour ride on his Harley.

As the sun set on our final round in Whitefish, and the wind whispered to a hush, the shadows danced across the South Course’s low-cut fairways. The initial nine is particularly memorable, as it curls around Lost Coon Lake before heading into the hills where the most difficult holes lurk.

I assert that Whitefish Lake’s South Course is the best work done by golf architect John Steidel, a prolific designer of Northwest courses who've I've known for years. Steidel’s portfolio lists, among a couple dozen others, such fine tracks as Apple Tree (you know, the one with the apple-shaped, water-ringed green in Yakima, Wash.) and Canyon Lakes in Central Wash. But this visit confirms Steidel’s premier work is in the Flathead Valley.

Eating Whitefish

Just what everyone visualizes: Saturday night in Montana – raw fish and beers at the corner sushi joint.

Wasabi’s owner flies in fresh fish every morning from San Francisco, so don’t make jokes about raw trout taken from the jaws of bears.

The owner stopped by our table and informed us that this unlikeliest of Montana eateries will – like much of Big Mountain and Whitefish – be expanding. By this fall you’ll find in Wasabi’s second story occupied by an oyster bar (no, not a "Rocky Mountain" oyster bar like I stupidly blurted!).

And so it goes in Whitefish. In 1916, the Whitefish Pilot extolled the town’s charms when editorializing of the “fastest growing and most progressive little city in the constellation of bright stars that stud the sky of hope in the great West.”

You feel it today.

There's a strong sense this "fast-growing and most progressive little city" in the mountains and lakes of Northwest Montana will make the city's fathers proud.

And there should be many luminous years ahead.