ANACONDA, MT - Towering over the rustic town of Anaconda, Montana, visible from miles away, is a 585-foot brick smoke stack. It's an impressive structure. A historic symbol of the town's industrial past and the most recognizable landmark in the area. In fact, members of the town actually had to fight to save the stack from demolition in 1985. Now, with its "tower" steadfast in its place, local residents can concentrate on more pressing issues. For many, one such issue revolves around making pars and birdies at the fabulous Old Works Golf Course.
Standing in downtown Anaconda in 1885 and looking onto the nearby hillsides, your eyes would meet a horizon dotted with smoke stacks, mine workings, and smelters.
"Everybody would get up in the morning and look to see if there was smoke coming out of the stack, and if there was, God was in His heaven and all was right with the world and we knew we were going to get a paycheck," says Anaconda historian Bob Vine, when summing up the importance of the stack and the mines.
Today, the mines have all shut down and many locals have a much different routine in the morning. Instead, they look outside to see if the sun is poking through the clouds so they know what to wear to the golf course.
Designed by Jack Nicklaus and routed through one of the most unique sites in the country, the Old Works Golf Course is about as good a play as you'll find in the northwest. Actually, Golf Digest ranks Old Works as the top-ranked public course in Montana. After playing the course, you'll be shouting a few accolades yourself.
Keeping the "mining" theme front and center (and off to numerous sides), are the black slag bunkers. Unique to the entire United States (there is one other course in Canada that uses the black slag for sand traps as well - Christina Lake, British Columbia), using the slag (which is actually a by-product from the copper smeltering process) was a natural fit for a course that is dedicated to environmentally sound practices. Interestingly, the initial idea behind building the Old Works Golf Course was to create a stunning course on a site that was, in essence, an ecological disaster.
Before 1994, the site on which Old Works stands was filled with abandoned mine workings and laced with industrial and mining waste. It was, for the most part, left untouched and unofficially designated as Anaconda's irreparable eyesore. Then in 1994, enter one Jack Nicklaus, a few bags of cash, and.presto! A world-class championship golf course - the first ever built on a Federal EPA Superfund site.
As an unparalleled master of his domain - which would encompass playing the game, building courses, and being a larger-than-life ambassador of the game - Nicklaus created a layout that is truly a testament of his talent. In incorporating numerous mining relics throughout, sculpting broad, gracefully flowing fairways, and peppering the sides of his massive greens with the beautiful ebony sand traps, Nicklaus managed to reclaim an enormous amount of integrity on a site that, on one point at least, was scarcely a good enough environment for a rodent.
Open, long (it measures over 7,700 yards from the tips, which are fittingly called "the slag tees"), well-trapped, and sprinkled with a few ball-hungry water features, Old Works isn't the type of course that you'll beat into submission. In fact, at just over 7,200 yards from the more popular "gold tees," the emphasis seems to be on driving the golf ball long. Some might say if you can't drive the ball well you may as well bring a black pen with you, as "red figures" will not be in the cards.
"Playing the slag tees out here can be extremely humbling," says Head Golf Professional Steve Wickliffe. "We just hosted a US Open Regional Qualifying and, even though it was a calm day, most of the guys still didn't break par from the golds," says Wickliffe.
The course opens with a classy mid-length par-4 that sweeps around a chattering Warm Springs Creek. Like every hole at Old Works, the landing area is generous and the green complex is massive. Warm Springs Creek, once a popular dumping spot thanks to unhealthy mining practices, has been transformed into a clean, trout-filled creek. It is the dominant feature on the first, 10th and 11th holes. Padding the theme, Nicklaus lined portions of the creek with granite slabs from the old mill.
After playing the sensational opening hole, it won't take you long to view more dramatic mine relics. The third hole, a gut-busting uphill par-5 of 555 yards, careens alongside a row of massive stone furnaces before finishing on a teaser of a green that falls away from front to back. Things don't get any less interesting from there. On the par-3 fourth, for example, a spectacular brick flue from the turn of the century clings to the hillside and provides a magnificent backdrop.
Another highlight on the front nine is standing atop the seventh tee. Perched on a giant mound of slag, golfers are treated to magnificent views of the valley. After absorbing the sights, a medium to long iron is required to pierce through the prevailing winds and find the well-protected dance floor.
The back nine is loaded with engaging green sites and, unless you're wielding a magical putter, tough-to-birdie holes. The 11th is perhaps the best par-5 at Old Works. A long, shallow green is protected in front by Warm Springs Creek and a yawning five-foot deep bunker crawls up to the front edge of the surface. After playing two well-hit shots, you'll be praying for your wedge to find the floor.
Perhaps the best accolade about Old Works is its affordability. You will have to trot all over the globe (and you'll still come up empty) to find a Jack Nicklaus Signature course for $40 on the weekends. Adding to the allure is a state-of-the-art practice facility that includes a three-hole practice course called, most appropriately, "The Little Bear."
With five sets of tees, Old Works Golf Course - adorned with historic significance and playable attributes - is easily the best all-round course in Montana. Not your typical golfing Mecca dotted with gated communities, white sand beaches, and three figure green fees, the town of Anaconda is like a breath of fresh air for the purists of the game. Only fitting then, that the course you'll find here has resurrected what was once an ugly eyesore into a golfing sanctuary that will leave you wanting more.
1205 Pizzini Way
P.O. Box 100
Anaconda, MT 59711
June 28, 2002