WHITEFISH, MT - Folks residing in the Flathead Valley of Montana witnessed two important construction feats during the 1920s and 1930s - the building of a famous road and a golf course.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 52-mile stretch of scenic grandeur, is an engineering marvel, and possibly the most spectacular switchback byway in America. The road traverses the high country of Glacier National Park, a place Teddy Roosevelt described as the Alps of America, up to Logan's Pass. It's so impressive it was deemed a National Historic Landmark.
The other feat came from an innovative idea that lead to the building of Whitefish Lake Golf Club. Short of funds after clearing lodgepole pines for fairways one and two, a local politician discovered a WPA program allowing municipalities to build emergency landing fields. That money boost was all the citizens needed to focus and complete this historic golf course.
Both engineering accomplishments have helped make this part of massive Montana a wonderland of summer and winter fun.
Olympic Gold Medalist Tommy Moe made his first ski runs on Big Mountain Ski Resort. Outdoor enthusiasts throughout the world call it "God's Country", an area only an hour from the Canadian border, nestled in northwest Montana. They love its fly fishing, river rafting, boating, mountain biking, hiking and camping. They love the grandeur of Glacier National Park and the access to millions of acres of wilderness.
They love the Montana Rockies, the Flathead Valley and the boating, skiing and fishing opportunities at Flathead Lake - the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
And more and more celebrities from the big cities are coming here for the summer and during hunting season.
The golf? How does this sound? The pace is about four hours on the weekends and the prime green fees with cart you will pay are $51 at Whitefish Lake Golf Club, and $59 at Northern Pines Golf Club (Kalispell, MT) and $69 at Eagle Bend Golf Club (Bigfork, MT). You will find reduced rates for the off-season and twilight.
You want a twilight bargain, this is the place. The sun doesn't go down until after 10 p.m. because of its northern location, only 60 miles from Canada.
"I grew up in Southern California and really found a home away from big-city life," said Eagle Bend head pro Greg Shepherd. "I love my new home in Bigfork - it's one of the top small towns in the country. Just on one street we have 14 art galleries, four great restaurants and four pretty wild bars." He should know, he owns one of them.
One of Bigfork's high-profile summer residents is Phil Jackson, who lives on Flathead Lake. Just after Jackson coached his Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title this year he exclaimed: "I can't wait to get back to Bigfork and have a beer at the Raven." (The area has great microbreweries. If you visit these brewpubs don't pass up a couple of local brews - Moose Drool and Black Star Lager.)
"I think this part of Montana is one of the most unique, well-kept secrets for golf and countless outdoor activities," Shepherd said. "Just within 45 minutes of here there are eight fun golf courses."
And how about the weather? Most people unfamiliar with this part of Montana will think its in the frozen north, chilly even in the summer. Wrong. The Whitefish area, with great views of the western side of the Rockies, is at a lower 3,000-foot elevation. So summer days are common in the 80s and even 90s.
Whitefish Lake Golf Course is the only 36-hole golf complex in Montana. It features some tight driving holes lined with pine and birch trees on its North and South Courses and awesome views of the Big Mountain Ski Resort, especially in the spring and fall when there's snow up high.
"Twenty years ago we had golfers lined up at 4 a.m. to play," said head pro Tim Olson, "so it was easy call to build an additional 18. We are all about a small-town atmosphere and customer service. It's a challenge when you have 500 to 600 golfers a day, but we take care of them."
Golf Digest selected both the North and South courses as top five for the State of Montana for 1996. The original site is now the North Course, which plays par 72 at 6,579 yards. "The North is very traditional with old-fashioned enlarged greens and in the 1980s the bunkers were added," said Olson.
The South, which measures 6,551 yards at par 71, is more of a target layout. "It seems to play longer and has more challenges. It gets really tight on some holes and there are some forced carries over water," Olson said. "Numbers 7-8-9 are our Amen Corner, with a par 3, 4 and 5 - three tough, natural golf holes. This is a beautiful spot that was just begging for golf holes to be built."
The three holes border Lost Coon Lake, a spot created by nature - an ice storm 60 years ago killed the trees, and created a spooky look with the ghostly stumps still emerging from the water.
When the first airplane landed on August 3, 1939 there was some speculation about the safety of the golfers, but planes continued to use the course into the early 1940s even during golf tournaments, but golf soon took priority. The course was still designated as an emergency landing field into the 1950s and 1960s.
A second nine was added in 1962 to create the Woods/Lake 18 on the North Course. The South Course started as the Moutain Nine financed by the Grouse Mountain Lodge development, then the final piece to the 36 holes was finished in 1994.
Lost Coon Lake presents great chances to view wildlife as eagles, osprey, ducks, geese, loons, heron, wild turkey and numerous other birds call the area home. Large game such as deer, moose and elk are often seen on the layout.
Eagle Bend Golf Club in Bigfork gained nationwide exposure in 1994 when it hosted the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, won by Guy Yamamoto. It was held on the course's original Lake and Ridge nines, which measure 6,724 yards at par 72.
Then the Bear and Son came to town. A new nine designed by Jack Nicklaus Jr., with assistance from his dad, opened in 1995. The Bear even bought a house with a view of the second hole and continued to come for hunting season until just recently when he sold the house.
In the inaugural round, Nicklaus Sr., recorded a course-record 68, but it only lasted a month. On the 12th, a 211-yard par 3, Dad was giving his son a hard time about the big bunker that fronted the green. "Why did you put that bunker there?" Nicklaus asked. He promptly mis-hit one in the bunker.
Television personalities love Eagle Bend. When you stand on the tee of the fun par-3 No. 6, a picturesque downhill 166-yarder, the house to your right is television sportscaster Brent Musberger's. Maury Povich, a scratch golfer, and Connie Chung live here, too. PGA Tour player Lon Hinkle once called Eagle Bend home.
Another challenging par 3 comes at No. 16, another 211-yarder. "This hole will ruin many rounds," Shepherd said. There's water and a marshy area in front that you really can't see, and Shepherd said they fished 10,000 balls out of there last year. You can bail-out left but it's a very tough hole when the pin is right.
Eagle Bend's 3,419-yard Nicklaus nine, is a strategic test which has rolling hills and views of Flathead Lake. "We are in the process of building two new holes with the help of Andy North," Shepherd said. "We are moving the driving range to accomplish this."
The original 18 holes were designed by William Hull Jr. in 1984.
Northern Pines Golf Club, located 10 miles north of Flathead Lake, opened in Kalispell in 1996, at a warm elevation of 2,900 feet. It was an instant success.
"We were looking all over Colorado, Nebraska and Montana for a great golf-course location," said partner Walt Chauner. "When we saw what is now the back nine we knew. There were six golf holes there without doing a thing. We only cut down 28 trees and didn't have to move any dirt. We all think the Flathead Valley is one of last great places in the USA."
Chauner's partners include George Gillette of Colorado's Beaver Creek, Tom Clary the pro at Beaver Creek and Andy North, who designed the course along with Roger Packard.
North, the two-time U.S. Open champion, sculpted a 7,015-yard, par-72 layout that is treeless on the front nine replacing former potato fields. There's an abundance of lushness because of the fertile ground. It has grassy mounds, native grasses, fescues, wildflowers and bunkers, but the back nine is the most interesting in the Flathead Valley.
With Stillwater River as a centerpiece, the final holes criss-cross through the woods with great views of the Swan Mountains and Whitefish Range and there's even a blue spruce farm in sight.
Gary McCord said of Northern Pines: "Other than the scenic mountains and the wonderfully designed golf course that is dizzy with beauty, Northern Pines is just another golf course."
No. 14 requires a scenic drive though a narrow chute of pines with a marshy-area forced carry. It's a 404-yard par 4 with a dogleg to the right. Go too far right and you are blocked out for the approach.
Your favorite could be the par-three 16th, 193 yards from the back, where golfers must negotiate a green positioned in an oxbow of the river's off-flow. "The largest painted turtle population in Montana resides on this hole," Chauner said. "We also counted 17 species of birds."
The 17th is a strong par 5 stretching to 555 yards, with a water drop-off and no recovery right and trees to the left. You finish with a long 444-yard par 4 that North once said was fitting of the huge state of Montana.
Northern Pines' greens are perfect bentgrass. If you can't find your putting stroke on these beauties you never will.
"We spend hours on the first-rate quality of this course," said Chauner. "We are very conscious of the quality of your lie, so we work on the divots. And we are constantly maintaining the integrity of the greens - the biggest chunk of poa annua we have taken out of the greens was the size of a quarter."
You can also enjoy the big Montana sky and a quiet game of golf here since only 30 interior homesites are planned. It's evident Chauner and his partners wanted an experience that centered on preservation of the natural resources.
Northern Pines was honored as the No. 7 "Best New Affordable Golf Course" by Golf Digest, the year it opened.
Whitefish Lake Golf Club
P.O. Box 666
Whitefish, MT 59937
Eagle Bend Golf Club
279 Eagle Bend Drive
Bigfork, MT 59911
Telephone: 800-255-5641 or 406-837-7310.
Northern Pines Golf Club
3230 Highway 93
Kalispell, MT 59901
Telephone: 406-751-1950 or 800-255-5641.
Montana's 2001 Golf Digest Ratings
1. Stock Farm C., Hamilton.
2. Old Works G.C., Anaconda.
3. Northern Pines G.C., Kalispell.
4. Eagle Bend G.C. (Ridge), Bigfork.
5. Buffalo Hill G.C. (Champion), Kalispell
Grouse Mountain Lodge
2 Fairway Drive
Whitefish, MT 59937-3199
Telephone: 406-862-3000 or 800-321-8822
On The Big Mountain
P.O. Box 1659
Whitefish, MT 59937
Telephone: 406-862-6098 or 800-862-6094
Glacier Wilderness Guides and Montana Raft Company has more than 80 years experience hiking, camping, rafting and fishing.
Glacier Wilderness Guides
and Montana Raft Company
West Glacier, MT 59936
For reservations call: 800-521-RAFT or 406-387-5555.
Lakestream Fly Fishing Shop is a year-round, full service, fly fishing shop located in Whitefish. Take fly fishing lessons or book a guided trip. They supply all necessary fly fishing gear, tackle, waders and boots - unless you bring your own. Fishing licenses and permits are not included in the price of trip but are available at Lakestream.
Lakestream Fly Fishing Shop & Outfitters
15 Central Avenue
Whitefish, MT 59937
Glacier National Park
Logan's Bar and Grill at Grouse Mountain Lodge. Serrano's, Truby's Wood Fired Pizza in Whitefish. Cafe Kandahar at Kandahar Lodge. The Grill at Eagle Bend.
One of the best golf course restaurants anywhere is the Whitefish Lake Golf Course Restaurant, which has a distinct dark, log-cabin atmosphere. All the timbers used in the restaurant came from the cutting of the lodgepole pines for the original first and second fairways. Many locals dress up on the weekends for this great restaurant, but you can dress casually.
Many first-time visitors are shocked to see the Delta 727 at their connection in Salt Lake City to come to Kalispell's Glacier Park International Airport (www.glacierairport.com), a small, but new and modern facility. Besides Delta, Horizon, Big Sky and Northwest fly here.