Open Range If you like golf--and no waiting at the first tee--Big Sky Country is for you

May 09, 2004

The other day in Missoula, on the 5th hole of my local muni--a
Mephistophelian layout called The Highlands--I dropped a
seriously downhill double-break 35-footer, one of the better
shots of my handicap-large-as-a-goiter golfing life. It didn't
count. I had already carded a double bogey on the hole. My shot
came after 20 minutes of putting practice on that green. ¶ I
wasn't Bogarting. The Highlands was, effectively, empty. The
only other player (an amiably deranged friend of mine who will
gladly tell you about the last time he beat me, in 1999) was
back on number 2, babbling to himself as he looked for a lost
ball. ¶ I've seen emptier, much emptier. Two years ago I tagged
along on a short hunting trip to Malta, Mont., in the north
central prairie land. While my brothers-in-law killed things, I
played 108 breezy holes at a beguiling nine-holer. I saw
exactly four people anywhere near the course: a man walking his
dog, two guys fixing a backhoe and the groundskeeper tucking
things in for the winter. (The clubhouse was closed, so I slid
my money into an honor box.)

Crowd pressure, generally, just doesn't exist in Montana. True,
we have only 90 courses (Florida has 1,081), but we have only 15
towns with more than 5,000 people. Montana is three times the
size of Pennsylvania but with fewer residents than Detroit.

Now, if you prefer crowds, you can find them readily enough--in
high summer in the cities (Billings, pop. 130,000, is our
largest), around busy tourist areas such as western Montana's
Flathead Valley and on holiday weekends--but golf in the Big Sky
State is mostly a deliriously uncomplicated affair, as well as
downright odd at times.

I've often pulled off the highway on a whim and into a parking
lot (often gravel), wandered into the clubhouse (often a
double-wide) and 10 minutes later teed up, with a friend or all
by my lonesome, at places like Three Forks, Harlowton, Choteau,
Big Timber, Cut Bank, Conrad, Fort Benton and St. Regis. I play
about 80 rounds a year in the state. Sometimes I even call ahead,
but for every time I've heard "We might be able to fit you in,"
I've heard "It's all yours" 10 times.

To be sure, Montana isn't entirely a golf paradise. We have our
fair share of slowpokes, snobs, rules illiterates and
general-purpose louts. Some of the smaller courses rest in Tin
Cup territory--escadrilles of mosquitoes, patchy fairways, the
odd scabrous green, roughs that are sclaffers' graveyards, KO'ing
winds. We also have severe dress codes: Many courses require
shirts and shoes, and at least one sternly forbids cowboy boots.

With a minimum of effort you can stumble across out-of-the-way
courses with devilishly clever holes--water hazards that don't
look like ponds filled with Sani-Flush, immaculate, doted-on
grounds, and vistas so sweet, so lovely, you want to put them on
postcards and send them everywhere at once. Certain exigencies
have given rise to unusual ground rules. Snowing (as it was two
years ago in Missoula--in June)? No lost-ball penalty. Sand so
hard that you don't leave tracks? Relief. Ball in a deer or
antelope track? Tough. Ball in a big league track (elk, moose,
bear, mountain cat)? Relief. Rattler sunning on the green?
Two-putt gimmies all around.

We have a course built on a Superfund site; the sand there--slag,
actually, from an old copper smelter--is black. Enough bad shots
on a wrong-wind day and you come off the course looking like an
extra from Coal Miner's Daughter. At another course an errant
shot might land you in a cemetery or on an airport runway.

Montana is a hideously poor state. For golfers there's a silver
lining. My weekday season pass is $250. At many courses $20 to
$25 will get you 18, and at one, a jewel box just off Interstate
90, you can play all day for $18. That black-sand course? A
mighty, world-class, Nicklaus-designed layout called Old Works
Golf Course. This year a cartless weekday round will set you back
all of $38.

Dr. Par will see you now.

Montana author Bryan Di Salvatore's books include A Clever
Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)