Golfers are always searching for a golfing
when they do it’s difficult to keep a hidden gem secret for very long. They have to tell others and the
word quickly spreads. It’s obvious that word is getting out about Montana’s Flathead Valley, framed by
Glacier National Park to the northeast, the Salish Mountains to the west, the Whitefish Range on the northern
rim and the Swan and Mission Ranges on the east, especially since Golf Digest named it one of the top
50 golfing destination in the world.
I would second the magazine’s description: “There’s perhaps no better place in the nation for
home-on-the-range hospitality, exceptional value and genuine mountain splendor than Montana’s
Of course, now is not the time to go as it’s cold up there, it’s not too early to make some plans for
a summer or early fall getaway.
While it requires a change of airplanes—Salt Lake City and Minneapolis/St. Paul are the two
chief places to pass through—for most visitors arriving from other places in the United States and might cost
a little more to get there, golfers will be surprised to find green fees very reasonable ($35 to $75 even in
high season), considering the quality of the golf courses. A lot of Canadians and Americans from neighboring
states just drive their automobiles.
Helping to get the message out about this hidden golfing gem has been the Flathead Valley Golf
Association, a coop marketing effort of 10 public golf courses located within a 50-mile area of this
special corner of the world. Surprisingly, no two of these golf courses are really alike. Each has its own unique qualities. In fact, you’ll even find dramatic differences on the same course.
Big Mountain Golf Club, formerly called Northern Pines and designed by two-time U.S. Open
champion Andy North, features a front nine reminiscent of a links across the pond since it was built on
an old potato farm. The back 9 then drops down to play through the trees near the Stillwater River. The
par 4 No. 14 requires a drive through a narrow chute of trees over some marsh land and has to be one
of the most challenging holes. Big Mountain has the best bent grass greens that I’ve seen in a long time.
If you can’t make a putt, you have only yourself to blame. I made everything inside eight feet the day I
played and had a good round despite hitting just three greens in regulation.
Buffalo Hill Golf Club, designed by Robert Muir Graves, traverses through three distinctly
different terrains—Buffalo Hill where it got its name, a river bottom near the Stillwater River and a
flatter bench top with numerous lakes adding to the challenge. The locals like it as evident from it
being named the best golf course in the valley seven straight years by the Daily Inter Lake newspaper.
Giving the facility 27 holes is the original 9 built in 1936.
National publications seem to favor the North and South courses at Whitefish Lake Golf
Course, the first 36-hole facility in Montana, as the best ones around. The North features a more old
fashioned traditional look with tree-lined fairways. The original 9 was built in the 1920s and doubled as
an airport. It has been remodeled and lengthened over the years. The Lakes 9 was added to the Woods
9 in the 1960s. The South is shorter, but calls for more target golf and features three challenging holes
near Lost Coon Lake, which has a spooky look with stumps emerging from the water after an ice storm
60 years ago. The nearby Grouse Mountain Lodge built one of the 9s and then final 9 was added in
1994. The courses are operated by the city of Whitefish, offering locals a $500 annual membership.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable rounds I had came on the Village Green Golf Course, located
very close to Buffalo Hill. It’s a fun course that seniors really like, especially since the course offers 2-
for-1 specials on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It can be challenging with water coming into play in the
landing areas for errant drives, but offers plenty of birdie chances as rewards for good approach shots.
Meadow Lake Golf Course, which was remodeled by Dick Phelps, offers some of the most
challenging approach shots in the valley because of all the elevation changes and roller-coaster
fairways. The undulating greens can “eat your lunch” as three putts are the norm rather than the
Glacier View Golf Course, located near the entrance of Glacier National Park, doesn’t seem to
have been kept up as nicely as the others, but offers some fantastic views of snow-capped peaks up to
10,000 feet high. It’s short at just over 5,000 yards and plays to a par of 64. “It’s where we go when our
egos need a boost,” said our host Jeff Laverdiere.
While it requires a little more drive time, the southern end of Flathead Lake, the largest
freshwater lake west of the Mississippi at 28 miles long and up to 15 miles wide, shouldn’t be
Polson Bay started out as a 9 holer as part of a WPA project in the 1930s. The additional 18,
designed by John Steidel and located across the highway on the shores of the lake, offers the most bang
for your bucks with an interesting mix of holes with spectacular views of the lake and the Mission
Mountains. If all the locals are as nice as my partner that day, Tracey Dooley, it’s no surprise why this is
the favorite of golfers in the southern end of the valley.
The Mission Mountain Golf Course, located 14 miles south of the lake, also offers great values
and has spectacular mountain views, but we didn’t have time to get down there.
The Cabinet View Country Club in Libby under went some extensive work as part of
the EPA’s efforts to clean up asbestos problems and a new back nine with new greens and tees
is scheduled to re-open in the summer of 2011.
Indian Springs Ranch is the newest addition to the association. It is a links style an hour north
of Whitefish on scenic Highway 93.
Tom Fazio’s new Iron Horse Golf Club is located in the valley in a gated community and has a
“member only” policy. My high school classmate Guinn Smith, who has a home in Kalispell, says he’s
heard from friends who have played it and said it may be the best in the state.
The Red Lion is the place to stay if you are playing Big Mountain, Buffalo Hill and Village
Greens in Kalispell while the 145-room Grouse Mountain Lodge (my favorite) is within walking
distance of Whitefish Lake.
While the golfing season is short, mid-April to mid-October, golfers can enjoy extra playing