The steep rising foothills on the north side of the property are covered in rocks and crumbling stone. The size of the remnants embedded into the upper slope suggest some kind of massive structure once towered overhead. The block-like pillars and long chains of masonry draped over the mountain give no indication of purpose, but it’s clear this was a place of industry teeming with strength and manpower, and that it’s now gone.
There’s a sense here that you’re at an archeological site, a witness to the silenced afterimage of an era outlived. And you are. But this is the Old Works golf course, not the remains of a mysterious civilization, exactly, and the artifacts aren’t fossils or valuable relics but the last traces of foundations and footings that upheld the great smelters of the Anaconda Company, used for nearly 100 years to process copper mined in Butte, 30 miles down the interstate.
Anaconda closed the mines and furnaces in the early 1980’s, leaving behind a ravished, ecologically devastated landscape that was later declared a Superfund site. The property was eventually capped and sanitized of the toxic leftovers of the smelting process, clearing the way for an innovative repurposing that included a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, the first to be built in collaboration with a Superfund cleanup.
I came across on old video from the mid-1990’s that claimed seven of the top design firms were interviewed for the Old Works job. I wish I knew who they were, but it was probably a smart move to select Nicklaus Design — hiring an architect with any lesser name would make it more difficult than it already is to attract traveling players to this rural location, and local players can rightfully take pride in having one of the few Nicklaus “signature” courses in the upper Western states.
It would be interesting to see what this course might look like if it were built today. Design aesthetics have evolved in the two decades since Old Works opened and a modern incarnation would likely possess either a far more voluptuous style of shaping or a rougher, naturalistic work playing off the Montana prairie and rocky, Big Sky surrounds.
As it is, Old Works is neither fish nor fowl. While the holes incorporate black slag (the physical smelting byproduct ground down to sand consistency) in the form of bunkers and transition areas, there’s not much connectivity between the design features and the site.
The shaping is ordinary and merely functional with mostly shallow bunkers and modest mounding around the greens. The Nicklaus house style has matured in the last two decades beyond what’s here — moving toward more detailed greenside ground contour and more varied and charismatic bunkering — but the property would also be an ideal backdrop for more muscular features and strong vertical elements given the spartan landscape and industrial queues looming so obviously in the background.
Nicklaus was understandably conscientious of his clientele. Old Works is a public course dependent on area play, and punishing bunkers and green complexes that drove people away would have been a death sentence in this lightly populated part of the country. I still think, however, 21st century Jack would have found ways to make the course more exciting without being overly exacting.
If I were in charge I’d flip the sides. The first nine is the more ambitious of the two with holes charging uphill toward the mining remnants, drifting off the sloping land from elevated tees, then attacking upward again. It’s a great use of the topography that plays off the existing landscape, particularly the heaps of dune-like black slag that form the perch for the elevated par-5 6th green and promontory tees for the par-3 7th.
Holes 10 and 11, meanwhile, each require approach shots across Warm Spring Creek, which may be too much to ask handicap players first thing in the morning. These are the two best holes of the second nine but the following seven don’t inspire that same passion as the 11 holes before them.
Given its backstory and importance to the community, I wanted to love Old Works more than I do. I can’t comment on the challenges of building on a Superfund site or whether that impacted some of the routing and shaping decisions, but I can’t help but feel something more notable wasn’t left on the drafting board.
Nonetheless, should you find your clubs traveling through this part of Montana, it’s a no-brainer to stop here for a game, especially if you’re in a position to double it with a round at Tom Doak’s Rock Creek Cattle Club another hour up the road. (87)
Architect: Jack Nicklaus