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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.