Mountain golf is a genre all its own, but mountain golf of the caliber conjured by Tom Weiskopf at Spanish Peaks Mountain Club in Big Sky, Montana, is on a whole new level, literally and figuratively.
Not that it’s the highest track in elevation in America, in Montana or even in its neighborhood — the Yellowstone Club one ridge away grabs that distinction, and the Jack Nicklaus-authored course art Moonlight Basin a few miles to the north, on the other side of horizon-hogging Lone Mountain, comes close — but in terms of making the most of challenging terrain, and creating a hole-to-hole experience that immediately leaves you wanting more no matter what your score, Spanish Peaks reaches some rarefied air indeed.
And don’t let the fact that’s a private club deter you, at least in the short term. With several luxury rental cabins available to the public through the 2019 season, and the under-construction, high-end Montage Hotel set to offer guests course access come summer 2021, golfers who find their way to the soaring peaks of southwest Montana, about an hour’s drive south of Bozeman and not far from the West Gate to Yellowstone National Park, should plan to spend a day immersed in Weiskopf’s handiwork.
At least four things will come to mind as you take the winding, rising road from the village at Big Sky to Spanish Peaks Mountain Club.
- The 360-degree sweep of mountain beauty is truly and undeniably awe-inspiring
- This place is hopping with home construction — though not one handsome structure interferes with the golf experience or ventures that overbearing, “hey, look at me” ethic found at more than a few private golf enclaves throughout America
- Perched perfectly between the front nine below and back nine above, the clubhouse complex is as luxury-meets-rustic welcoming as any comparable structure in the modern American West.
- There are smiling member faces everywhere, and they’re not all of a certain, uh, advanced age. This a family club and development through and through and multi-generational enjoyment is encouraged if not expected.
In fact, during a round you’re liable to see mom, dad, kids and a grandparent or two loaded into a couple carts and heading for one of Spanish Peaks’ coolest perks: A “Snack Cabin” loaded with refrigerated drinks, pint-sized hot dogs and snacks ranging from classic candy bars and chips to fresh fruit and health-conscious protein bars. There’s one on the front, one on the back, strategically placed to serve a half-dozen holes, so there’s no excuse for getting parched or letting hunger pangs interfere with even one swing.
Then again, hunger or thirst have a tough time competing with the sheer joy of just being there to follow Weiskopf’s muse, to let his best mountain course’s seductive song of “polished seclusion” carry you through every swing, good and bad, with gratitude.
“I like playing fast, but I would never object to being held up all day at Spanish Peaks,” said Mike Fish, a visitor from Syracuse, New York enjoying his first extended foray into the Montana wild — not only for golf, but for hikes around Big Sky and in Glacier National Park, several hours’ drive to the northwest. “I will treasure this round. It’s special.”
Special enough, indeed, to be rescued from a 2011 bankruptcy filing on the heels of the worldwide economic collapse, which laid many a fledgling golf club low. After closing for a couple seasons to round up partners with the cash, clout and foresight to keep this Weiskopf wonder from disappearing into the woods forever, Spanish Peaks returned in 2013. It’s been adding members and racking up raves ever since.
But what makes the course itself so special, other than its rugged, God-given setting?
For one thing, among modern architects, Weiskopf has always been known for giving his layouts a certain pacing and rhythm that draw the player in right away, asking for his or her best game until the last stroke and throwing in a few features that, in lesser hands, could sink into gimmickry.
At Spanish Peaks, for instance, he designed the 18th hole with alternate greens — it’s a par 4 to one, par 5 to the other. In either case you’ve got to keep your downhill, half-blind tee shot short of a broad ravine choked with greenery and tall grass — tricky at plus-6,000-feet above sea level — and clear it with your second shot. That could be a simple (maybe) flip wedge to the short green or a big decision to the long one, which hovers on a small cliff with the hotel rising in the distance behind it: hit a lay-up to a relatively flat lie or just go for it with a hybrid or fairway metal? It’s a common quandary on many a par 5, but ol’ Tom manages to give it a little extra pucker factor.
The course’s other three par 5s are just as tasty in their own way, including No. 2, which boomerangs around a long, narrow lake to plateau green, and No, 11, which, at around 230 yards from the members’ tees, narrows to just a few yards between a bunker and piney outropping — negotiate that bottleneck and the green is there for the taking with a well-placed baby draw.
So where is the trademark Tommy W. drivable par 4? That would be No. 17, which tips out at 342 yards, translating to about 305 at elevation for a single-digit player. He puts one bunker right in landing zone, of course, but it’s also an apt aiming point. What the hell — if the wind is favorable, pull the dog and give ’er a go.
But it’s a par 3 that seizes “signature hole” honors. No. 15 is a heart-stopping, suitable-for-framing mountain tableau that just happens to have a broad, inviting green in the foreground. It plays downhill with a water feature left, trees right and behind and the soaring, serrated edge of the Spanish Peaks themselves soaring into the distant horizon.
Might want to take an extra deep breath before pulling the club back here, friends. And when driving down to the green, take a moment to appreciate the way Weiskopf mirrors the shape and line of those mountains on the course’s sculpted scapes. “You might call it peak, or peek, symmetry,” said Mike Fish. He’s right both ways.
In fact, playing this course is a lesson in that brand of man-in-nature symmetry all too few of us experience enough. Every step, swing and breath is a blessing.
Clearly Spanish Peaks has mastered the language of mountain golf, backed by a crack maintenance crew that can bring every hole back to midsummer form within a few days of a freak snowstorm, and even has the chops to erase, overnight, the dance-on-the-green tracks of resident elk.
Fish marveled at the conditioning, and what must be some impressive technology behind it. “I’m guessing there’s a subtle, world class drainage system that each spring prevents the winter snowpack from destroying the manufactured artwork blending in beautifully with Mother Nature’s sloping canvas,” he wrote in an e-mail several weeks after his round there. “How many miles of drainage pipes must be involved?”
And how many miles on the road or in the air is a trip to Spanish Peaks worth? As many as it takes.
If you have time to add rounds at The Reserve at Moonlight Basin (also private but accessible via onsite lodging) and Arnold Palmer’s public Big Sky Golf Course while you’re up there, all the better. But start at Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, and do so while the sun is still high in the sky. By late September, Big Sky’s collective mind turns to winter sports (Big Sky boasts North America’s largest expanse of skiable terrain), and the snow may even be flying by then. By mid-October the golf courses bed down until May at the earliest. (Remember, the course will be closed to the public in 2020 only, then available when The Montage opens.)
Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport is served by Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue and United Airlines, with direct flights from several large cities including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.