“I approached Tom Weiskopf and asked if he wouldn’t mind me joining his round,” assistant golf professional Tom Conway revealed.”
I was “this many” years old when I found one of my favorite golf experiences in 2022 on Labor Day weekend. I say “golf experiences” instead of “golf courses” because, having had the good fortune to play courses all over the planet, I have come to value the entire experience more than the layout or holes, or, God forbid, the golf course’s purported ranking.
Big Sky Golf Course at the Big Sky Resort, between Bozeman, Montana and Yellowstone National Park had me at “hello” and sent me away smiling.
Because it is fun…and yes, golf can be fun. And…even funny!
Big Sky Golf Course and Nordic Center
The golf holes are plainly visible alongside the road that runs from the village of Big Sky up to the Big Sky Resort, arguably the vastest mountain ski resort in America.
Though you are at 6,500 feet of elevation as you play the links-style holes, the old-fashioned golf course is routed over a concise piece of only slightly rolling land, which makes it a walkable opportunity, which is somewhat of a rarity for a mountain golf course. This stretch of the legs is, however, surrounded by inspiring mountain views including Lone Peak, the aptly named giant which looms over the course at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet.
Lone Peak has, for years, been accessible by skiers and, in the summer, sightseers, via a dramatic cable-car tram – a system the advanced tech savvy Big Sky Resort and its parent company Boyne Resorts is remaking and expanding.
Back on the ground, Big Sky Golf Course has push carts for the walkers, but electric power carts are included with the green fees so some golfers, particularly the group of hungover bachelor party pals, rolled by riding.
First Tee Jitters and Jesters
After noticing the fun scenery, the players on the first tee became the main attraction. Why? They are completely on display on a veritable first-tee stage Shakespeare would have been proud of. If, as the philosopher posed, “All the world’s a stage and all of us its’ players,” those who dare to tee it at Big Sky Golf Club had better be ready for the spotlight. The first tee is a small square of grass – a literal “tee box,” if you will – abuts the golf shop window. The check-in counter attendants could literally reach out the window and grab the driver head of a player making a back swing.
And if the prying eyes of the people who sold you a starting time, the right side of the first tee is bordered by the waist-high railing of the Bunker Bar’s patio! Players can hear even the slightest snicker from the patio people sipping suds and feeling the wake of a clubhead ‘whoosh.’ Can you say, “stage fright?”
Bunker Bar Menu
There is a comfortable, unfancy nature to the little Big Sky Golf Course cottage clubhouse. It’s the kind of simple outpost that makes you feel like a kid again: no lockers but a golf shop; three-table grill with patio; restrooms; small storage room; and a tiny back office. So, I smiled when, on the bar menu, I saw crudites and charcuterie offered. It was a reminder that this may be an unpretentious, wild west ski and fishing town with the Hollywood famed “river running through it,” but it’s one in which some of America’s wealthiest people put their boots up.
The mountain, and sometimes shops in town, is reportedly shared by the likes of residents Bill Gates; Mark Zuckerberg; Ben Affleck; Matt Damon; former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; and while Justin Bieber and the Kardashians have partied in Big Sky, Ted Turner, the America’s Cup-sailing billionaire who founded CNN, owns a massive ranch is just up the Gallatin River. And it was NBC News television anchor Chet Huntley who founded Big Sky Resort in 1973, shortly before it was bought by Boyne Resorts, the current parent company.
Swinging with a Star
Golf and sports stars brought attention to the area via television in 2021 when “The Match” was staged at a private club nearby featuring NFL Super Bowl quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady paired with golf major champions Bryson Dechambeau and Phil Mickelson.
Big Sky Golf Course first assistant golf professional Tom Conway, who has been with Big Sky for a decade, in 2021 watched one golf’s all-time greats walk anonymously up to that first tee outside the window of Big Sky’s golf shop.
“I approached him and asked if he wouldn’t mind me joining him,” Conway recounted. “He welcomed my company.”
I asked Conway if he had a match?
“Nah, but we played nine holes and talked along the way.”
Conway, from the Chicago area, played college golf at Tiffin University, 90-minutes’ drive from Columbus, where Weiskopf competed at Ohio State University.
Weiskopf won 16 Tour titles, which includes an Open Championship title, and, after some time as a television commentator, enjoyed a successful golf course architecture career – including designing an exclusive private course right there on the same mountain in Big Sky, which became a home to him.
Weiskopf surely appreciated the setting of what was not only Big Sky’s first golf course, but also the very first design of another golf star: Arnold Palmer. The Pennsylvanian Palmer, known as The King, was, in fairness, a celebrity golf architect not known for a hands-on approach to his designs once his firm took off. Therefore, Big Sky Golf Course might be the most authentic “Arnold Palmer design” you will ever play, even if he drew the routing on a napkin or walked the property once during a ski trip in the 1970’s.
“One of the architects from the Arnold Palmer design company came through a couple of years ago to inspect the course and implement some design tweaks so the course stayed true to Palmer’s design philosophy,” Conway told me.
Golf courses are living things that grow and evolve over the years.
Visitors can spy some historical photos in the clubhouse.
“Yeah, there are plenty of hidden secrets around here,” Conway teased.
Yellowstone’s “Water Hazards”
Though your inconsistent golf swing may not accurately be described as “Old Faithful,” you can visit the famed geyser in Yellowstone National Park, an entrance to which is about 45-minutes by car from Big Sky Resort.
You’ll also find a serious “water hazard” in the park if you stop to see the hot springs among the other thermal features. The bluest most beautiful natural pools of water are lethal hot springs, but they’re not soothing and relaxing like the massive whirlpool hot tub at Big Sky Resort’s Summit Hotel. The inviting water in the hot springs is fierce and near-boiling, superheated to 170-degrees by the Yellowstone magmatic system.
Big Sky Resort will arrange guided Yellowstone group or individual tours through Backcountry Safaris, or you’re welcome to drive through the park, which is bigger than Rhode Island, on your own.
If you prefer your water at the end of a fly rod, Big Sky Resort can also connect you with a float or wade guided fishing experiences with Wild Trout Outfitters on either the Madison or Gallatin Rivers, each of which are prized by anglers around the world.
When to Play
The 6,800-yard Big Sky Golf Course opens in late May and closes at the beginning of October. Rates vary. Big Sky is about an hours’ drive pleasant, scenic drive from Bozeman Airport and 10 minutes from the main areas of Big Sky Resort.
Read more on Michael Patrick Shiels’ travel blog, The Travel Tattler. Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]