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Holes in the Sky

Particularly since bright and early the next morning, any dedicated golfer would be on the interstate, heading west a hundred miles to Anaconda and the finest course in the northern Rockies, Old Works Golf Course, named for a defunct copper smelter.

Butte was the empire city of western mining for a hundred years. Anaconda was the smeltering town. They were mostly settled by immigrant workers. The Old Works was designed and built on the old smelter site by Jack Nicklaus and paid for with fifteen million dollars in funds provided for environmental mitigation when the Atlantic Richfield Company closed the Butte mines and the smelter in the early 1980s. A Superfund site, the grounds were studded with stonework that had once been flues and foundations, and overlaid with long reefs of black smelter slag. Nicklaus said the actual site was the ugliest he'd ever seen, apart from the views. He capped the entire area with crushed rock, clay and topsoil and buried plastic liners to protect trees, bunkers and greens. He built two lakes to catch and filter water, filled the bunkers with fine, sandlike black tailings (beautifully playable) and routed the course around the historic remnants. The environment is recovering, and the course is a dead-on winner.

The Old Works runs to 7,705 yards, the four par fives averaging six hundred yards. But at 5,300 feet above sea level, the distances (providing you pick the right set of tees) are quite negotiable. Landing areas in the fescue fairways are wide, but wild grasses in the primary rough are knee deep. The huge, hard, rolling greens, which long hitters go at with balata balls, are tilted to accept running shots from the rest of us. Nicklaus's signature hole, the 471-yard, uphill par-four sixteenth, features a waste bunker running on the right from 240 yards to the green and another bunker 250 yards from the tee, backed by an old masonry wall just left of where your tee shot should land. The ample green is best approached by a rolling shot to the left side, which will then break to the center.

Opened in the spring of 1997, the Old Works is a major golf destination located a long way from population centers. As a consequence, the green fees, in season, are thirty-six dollars. (We pay one hundred fifty to get on courses that aren't as good in Palm Springs and Phoenix and Orlando.) There are signs of economic renewal in Butte and Anaconda, the most visible of which is the Old Works. Nevertheless, falls from glory run through your mind as you try to hold your game together while playing across those black reefs of tailings.

Coming off the course, I'd go to Jim and Clara's Dinner Club, in Anaconda. It's a Montana steak house from the old days--big steaks, lobsters, king crab legs, mussels and clams by the pound. Visitors from outside Montana say it's "real." What they mean, I think, is that Jim and Clara's is an institution shaped by the particularities of life in Anaconda, one of a kind and invaluable in these homogenized times.

Then I'd backtrack to Butte and the Copper King Mansion, a bed-and-breakfast built in 1884, the glory days of Butte mining, and fitted out with period furnishings. There are only four bedrooms, so make reservations in advance. Then I'd walk the old half-deserted streets to the M&M Cigar Store, a classic Butte blue-collar tavern, for a nightcap. On St. Patrick's Day the waitresses' hair and eyebrows and fingernails are dyed or painted green. The old men and the old women on their bar stools view the world through glittering eyes, humorous and ironic. The M&M is a place where wildness lives in the heart. Time spent there will surely not be deducted from the sum of your days.

The next morning, if you resist the urge to try the Old Works again, head 120 miles northwest on the freeway to Missoula, a college town and a different deal altogether: writers, latte shops, ethnic restaurants--a well-to-do liberal enclave in this broke, increasingly conservative state. There are lots of franchise motels, the most elaborate being the Double Tree Edgewater, with rooms overlooking the Clark Fork River near downtown and the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek (some pretty good trout have been caught right there). There's also Goldsmith's Bed and Breakfast, just upstream, with fireplaces in some of the rooms. Larchmont Golf Course, in Missoula, is a 7,093-yard layout with semimature trees (planted when the course was built in 1981), wide fairways and large greens. I play it a lot--recently in the Montana Open, staged there every year. It's very well maintained, with large, well-trapped, multilevel greens and, occasionally, heavy rough. Another nearby course is Highlands Golf Club, a short, narrow nine with fast, difficult greens (the second is the toughest to read in Montana), tight fairways and tough, links-style rough. Local knowledge helps, but the Highlands is a graduate-level test of anybody's touch. Low-handicappers expect to kill this course--and end up happy to break eighty.


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