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Holes in the Sky

The best of these is the Lake nine (lots of water and aspen, OB stakes along the edges of the bird refuge). The least interesting is the Nicklaus nine, which is sort of tricked-up without being demanding. The most challenging combination is Ridge/Lake, but unfortunately you can no longer play it, as Eagle Bend has made Ridge/Nicklaus the primary track.

Your heavy traveling is over. But the Flathead Valley between Eagle Bend and Glacier National Park is thick with first-rate courses. It's time to consider thirty-six holes a day. Start with Northern Pines Golf Club (in the morning so as to avoid the afternoon winds). A links-style course just north of Kalispell, it was designed in 1996 by Roger Packard and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North: ponds; big, rolling bent-grass greens; mounded bluegrass fairways; and waist-high native grass in the rough. The first thirteen holes were sculpted from open fields, and the Stillwater River comes into play on holes fourteen through seventeen--which is, the times I've played there, where the wheels came off.

Then backtrack three miles to Buffalo Hill Golf Course, in Kalispell, for an afternoon on an old local-knowledge course (see if you can get on with somebody who knows it). The third and fourth are tricky short par fours. The fifth is a 210-yard par three dropping a hundred or so feet to the wide floor of the canyon where the Stillwater River runs its twisting way. Holes eight through eleven play around ponds on the flat across the canyon, twelve to sixteen play along the river, and seventeen brings you out of the canyon again. Buffalo Hill asks for all your shots.

That night I'd be up the road in Whitefish, checked in at Grouse Mountain Lodge, attending to a drink on the veranda overlooking the South course at Whitefish Lake Golf Club. After relaxing in the hot tub, I'd settle over some venison in Logan's Grill.

Come morning, those not interested in another day of golf should go to the lobby and visit with the Montana Adventure Company, whose employees can set them up with guided fly-fishing, horseback riding, white- water rafting or hiking. If you're up for another thirty-six holes, start at Meadow Lake Golf Course, over by Columbia Falls. There are meadowland ponds, long par fives through the timber, a winding creek and wide greens. Again, local knowledge helps: Four and eighteen, for instance, are layup holes. Meadow Lake leads you to take risks and hit shots you remember.

That afternoon I'd be on the South course at Whitefish Lake Golf Club, with one mature nine and one only a few years old. This last is a bit overstyled, but it's one of my favorite tracks because I've always scored well there. You see what you face, and distances to the hazards are posted on layup holes. The holes built in 1995 are much more demanding than those left from 1980 (the tenth fairway slopes so severely downhill and to the right that it's hard to hold with a driver). The greens putt well, with uniform speed. I'd walk off the eighteenth green onto the veranda at Grouse Mountain--and later cross the highway to the clubhouse at Whitefish Lake for a fresh grilled salmon steak.

I'd save the North course at Whitefish Lake for last. An old layout cut through an evergreen forest, it's where a lot of Montana tournaments have been played. Don't let the 280-yard par-four tenth tease you into pulling out your driver. Try threading a cut three-wood past the big trees and over a deep bunker onto the green. And you couldn't ask for a more dramatic finishing hole--a 549-yard par five falling along a tight valley with a steep hill on the right, mature evergreens on the left and rising to a ridge just in front of a green that can't be seen from the fairway (players ring a bell when they've putted out on this and other blind holes). The well-trapped green slopes quite severely from back to front. A hook off the tee and you're fighting to escape the snowman. Then you ring that bell and feel like a fool.

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