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Play Away: Let the Big (Sky) Dog Eat!

Some call it Big Sky Country. Others refer to it as the Last Best Place. But rarely does one hear talk of Montana as a premier golf destination. That would surely change if more folks found their way to the surprisingly golf-rich Flathead Valley.

Indeed, the beauty of Montana golf is that no fewer than six of the state's finest courses reside in and around the tiny resort town of Whitefish. Montana may be the fourth-largest state in the union—one that would require 3,300 of Hank Kuehne's drives to play it end to end—but most of its finest layouts are nestled here into a twenty-square-mile valley. Fortunately, so too are a bevy of superb restaurants, a handful of first-rate accommodations and a variety of activities so diverse it would require almost an entire season of long weekends to exhaust them.

ORIENTATION
Admittedly, unless you happen to live in Hungry Horse or Elmo, Montana, Whitefish isn't exactly a driving destination. Train travel, however, is a real possibility. The Whitefish Depot is the busiest rail stop between Seattle and Minneapolis, with some 60,000 passengers disembarking each year. But to get to this remote northwest corner of the Treasure State, just sixty miles from the Canadian border, most discriminating travelers fly into Glacier Park International Airport. The name's a bit grandiose for this efficiency airdrome, but it's no dirt landing strip by any means. In fact, nonstop service from Salt Lake City and Seattle and year-round service from Minneapolis and Phoenix allow most American golfers to arrive in this natural paradise with a single plane connection. And best of all, the airport is a scant seven miles from Whitefish, so from taxi to tee box is a matter of minutes.

WHERE TO PLAY
There are a few constants regarding the Flathead Valley golf scene beyond the majestic mountain views and abundant wildlife. Simply put, these courses will break neither your bank account nor your spirit. (Looking for sweaty palms and a hammering heart rate?Go climb Mount Cleveland in nearby Glacier National Park.) They do, however, deliver thoughtful layouts, sensational aesthetics and consistently fine upkeep.

By far the best-known course in the region—and the closest to town—is Whitefish Lake Golf Club, the area's natural first-play. Built nine holes at a time starting in the 1930s, it has developed over the decades into the only thirty-six-hole venue in the state. Both eighteens top out at little more than 6,500 yards, which is not long by today's standards and downright petite at an altitude of some 3,000 feet. The North course is a traditional parkland layout, completed in 1936, with wide, mostly tree-lined fairways and little in the way of elevation change. Far tighter and more challenging is the eleven-year-old South, a target course with multiple water hazards and elevation changes of up to seventy feet per hole, which turn club selection into something requiring a slide rule. Its views of the Whitefish and Columbia ranges, as well as of Big Mountain ski resort, are stunning. Its greens are fast and true. Most unnerving, though, is Lost Coon Lake, which encroaches upon four holes and, by any measure, should be renamed Lost Ball Lake.

Fifteen miles south of Whitefish, just outside the working-class town of Kalispell, lies Big Mountain Golf Club, an Andy North design that's matured beautifully since it debuted as Northern Pines Golf Club nine years ago. North, the two-time U.S. Open champ, fashioned a bipolar layout composed of two entirely different nines. The outward nine is linkslike, with fairways framed by dazzling fescue grasses. The inward nine is limned by soaring pines and the Stillwater River, which snakes through four of the holes.

There are also several other viable, if less spectacular, options in Kalispell. Buffalo Hill Golf Course, a twenty-seven-hole layout, presents a succession of tight doglegs and the Stillwater River to contend with, giving players reason to keep the driver in the bag. Village Greens Golf Club, though relatively flat and short, enjoys a reputation as one of the best-conditioned courses in the area. Seven miles east of Whitefish in Columbia Falls, Meadow Lake Golf Resort cuts through imposing timbers and winds around ponds and lakes. A mountain-fed creek runs through the property.

Fifteen miles far-ther south lies the toughest of the region's offerings, Eagle Bend Golf Club, often rated the number-one course in the state. In 1995 Jack Nicklaus Jr. conjoined nine new holes to nine of the original 1988 William Hull eighteen. The result is a championship layout with a surfeit of sand and water (in the form of Flathead Lake) and grandiose views of the Mission and Swan Mountain ranges.

WHERE TO STAY
There are more than fifty lodging options in and around Whitefish, but two in particular attract discerning travelers. The Grouse Mountain Lodge, located along the eighteenth fairway of Whitefish Lake's South course, is just five minutes from the hubbub of Central Avenue, the town's main drag. A full-service, four-season hotel, it's spacious and airy. It's also a bit of a paradox: Traditional Old West touches—including a huge stuffed elk mounted in the lobby—coexist with modern amenities such as wireless high-speed Internet access. All 145 rooms have been freshly renovated in a style that straddles both sensibilities.

Up the road a stretch at Big Mountain Resort is cozy Kandahar Lodge. Quilted in snow during winter, this fifty-room European-style log cabin makes for an inviting skier's retreat. But warm-weather visitors, too, enjoy its rustic charm, not to mention the indoor and outdoor hot tubs. Pleasures of a different sort can be found at the lodge's aptly named Snug Bar, a hole in the wall off the lobby that has just twelve seats—but no shortage of beverages.

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