Montana’s Flathead Valley

Story by: Ray Chatelin
Photos by: Toshi Chatelin

The pine and sage region that lies along northern Montana is more than just another place to play golf.

Evening sky in Polson Mt. and Flathead Lake

This dry region is a golfing birdie in a world of par golf, with courses that are not only challenging and picturesque, but where you’ll also find herds of roaming buffalo, Native American museums, cultural centres, great national parks, grand resorts and historical hotels. And, most important to golfers – you’ll get affordable play and vacation value for your dollar.      
The most spectacular way to experience the region is by driving through Glacier National Park south from Alberta via Highway 6 past Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park and its Edwardian style Prince Edward Hotel.
You’ll end up in St Mary, Montana where you can then go over the top of the Rockies on the Going-To-The-Sun Road (Highway 5), arguably the most spectacular road in North America.

The Most Spectacular Road in North America is in Glacier National Park

Tucked into the northwest corner of Montana, at the base of the Rockies, the Flathead Valley is a cultural crossroads with one historical foot Canadian and the other pure Americana. That cross-culture is part of its allure – and, with several million acres of designated wilderness, it’s a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts.

At 28 miles (45 Km) long and up to 15 miles (24 km) wide with 128 miles (206 km) of shoreline Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. And around the lake are small, picturesque towns, each proud of its fine courses.

Whitefish Golf Club North Course
Whitefish Lake Golf Club South Course

The protection of the mountains and the moderation thermal effect of the lake produce a surprisingly mild climate, so golf begins by the end of March and ends in late October.

At Whitefish Lake Golf Club, located at the town of Whitefish, adjacent to Whitefish Lake, you’ll find the state’s only 36-hole golf complex. The fabulous mountain views are one of the reasons why the courses are the most requested destination for Montana golfers.

Both the North and South Course have well manicured fairways, lined by pine and birch trees. The spacious and accepting greens are all well bunkered, but they allow a variety of approaches. Mounding and water add to the golf experience as you weave your way through either of the scenic courses.

Bent grass with subtle undulating greens and closely mowed fairways greet all levels of golfers. Golf Digest selected both courses as top five for the State of Montana. But, golf isn’t the only reason why the region is one of Montana’s biggest tourist destinations. The Flathead also offers skiing at Big Mountain Ski & Summer Resort just outside the Whitefish city centre, and during the golf season it has a wide range of accommodations.

Wildlife Abounds at the National Bison Range

If you’re going to travel long distances to play these courses – they are slightly off the main travel track – you might as well explore the towns and the unique personality of the region. The Flathead is a delightful combination of golf, spectacular scenery, national parks, and arts and crafts.

In Whitefish, for example, there are 19 Art Spots, including galleries, retail shops and exhibits. Restaurants commonly have their own exhibits from local artists with artwork for sale. Montana scenery and wildlife is a popular subject of local artists, but there is something for everyone, from pottery to metalwork, from western to modern.

No matter where you play in the region, you’ll find courses that are well groomed, attractive to the eye, and challenging at all skills levels. The two Whitefish golf club courses – at 6551 yards (South Course) and 6579 yards (North Course) from the back tees - have well manicured fairways and are lined by pine and birch trees. Bent grass with subtle undulating greens and closely mowed fairways greet all levels of play and are part of the reason why Golf Digest selected both courses among the top five for the state of Montana.

The Pines back nine of Big Mountain Golf Club

A few miles south, near Kalispell on Highway 2, is Big Mountain Golf Club, which recently underwent a name change from Northern Pines, arguably one of the two finest courses in the region, the other being further south at Eagle Bend. An exquisite 18-hole layout, Northern Pines combines traditional Scottish links with towering pines on the fairways that wind along the Stillwater River. Otherwise, you’re hitting into rolling, open terrain.

Designed by Andy North, two-time U.S. Open Champion, the 7015 yard (back tees) course has attractive setting with mountains rising in the distance, rough that consists of natural desert grasses, fairways that are accepting of wayward drives and greens that run true.

The Buffalo Hills course near historic downtown Kalispell is super value. This muni, 27-hole course is a regional legend and on Golf Digest’s “must play” list and like most courses in the region is a combination of pines and rolling hills. Consider staying at the historic Kalispell Grand Hotel, a 1912 structure that has been totally restored and is now a national historic site.

Flathead Lake

Kalispell lies in the heart of the Rocky Mountain wild lands and is the largest town in the Flathead. Centrally located to the Flathead Valley's recreational hot spots, it is 31 miles from Glacier National Park, and 22 miles from Hungry Horse dam. While the area also plays host to eight golf courses within a 45-minute drive, the city itself is delightful combination of historic buildings that now house artist studios, galleries, restaurants, hotel, offices, shops and boutiques.
Head south and you’ll find a variety of other courses ranging in character from the luxurious surroundings of Eagle Bend Golf Club, a 27-hole William Hull Jr./Jack Nicklaus designed championship course on the north shore of Flathead Lake, to the rustic surroundings of Mission Mountain Golf Course, 14 miles south of Flathead Lake at Ronan.

Eagle Bend is Montana's only golf course to be rated #1 by Golf Digest for six consecutive years and in the top 50 public courses in the United States. Nearby are several lakeside resorts and guest ranches like Marina Cay Resort and Flathead Lake Lodge.

This is arguably the most upscale of the Flathead’s golf clubs. The rustic, yet elegant ambiance of the 7,500 sq. ft. clubhouse with its numerous outdoor decks offers inviting views of the surrounding terrain. It also has The Grill Restaurant and dining room, open to the public, a members’ private dining room, men’s and women’s upscale locker rooms, and a fully stocked Pro Shop that carries the latest golf fashion and equipment.

Opening Hole at Polson Country Club

At the town of Polson, on the south end of Flathead Lake, is the 6964 yard Polson Country Club that has a nine-hole course next to the championship layout. Don’t be put off by the name. This “Country Club”: was originally a make-work project during the Roosevelt years in the 1930s and you can play it at $20. And the layout is as playable as any of the non-munis. 

Eventually, put aside your golf clubs and drive to the National Bison Range south of Mission Mountain where, if you’re lucky, you can see roaming herds of the animals close up. It is home to about 350-500 of these animals. Other large wildlife found on the Range includes elk, white-tail and mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and black bear.

Because of its open grasslands, the Bison Range is a photographer’s delight. A Visitor Center provides interpretive displays and orientation videos as well as a bookstore and restrooms.  Be sure to drive the unpaved, but secure road to the top of the mountain where you’ll find one of the most spectacular views in the American West.

For More Information Contact:
Flathead Valley Golf Association
Phone: 1-800-392-9795
Fax 406-862-7976