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Gorgeous Golfing The Flathead Valley Scenery Serves As An Backdrop To A Diverse Golfing Experience

Golf Montana?

Initially, this Chamber of Commerce-conceived suggestion sounds as anomalous as Ski Kansas, Hike the Great Salt Lake or Fish the Mohave.

But a recent weekend swing through the Flathead Valley - coupled with some 90-plus swings on the Ridge Course at Eagle Bend Golf Club - convinced me that this Golf Montana thing is the real deal.

With last week’s opening of Kalispell’s Northern Pines Golf Course - a rolling, 7,000-yard championship creation of two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North - the number of courses in the Flathead Valley has swollen to 11.

The region offers a golfing experience as diverse as the stunning panoramas provided by the Northern Rocky Mountains and 28-mile-long Flathead Lake. Peak-season 18-hole greens fees range from $45 at Eagle Bend to $20 at Glacier Park Lodge, a 9-hole course in East Glacier.

All courses offer nearby lodging, and several feature on-site accommodations. Golf packages that include lodging and greens fees start as low as $43 per person, per night.

The courses are generally well maintained and, in nearly every case, gorgeous. The same mountain ranges that lure skiers in the winter provide magnificent backdrops for imaginative golf holes carved through thick pine stands.

White sand bunkers dot many of the winding fairways and surround most of the greens. Water hazards are abundant, and dramatic changes in elevation often produce less-than-ideal lies.

The beauty, challenge and relatively low cost of golf in the Flathead Valley has allowed the region to challenge southern British Columbia as a favorite getaway spot for resident golfers of the Pacific Northwest.

And from all indications, the allure is only going to intensify.

“Golf in the Flathead is just going to explode,” North is quoted as saying in one of the region’s many promotional publications. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful place to be involved with golf.”

And nowhere is it more wonderful - for now, at least - than at Eagle Bend, where Jack Nicklaus Jr., the son of golfing legend Jack Nicklaus, has designed a back nine that helped make the Ridge Course Montana’s No. 1 public layout, according to Golf Digest.

My wife, Chris, and I toured the course, which has a rather complicated history, last month and, despite a detailed briefing from a friend who played it this spring, we were startled by its beauty.

The front nine, designed by William Hull and opened in 1984, is tight and heavily tree-lined and displays a completely different character than the Nicklaus-designed back nine, which opened last fall.

The back is generally wide open and offers inviting, rolling fairways and huge, undulating greens that reward only well-aimed approach shots.

Both nines on the Ridge Course take full advantage of the mountain and lake scenery, however, and seem to fit comfortably into the natural surroundings. So does the Lake Course, a stand-alone, 9-hole layout that opened in 1988 as the original back nine, and still offers the longest and most difficult test of golf at Eagle Bend.

Greg Raymond, the course’s head professional, said Eagle Bend’s appeal is generated by a resort-like atmosphere that includes a full range of clubhouse amenities and a well-manicured golf course capable of challenging low handicappers, while still affording the weekend hacker a golf test he can enjoy.

The key, Raymond explained, is the variety of tee boxes that can be employed to stretch the course from 5,352 yards (from the red tees) to 6,742 (from the blue tees).

“Off the white tees (6,210 yards), it’s structured very much like a resort course,” Raymond said. “That’s kind of the way all of the new courses are going now.

“There was a time when tough Pete Dye courses were what everybody wanted to play. But people played them once and then, because they lost two dozen golf balls, said, ‘Well, that was fun, but never again.’

“Most of the people who play here end up coming back.”

The only thing keeping Eagle Bend from being a true golf resort is the lack of on-site lodging. But there are plenty of places to stay within a five-minute drive of the course - including the Marina Cay Resort on Bigfork Bay.

The Marina Cay features 125 rooms, many of which overlook the full-service marina. Accommodations range from single rooms to three-bedroom suites, complete with fireplaces and fully equipped kitchens. Room rates run from $38.50 for a single room during the slow season (Jan. 2-May 16 and Oct. 6-Dec. 19) to $285.50 for a Mission Suite during the peak season (June 14-Sept. 14).

There are three bars, including the outdoor Tiki Bar nestled between the pool and marina, and three restaurants that offer everything from burgers to New Zealand rack of lamb.

Chris and I found a table near the Tiki cabana shortly after checking into the Marina Cay late on a Sunday afternoon and sampled a couple of margaritas while listening to a threemember band pound out Jimmy Buffet tunes. Golf, We had dinner reservations at Quincys, one of the three on-site restaurants, and discovered that its claim of specializing in casual, elegant dinning was not exaggerated.

I ordered grilled breast of pheasant with a huckleberry and port sauce - a dish that quickly demoted my backyard barbecue specialty of lemon pepper chicken to the Spam level. My wife tried the prawns, prosciutto and pasta and was equally impressed.

The service was cordial, quick and unpretentious.

When our waitress brought our bottle of wine, she quickly noticed the nervous grin I flashed at my wife and realized I wasn’t capable of distinguishing a fine merlot from a bottle of Thunderbird.

She might have picked up on the way I pointed to the menu to order instead of risking a uneducated guess at the pronunciation of whatever kind of wine it was we ordered. In any event, she uncorked the bottle, filled both of our glasses and said, “I can usually tell when someone wants to skip the formalities.”

After dinner, which cost less than $60, we adjourned to the piano bar for a couple of nightcap coffee drinks.

The next morning I played Eagle Bend. Chris rode along and marveled at the scenery and the severity of my slice. With a shotgun tournament scheduled later that day, the course was fairly crowded, but Raymond said that is not normally the case - particularly in the fall, which he considers the prime time to play.

“It’s usually less crowded this time of the year,” he said. “Most of the vacations are over and the kids are getting ready to head back to school.

“The colors change dramatically, too, which makes it the prettiest time of the year. And the weather is usually real nice - cool in the mornings and warm in the afternoons.”

In addition, Raymond pointed out that all of the region’s courses, along with most of the motels and resorts, cut prices in the early spring and late fall.

“Everyone has a value season,” he explained. “We cut our fees in half (after Sept. 16) and everyone else lowers their prices, too.”

The Flathead Valley golf season usually runs from early April until late November, but Raymond said he hopes to keep Eagle Bend open all winter on temporary greens.

“This is the first time we’ve tried it,” he explained. “But we should be OK. If the lake doesn’t freeze over, we can have some pretty mild winters here.”

Among the other courses in the Flathead Valley are Buffalo Hill and Village Greens in Kalispell, Polson Country Club in Polson, Meadow Lake in Columbia Falls, Whitefish Lake in Whitefish, Cabinet View in Libby, Glacier View in West Glacier and Mission Mountain in Ronan.

Guaranteed tee times at Eagle Bend, Buffalo Hill, Polson CC, Village Greens, Meadow Lake and Whitefish Lake can be made by calling 1-800-392-9795. Tee times at the other courses must be made through the pro shops at those courses.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo