“Montana’s Golf Experience” at Rock Creek Cattle Company

The top-rated golf course in Montana isn’t down some fancy driveway, it isn’t near any major airports, and it isn’t easy to find, but boy is it something special. I’m talking of course about the Rock Creek Cattle Company outside of Deer Lodge.

High up in the hills west of Deer Lodge, is a course I have been fortunate enough to have play a few times before that weaves it’s way up and around the mountainside of western Montana. With sprawling fairways that appear out of the sagebrush covered hillsides once you come around the cart path, Rock Creek is a hidden gem. With fantastic undulating greens, blind tee shots, and deep bunkers sporadically placed around the course this ranch themed golf course has always been at the top of my list of courses around Montana.

With holes named after famous western films and tee markers made out of old branded farm wood, the Rock Creek Cattle Company is Montana’s best version of a true Montana golf course. Rugged wilderness and grassland borders every fairway and large rocks and tall pines dot the property throughout the ranch and golf course.

Playing with Scott Meissner, his brother-in-law Mike Spencer, and Mike’s son Landon, the four of us had a perfect weather day at Rock Creek Cattle Company. The sun was shining as we ventured out to the 10th hole to begin our round on the back-nine. The 10th hole at Rock Creek Cattle Company is called “High Noon” and marks the midway part of the round, with an elevated tee on the 632-yard par 5. The tee shot must carry over the bunkers on the left just short of the landing area to give players a chance at going after this long hole in two. The fairway dips down midway through the hole and then starts a steady climb back up the hill to an elevated and undulating green protected by a bunker in the front right. Trees and a hazard line the right side of this hole and can gobble up any shots left to out to the right of the green.

“The Good…, The Bad…, and The Ugly” are the aptly named 12th, 13th, and 14th holes at Rock Creek Cattle Company. An homage to the Clint Eastwood Classic, this string of holes features back-to-back par 3s and a tough par 548-yard par 4. “The Bad…” is a 265-yard par 3 that plays uphill and usually into the wind to a large but difficult to hit green. “The Ugly…” caps off this difficult stretch of golf holes with a downhill tee shot to a large landing area with the best play being the center of the fairway so that the twin mounds that can make second shots blind from the sides of the landing area don’t block out the golfer’s view of the green. Requiring another long iron shot in to this undulating green with a bunker on the right and a large false front, this is one of the most difficult par 4s on the course.

The most beautiful tee shot on the course at Rock Creek Cattle Company has to be the one from the 17th hole called “Rio Bravo”. From an elevated tee, this par 3 plays shorter than the 191-yards listed from the back tees but players must be careful to hit it over Rock Creek which weaves its way in front of this green and will surely swallow up any shots left hanging in the wind or hit without confidence.

As Scott cracked jokes throughout our round at Rock Creek and Mike and Landon and I did our best not to bust a gut laughing at some of his one liners, the shot of the day was Scott’s. On the 17th, Scott hit his first ball into the water and reluctantly teed it up again. As he cracked another joke in the middle of his backswing, he sent his ball on the perfect line right at the pin. The group of us watched as Scott’s ball bounced a foot in front of the hole and hit the pin only to sit a foot or so to the side of the hole. Collectively we laughed and lauded Scott for his best effort to almost par the hole after hitting his first into the creek. As Scott tapped in his bogey putt, the three of congratulated him on his best shot of the day but joked about the ball he had to get rid of in order for it to happen.

The Rock Creek Cattle Company is one of those courses I could go on and on about. It perfectly blends the frontier of Montana with championship quality golf at the highest level. There isn’t hole that is similar to another at Rock Creek and every tee box and green offers a new challenge and requires a different strategy. That’s the sign of a world class golf course.

As we sat around the bar just off the 18th green at Rock Creek having a beer and sharing stories, Rock Creek’s General Manager Louie Bartoletti introduced himself to us. A Butte native, Louie welcomed us to the course and asked how we liked it, to which we all responded with nothing but praise.

Sitting there watching a group hit shots into the 18th green and drinking my post round beer, I thought about how I would explain Rock Creek. How do you describe a course as wonderful and challenging as this one?

Simply put, the Rock Creek Cattle Company is as good as golf in Montana can get. And that’s pretty damn good.

“Golf and an Old Prison” at Deer Park Golf Course

I may have had the most perfect day in Deer Lodge, Montana on Wednesday and it all started at the Deer Park Golf Course.

A modest nine-hole public course just west of town, Deer Park is down a winding little road where you pass under some tall cottonwood trees to find a white clubhouse with a small putting green nearby. Inside hang trophies from past high school state championship teams from the mid-2000s who called this course home and a small bar where a couple of old-timers were grabbing a quick drink before continuing their round.

I BS-ed with the two men at the bar and grabbed a scorecard to play Deer Park in the mid-morning sun. As I was walking out the door I was warned to stay out of the ponds that were on the course that weren’t on the scorecard because of all the flooding trouble Deer Park had had over the beginning of the season. Apparently, the course was under quite a bit of water until just a few days before I rolled into town.

This nine-hole course plays 3,184-yards from the white tees and features a number of fun holes throughout the track. The 1st hole is a fun par 4 measuring 392-yards that tees of from right by the clubhouse. A small channel runs the right rough while bushes cover the left side of the rough. Anything right of the fairway is a dangerous play leading up to the crowned green that slopes back-to-front.

As I made my way through my round at Deer Park, I was astonished at the number of people out playing it in the middle of the day. There were elderly couples out with their push carts and young guys out with their golf carts having a ball at the course.

After crossing back in front of the clubhouse, I hit the 476-yard 5th hole that runs east toward the town. A relatively straightforward par 5, left brings the small creek into play on all three shots while right can leave you in the long grass or near some bushes that can block out your path to the green. The initial tee shot has to cover a small pond just a short distance in front of the tee. This undulating green slopes off in a variety of directions and can leave difficult pin positions if you aren’t on the right area of the putting surface.

My favorite hole for the course was the par 3 7th that plays 131-yards. A small black sand bunker protects the left side of this green that slopes back-to-front. With the wind coming right at the player and the pin being tucked in the back corner of the green, this short par 3 was far more challenging than the scorecard would indicate.

Visiting with the folks at the golf course after I had completed my round, I found out that Deer Park Golf Course is maintained by volunteers. All the mowing and groundskeeping duties are done by members of the community and one prison trustee who comes out and helps. This news only made me enjoy Deer Park even more, because it’s a golf course made by the people and for the people of Deer Lodge to enjoy.

After my round, I was about to head out of town when I decided to peak my head in and tour the Old Montana State Prison and cross it off my bucket list. I had driven by the old prison countless times and seen signs along the highway but had never had the time to go and tour the museum.

The tour and the history of that old building was something else. I took my time and read the stories that were listed at every stop along the way through the old building as families from across the country walked through as well. From the guard towers to the prison yard, the tour was exceptional and something I was so happy I took the time to enjoy.

After playing Deer Park Golf Course that morning, taking a little self-guided tour through this historic Montana landmark was the perfect way to spend the afternoon in Deer Lodge.

Golf and an old prison tour, that sounds like a pretty perfect day in Deer Lodge to me.