“Of Loss & Love” at John’s Golf Course

“Hit this one high over the house and drop it on the green,” Steve Espinoza said from the seat of his utility cart. “And make sure you don’t break my windows.”

I steadied myself over the ball and was just about to take the club back when Steve reminded me again with a laugh, “Make sure you don’t break my windows.”

These were the same instructions he’d given to Sir Nick Faldo years ago when he arrived to play an exhibition at John’s Golf Course outside of Eureka, Montana and had given to countless others over the years who’ve played the course surrounding the Espinoza home.

The story of John’s Golf Course begins with a tragedy. In 1993, the Espinoza family was woken up at 3 in the morning by a Highway Patrolman. Michael Espinoza, 20 years old back then, was killed in a car crash outside of Eureka returning from dinner with some friends in a nearby town. Michael was the second of their children that Steve and Juana had lost after losing an infant daughter almost two decades earlier.

For Steve, a disabled Vietnam veteran, the loss was crushing. It broke his heart even more to tell his son John who was born with Cornelia de Lange syndrome which is a very rare genetic disorder that causes a range of physical, cognitive, and medical challenges to those diagnosed with it. John had looked up to his older brother Michael with the same loving admiration as all younger brothers do and now he was gone.

About a year later, John walked into Michael’s room and grabbed a golf club of his brother’s and took it downstairs to his parents and asked his dad to teach him how to play golf. Part of John’s disability is a lack of a range of motion in his wrists, so in the front yard of their house Steve teed up a ball for John to hit.

“Not knowing how to teach someone to play, I just told John to hit the ball,” Steve said with a twinkle in his eye. “And he did, he hit it clear across the yard! And I said, ‘John, my god! What a shot! Do it again.’ And he did it again, it was amazing.”

So, Steve took John to a nearby golf course to play but John got too nervous with all the people in front of them and behind them.

“I got so nervous. I got so nervous my very first time. People kept rushing me and telling me to hurry up. I told my dad I wanted to go home,” John recalled.

“On the way home John said, ‘I wish I had my own golf course.’ So, I got home and stepped out of the car and saw the front lawn and said, ‘I’m going put a green right here for my son,’” Steve said of the beginning of John’s Golf Course.

And Steve did just that for his son on his 10-acre property. Asking for help from courses in the area and then eventually all around the world, he got seed, used equipment, and tips for building and maintaining a golf course from course superintendents.

John’s Golf Course played all around the Espinoza home with holes spread around the 10-acres that John could play whenever he wanted, after of course he helped mow the greens and fairways with his father. John would play the course from sun up to sun down and his game showed it as he went on to win 10 Montana State Special Olympic Championships and took home bronze from the Special Olympics World Games in Dublin, Ireland.

With John and Steve riding in the golf cart and giving me directions on how to play the remnants of the holes left at John’s Golf Course, I played all the holes including the one requiring a shot up and over the house. I was extra careful to not break any of Steve’s windows on this over-the-house par 4.

Leaving John’s Golf Course was tougher than I thought it would be because it had warmed my heart. Meeting Steve and John and having them show me their course and tell me their story was something I will cherish for the rest of my life.

John’s Golf Course was built in a front yard using earth, sand, and seed, but it was really built with love. The love of a mourning father who wanted to give his special needs son a place to learn to play the greatest game on earth.

That’s what love is. Love is John’s Golf Course.

Thanks to the Espinoza Family for having me out to play John’s Golf Course and for sharing your stories with me. It is a memory I won’t forget.

“Simply Spectacular” at Wilderness Club

Designed by Sir Nick Faldo, the Wilderness Club in Eureka, Montana, is rated as the #1 Course You Can Play in Montana by GolfWeek Magazine.

In the wild landscape of northwestern Montana, the Wilderness Club has sprawling fairways cut out of the tall pines and deep bunkers that will penalize errant shots from both off the tee and near the greens. A few years back I made the long drive north from Great Falls to play the Wilderness Club for the first time and the long day in the car was made worth it by this spectacular golf course.

Coming back to the Wilderness Club, I was with my friends Scott Meissner, Mike Spencer, and Landon Spencer who had played it a few times before I made it to Eureka to meet up with them. Their recent experience on the course had them prepped and ready to go from the first tee where Landon and I decided to play the tips that stretch the course out to 7,207 yards.

The opening hole at the Wilderness Club is a 389-yard par 4 that plays up hill from near the driving range and putting green and bends slightly right-to-left. A trio of bunkers occupy the left side of the fairway before the elevated and undulating green that has a pair of bunkers on the right and one in the back left.

As I made my way across the native grasses that stretch across the fairway everywhere the fairways and pine trees don’t occupy, I was regretting playing the tips as I slashed my ball out of a few bunkers on the 2nd hole.

The 161-yard 3rd hole is beautiful as they get. An over water par 3 with mountain peaks in the backdrop and three deep bunkers surrounding this wide turtleback green make it a challenging par if you can’t find the putting surface.

The 10th hole at Wilderness Club is a downhill 320-yard par 4 with a fairway that is shortened along the left side by a deep blue pond that protects the front of a green with steep slopes near the sides. An old dead tree along the right side 200-yards from the tee provides a great visual for this dastardly hole to open up the back nine.

The back nine at the Wilderness Club takes you back into the meadowlands of beautiful countryside outside of Eureka. The finishing hole plays at 593-yards along a lake where canoes are paddled around the calm water to the left of the fairway that slopes from right-to-left for the entirety of the hole. A par 5 that can be reached with a long drive that runs past a hill with bunkers on both sides or can be wisely played out right of lake to make it a three-shot hole. The 18th green slopes from right-to-left and from front-to-back with a ridge that divides the green and can make for long and challenging putts to complete the round.

The Wilderness Club is a fantastic track in northwest Montana. A unique and challenging course in a gorgeous area this is one of the best around and a refreshing course that anyone can make a tee time and play at.

Thanks to Anthony Sable and to the staff at the Wilderness Club for a spectacular day of golf in Eureka