Spirit of the West reassuring to New Yorker

In a world now dominated by concerns about security, terrorism and airline hijackings, there is solace found in the grasslands and big skies of Wyoming and Montana. The Peaks & Prairies Golf Course Superintendents Association was celebrating its 25th anniversary with a meeting here in Montana’s biggest city. An invitation to speak at the gathering last month provided this New York native a chance to see people whose sense of community derives from their land and wildlife.

Here, far from steel canyons, crowded streets and traffic jams, nature overwhelms one’s senses. The vastness of open space is simply breathtaking. Midway through the 125-mile drive southeast from Billings to Sheridan, Wyo., I searched for a radio station and watched in amazement as the scanner cycled through AM and FM without success. Fifty miles without a single house or sign of civilization – except for the highway I drove. As for cell phone signal? Forget it.

I managed to route 1,000 holes on these rolling fields of wheatgrass. Then on the return trip, I saw an intriguing sign 23 miles due east of Billings on Highway 90: For Sale – 3,700 acres. No need for a golf course business plan. The feasibility study would have said “no,” yet if Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb., could prove a rousing success, why not a Great Sky Links?

In its pioneer days a quarter of a century ago, Peaks & Prairies (it was then called WyMont) would have two dozen greenkeepers turn out for a meeting. Now there were 120 in the room. Flannel shirts and jeans abound. I saw only three men wearing jackets. Two women. At least one-third looked 50 or older – a welcome sight in an industry where grizzled veterans are giving way to twentysomething graduates of turf schools.

It took 15 minutes for everyone in the room to stand, turn and identify themselves by name, course and facility type. Many clearly were uncomfortable saying even a few words in such a public setting. At least half, it seemed, worked at nine-hole courses.

The concerns of much of the golf industry elsewhere do not quite resonate here. A corporate mentality obsessed with triple-digit green fees, “country clubs for the day,” and looking to tap “latent demand” is alien here. Not that folks ignore business concerns. They just have a different clientele. Dane Gamble, longtime superintendent (and also part owner) of Bridger Creek Golf Course in Bozeman, Mont., succinctly describes the nature of the golf market here.

“Tattoos, tank tops, lake balls and Bud Light,” he said. “A lot of them are playing pasture pool.”

The best indication of cultural difference might be the attitudes toward land. Debate rages in the East, Midwest and other golf-intense areas about golf ball technology threatening to render older, 6,500-yard courses obsolete. Here, where space virtually is unlimited, such concerns aren’t evident.

Besides, these folks are used to long drives – by car, that is. Gamble, a North Dakota native, described a typical day involving a visit back home. He was visiting friends, left at 7 a.m., drove 40 miles to play at the Links of North Dakota at Red Mike Resort near Williston, then drove 560 miles home to Bozeman – and got there by 8 p.m.

When I asked two superintendents from Idaho Falls, Idaho, how far they had come to the meeting, one of them said “five or six hours.” They measure distance by time here, so I asked how far that was. He said that when he last looked, an hour outside of Billings, it had been 330 miles.

There’s a strong sense of community here among superintendents. Members identify with Peaks & Prairies more than with the national association. Chapter executive director Lori Russell does a phenomenal job of setting programs that make attendance at meetings worthwhile. Many members are lifelong friends who hunt and fish together. Chapter president Mike Pigg, CGCS, Riverton (Wyo.) Country Club, and Dwayne Dillinger, CGCS, at Bell Nob Golf Course in Gillette, Wyo., both in their 30s, went to high school together. They work two hours apart and manage to spend 40 days per year together bird hunting.

That kind of immersion in the great outdoors is typical here. Today, there’s something reassuring about the security of open spaces. Amid the peaks and prairies of the American West, people are “down to Earth,” far removed from “ground zero.”

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