Club displays amateur dominance

Bill Dunn won the Montana State Amateur by one in July at Butte Country Club.

Bill Dunn won the Montana State Amateur by one in July at Butte Country Club.

There might have been a rare celestial occurence over Missoula (Mont.) Country Club this summer, helping the club to achieve a historical feat never before seen in the state. Until last weekend, five state major amateur champions – men’s amateur, mid-amateur, men’s senior, women’s senior and women’s amateur – hailed from the club.

“I don’t know about any particular thing. . . . The stars were aligned, and they were aimed at Missoula,” said Jim Opitz, executive director of the Montana Golf Association. “I don’t have any explanation for it.”

When reigning Montana Mid-Amateur champion Travis Williams was replaced at last week’s Mid-Amateur, it might have loosened MCC’s grip on that monopoly, but it still doesn’t erase the extraordinary occurrence from the record books. Consider also that the MCC winners hail from one of only 45 private courses in the state (there are 49 public courses), and come from about 20,000 golfers registered with the state handicap system (though Montana Golf Association officials estimate the total number of players at about 80,000), and the occurrence is even more notable.

“I haven’t seen that anywhere that I’ve been where you’ve got just even a duplicity, but in this case a multiple situation of players,” said Ron Svien, the general manager at MCC. Svien has been in the golf business for almost 20 years, nearly 17 of those in California.

Svien speaks of MCC’s reigning champions fondly, and sees many of them honing their games on the club’s practice facilities, which he calls second to none. State Amateur champion Bill Dunn has been a force since his days as a junior player; State Women’s Amateur champion Joanne Steele won her second championship this year after undergoing a heart transplant in 2006; and State Senior Amateur champion Bob Gray is as much of a contender with the young men as he is in the senior division. Svien also doesn’t count out Julia Jones, the State Senior Women’s Amateur champion as well as the low senior at the State Women’s Amateur, and Kelsie Crippen and Derek Colberg, the low juniors in their respective State Amateurs.

“We’ve had a lot of quality players here at the Missoula Country Club,” Svien said of the course, which is strictly a private facility that allows guest play only with members or from members at reciprocal clubs.

The western half of the state, where Missoula is located, is an area of heavy golf activity. However, MCC still has managed to draw some of the state’s finest players. There are six other golf courses in the city of about 68,000 residents, including Canyon River Golf Course, which appears on the Golfweek’s Best list of courses you can play.

In the history of the Montana Golf Association, other clubs have emerged as dominant in state majors, most notably Butte Country Club which claimed 11 of the first 12 State Amateur champions as well as the first five State Women’s Amateur champions beginning in 1917. However, since the Mid-Amateur was added to the schedule in 1987, no other course has been able to claim four state major amateur champions at once.

State Amateur champion Bill Dunn, who has been a member at MCC for ten years, views the course as one of the best in the state, with a tight set-up that calls for strong shot-making skills. Dunn also describes a recently-remodeled driving range where members are granted unlimited practice balls, as well as a unique short-game facility.

“It’s a short game triangle, you can hit any type of wedge you want,” Dunn said. “From side to side I can hit as much as a 6 or a 5 iron.”

In Dunn’s mind, this summer’s occurrence was nothing short of rare, and he can’t remember anything like it in his 25 years as a golfer in Montana. Still, it wouldn’t surprise him if the MCC name doesn’t continue to be associated with great golf.

“I think it’s pretty conducive to junior golf out there, which is good,” he said. “I think you’re going to probably see a lot of the juniors from Missoula Country Club in the next few years graudate into some of the bigger tournaments.”

With MCC players making such a statement in state championships, it follows that the weekend games at the club would feature pretty stiff competition. And any player eyeing the club championship should be ready to fire considerably sub-par rounds. This year that title barely slipped from Dunn’s grasp, but State Senior Amateur champion Bob Gray was ready to snatch it. A final round 65 – which included an eagle on the par-4 11th on the way to a back-nine score of 31 – putt Gray one ahead of Dunn’s two-day 135.

“We’ve got lots of groups of good guys to play with,” Gray said. “I got into a group several years ago and at first I was paying and now I’m collecting. You need to play with better players to improve your game.”

Dan Brown, president of the Montana Golf Association, offered another possible explanation for the situation, which he also called a rare one.

“I think it’s tradition, for one thing,” Brown said. “There’s been a lot of very influential and skilled players from Missoula, . . . and as you know tradition is important in golf.”

This could be one tough tradition to keep.

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