The copper smelter at Anaconda closed in 1980 after almost a century of mineral processing. Over a decade later, an environmental cleanup plan was put into place to tidy up the site and invest in an 18-hole championship layout, designed by Jack Nicklaus.
The idea was to incorporate the old flue structures, furnace slag heaps and "red sands" or reprocessed tailings into the design of the new course, even using the slag as black “sand” for the bunkers, resulting in a visually stunning layout that’s really rather unique.
Before construction, the site was capped – with even the greens, bunkers, and lake bottoms specially lined to prevent any leakage of waste materials – before the generously proportioned fairways were routed around the reclaimed property.
The signature hole at Old Works Golf Club is “Flue #5,” the 195-yard 4th, named after the large structure that frames the hole behind the green. A slight uphill tee shot to a two-tiered putting surface is required here.
Another fine hole on the front nine in encountered at “Heap,” the 238-yard 7th, played to green that’s virtually surrounded on all sides by sand – it’s one of Jack’s favourites as he recreated it his Bear’s Best course in Las Vegas, complete with black sand from Anaconda.
On the back nine, the 442-yard 10th “Foundation“ is another terrific hole, with Warm Springs Creek crossing the fairway twice as it heads to a green sitting behind a wall of foundation stones from the old Upper Works Silver Mill.
After it opened in 1997 on the site of a former copper smelting mill that became a large EPA Superfund environmentally hazardous site in Anaconda, Montana, Jack Nicklaus was asked to come design a golf course. Ground was broken in 1994. I read about the course in a golf magazine soon after it opened with the article being very complementary as to the rejuvenation of the land as well as to the quality of this public course.
It is a very unique piece of property because one can still see the remnants of the mill that was once there including large granite slabs, the remains of the flues and ovens, some machinery, and chutes. Black slag is used as black sand in the bunkers. This sand is fairly dense so there is no real chance of getting a plugged lie. It requires a sand wedge with less bounce and a firm, more downward shot.
There is a fair amount of water incorporated in the routing with various ponds and Warm Springs Creek.
The course is under the threat of closure due to the lack of demand with funding in previous years coming from Atlantic Richfield, the EPA, and the county.
The course is built essentially on two levels, with the majority of the course built on the lower level. When I first arrived I wondered whether there were holes much higher up but thankfully that was not the case. One gets some amazing views of Mt. Garrity, Mt. Haggin, Mt. Olsen, Table Mountain and many more mountain peaks off in the distance. One also gets an outstanding view of the tall former smelting oven as you arrive in town.
I have read where others praise the routing’s front nine as it includes the holes that are higher up while the back nine is on the lowest level and has predictable use of the water. I did not find that to be the case with regards to the use of water and felt both nines had a good routing for the land.
The greens are large with a few false fronts or rises but not overly contoured. I found them to be good. The green surrounds are relatively uninspiring.
The Slag tees are 7705 yards, with a par of 72 rated 76.1/136. The Gold tees are 7211 yards rated 73.8/129. The Copper tees are 6776 yards rated 71.9/125. There are two sets of shorter tees. I chose the Copper tees. I will reference the Slag and Copper tees only.
1 – par 4 451/416. This par 4 is flat playing to the left along Warm Springs Creek bordered by trees on the left. There is a long bunker on the front left of the green. It is not much of a hole from the Copper tees but the Slag and Gold start on the other side of the creek and offer a smaller window to a blind shot. From these tees, it is a pretty difficult start. The green has a slight tilt on the back right and is located somewhat near the creek.
2 – par 4 361/310. The hole plays straight but with a green angled left to right with two bunkers front middle and one back middle. The green has a tier to it at those bunkers. The hole plays slightly uphill and if one does not make the hill then they will have a blind shot. But from the Copper tees this is not an issue although one wants to be left side of the fairway to have a better angle into the green. It is an average hole.
3 – par 5 587/532. One can be tempted to go either over or as close as one dares on the tee shot of this sharp dogleg right. Yet there are four long bunkers on the inner corner and really no penalty for hitting straight. The hole seems to go forever due to the long look from the fairway towards the green. The green sits on a rise fronted by two bunkers left and one well off to the right which I thought was unnecessary. The green is long with fall-offs. I like the hole.
4 – par 3 195/170. One hits through a corridor of trees towards the green which has fall-offs right and behind. There is a large, deep bunker on the right front. The green has a spine in it but is not overly terrifying. It is an okay hole. The highlight of the hole is seeing the remnants of a long flue just behind the green.
5 – par 4 463/424. While some belief the fourth hole to be the best on the course, I did not have it in my top five as I thought the fifth to be superior. It has a forced carry over native grasses with a large, long bunker on the right and a very large one fronting a pond on the left. The line into the green is likely better from the left so the bunker and pond can become in play for longer hitters. Although this plays from an elevated tee offering a splendid view of the course and the mountain ranges in the distance, you are likely to have a longer shot into the green. The green has a large bunker on the right side while the left side sits close to the pond. I thought this to be the best hole on the front nine.
6 – par 5 600/552. My second favorite hole on the front is the sixth which bends to the left with the green sitting off to the left. There is a bunker left off the tee. There is a very long back sand bunker on the right for the second shot, likely over 150 yards long. Opposite this bunker is another bunker of equal length that continues towards the green which sits above the land about ten feet. The green has a tilt back to front that you can use. This hole requires strategy and execution. It is a good hole.
7 – par 3 238/190. This hole is an “almost” island green surrounded by sand. It plays from an elevated tee and has a spine in the middle of the green. It is not much of a hole other than for the views and length.
8 – par 4 435/360. This slight dogleg right has another long area of sand on the right side about 235 yards long. There is also sand on the left side. There are two centerline bunkers that can be reached with a 260-300 yard drive. At the green there is a single bunker on the right and another on the left. The green is raised again and longer than it looks from the fairway as I found out when I under-clubbed by two and only found the front of the green. The hole is pretty good.
9 – par 4 485/404. There is a wide landing area to the right behind a hill that is invisible from the tee. The hole plays basically straight with the green set off slightly to the left. There is another long, thin bunker on the left side about 180 yards in length. This has perhaps the smallest green on the course angled right to left with two bunkers fronting the green that are very much in play. I did not think highly of the hole as I felt more should have been done to make the green complex more interesting.
10 – par 4 442/396. Much like the first hole, the two sets of back tees are on the other side of the creek offering another blind shot as the creek is tree-lined. If one does not go far enough to the left, they will be left with another blind shot over trees to a green located on the other side of the creek. From the copper tees, one only crosses the creek once with their approach shot to the green on this dogleg right. The green sits in a bit of a bowl and is sloped back to front and so far is the best green on the course. There is a bailout area short and right of the green over the creek. There is a stone wall separating the green from the creek. It is a decent hole.
11 – par 5 591/546. This hole bends to the left and one crosses the creek again on their approach to the green. A bunker runs the entire length of the fairway on the left side with tall grasses on the right along with a single bunker. The fairway is wide enough that it should not give pause to the player to swing away on the tee shot. For the average length player, there is no advantage to go for the green in two given a small target over the creek and trees that can block half of the green. The green is long but shallow and is angled left to right with mounds and tiers in it. At the back of the green is a small ridge with a bunker on the front left. I liked the green with the hole as my favorite on the back nine.
12 – par 4 445/397. This hole has no bunkers and an uninteresting green. It is the worst hole on the course. It needs something/anything.
13 – par 3 206/156. Much like one and ten, this hole plays very differently from the back tee. The green sits at a left to right angle with the right side against a pond. The green has a small vertical ridge in the middle. This hole is boring.
14 – par 4 443/380. The hole has a thinner fairway and two bunkers left to a slightly raised green that is sloped back to front. There is nothing remarkable about the hole.
15 – par 5 644/573. The longest hole on the course with a large area of sand on the right side. For the second shot there is sand both left and right. At the green there is a single bunker on the front left to a green shaped like an apostrophe with a mound in it. Other than length, this is a dull hole.
16 – par 4 471/436. This hole is a dogleg right running alongside a pond with sand also on the inner and outer corner. The sand on the right continues all the way to the green which is angled left to right and slightly raised. This hole is part of a triangle finish. I liked the hole.
17 – par 3 202/160. There is a large bunker on the left and trees down the right although they should not be in play. The green has an upper and lower tier and is one of the better greens on the course yet I found nothing unique about the hole.
18 – par 4 440/374. There are bunkers on the right side and again at the green which is angled left to right. This made me think there are too many greens angled left to right. It is an okay, but not a good finish.
There is more that could have been done here to make the course slightly more interesting. In many cases, there is too much sand. In some cases, the sand near the bunker is not where it should be. There should be more contouring just off the greens to create more interesting green surrounds. The course relies on length as its primary defense followed by too much sand. Yet for a public option, it is well worth playing if in the area.