The Moonlight Basin ski facility in the resort village of Big Sky was consolidated into the Big Sky Resort in 2013, making it the nation’s largest ski centre with more than thirty ski lifts spread out over almost 6,000 acres of terrain.
The Reserve course is a Jack Nicklaus Signature layout which opened for private play in 2016 and it’s draped over a dramatic landscape sitting at 7,500 feet above sea level with an overall length of 8,000 yards from the tips.
No doubt about it, this is mountain golf on an epic scale in a secluded location with golfers experiencing massive changes in elevation as holes play out on across a heavily contoured landscape that often requires a significant hike from one green to the next tee.
Highlight holes include the par four 1st hole (with a massive drop from the tee to the fairway); the par five 6th (played downhill initially before rising up to the green); the par three 7th (featuring a pond-protected, multi-tiered green); and the 777-yard 17th, where yet another plummeting fairway makes a mockery of the mammoth yardage on this par five.
The Reserve at Moonlight Basin is the true definition of a course where “knowledge is power”. I can comfortably say for a non-ocean golf course this is the most beautiful piece of land for a golf course I have ever seen, anywhere. To think I could be on a non-ocean course and compare the majestic views to Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, Old Head, and Cabot Links, you can only imagine how breathtaking it is here in the mountains of Big Sky, Montana.
Moonlight Basin is a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, which means Jack personally put his own touch on this course. Architecture aside, Nicklaus did a great job routing this course around the best mountain views he could find. All in all, I counted 14 of the 18 holes maximizing the best views imaginable and the other four holes were facing different directions to transition you back towards the top view on the next hole that followed.
Kudos are to be given for whomever designed the incredibly trendy clubhouse which is one of the smallest yet efficient I have ever seen.
The course which plays at exactly 8,000 yards from the tips with an elevation of about 8,000 feet which equates to an extra 14% distance off of your normal distances. On top of all that, there are a whole bunch of straight downhill holes which ensures you need a calculator to figure out some distances, thank goodness there was only a mild wind or I would’ve needed a math teacher to tell me what my effective distance was for each shot.
The first two holes play straight downhill and require less than driver. The opener is not overly challenging but the tee is so elevated and the views so majestic that it would be hard for any golfer to concentrate on the shot at hand. Hopefully you can make a par and head to the 2nd hole which plays straight downhill and leaves a very short shot in presenting a great birdie opportunity.
At the short par-3 3rd you start to get a feel for how hard it is to score well on this course, especially seeing it for the first time. This beautiful downhill par-3 surrounds by trees and mountains has one of the trickiest and most severe greens I have ever seen. Because of the mountain effect, the green runs fastest UPHILL from front to back, exposing even the best putters to looking foolish if you don’t understand how to read the grain off the mountains.
The 4th is a challenging uphill par-4 that requires not only two good shots to reach the undulating green in regulation but a precise tee shot that must lay back from a fairway that ends.
The 5th is all about strategy and focus. The hole dogleg’s 90 degrees to the right and goes downhill, far less than driver is needed off the tee and hitting a drive through the fairway fortunately banks your ball back to the fairway leaving almost any solid shot with some form of a wedge into the green. The approach shot is where the focus must come into play, it appears as if the green is just floating in the mountains as its pushed up with plenty of room around it, but not knowing this makes for an intimidating approach with one of the most majestic views in all of golf surrounding this green. I am not sure if this picture will ever do justice to one of the best views I have ever seen in person. Hope whomever reads this gets to play this course one day.
The 6th and 7th holes are two of the most memorable on the course. The 6th is an exceptionally long par-5 that plays straight downhill off the tee and then back uphill to the green. After you hit your drive, long hitters have a chance to knock it on in two, but you darn well better pull off a great shot, because trouble looms all around. Bisecting the end of the fairway and area just short of the green are a boatload of trees that Nicklaus and team left to create interest. This is an all-world par-5 and my second favorite hole on the course. It has risk reward written all over it, and the tee shot because it’s so elevated is more intimidating that it actually plays.
Since I mentioned that the 6th hole is my second favorite hole on the course, you don’t have to wait long to hear about my favorite, which is the par-3 7th. When you stand on this tee, all you see is natural beauty. In front of you is a lake that has lily pads floating around it and surrounding the green is natural trees that tier up into the mountain with a few well-placed bunkers. From the tee, you have no appreciation for one of the coolest greens on the course that actually can play like two different holes based on whether the pin is up front or on the back tier. The back section makes this hole play much easier as the front section is much more narrow. With that said, you can throw the ball past the pin to the middle of the green and watch it funnel right back to the front section of the green. Miss this green left and you will be lucky to keep your ball on the green. A wonderful and just gorgeous par-3.
The 8th and 9th are solid holes to finish up the front 9.
The back-9 creates plenty of drama yet maintains all the beauty that the front-9 has to offer.
The 10th is a brutally hard par-4 mainly because of the uphill approach shot to a 3-tiered narrow green that runs from left to right. Best bet is to try to leave your approach just short as hitting the green on a fly will potentially go over leaving a tough up and down.
The 11th is a nice par-3 again with beautiful mountain views all around.
The 12th is unquestionably the most controversial hole on the course. You have to hit a layup off the tee as the fairway ends as the hole turns left. The approach which ranges from 140-180 yards depending on your layup goes straight uphill, and I mean like really uphill. Judging the distance here is a complete guess. Missing the green short is just brutal, and its where most people will wind up because you just can’t play the shot long enough unless you have a great feel for the effective distance. The green is a bit too narrow to handle the length of the approach and hopefully will one day be reworked a bit to be more receptive. I can’t say this hole was one of my favorites, because I was not a fan of it.
Fortunately, the 13th is one of the most spectacular holes on the course, a gorgeous par-5 that starts off downhill and then leaves a slightly uphill approach to a wild green that has many mini-sections. This green is not that deep either but should yield a great risk/reward opportunity for many.
Holes 14, 15 and 16 are all solid holes but don’t require any additional insight.
The 17th is one of the most unique holes you will ever see. At 777 yards, it’s appears as if you are playing a beast of a hole due to its shear length. The good news is that the length is quite deceiving, a solid tee shot will catch a cliff and tumble straight down probably 250 yards past where you tee shot would normally land. So if you are doing math at home, that would mean that you could find yourself with all of 170-180 yards left into this par-5. I smoked a drive here and had only 172 yards left to this par-5, although I will admit that I played it at a mere 676 yards. I flew the hill by at least 30 yards so it’s unknown if I would’ve gotten to the bottom from the tips. The approach is then flat to a severely sloping green where you have no guarantee of a two-putt let alone a change at eagle unless you hit your approach shot close.
The 18th hole is a bit of a shocker. You have now played about 15 of the past 17 holes with views that are unrivaled in most of the world and now you stand on the 18th hole with a valley like effect, that doesn’t have much of a view at all. The hole plays downhill off the tee and at only 354 yards from the tips, it’s obvious that placement is what you are looking for off the tee. There is a split fairway that allows for two options that I’d imagine members look to come in from the proper side based on the pin placement. The reality is at such a short distance you can likely get close on your approach from either side. The green has a ton of slope and if you miss this green short and right at all, you are facing a potential lost ball in very thick grass. It’s hard not to find the finishing hole to be a letup just based on the lead up throughout the previous 17th holes.
All in all, The Reserve at Moonlight Basin is a fun course to play that offers you captivating views and tons of variety from hole-to-hole. It’s definitely a course that one would look forward to playing time and time again. Even though the course doesn’t play overly long in spite of the eye-popping distances, it is brutally tough to score well because the green complexes have a tremendous amount of slope to them and with the elevation changes being so severe getting the ball close is easier said than done.