Montana is not a State that naturally springs to mind when thinking about golf. It’s more likely that Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn will feature foremost in your thoughts. It seems poignant therefore that Montana’s first truly world-class golf course should be constructed on part of the historic Grant-Kohrs Ranch that once extended to around ten million Montanan acres.
The original Grant-Kohrs Ranch was subdivided over the years. In 1971, a Kansas City businessman bought 28,000 acres at Deer Rock, naming the property “Rock Creek Cattle Company” and it was sold in 2004 to Texan, Bill Foley, who founded the financial services company Fidelity National.
Bill Foley is not shy to point out that he is “an accomplished golfer, who was ranked in 2004 by Golf Digest as one of top five executive golfers in the world”. Consequently, careful thought was required to decide which architect to appoint to design his golf course.
Most owners in Foley’s position would have selected Jack Nicklaus or Tom Fazio or perhaps one of the Joneses, but Foley selected Tom Doak who has carved a very different niche through minimalism and less is more as a guiding design philosophy. If you are serious about golf course rankings, then you need an architect who has a track record and Tom Doak has more designs in our World Top 50 than any other living architect.
The Tom Doak-designed golf course at Rock Creek Cattle Company opened for play in 2008, competing with the 10,000-foot backdrop of the sometimes snow-capped but always dramatic Flint Creek Mountain Range. “Only an exceptional golf course could hope to vie for attention with the natural wonders of the Rock Creek property and of greater Montana,” commented Doak. Who could argue? This is a most glorious location for golf.
Measuring 7,466 yards from the backs and 5,445 yards from the forward tees, Rock Creek Cattle Co caters for golfers of all abilities and despite nice changes in elevation, it’s designed for walking, with green and next tee situated a short pitch away. Routed meticulously across 350 acres of rugged, rock-strewn terrain with Rock Creek itself coming into play – with an occasional fly fisherman for company – this is modern golfing in its most natural form.
In 2017, Eric Iverson and Tom returned to Deer Lodge to alter the 18th hole by moving the green such that the creek comes into play when taking this par five on in two.
Rock Creek Cattle Company had been on my personal list of courses I had wanted to play for some time, having played Tom Doak’s other recognized courses and being a member at two of his courses.
I decided to fly to Salt Lake City and then take the nearly seven hour drive north in order to see the countryside along the way. It is a spectacular drive beginning with the setting for Salt Lake City, continuing with a mountain range to the east that parallels the drive for the first hour. The scenery is particularly beautiful around Willard Peak, Pacatello, Lima, and approaching Butte.
In Deer Lodge, the closest town to Rock Creek Cattle Company, there is a old jail to go through and if one is a lover of antique cars there is an expansive collection at the Montana Auto Museum.
The only snag I had on my drive was that Waze gps gave me the wrong directions and I later found myself on the bumpiest, rutted, dirt road that luckily a group of guys on four atv’s flagged me down and told me if I didn’t turn around I would likely wreck/damage the bottom of the car. The other gps maps are fine. It cost me 40 minutes. Once I found the correct dirt road, it felt like an airport runway compared to what I had been on where I could not drive above10mph.
Arriving at 7:25 PM I still could have played a round of golf as it does not get dark at the summer solstice until about 10:25PM.
Rock Creek Cattle Company is wonderfully laid out with a clubhouse located right next to a beautiful cascading stream where eating outside on the patio takes away any care in the world. There is a lovely little general store where one can book hiking, fishing excursions, gun shooting, atv rentals, bike rentals or do some shopping. There is a beautiful outdoor pool heated to 84 degrees with shade areas. Thee is a nice fitness center and spa area. I took a morning run and looked at all of the beautiful log cabin homes/garages set amidst the spectacular setting. It’s a difficult run due to the hills and the elevation of about 4400 feet but it’s a great way to see how the residents live and what they get to enjoy.
There are larger cabins for guests near the clubhouse/fitness area/pool/spa although we stayed nearer the driving range about a 3 minute ride by cart. The rooms are very nice and spacious.
The golf course is now included in many top 100 courses in the world joining other courses designed by Mr. Doak that have received this recognition including Tara Iti, Pacific Dunes, Ballyneal, and Cape Kidnappers.
In my opinion, it is a close call as to whether it belongs on that list. I would not argue against it but I also would not argue for it. Given the number of golf courses in the world, it would certainly belong in a top 200 list, which is still high praise. Given its mountain/hilly setting, it is remarkable what has been built.
It is a golf course that has to be played many times so one can learn how to play it, particularly on the greens. The routing results in a front nine that is much more difficult than the back nine as the front nine climbs up the hills. One has to be always aware of “where the valley is.” For shorter hitters off the tee, the front nine has several holes that will leave one with 195-215 yards into the green due to the rises that must be cleared to get the benefit of additional roll as well as a view of the green. If you do not get over these hills, you will have a long blind shot for your second. Some of the holes have their fairway pinched in about 30-75 yards short of the green which causes confusion due to purposefully distracting the eyes to the danger as opposed to the green.
Perhaps we were unlucky with some of the pin placements on the heavily contoured greens, but I did count several times where our pins had uphill putts but if one was 12 inches too long, they would roll out another 7-12 feet. There were also a couple of greens with vertical spines in them, such as the tenth hole, where if one were long and had to putt back downhill, it was a guessing game. Indeed, on our second round, two players were 35 feet above the hole (one of them in two putting for eagle), and their balls were separated by about 10 inches. They had to navigate atop a spine to the cup. The first ball fell off the spine about 12 feet from the strike and ended up 8 feet away to the left. The next player’s putt look like a similar putt and at about the same 12 feet mark, it fell off to the right about 7 feet away. Both were about 4 feet beyond the pin. It was an impossible putt as they went back and tried it a few more times and neither ever got close.
Both of these guys are good players, one of who plays in many top amateur events as a +3 and was playing the 7466 back tees. On my two rounds with him he shot 72 ( with3 three putts) and 67.
There are a few greens that either should have a better selection of pin placements or perhaps should be softened a bit. A few times there are some internal mounds near the front sections of the greens that perhaps would be better suited to not be included as part of the green. However, I did feel like I learned a lot more about the course each time I played it. After the first round, I found the course to be slightly unfair on six-seven holes. After the second round, I found there to be only four holes I did not like. After the third round, I enjoyed the course much more, finally beginning to understand it. Had I played a fourth round, I am certain my appreciation and admiration would have continued to increase.
One trait that was difficult to figure out is putting from off the green. As someone who prefers to putt rather than chip if I am within 25 yards, I found the grass to be very sticky thereby removing this as a viable option. The ball will not roll over the grass sort of like putting on Velcro.
It is an excellent routing on difficult terrain. For the holes I did not like as much I still thought that Mr. Doak built nearly as good a hole as he could of for the land he had. A few of the holes feel like “connector” holes designed to get from a very good hole to the next good hole but having to pass through more difficult land in order to complete the task. I will comment on the holes I liked more when I review each hole.
I played a total of three rounds and I played the II tees which are 6737 yards. Due to the elevation changes, I did not get much benefit from the higher elevation although I would note that the two very good players in our groups definitely got a 5-6% benefit. Simply put, they are better strikers of the ball than I am. On a course at more normal elevation, their tees shots average 285-315 yards, on this course with the elevation and sometimes downhill such as the tenth hole, they could hit nearly 400 yard tee shots.
There were eight of us, three of whom much like myself have played a majority of the world’s best courses. We were all in agreement as to our assessment of this course as a top 100 contender (we were split 50-50 over including it versus falling just outside of it) with other slight differences hole by hole.
I would have played a fourth round but I decided to make my way to play Old Works in Anaconda, which had also long been on my list. As it turned out, I could have stayed and played a second round on day two at Rock Creek Cattle Co, made the 50 minute drive and still had plenty of daylight left as my round at Old Works was completed in less than two hours.
The conditioning of the course is excellent. The views can be distracting such is the magnificence of the setting. If I was not already a member of two destination clubs where the courses are designed by Mr. Doak, I would consider this to be a very good candidate due to the excellent course, the excellent facilities, the activities, the food, and the access to Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park and all of the fabulous lakes. The only negative is that the golfing season is very short from roughly May 15 – September 15. Indeed, although we played on June 22 and 23, it had snowed ten days previously. Luckily for us, our weather was perfect.
The back tees are 7466, par 71, rated 75.0/146. The II tees are 6737 rated 71.6/127. The III tees are 6126, rated 69.0/120. There are two sets of combo tees as well with separate ratings. I think the slope should be higher for the II tees. All of us agreed it should be closer to 135 given the difficulty of the front nine, the greens, and the penalty for a wayward shot even if the fairways are wide. In addition, many fairways narrow and the par 3’s can result in a high score if one misses the green.
The hole are named after western movies and they do seem to fit the hole. It is clever.
1 – par 4 435/385/True Grit. The back tee is just off the putting green and is only slightly elevated to the fairway while the II tee has a more elevated tee providing a much better view of the hole. This hole plays straight but optically it feels like it is a slight dogleg left but others felt it was more like a dogleg right. It simply depended on what side of the centerline bunker one finished as well as the pin placement. It is very clever. I never did quite figure it out. There is a large bunker right about 160 yards off the tee that confuses one’s view. There is a lot of danger to this hole which is why it is the second hardest on the front. There is a large, deep bunker on the right, tall grass on both sides of the fairway and a large centerline bunker. There is a small creek/rough area about 40 -50 yards short of the green, with two bunkers left and two behind a green angled left to right. The back bunkers are particularly troublesome to a front or left side pin given the slope back down the hill towards the stream. The right side of the fairway it feels like a dogleg left, from the left side of the fairway it looks like a dogleg right. It is actually pretty much a straight hole. At first I thought the green to be too shallow but by the third round I was praising the green and its surrounds. It is a good hole.
2 – par 4 471/436/It’s a Big Country. There is a large rise that one has to clear to get a look at the green. If you hit to the right of it you will go down a swale into the rough. Hit to the left of it and there and are three bunkers that provide little option but to lay out. Longer hitters going down the right side over the mound can also go down a valley on the other side where the fairway widens. However, this brings the three bunkers fronting the right side of the green very much in play. The hole is in “open” territory with long views. The green has a vertical tier with the surrounds creating a somewhat bowl affect. After the challenge of the tee shot, this hole is the least interesting one on the golf course due to the visual. The tier in the green is perhaps a little too much.
3 – par 5 577/543/The Long Riders – The back tee offers a more elevated view than the II tee, although it has an elevated view on the other side of the round. Like the second, there is a slight rise more pronounced on the right side of the fairway with another swale. There are three scattered bunkers on the right side of the fairway. Farther up, there are two bunkers left and two centerline bunkers about 150-165 yards out. At the green there are two fronting bunkers and two to the left of the green. There is a bailout area to the left for those trying to reach the green in two. The longer hitters in our group went for the bailout area each time although landing a ball on the right side of the green should allow it to release forward onto the green or kick right. The green has subtle mounds in it. I thought this to be a good hole.
4 – par 4 457/441/Unforgiven. This hole is uphill and is the number one index. There is another rise to clear. There is a bunker on the left that is out of play except for the longest hitters. Near that bunker is the flattest piece of land for the approach shot. The green has two bunkers front on the right side and a tall hill on the left creating the ability to bounce a ball off the hill back onto the green. It is not a punchbowl green but does have another smaller hill on the right. The green is long. In my three rounds I always had 210 left into the green, playing 230 and could not pull it off to make a par. However, the good amateur birdied it both times.
5 – par 4 354/301/Hang ‘Em High. The tee shot plays uphill. Although this is a short hole and seems like the better players would try to drive the green, there is a lot of danger here due to the green being set off to the left and fronted by three bunkers. If one goes through the fairway left there will likely have a bad lie in taller, clumpy grass. Driving over the collection of bunkers on the right leads to a bit more fairway, yet for longer hitters there is a tree on the right that can be problematic in approaching the green. The green is heavily contoured with a bowl like affect taking balls to the left if you catch the spine, otherwise they will stay up on higher ground. We felt the green could have used more contouring on the left side to bring balls back onto the green as well. But all eight of us liked the hole and thought it was the most fun hole on the course.
6 – par 4 443/383/Bad Man’s Bluff. There is another rise here to a slight dogleg right. The best line to the hole is down the right side but a single bunker awaits there with the ground sloping slightly towards it and the tall grass and trees. This is the view from the II tees. The back tees have this playing as a straight hole. The green sits well below you but unless you hit it far enough the rise will stop any momentum of the tee shot, leaving a very long shot into the green. There is a bunker on the left about 60 yards before the green that pinches the fairway quite substantially. There are two bunkers about 20 yards short on the right side that blocks a view of the green. I felt the fairway pinches in about 5 yards too much due to that bunker on the left. The longer/better players in our group had makeable birdie putts but for me, much like the fourth hole, this is one that I felt a par could only be made with a one putt. This is my second least favorite hole on the course.
7 – par 4 486/423/Magnificent Seven. There is a rock in the middle of the fairway which is the line to the green. Go slightly left or right and one can get a nice roll out and possibly even down the steep hill on the other side of it about 60 yards up. Go too far left and you are in the trees and go to far right and you will have a view of the green but a longer shot. The green is down at the bottom of a steep hill and is blind from the left side of the fairway. There is a hill to the right of the green that if you hit into it the ball will get stuck in the tall grass. The green has a slight false front and interior contouring at the front which is unnecessary. There is a lot of mounding in the green which creates unnatural roll-outs if a putt is hit a bit too hard but can also cause one to leave a putt significantly short. I liked the hole but thought the green a bit too much. There are no bunkers on this hole.
8 – par 3 193/173/Rio Lobo. This hole plays over a chasm with the back tee very elevated. There are six bunkers surrounding this green which is another green that has little knobs on it. The chasm and trees continue down the left side. This is a very good par 3.
9 – par 4 403/372/El Dorado. All of the fairway bunkers are down the left side as one plays to the highest part of the course (although seventh tee might be higher). There is another collection of bunkers on the right. The final bunker on the left and the bunkers on the right significantly narrow the line into the green which is slightly angled left to right with a significant false front. The green has more subtle breaks in it. This is the one hole I did not have an opinion one way or the other.
10 – par 5 632/576/High Noon. Playing from an elevated tee downhill until about 100 yards out, this hole offers a very lovely view. There is a collection of bunkers on the left. The fairway works to the left but then comes back to the right. At the bottom of the hill there is tall grass/almost wetland area with two bunkers. Fronting the uphill green are two deep bunkers on the front right. The green will not hole a shot unless it has some height to it and is sloped back to front. This hole has a vertical spine in it that is nearly impossible to get right. I liked the hole although perhaps I felt it came back a little too much to the left.
11 – par 4 439/412/High Plains Drifter. This hole is a bit like the twelfth at Ballyneal where hitting down the right side will cause a ball to go down the hill leaving an uphill blind shot to the green. However, the green complex is very different to Ballyneal’s as it is a raised, plateaued green. There are two centerline bunkers at the beginning of the fairway that should be easily cleared unless the wind is blowing in your face. On round two, the wind was blowing hard against us and I found one of the deep bunkers where the only play is a lay up. There is a bunker complex on the left side of the fairway which is the preferred line into this dogleg left. There are bunkers short right of the green and two bunkers behind the right side of the green, none of which I noticed in playing the hole. The land pitches down into a valley after the initial rise from the tee, before it rises again to the plateaued green. After the first two rounds I did not care much for the hole but by the third round I very much liked the hole despite never quite figuring out the green which moves in all directions. This hole is the lowest index on the back nine and deserves it’s ranking.
12 – par 3 155/148/The Good… A nice downhill par 3 but plays to its length. This is one of the more diabolical greens on the course with interior falls-offs and mounds, spines, and slopes. Much like the eighth, it is surrounded by seven bunkers with the only bailout option either short right or to the left of the green. But if you go left it is a downhill, fast chip or putt onto the green and can bring into play the false front between the fronting bunkers. This is a nice par 3.
13 – par 3 265/221/The Bad….Playing over a chasm just off the cart path to the twelfth hole, this is the most bland hole on the course but one that offers some of the best views of the surrounding countryside when on the green. The green is above you which is the last time you rise on the course. There is a single bunker to the right which is the preferred line into the green as it falls off to the left. As I mentioned, the grass is sticky and does not truly allow for a ball hit short to run onto the green. The green looks like it should tilt to the left down the mountain side, but it does not. The more difficult part of the green is the horizontal spin about 40% on which makes a putt difficult. It was unanimous in our group that this was our least favorite hole. The highlight of the hole is the wooden, swinging bridge that those walking would have to take over the chasm.
14 – par 4 548/454/The Ugly. Playing dramatically downhill as a dogleg right it took me until after the third round to figure out how to play the hole as I kept thinking it is a par 5. The fairway narrows to a small gap similar to those found on some holes in the British Isles in the dunes. If one stays right there is a large mound resulting in a blind shot to a green that runs away at the back side. There is an enormous bailout area left of the green which is large. There are two long narrow bunkers behind the green one behind the other which seemed odd to me as to why they were placed there. Similar to eight, this green also has some small mounds where a flag can be placed atop it, but really should not be due to fairness. The view from the tee is outstanding. Most of us thought the hole to be average.
15 – par 4 352/299/Shootout at the Ok Corral. Another downhill hole that is definitely driveable but the reward is not likely worth the risk given the six fronting bunkers with mounds just behind them and then one bunker center behind the green. There are also three fairway bunkers down the right side of this slight dogleg right. The green runs away from you but with a rise at the back to stop balls from going off. This hole is the equivalent of the fifth on the front nine as it is simply fun to play.
16 – par 4 467/426/The Hanging Tree. It’s a long walk/cart ride to the tee. The back tee is very elevated and plays across the road while the II tee plays on the other side of the road. There is a somewhat long forced carry to a very wide fairway on this dogleg left. There are two bunkers left and one right that I never came close to. The green is elevated and blocked from view from the left side of the fairway as there is a hill on the left before the green yet a ball hit to the right will bounce towards those bunkers on the right. On the left side of the green is a hill that one can use to bring a ball back onto the playing surface. The longer hitters in our groups struggled on the hole as the green does not hold a lot of shots and balls will end up in the grass behind the green. This is the second hardest hole on the back nine and deserves it. The view from the tee is incredible as there is a large rock formation behind the green. This is my favorite hole on the golf course.
17 – par 3 191/169/Rio Bravo – everyone else but me choose this as their favorite hole due to the forced carry over grass and a stream that fronts the green and continues down the left side. There are no bunkers on the hole. The green has a vertical and horizontal spine in it causing many balls to roll off the back left. It is also a very picturesque hole. I did like it, just not as much as sixteen.
18 – par 5 598/555/Rio Grande. Playing from an elevated tee, this dogleg left requires a forced carry over marsh to a wide fairway yet the tee makes one want to play closer to the tall grass that is part of the stream on the left side. The second shot needs to navigate away from the five bunkers on the right of the fairway. The green sits down in a sort of bowl with a drop down fronting the green and behind it. But if you don’t hit the drop down and have your ball roll onto the green, then you have a perilous, quick chip or putt. There are two bunkers right and three bunkers left of the green followed by the stream to the left. The longer players in our group were green high or on the green in two. I found the hole to be more pleasing visually than playing it although it is a nice finish to the round.
Rock Creek Cattle Company is a very good golf course and certainly worthy of being considered among the finest courses in the world. While there are some bunkers that perhaps pinch in a bit too much near the green as well as a few greens that are overly contoured or with some unnecessary internal contours, these are minimal criticisms to the very compelling course that was designed and built over difficult land. The routing is nearly perfect for the land, the bunkers are good, green sizes and shapes are very good, and the conditioning is excellent. It is one of the more pleasing courses to play from a visual perspective. I will rate it a 5, but it could easily be a 5.5.
Owner Bill Foley allowed Tom Doak to site his golf course anywhere on Foley's 30,000 acre ranch and Doak picked out a fine site. The splendid mountain scenery adds to the experience, but the golf would be excellent in any location.
I found the par 4s to be the course's greatest strength. Time and again, Doak gives the player a wide fairway with a definite better side to set up the approach. Once on the green, the real challenge begins, with exceptionally contoured greens. Some have suggested the contours are excessive, but I found the speed reasonable enough to make for a proper challenge.
The course is configured in one large loop, with the front nine climbing to the highest point on the course and the back taking the player to the lowest spot--the 17th green--before a gentle climb up the final fairway. Doak is in the process of moving that green closer to the Rock Creek, so it will be interesting to see how the course plays after that alteration.
Rock Creek Cattle Company may have been built for walking, but a lovely walk in the park it is not. The trips from green to tee are excessive.........which probably accounts for the fact that the vast majority of rounds are played in carts. That, however, is the only shortcoming I found.