By GEORGE GEISE
Courtesy of the Great Falls Tribune
ANACONDA — When it opened 10 years ago, the Old Works Golf Course was the most talked about — and expensive — facility of its kind in Montana.
A decade later, with gated golf communities springing up near Big Sky, Old Works probably isn’t the priciest project ever built in the Treasure State. But the course still draws raves from the national media, which obviously is impressed that a contaminated mining waste dump could be transformed into a world-class golf facility.
Of course, when the legendary Jack Nicklaus builds your golf course, people are going to notice.
And when you’ve got nearly $20 million to spend on that golf course, you can build a first-rate facility that people will have to notice.
Construction at Old Works began in 1994 and the course opened in 1997. A year later, it was recognized as one of the top 10 new courses in the nation by Golf Magazine, and as “one of the best new affordable courses” by Golf Digest.
Old Works still gets acclaim from national magazines, being named one of the “top 100 courses you can play” by Golf Week in both 2006 and 2007, and as “one of America’s top 10 bargains” by Golf magazine in 2005 and 2007. Virtually every photo ever used by those publications shows Old Works’ distinctive “blag slag” sand traps, which utilize old mining waste.
Steve Wickliffe, director of golf at Old Works since it opened, is proud that the facility has remained affordable for 10 years.
“When we opened in 1997 our green fee was $28 Monday through Thursday, and $33 Friday through Sunday,” said Wickliffe. “We’ve gone up a dollar or two each year and our peak rate is now at $39 (weekdays) and $46 (weekends).”
Those prices are a few bucks higher than fees charged at public courses in Great Falls and Missoula, and they’re far less than the $100 or $150 per round that other Jack Nicklaus-designed courses fetch in other parts of the country.
Old Works is located in a city of about 9,000 residents — far from major population centers — and has never attracted huge numbers of golfers. Wickliffe said his facility consistently gets between 20,000 and 24,000 rounds played during the season, which in this high, dry country usually means from mid-May to mid-September. The busiest public-access courses in the region — Larchmont in Missoula and Eagle Falls in Great Falls — get about twice as much play in seasons that stretch from early April to late October.
But golfers are notoriously willing to travel great distances to play their favorite sport, and Old Works’ reputation has lured players from across the West.
“A good number of players visit between the June through September time period and includes approximately 40 percent from out of state,” said Wickliffe. Idaho, Washington and California provide the most players.
The course also offers season passes to area residents, and Wickliffe said there are about 200 pass-holders, mostly from Anaconda-Deer Lodge County plus a few from Butte, 25 miles away. A Copper Pass costs $675 and allows almost unlimited play with some weekend restrictions. A Twilight Pass for play after 4 p.m. also is popular.
Those are relatively pricey fees for public-access courses, but a bargain by country-club standards.
Anaconda golfer Meg Boynton, who also serves on the local golf advisory board, said Old Works has developed nicely over the past decade.
“There have been some subtle improvements,” she said. “At first the native grass (in the rough) was impossible, but that’s been thinned out.’
Boynton said Old Works offers an enjoayble golf experience for all players.
“It’s very playable. They’ve done a good job of maintaining the course under challenging conditions. It appeals to every level of golfers, with so many different tee setups.”
Old Works’ playability was improved when course managers allowed golfers to drive motorized carts onto the fairways, greatly reducing the amount of walking involved in playing an 18-hole round.
When it was built, Old Works drew lots of attention not only for its size but its versatility. From the Slag Tees, the course measures 7,705 yards, one of the longest layouts in the country. But from the Brick Tees, it’s only 5,348 yards long.
Because of its appeal to players of different skill levels, the course attracts many tournaments. Those range from corporate scrambles to state high school tournaments to United States Golf Association-sponsored events that draw professionals and top amateurs.
“To date, we’ve hosted the Montana Cup (pros vs. amateurs) six times and the U.S. Open qualifying a total of nine times,” said Wickliffe.
“In 2006, we hosted both the U.S. Open local qualifying and the U.S. Senior Amateur qualifying … we will also be hosting the Montana State Seniors Tournament next August along with Butte Country Club.”
It took almost four years to turn contaminated ARCO property from an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site into a golf course. Ownership of the facility was turned over to Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, and the course is overseen by the Old Works Golf Course Authority Board.
Gene Vukovich, president of the board, said local taxpayers haven’t had to subsidize the golf course operation.
“What we wanted to do was be sure we had a positive cash flow, and we’ve been able to do that without the county handing out a dime to the golf course fund itself,” said Vuckovich, a longtime Anaconda resident and community advocate.
Vuckovich said the county recently paid off the debt on the clubhouse, with the help of ARCO, which forgave the final $300,000 of a loan.
Vuckovich said “there isn’t a lot of profit” generated by the course, but enough to put money aside to replace equipment and motorized carts.
“It’s a very expensive course to maintain and keep up to Nicklaus standards,” he said, “but we’ve been diligently trying to make it affordable here. Anywhere else you would go play $100 or better to play a championship course like that.”
Wickliffe said the future looks a bit brighter on the financial side.
“This year we have seen, for the first time in number of years, a significant increase in the number of rounds played over the previous year. At the present time we are approximately 1,000 rounds over daily-fee budgeted rounds for the year.
“If it hadn’t been for the smoke (from forest fires) this summer, I think our numbers would have been even higher.”
Wickliffe is an employee of Troon Golf, a national golf management firm that provides marketing, training and consulting services to the county. The original contract with Golden Bear Club Services specified that Old Works would be managed by a professional golf firm.
Troon took over in October 2000 and has been operating the course since then, at an annual cost of about $125,000.
Bill Hickey, a retired Anaconda school administrator who began studying a golf course concept 17 years ago, is pleased that his group, the Arrowhead Foundation, aimed for a top-flight facility, and succeeded.
“There were some city officials who thought the property might make a par-3 course,” recalled Hickey, who along with Anaconda banker Frank Bennett insisted on building a project with much standards.
“Why get off in Chicago when you’re headed for New York?” asked Hickey, an avid golfer who serves on the board of the Montana State Golf Association. “I’m glad we shot for the moon.”