125 Years of Golf in America: Montana July 31, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

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Watch: 1996 U.S. Open champion Steve Jones on the state of golf in Montana

Golfers in Big Sky Country Savor Short Season

By Mike Trostel, USGA

Steve Jones is the lone player with Montana ties to win a U.S. Open. (USGA/Larry Petrillo)

Competitors gathered around the table, their gazes transfixed on the shiny silver object before them.

“Is this the first time it’s been in Montana?” one asked.

“This is so cool,” remarked another as he took a selfie in front of it.

“My grandfather played a round with Bob Jones in Butte,” said a third as he admired the name engraved four times on the trophy between 1923 and 1930.

Yes, the U.S. Open Trophy had been to Montana before. Montana resident Steve Jones, the 1996 champion, had brought his trophy there on a victory lap for friends and family to see. But most of those playing in the 2017 Montana State Amateur at Missoula Country Club were seeing the trophy in person for the first time.

“To have the U.S. Open Trophy at Montana’s biggest amateur championship is pretty special,” said Chris Nowlen, general manager and director of golf at Missoula C.C. “I think it’s inspiring to a lot of these guys. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, if you’re good enough, you can compete at the highest level.”

The State Amateur is conducted by the Montana State Golf Association (MSGA), which was founded in 1917 and recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. The MSGA has a staff of three, all of whom have other jobs in addition to their roles with the association.

Jim Opitz, the executive director of the MSGA since 2001, is also the activities director for Helena Public Schools. He received the Ike Grainger Award in 2017, honoring his 25 years of service to the USGA as a volunteer.

“We have a small, but dedicated staff that is passionate about golf in Montana,” said Opitz, a life-long teacher, administrator and coach in Helena. “This state has so much to offer, but golf has remained a consistent part of the outdoor activity scene for more than a century.”

Montana boasts some of the best places to fish, hike and raft anywhere in the country. Each year, millions of tourists visit Glacier National Park, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and Yellowstone National Park.

But while Montana is the fourth-largest state in terms of area – behind Alaska, Texas and California – its total population just cracked the 1 million mark for the first time in 2012 and the state is 48th of 50 in terms of population density with just seven people per square mile. Comparatively, New Jersey, the most densely populated state, has 1,210 people per square mile.

As a result of the population dispersion and weather limitations that bring snow and cold weather to Montana well into the spring, the state has only 110 golf courses. But while the golf season may be shorter than many of its neighbors to the south, what Montana lacks in quantity, it makes up for in the stunning beauty of its landscapes and the passion of its supporters.

“We definitely don’t take anything for granted because we only get to play golf for about half the year out here,” said Opitz. “Once winter breaks, our players are chomping at the bit to get out on the course and tee it up.”

Montana produces fewer competitive golfers than sun-drenched states such as California or Florida. Mike Grob, of Billings, was a six-time winner on the Canadian Tour (now the Mackenzie Tour – PGA Tour Canada) between 1997 and 2009, while Edean (Anderson) Ihlanfeldt is the lone Montana resident to win a USGA championship: the 1982 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur. Ihlanfeldt also founded and coached the University of Washington women’s golf program, and an invitational event there bears her name.

Interestingly, there were no national championships conducted in Montana for the first 99 years of the USGA’s existence, but the Treasure State hosted its first two the same week in July 1994: the U.S. Amateur Public Links at Eagle Bend Golf Club in Bigfork (won by Guy Yamamoto) and the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Meadow Lark Country Club in Great Falls (won by Kelli Kuehne).

Because these national championships were the first in Montana’s history, the Great Falls Tribune wrote tips for gallery members who might not be familiar with golf etiquette. They asked fans not to “touch any golf ball on the course, walk in sand traps, or bring transistor radios or boomboxes that could distract the players.”

While music may not have accompanied the historic 1994 events, a hearty rendition of “Happy Birthday” was sung at Missoula C.C. as the MSGA celebrated its centennial in 2017. And while the gala featured a cake, the object of everyone’s affection was the silver trophy in the center of the room, inspiring a new generation of Montana golfers that anything is possible – even winning the U.S. Open.

Michael Trostel is the senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at mtrostel@usga.org.