Golf on the ranch: Few things soothe the soul like teeing it up on the open range

Mowing (and cowboys) at the Rising Sun Golf Course on the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch.

Brian Henningson, the ranch manager at Montana’s revered Rock Creek Cattle Company, picks up a blade of grass, holds it up against the cow-specked hills, and proceeds to give me a lesson in agronomy.

“Break it down, and this one blade of grass has a monetary value,” he says. “What I do at Rock Creek is manage 30,000 acres of grass. And, essentially, the golf course superintendent here, Rick Hathaway, does the same thing. Sure he’s got a few more tools at his disposal, but we’re basically trying to achieve the same thing for our end users. Healthy plants. Healthy turf.”

There’s five seconds of awkward silence. I scratch my head. “So I guess what you’re saying then, Brian, is that golfers are just like cows. We both require healthy grass in order to survive. And, at the end of the day, you both just want us to be happy. Or is that udderly ridiculous?”

Henningson leans over, spits a little chew outside the barn door, and looks up with a wry smile. “Sure, dude. I think you’ve basically understood the nuts and bolts of it. Now let’s mooooove on.”

Brian Henningson, the ranch manager at Rock Creek Cattle Company. Andrew Penner

Regardless of your agronomic intelligence (I’m thinking I didn’t get a gold star), we can safely say this: golf and ranching are a pretty good duo. Maybe not quite as good as, say, cake and ice cream or beer and nachos, but they’re pretty nice companions.

And from my city slicker perspective (I grew up on flat-as-a-pancake farmland in southern Manitoba but now live in Calgary, Alberta), golf courses that are routed through rolling ranchland have, just by the very nature of that type of terrain, the potential to be off-the-charts outstanding.

The ranch headquarters at the Rock Creek Cattle Company. Andrew Penner

And, trust me, the private Tom Doak-designed golf course at Rock Creek Cattle Company is easily one of the most spectacular golf courses I’ve ever set foot on. A perfect canvas for Doak’s minimalist “art,” the terrain at Rock Creek CC is riddled with rock and ravines, pine-peppered hills, and majestic mountain-encased meadows; the type of fare that both birdie seekers and bovine beasts can readily “eat up.”

Owned by Las Vegas Golden Knights owner, Bill Foley, the spectacular course at Rock Creek Cattle Company is also enveloped by 30,000 acres of some of the most idyllic ranchland in Montana. (Foley owns the whole shootin’ shebang.) Members and guests at this ultra-private oasis can also enjoy horseback riding, sport shooting, hiking, mountain biking, and, yes, succulent slabs of home-grown beef for dinner.

The 12th (left) and 13th holes at the Rock Creek Cattle Co.
Andrew Penner

But you don’t need to be a member or guest at Rock Creek to experience authentic ranching ways on your next golf junket. There are at least a handful of excellent and accessible golf courses that are situated on working ranches in “the wild west.”

Just a few hours southeast of Rock Creek near Bozeman, the Montana Sky Guest Ranch features a Johnny Miller-designed golf course that parades through a beautiful swath of grass-coated ranchland. The course is only open to guests of the ranch so you’re basically guaranteed a serene sojourn — save for the odd cow mooing in your backswing. This dude ranch also offers a plethora of “western” activities like horseback riding, cattle penning, archery, fly-fishing, clay shooting and white-water rafting.

A view of the River Course at the Alisal Ranch. Robert Kaufman

While Montana may well be the ultimate destination for a golf and ranching getaway, it certainly doesn’t hold the patent on the genre. In Arizona, for example, Rancho de los Caballeros — situated in the saguaro-studded desert near historic Wickenburg — serves up a luxurious golf and dude ranch experience that’s second to none in the southwest. While the golf course is outstanding — it opened in 1979 and was designed by Greg Nash and Jeff Hardin — it’s the authentic cowboy culture, the exceptional trail riding, and the delicious cookouts at Rancho de los Caballeros that will win you over.

In California — in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley — Cowboy wannabes can enjoy a similar golf and “giddy-up” program at the luxurious Alisal Ranch. Featuring two championship golf courses (while private, the original Billy Bell Jr.-designed Ranch Course is open to guests staying on the property), wrangler workshops, rodeos, horseback riding and hog washing (yes, I know, you’ve been searching the world over for such an opportunity), Alisal affords guests a full immersion into wild west ways.

One of the friendly goat caddies at Silvies Valley Ranch. Courtesy Silvies Valley Ranch

Finally, if size matters to you (in ranching, it’s kinda a big deal), then Silvies Valley Ranch in Oregon is your ticket to a life of divot digging and dude ranching on the open range. This massive 150,000-acre spread is home to six (not a misprint) golf courses and, depending on the season, up to 4,500 head of cattle. While the two 18-hole reversible courses — Craddock and Hankins — headline the show, every course boasts plenty of unique charms.

Not surprisingly, guests at Silvies can also participate in a host of ranching activities like cattle roundups, wagon rides, shooting, horseback riding and goat herding. And, speaking of those goats, if you play the sporty 9-hole Chief Egan Course or the wild-and-wicked 7-hole McVeigh’s Course, you can employ a goat caddie. That’s right, goats Chunky and Charlie will be happy to pack your sticks — and a couple wobbly pops — around the course for you. The only issue? They like to stop frequently for a little grazing.

Yet another reminder that, when playing golf on the dude ranch, you definitely won’t be the only critter out there with an appreciation for healthy grass.

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. You can follow him on Instagram at @andrewpennerphotography.

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