Rocky Mountain Redemption: Yellowstone Club

Montana’s renascent Yellowstone Club boasts an A-List membership, private powder and a world-class Weiskopf-designed golf course

Rocky Mountain Redemption: Yellowstone Club

Tom Weiskopf had no idea that a frustrating helicopter ride in the Montana backcountry in the fall of 1999 would dramatically shape the rest of his life. Hovering above an undulating, 13,600-acre parcel near Big Sky along with Yellowstone Club founder Tim Blixeth, Weiskopf was severely challenged to find a suitable parcel to arrange 18 holes of golf. 

“The only way this can happen is with no internal roads. All the houses need to be on the perimeter,” he recalls telling Blixeth. “I was surprised when he said ‘yes.’ The residential component almost always drives design.”

Weiskopf soon embarked on what would be the most challenging build of the nearly 70 courses he’s designed. In the process, the beauty of the surrounding scenery inspired the hard-drinking “Towering Inferno” to quit alcohol two days after ringing in the new millennium. “I just looked at the mountains and said, ‘Why do I do this to myself?’” he reflects. “Everything bad that had happened in my life was caused by drinking. I’m in this beautiful place, and I said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’”

Yellowstone Golf Club Hole 3

Club Down: Long can be wrong on the par-3 third's infinity-edge green.

Clear-headed, Weiskopf and his wife, Laurie, were falling in love with the Montana lifestyle, with the Yellowstone Club and most of all, with its members.  They built one of the club’s first homes in 2001 and have a house under construction on, yes, the perimeter of the golf course—which was completed in 2005 and now has about 40 lots on its jack-rail-fenced boundaries.

Weiskopf’s experience debunks the stereotype of the club as a closed-door, elitist enclave. “You have to be here to understand it,” Weiskopf says. “This place has consumed my interests and my emotions, it’s given me satisfaction and peace of mind. What makes any club is the membership. This is the greatest accumulation of people—the most interesting, the most entrepreneurial, the most supportive and the nicest—that I’ve ever been around. They all check their egos at the door.”

While the roster includes the likes of Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake and Phil Mickelson, for every celebrity member there are dozens of others who made their fortunes less publicly. They now want to enjoy the fruits of all that hard work with their families, and they’d prefer to do it in relative peace and quiet. Back in their hometowns, these members belong to sacred clubs like Winged Foot, Oakmont, Brookline and Cypress, hallowed grounds that Weiskopf walked in his career as a professional golfer. The atmosphere at the Yellowstone Club is a little more laid-back. Music drifts in the background on the range, tee times don’t exist and a couple of members even tee it up in soft-spiked cowboy boots.

Tom and Laurie Weiskopf

Home course: Tom and Laurie Weiskopf settled in at Yellowstone

“I play in jeans all the time,” laughs Weiskopf. “You’re in Montana, for God’s sake. It’s still the Wild West.”

On the scorecard for the nationwide recovery of resort real estate, the Yellowstone Club is arguably the leader in the clubhouse. It overcame the double whammy of the recession and the financial/marital/legal turmoil of founder Blixeth. The resulting bankruptcy had crippled the Yellowstone Club and sent economic reverberations from Big Sky all the way down to Bozeman and beyond. Riding to the rescue was club member and adrenaline-junky Sam Byrne, whose Boston-based private equity firm, CrossHarbor Capital Investments, bought the club out of bankruptcy in 2009. He brought in Mike Meldman’s Discovery Land Company to oversee the operations and development, and a new era of stable, realistic and transparent management brought the club back from the brink.

Membership in the past four years has more than doubled, surpassing the 500 mark, and is tracking to reach the cap of 864 in about five years. In steadily attracting 60 to 70 new members a year, the club is selling about $300-$400 million in real estate annually, roughly what a medium-sized resort town in Colorado records. The entry fee is steep: Initiation is $300,000, annual dues are $37,500 and you have to own property, which is likely going to cost $4 million and (way) up, though there are more affordable options in the condo market. The membership process is fairly low-key: Contact the club, get pre-qualified and visit. The Big Sky area in general is primed for growth, boasting two other topnotch communities that Byrne plucked out of bankruptcy: Spanish Peaks, which also features a Weiskopf course, and Moonlight Basin, which just completed the back nine of its Jack Nicklaus-designed Reserve course.

The heart of the Yellowstone Club is the 140,000-square-foot Warren Miller Lodge, anchoring the base of 9,860-foot Pioneer Mountain. On winter evenings, the racks out front remain full of skis and boards: Nobody is going to steal your gear. The lodge includes an excellent restaurant and bar, retail shops, a spa and fitness center and a few dozen condos. The new leadership converted its caviar bar to a breakfast buffet; transformed a seldom-used basement ballroom into a popular youth hangout called 20 Below; and eliminated the ski-boot-removal valets.

In late December, the club announced plans for a pedestrian village adjacent to the Lodge, including three new buildings that will house two restaurants, a spa and fitness center, a grocery market, 48 condos and eventually a gondola up 9,573-foot Eglise Mountain.

Scenic hole four at Yellowstone

Tough Par: The 434-yard fourth is the No. 1 handicap hole.

The club’s current 2,200 skiable acres are more than Beaver Creek or Deer Valley, with never a wait on its 15 lifts, plus a connection to adjacent Big Sky Resort’s 5,750 acres of terrain. With annual skier visits less than what Vail does on a slow weekend, the powder lasts for days on a mountain with an impressive 2,700 feet of vertical drop. And while skiing and riding remain as the major attraction, the golf and a dozen-plus other summer activities—including fly-fishing on the Gallatin River, hiking, mountain biking, rafting and excursions into nearby Yellowstone National Park—are fast becoming a mainstay.

At 8,030 feet, the 360-degree view from the Yellowstone Club’s first tee may be the most dramatic in the Rockies, punctuated by 11,166-foot Lone Peak looming to the northwest. A Reid Smith-designed, 24,500-squre-foot clubhouse, set to open in June, blends in naturally on the bluff, featuring curved glass and plentiful deck space.

Yellowstone is home to Weiskopf, Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake, and Phil Mickelson

Big Shot: Lone Peak provides an aiming point on No. 12. Yellowstone has an A-List membership including Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake, and Phil Mickelson.

Second- and third-generation timber covered the parcel before Weiskopf got to work. He created wide corridors and softened the slopes, built five sets of tees and drew five par 3s and five par 5s, all of which are theoretically reachable in two. Wildlife is abundant, with bear, elk, mule deer, Bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats. “It’s like playing golf in a zoo,” says the architect, who was an acclaimed big game hunter himself before turning his attention to upland and migratory birds.

The 1973 British Open champion designed this course to play hard and fast, and many of the holes welcome run-up shots, though not the postage-stamp, 138-yard par 3 11th, or the uphill, 414-yard par 4 13th, which requires a precisely judged shot to a blind green. The unofficial “signature hole” is the fourth, a demanding par 4 with Lone Peak as a backdrop: The mountain reflects idyllically in the lake that runs along its right side. A Weiskopf staple, a drivable par 4, comes at the double-green 9th, which plays 351 yards from the tips. The lower green is reachable with a properly struck tee ball, while a stand of pines tightly guards the upper green.

Food at Yellowstone Club in Montana

The Yellowstone Club’s opening three holes provide a comforting confidence boost, tumbling 350 vertical feet in all. You can miss your drive off No. 1 and it will still roll forever. It’s the perfect warm up for the celebrated filmmaker Warren Miller, who’s been here from the beginning as the director of skiing and who, along with his wife Laurie, has been a pillar of the community through the good and the bad. He even picked up the game of golf (promising to “never keep score”) and taught Weiskopf to ski in exchange for golf lessons.

Miller tells the story of teeing off with a prospective member on a bluebird Montana summer morning. When they arrived at the downhill 236-yard par-3 3rd and looked out at its infinity-edge green and the mountains beyond, his partner shook his head in awe. “He said, ‘This place is so fantastic, why am I playing golf? Let’s go look at real estate,’’’ Miller recalls. “Later that afternoon, he bought a lot and a club membership.”

Welcome to the club.

Yellowstone hole 17

Andy Bigford is the editor of Warren Miller’s autobiography, Freedom Found, My Life Story (Warren Miller Company), which will be published in fall 2016. For more information on the Yellowstone Club, go to yellowstoneclub.com.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of Colorado AvidGolfer Magazine.

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