By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – The long awaited front nine of Moonlight Basin’s private mountain-ringed, 8,000-yard golf course was celebrated on Aug. 6 as one of the game’s legends, and also the course designer, ripped a perfect drive through a bluebird Montana sky.
Jack Nicklaus’ ceremonial first tee shot appeared destined to clear the Spanish Peaks and end up in Gallatin Valley before gravity took hold and it bounced onto the first hole’s fairway, 252 feet below the tee box.
“It was absolutely perfect,” said Mike Wilcynski of Nicklaus’ drive. The Reserve at Moonlight Basin’s director of club operations and membership, Wilcynski has been involved with the construction and development of the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course since 2005.
The back nine holes of The Reserve opened in 2008, but the last decade’s economic downturn and subsequent bankruptcy of Moonlight Basin kept the front nine from opening to golfers until late July this year.
“I’m pretty proud of the fact that we’re all done with [the course],” Wilcynski said. “[The project] is pretty near and dear to my heart.”
Moonlight Basin also opened The Reserve’s clubhouse on Aug. 1, a sprawling log structure at 6,600 square feet including the lower-level cart storage. On the morning of Aug. 6, a giant white tent stood west of the clubhouse where the Golf Channel’s Steve Sands moderated a member Q-and-A session with Nicklaus.
“There hasn’t been a central gathering place [at Moonlight Basin] before now, and there’s starting to be,” said Moonlight Basin member Kate Williams, as she walked toward the tent past trays of fresh fruit and breakfast sandwiches. “There’s a real Moonlight community emerging up here. We can leave our condos and houses and have a place to go.”
Inside the tent Nicklaus, a record 18-time major championship winner, spoke about the course, its design challenges and his legendary career.
“I think it’s the most scenic golf course I’ve ever seen,” Nicklaus said. “It’s also the hardest blasted golf course I’ve ever seen!”
He talked about the hazards of golf-course construction in his home state of Florida – namely alligators and snakes – and compared it to the difficulties The Reserve mountain course presents.
“Here you try to find the golf course,” Nicklaus said. “We moved less dirt here than 90 percent of the golf courses [we’ve designed] in Florida. What are you going to do, move it 200 yards uphill?”
He described the placement of each hole on the front nine and joked he did the same for the back nine “about 23 years ago … but I’m not sure if any of you remember it,” eliciting laughter from the crowd.
Nicklaus discussed how the game of golf has changed with evolving technology, and that his course designs have evolved
accordingly with longer holes. Later he spoke of how the contemporary technology has created an era where professionals can hit the ball straight at the flagsticks, instead of being “shot makers” like most elite golfers were forced to be by the equipment available during his prime.
“I could never hit [the ball] straight,” Nicklaus said, before adding that he thinks some of the young pros like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson are exceptional golfers, as well as shot makers.
Nicklaus remained on the stage after the Q-and-A as 20-30 fans lined up for autographs and pictures with the “Golden Bear.” The rest of the crowd walked across the driving range to the first tee where Nicklaus was shuttled by an all-terrain vehicle.
Club members and photographers ringed the tee box when Kevin Germain of Lone Mountain Land Co. – the developer of the Club at Moonlight Basin – dedicated a plaque to one of the resort’s original owners and visionary, the late Lee Poole.
“I know Lee is looking down on us with his smiling eyes,” Germain said. “He can see all 18 holes, while we can’t.”
Nicklaus took the microphone and told the crowd how much he enjoyed working with Poole designing the course, before stepping up and lacing his drive to the fairway, just right of the left bunker.
“I think Lee was sort of a scapegoat for the economy, which was just ridiculous ‘cause he was the only one that really knew what was going on here,” Nicklaus told me after his ceremonial tee shot. “I felt so bad about that because he was such a good guy.
“Mike has done a great job with putting the whole [course] together,” he added.
Nicklaus said he’d return to see how the course matures and possibly to ski when the course is covered in snow.
“[The last time] I skied was here about four years ago,” he said. “I took it up at age 35. I said I wasn’t going to take it up until after I was done with golf.”
Nicklaus retired from professional golf at age 65, and began his course-designing career in earnest.