Sand traps on either side of the green. Another in the fairway. Trees granting little room for error.
Cruising down the 13th fairway, only nature’s best within miles of eyesight, Mike Wilcynski stops the golf cart we were riding together. He was reminded of how the vision drawn out on Jack Nicklaus’ sketchbook materialized into what we were seeing.
Wilcynski, Moonlight Basin’s manager, holds tight to the sketches Nicklaus used to illustrate what would become The Reserve golf course in Big Sky. Wilcynski was the general contractor for construction and development of the course.
Those who worked on the course tweaked plans slightly as it was created. Right here, Wilcynski said as he held the wheel of the golf cart, was a precise echo of the legendary golf pro’s design.
The Reserve will be the site of The Match featuring a contest between Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady against Bryson DeChambeau and Aaron Rodgers. Though no fans will be allowed on the course, it will be televised on TNT beginning at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
The scenery was astounding from the first tee box. Though for The Match, the ninth hole will be the first Tuesday’s players compete on. Wilcynski explained that was to ensure they played the signature No. 17, a 777-yard par 5.
There’s so much more to the area, though. It’s a 8,000-yard private course at an elevation of 7,500 feet. As we drove down the cart path together, Wilcynski showed where the golf pros would be taking their first shots and where the NFL stars would be performing theirs.
Throughout the morning, he pointed out how Mickelson and DeChambeau would approach the course. Not that any was needed, but it was a reminder of how starkly different they are compared to the average golfer. For instance, their drives off of No. 1, Wilcynski suspected, would have a shot of reaching the green.
I’ve ridden in countless golf carts in my life. I’m comfortable in one. But bombing down the steep downhill on the first fairway, I was convinced I was about to fall out. And this was only the beginning of the abundance of elevation change.
With each hole, the majesty of my surroundings set in more. Wilcynski estimated about 400,000 yards of dirt was moved to create the course. Some others need several million.
On No. 4, the landscape demanded not much soil be moved. The slant of the terrain makes it unstable, and altering it may have led to dangerous conditions eventually. Wilcynski coordinated with engineers and found ways to overcome the geotechnical obstacles.
This only speaks more loudly to the brilliance of the setting. The creators, refusing to force nature to bend to their will, worked with it, allowing its elegance to stand.
As we peered over one of the “infinity greens” — where a cliff sits on the other side of the fringe — Wilcynski said those developing the course wanted to take care of the land. The miles of scenery we overlooked, he said, would never be developed.
Nicklaus was one of those key people working on the course. He visited about eight times to see each hole being built, helping make decisions and modifications along the way.
Wilcynski was intimidated by Nicklaus at first. He was just 30 years old at the time. But it became enjoyable once they discussed Nicklaus’ plans.
Wilcynski feels rewarded playing a course he helped build. He played it with Nicklaus, recalling that Nicklaus birdied one hole while in his 70s. He said plenty of work from many other people was needed to pull it all off.
“If we can make things come to life,” Wilcynski remembers thinking, “things are going to be great.”
A couple holes into our tour, I noticed a can of bear spray was velcroed to the steering wheel in the golf cart. I asked what kind of animals are on the course, but I hardly needed to.
Off of No. 4, a marmot scampered ahead of us as we crossed a bridge and dove toward a creek as the front of the cart’s bumper closed in.
Along the sixth fairway, we examined elk tracks on a sand trap. As we looked back toward the green, deer pranced across it.
Wilcynski told me staff must pull the pins every night. Otherwise, elk lick them because of the salt left on them from people’s hands.
Elk, mule deer, moose, grizzly and black bears and mountain lions have been spotted on the course. Still, it feels safe, despite it being so entrenched in wildlife.
Off of the ninth green, Wilcynski stopped at a pond. Nicklaus and the staff tried to find a way to separate the green from the driving range, and they thought this was the way to do it.
It’s filled with westslope cutthroat trout. The 1.5-acre pond is about 29 feet deep so fish can live through the winter. It’s not uncommon for members to fit their fly rods in their bags.
“Golf is a fraction of the experience here,” Wilcynski said.
Standing on the 11th tee, Wilcynski and I admire the scenery. On the 15th, a conversation was audible about 200 yards away.
The bustle of any city is miles away. Only birds singing. The occasional conversations and the hum of the golf cart.
We weren’t in the middle of nowhere. This was simply somewhere hidden away from anything but golf.
On Tuesday, it will be at the forefront of the country’s attention. Deservedly so.