Golf’s Evergreen Legacy in Kalispell

As a new season dawns, golf remains as popular as ever in the local landscape where it all started 100 years ago

By Dillon Tabish
Dave Broeder, left, and Marlin Hanson, PGA Pros pictured at Buffalo Hill Golf Club in Kalispell on March 18, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Almost exactly 57 years later, Marlin Hanson remembers his 10th birthday with vivid fondness.

It was the spring of 1959 — March 25 — and golf season was right around the corner. By hitting double digits in age, young Hanson was no longer relegated to hitting balls in the driving range and putting on the practice greens as he had done since he was 6.

Now, per clubhouse rules, he could officially play the famed Kalispell Municipal Golf Course on Buffalo Hill.

“I would come up here at 8 in the morning and not leave until dark, playing or caddying seven days a week,” Hanson recalls.

At this historic golf course tucked in the hills above downtown Kalispell, Hanson developed his love of the sport alongside generations of other local players.

Six decades later, Hanson will celebrate yet another birthday on the fairways and greens that have become inextricably tied to his hometown’s identity and the history of the sport in Montana.

Hanson, a longtime PGA professional at what is now known as Buffalo Hill Golf Club, is welcoming the first golfers of the year to play the Cameron Nine and Championship 18, which both opened last week.

For Hanson and fellow PGA professional Dave Broeder, who also grew up playing at Buffalo Hill and has worked at the course for decades, the dawn of a new season marks an exciting time of year; a tradition deeply rooted in this valley lives on.

Few golf courses in Montana have quite the history as Buffalo Hill, one of the oldest courses in the state.

In 1915, according to historical records, a group of residents cut the first sand greens and fairways out of buffalo grass near the present-day wastewater treatment plant and city airport on the south end of Kalispell. Three years later, as more people became interested in the game, land was purchased in the hills above downtown for a new nine holes, at the present-day site of Buffalo Hill. A professional from Spokane named Mr. Watson traveled to Kalispell to lay out the new course with the help of Flathead County Commissioner Henry Good, who spearheaded the project along with other stockholders, including John Lister, W.B. McDonald, local judge T. A. McDonald, Dr. Bugbee, Dr. F.B. Ross and Dr. W. Q. Conway.

Along with the nine holes, a one-room clubhouse was constructed on-site, and this is where the group of players used handmade wooden clubs and crude hard rubber balls to play golf.

By 1922, the sport was gaining traction as a viable activity and William Goringe of Spokane was hired as the first pro at the upstart course. The group ponied up his monthly salary of $30 and Goringe lived in a tent near the Stillwater River in the present-day Lawrence Park area during the season, helping train new and old players.

In the 1930s, the Conrad family sold land that was previously used as a buffalo pasture for the development of another nine-hold course that became the present-day Cameron Nine.

The new course was completed over a two-year span in August 1939 thanks to the efforts of local residents, the City of Kalispell and the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that put unemployed people to work for public projects during the Great Depression. Along with the new course, the clubhouse was assembled that still stands today. The WPA also built the original nine-hole course and clubhouse in Polson and the original course in Whitefish that evolved into Whitefish Lake Golf Course.

“I might say at the beginning that Kalispell has one of the finest golf courses in the Northwest,” Good told the Associated Press at the time.

Golfers in Kalispell in the 1920s. Courtesy Buffalo Hill Golf Club
Golfers in Kalispell in the 1920s. Courtesy Buffalo Hill Golf Club

The new course was dedicated Aug. 30, 1939 as the Kalispell Municipal Golf Course. The city agreed to maintain it through the parks department and hold the land as a golf course for the city.

From there the sport truly blossomed.

In 1964, the original nine was replaced with a new nine-hole course that cost $40,000. The membership spiked to over 600.

Within a decade, the game was so popular that the idea emerged to expand to 27 holes. Fundraising began throughout the community as the cost of the project hit $640,000.

By the summer of 1978, the Championship 18 was unveiled. For the grand opening, a familiar face arrived in Kalispell to tee off on the new course.

Arnold Palmer, the famous PGA professional widely considered one of the greatest players in history, came to Kalispell to play on Aug. 11, 1978.

The event drew nationwide attention as media from across the Pacific Northwest turned out.

“Today is a momentous occasion for Kalispell, the Flathead Valley and Montana,” Montana Gov. Thomas Judge said in a statement.

Broeder, who started playing at the course when he was 13 and later earned a job cleaning clubs and picking up range balls, was a standout young golfer who earned the opportunity to caddy for Palmer that day. He had just graduated high school and placed second in the club championship. The winner, Dave Morberg, earned the chance to play in the round with Palmer, club president Larry Simpson, club pro and manager Skip Koprivica and Mac McLendon, another PGA Tour player.

“It was exciting. There was a nice gallery of a couple thousand people watching that day,” Broeder recalls.

A commemorative program featuring Arnold Palmer. Courtesy Buffalo Hill Golf Club
A commemorative program featuring Arnold Palmer. Courtesy Buffalo Hill Golf Club

Broeder remembers the experiences fondly and from there his lifetime love of the sport took off. He eventually worked at the course, similar Hanson, conducting day-to-day duties for Carlos “Pop” Vaughn, a local fixture at the course who ran the driving range and caddying program. They were both paid $1 a day to pick up balls by hand on the range.

Broeder, 56, is now the head professional at Buffalo Hill, a role he has held since 1992.

“It was a pretty cool childhood growing up here,” he said.

“It’s just not your everyday course. It’s a real unique experience. I think that’s why people like coming back to play, you just don’t find courses like this anywhere.”