BILLINGS — Walter Hagen: 11-time major champion, American sports legend … Billings golf pioneer?
Yes, the origin of the oldest active golf course in Yellowstone County can be traced to one of the true greats of the game. It was "Sir Walter" — a hugely important figure in the advancement of modern golf in the early part of the 20th century — who singled out and suggested the land on which the Hilands Golf Club be plotted.
A century later, Hilands maintains its reputation as a slice of private 9-hole heaven replete with mature tree cover, strikingly green grass and clean putting surfaces nestled quietly on Poly Drive west of Virginia Lane and east of 11th Street West.
A century later, Hilands is celebrating its 100-year run this summer as a Montana golf staple while also looking back at its rich history.
Jeff McNeish, a local author and amateur historian commissioned to write a book commemorating Hilands’ 100th anniversary, points to Hagen as a crucial figure in the founding of the club.
“He was actually here with his business manager looking into the southern Montana and northern Wyoming oil fields that were just at the time kind of popping up, and he was trying to determine if that was something he wanted to invest in,” McNeish said.
According to McNeish’s research, the first local golf course was the Billings Golf and Country Club, which was founded in 1914 and was situated under the Rimrocks west of 13th Street. But the land wasn’t conducive to long-term growth, and an alternative site needed to be identified.
McNeish said Hagen, after playing at the original BGCC in 1922, spotted the land that would later become Hilands, “likely when they were returning to the Northern Hotel where he was staying. This was all out of town at the time. It had an orchard and a nursery, and the key was that it was irrigated.”
“Hagen said, ‘That’s the land you need to get,’” McNeish said.
The original founders of Hilands purchased over 90 acres, McNeish offered, and was ideal for an 18-hole layout. A farmhouse served as the first “clubhouse,” which was expanded through the years. But the land between 11th and 13th streets — roughly — was sold bit by bit during and after World War II, and the original 9-hole grounds atop 43½ acres are what remain today. A modern clubhouse, restaurant and lounge was erected in 2010.
“The layout stayed pretty consistent through its purchase in ’22 up to about 1947,” said McNeish, who added that Hilands has remained a private club throughout its history with 100 years of paid membership.
“Post-World War II they kind of did a remodel of the course, changed the layout, added grass greens and things of that nature. Since then it really has stayed pretty consistent.”
Through the years
The longest tenured member at Hilands is 95-year-old Rockwood Brown Jr. Brown’s father, Rockwood Sr., served as the venue’s first president in 1922, the year before the first golf clubs were swung.
Rockwood Jr., known as Rocky, has been a member there since July 1, 1965. But it has been a special place for him since long before that.
“It was a big part of my life growing up, and my family. So it’s significant,” said Brown, who practiced law in Billings for 50 years. “And to think that my dad was the first president makes me feel proud.”
“I tried to play golf, let’s put it that way,” said Brown, still sharp with his sense of humor at 95 and never one to miss his 4:30 p.m. scotch. “I enjoyed it. It was a good part of my life. We took part in the social aspects of it. It’s been I think a central part of my family’s life. It’s a friendly place.”
By comparison, Yellowstone Country Club was founded in 1949 and Lake Hills opened in 1957. Laurel came along in 1968, Exchange City Par 3 followed in 1979, and then Pryor Creek in 1981 and The Briarwood in 1984. The county's most recent course additions — Peter Yegen and Eaglerock — opened in 1993 and 2003, respectively.
Pete Grass, Hilands’ aptly named certified course superintendent, first started working at the course as a sophomore in high school in 1975, cleaning wooden clubs with Pledge. For the past 48 years Grass has seen the evolution of the course like few could.
“Back when I started there were a lot of older gentlemen that were members. Probably the average age would have been 60-something,” Grass said. “It’s evolved to truly a family club now. They’ve instituted junior members and social members that don’t golf but what to have a pool and a place to have dinner. So our membership is full.”
Women, Grass said, have long held a prominent place at the club.
“There’s a misnomer that I’ve heard a lot of times: ‘So women can’t even step foot on that property?’ No, that’s never been the case. You know how rumors get started,” Grass said.
‘Enough quality and challenge’
To mark the 100th anniversary of the club, certain landmarks have been added to the grounds, including a standing clock adjacent to the No. 1 tee box as well as a walkway of bricks inscribed with the names of current and past members.
With respect to the course, Grass is proud of the adversity and difficulty it can present with its abundance of trees and narrow fairways. He pointed to the two times the annual Montana Cup — with its Ryder Cup-style format — has been held at Hilands (most recently in 2021), a rare achievement for a 9-hole course.
“There’s a perception by some that a 9-hole course isn’t a real golf course,” Grass said. “It’s not true, but it’s a perception. But we hosted it and proved that although our course is short on the scorecard it has plenty of challenge to it.
“I take that as a testament to the work my staff does and the club itself, that although we’re just a 9-hole course we’re of enough quality and challenge to take on the best players in the state.”
The course record (for 18 holes) is 61, which was originally set by Bob Meek in the 1960s and later matched by Hilands PGA Pro Eddie Kavran in 2011.
That said, Hilands still boasts a leisurely feel. With more than 300 golfers in addition to its social members, the club has evolved greatly since its founding 100 years ago into the family atmosphere both Brown and Grass spoke of.
“We have a lot of fun here,” said Kavran, the 1998 Montana State Amateur champion who’s in his 16th years as Hilands’ pro. “After 100 years you’ve got to be doing something right. It’s just a great place.”
A place that perhaps even the great Walter Hagen couldn’t have envisioned.