In the golf world, Tom Weiskopf is larger than life.
BY MICHELLE HISKEY
In 1968, Tom Weiskopf made his first trip to Montana. Then 26 years old, he had won two tournaments on the PGA Tour, and his name was rising in the Nicklaus-Palmer era of professional golf. One of the most beautiful, powerful swings in the sport’s history belonged to him, and he would win the 1973 British Open. But Weiskopf didn’t come to Montana in 1968 to golf; he set his eye on bigger targets which, as his celebrity rose, would come to mean freedom for the Ohio native.
“I just love Montana,” said Weiskopf, whose portfolio includes the courses at the Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks in Big Sky, and Black Bull Golf Course in Bozeman. “The character of the people, and everything about the scenery.”
I came and hunted down by Red Lodge in the Pryor Mountains and had a great experience with antelope and mule deer,” Weiskopf recalled. “I have great pictures of the wild horses still in that area. A good friend of mine, Tom Culver, and I had permission to hunt on a couple of ranches there. We hunted the Hi-Line, near U.S. Route 2, everything north to the Canadian border, from Plentywood to Sidney.”
The most enduring trophy of that trip could not be spotted through a gunsight or mounted on a wall. It was a feeling that beckoned in a much later season of his life, after he retired from competition and built another celebrated career as a golf course designer. “I just love Montana,” said Weiskopf, whose portfolio includes the courses at the Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks in Big Sky, and Black Bull Golf Course in Bozeman. “The character of the people, and everything about the scenery. The people here, they don’t make quick decisions. I just like the lifestyle and character that they project and that if you give them enough time, they’ll figure out if they like you or not.”
From his home overlooking the Yellowstone Club’s 14th tee, Weiskopf is now 78, no longer a tourist since moving from Arizona eight years ago. He is appreciated but not glorified, with a deep circle of friends who didn’t need much time after all to figure out that they liked him and his wife Laurie. They quickly pitched in for the Weiskopfs when he revealed his battle with pancreatic cancer last year. While his life is scheduled, for the time being, around chemo treatments, good days and not so good days, Weiskopf is nailing down plans for the hunting, fishing (and yes, golf) seasons ahead. He has become one of the Montanans he admired from afar, and at local businesses like Schnee’s, his hunting trophies are displayed without signage.
“There’s nothing there that says Tom’s name or where or what happened,” said Bill Ciccotti, director of golf and clubhouse operations at the Yellowstone Club. “This fits Tom from what I know about him. If you know, you know; if you don’t, you don’t. And that’s the way it is.”
“Becoming wise is a process. Not many people get there and are willing to share what they’ve learned,” said Byrne, 56, managing partner and co-founder at Boston-based CrossHarbor Capital Partners, which owns the Yellowstone Club. “Tom has become that guy.”
Natural flow has been on brand for Weiskopf since the 1960s. Golf fans admired his ultra-smooth swing, soaring ball flight and unfiltered reactions to bad breaks. Some even called him “The Towering Inferno” (which in fairness was a blockbuster with a dramatic ending). What you see with Weiskopf is what you get, and that holds true for the golfers who play his 80 courses across the world. “At end of the day, all you hope for as a course designer is compliment,” he said. “I hope each player will like it. I’ve had enough controversy as a tour player.”
Those memories remain near. Weiskopf spoke with Mountain Outlaw right before watching the 2021 U.S. Ryder Cup team—an all-star lineup of American pros— demolish their international peers. In 1977, Weiskopf declined his Ryder Cup selection. He was chasing a grand slam away from golf: big game hunting’s four most coveted North American sheep trophies. Weiskopf still jousts with golf’s stuffy status quo; in late 2020 he opined that superstar Rory McIlroy lacked “that determination and will to be the best.” Weiskopf’s drawn such criticism himself, after finishing second in the Masters four times and in the U.S. Open once. Jack Nicklaus was asked what Montanans reading this article should know about Weiskopf.
“Tom was one of the finest strikers of the golf ball to ever live, and if he ever believed that he was half as good as he was, he would have won a lot more tournaments,” Nicklaus said. “Tom had this hang-up that he couldn’t beat me, and he shouldn’t have that. Because Tom was a terrific player, and certainly a lot better player than he gave himself credit for.”
All that talent and near misses—what does that do to someone? That question may be impossible to answer, but as Weiskopf sorted it out, Montana’s bigness and relative remoteness became even more attractive.
“The most important element of every golf course is visual. Does it look like it’s always been there? You have to make sure you don’t create something inorganic.” – Phil Smith
“He’s kind of a cowboy golfer,” said Ed Sneed, Weiskopf’s friend of 60 years, a former PGA Tour winner who like Nicklaus and Weiskopf attended Ohio State. “That little bit more laidback lifestyle in Montana suits him. I don’t think he’s under pressure, not under a microscope. On tour, playing in front of people and media, even in our day, Tom was still scrutinized much more than the average player.”
I feel like I was always thought of as regular person, maybe an outspoken one,” Weiskopf said as he considered his image. “I’ve never been afraid of voicing my opinion and if someone disagrees, that’s fine. Montana was a perfect place for me to come because it had everything I needed to satisfy me and the challenges that the outdoors give. People don’t recognize me, only occasionally. But I wasn’t hiding from anything when I came here. I just thought this was a great place.”
Very few professional athletes go on to create a playing field—it’s not like Wayne Gretzky can bring anything special to a regulation hockey rink. Golf course design demands the confidence to turn raw acreage into a competition site that welcomes everyone. In October 1999, Weiskopf’s second coming to Montana was for a job interview: could he design the Yellowstone Club’s golf course? “I stood on the helipad with four-wheelers, horses, and a topographical map of 15,000 acres, and the owner wanted to build the most exclusive club in the world,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is nuts. How are you going to do this?’” The same way, actually, that you rise to the highest level of golf competition: uncanny vision. As a competitor and course designer, Weiskopf could always see what’s not there yet.
“I want every golfer to be rewarded properly for a properly played shot,” Weiskopf said. “I want my courses to err on the side of forgiveness [rather] than to force every player to be so precise.”
“The most important element of every golf course is visual,” explained course architect Phil Smith, who in 1999 left Nicklaus to work with Weiskopf. “Does it look like it’s always been there? You have to make sure you don’t create something inorganic. That’s the trick behind a great course design. If it hurts your eye, you’ve done something wrong.”
Weiskopf draws on vast mental archives. “He and Jack Nicklaus have this amazing ability to play any golf course and remember every golf hole,” said Smith. “That memory bank is what made them great players. When Tom and I walk a raw site, he has the ability to tell you how far something is in the distance. It’s uncanny, his keen eye for distance and sense of scale.”
Golf course design is a humbling profession because the land itself can limit your vision, and a famous name doesn’t mean you get free rein. Success, Nicklaus points out, is when the boss—the course owner—is happy. At the Yellowstone Club, Sam Byrne says Weiskopf is “a zen master,” because he communicates his vision and life lessons.
“Becoming wise is a process. Not many people get there and are willing to share what they’ve learned,” said Byrne, 56, managing partner and co-founder at Boston-based CrossHarbor Capital Partners, which owns the YC. “Tom has become that guy. He’s had a full, extraordinary life with unique, valuable things to learn from. He was a guy who lived at the highest heights of his sport in the Nicklaus-Palmer era, and had extraordinary heartbreaks and frustrations at the Masters and the unique high of winning the British Open. He has a unique demeanor, and he’s willing to share advice that never seems judgmental or preconceived.”
In Montana’s higher elevations, golf course construction is lengthy and the season for playing is short—about 110 days a year. Amid the kaleidoscope of colors that bounce off sheer rock faces, Weiskopf loves making space for exceptional memories beyond the final scorecard, and his success at the Yellowstone Club can be measured in the more than 9,000 rounds played there annually. “The best thing about mountain courses is the exceptional views and long days,’’ he said. “You have all these animals, the elk and big horn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats and mule deer, the grizzly bears, wolves, and black bears. You never know what animal you’re going to see and how close you might get to them.”
Between recent cancer treatments, he and Laurie drove their Sprinter Van the 1,350-mile round trip to Black Desert Resort in St. George, Utah, one of his current projects. “Beauty meets playability” is its tagline, shorthand for Weiskopf’s design philosophy. “I want every golfer to be rewarded properly for a properly played shot,” he said. “I want my courses to err on the side of forgiveness [rather] than to force every player to be so precise.”
Hap and Sue Brakeley started playing Weiskopf courses like some people collect state quarters. The inspiration came from five years living next door to the Weiskopfs on a street renamed Tom’s Track. “A Weiskopf course is very approachable. It’s not trying to penalize or torment you,” said Hap, a 9.1-handicap player. “There’s always a way to get to the green.” When a good player struggles, Weiskopf takes it personally. And when Sue, a 15 handicap, found Yellowstone Club’s easiest hole too punishing, “Tom spent 20 minutes teaching me how to land my tee shot on the green, which was surrounded by hazards,” she said. “Then he left me there to hit that shot 50 more times.”
Weiskopf has a wicked sweet tooth, and the Brakeleys never minded him sneaking Sue’s homemade chocolate chip cookies, which they hope keeps his weight up during the cancer fight. The Brakeleys flew to Houston to support the Weiskopfs during treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Tom is never ‘Woe is me,’” Sue said. “He’s always, ‘Let’s go get this thing.’” Lee Levine, a close Montana golf and hunting friend of 20 years, sees Weiskopf drawing from the mental strength of all those major tournament rounds. “With golf, you’ve got to be positive that you’re going to win, that you’re going to beat this guy or that guy,” Levine said. “That’s the same mentality he has with cancer.”
Laurie Weiskopf chokes up when recalling the community support of the past year. The couple’s mountain home was no longer practical for accessing winter visits to the hospital, but the Weiskopfs had stayed in touch with the buyers of their previous home in the Gallatin Valley. Our house is your house, they told the Weiskopfs. “When we came back, we drove by the Yellowstone Club Village Club and probably 200 people were out waving flags and welcoming us,” Laurie said. “The whole community here is helping us make it through.”
The Yellowstone Club’s Ciccotti, 34, is among that community, and he grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a Weiskopf fan. It still blows his mind that he got to play his first round of golf at the Yellowstone Club with his idol. Weiskopf explained then how he manages risk and reward, and his strategy. Figuring the distance, weather and terrain, Weiskopf visualized his optimal route to the hole. After his tee shot, he recalculated the strategy and made the plan for his next shot. Rinse and repeat on every hole, every swing.
“Some players simply hit the ball as hard and far as they can, but Tom always has a reason for what he’s doing,” said Ciccotti, who understood Weiskopf’s affinity for Montana over traditional golf destinations like Florida. “People are in Big Sky because they want to be, not because they have to be,” Ciccotti said. “We’ve all chosen Montana for a reason.”
Michelle Hiskey is an Atlanta-based writer and writing coach with deep family roots in Idaho and professional golf. She attended Duke University on a golf scholarship and is working on a personal history that explores themes of competition, mental illness and evangelical Christianity. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, ESPN.com, USGA.com, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.