GREAT FALLS – If you have been playing golf at Meadow Lark Country Club the past 40 years — as this writer has — the phrase “winter golf” has been more of a fantasy than a reality.

To be sure, there have been a few Christmas Eve afternoons when a chinook wind softened the course enough to play a chilly round, and I actually witnessed a hole-in-one by one of my best friends on New Year’s Day more than a decade ago. But even during the mildest of Great Falls winters, the turf was usually frozen and the quality of the golf experience was marginal, at best.

“Let’s face it, golf is a six-month sport in Montana and other northern climes,” said Scott Longenecker, head golf professional at MLCC. “There are years when the hard-core golfers can play a few times from November through February, but not everyone is willing to brave those conditions.

“That’s why we felt we had to do something to offer our members more value for their membership.”

MLCC’s cure for a lack of winter golf opportunities proved to be the introduction of the simulator, a computer-based technology that’s been around for 40 years but has gained great popularity in Montana over the past decade or so. Longenecker, in fact, has promoted the use of simulators since 2009, when he was head pro at the public Bill Roberts Golf Course in Helena.

Longenecker was hired at Meadow Lark in the fall of 2020, replacing veteran pro Dudley Beard, who had served for 34 years. In early 2021, he ordered the club’s first simulator, which was installed in a meeting room on the second floor of the clubhouse.

Many of the early machine users were golfers taking lessons from the professionals or trying out new golf clubs. The MLCC board of directors noted the popularity of the simulator and made the bold decision to make a major investment in facilities and equipment.

The club not only purchased two more commercial-quality simulators — at a cost of about $60,000 apiece — but a new addition to the clubhouse was constructed to house the sophisticated equipment. The entire project cost upwards of $500,000, but usage has been so high this winter that revenue projections have already been exceeded.

“Our food and beverage business was up more than 30 percent over last December, and this will be our busiest January ever,” Longenecker said. “It’s important to incorporate the simulator next to food and beverage to maximize revenue and member satisfaction.”

The club charges $20 per hour for simulator use, and many men and women signed up for a league that quickly reached a limit of 80 two-person teams. On a recent January day, the club took in $700 in simulator fees. The simulators are available 12 hours a day (9 a.m.-9 p.m.) so all time slots except one were reserved.

The Full Swing brand simulators at Meadow Lark feature include a 13-by-16-foot screen, an artificial-turf teeing and putting area and a battery of environmental sensors in the screens. Golfers use their own clubs and golf balls to hit shots into the screen, which depict actual golf holes.

More than 75 different courses – including scenic layouts such as Pebble Beach in California – can be dialed up.

Computer software tracks each shot and calculates the expected trajectory of the golf ball, as well as factors such as clubhead speed, ball speed and distance, and path of the shot.

“More information than most golfers need to know,” Longenecker said.

He said pitch shots, plus chipping and putting, continue to be the most challenging part of the sport for most simulator users.

Just like for most outdoor golfers.

“The game may be a little harder for feel-based players than the analytical players who use yardage devices,” he added. “There’s a learning curve (for scoring) but by the end of the league season we’ll see better scores.”

The 80 teams have the same tee time each week and will play 9-hole matches for nine weeks, and there will be a potential four-week playoff season for the top teams. The league winners will be paid in golf shop merchandise.

Longenecker also noted that beginning golfers can benefit from starting their careers on the simulator. He said if new golfers can finish 18 holes in one hour on the simulator, they should be ready to keep up their pace of play once they go outdoors.

While Meadow Lark was late to the simulator party, two other Great Falls businesses have been offering indoor golf for several years.

The Golf Room has one machine and opened about six years ago in a westside strip mall. The Canyonville Golf Club, owned by John Potter and his family, has been operating downtown on the second floor of the old Strain Building for about five years.

Both businesses are subscription-based and offer different levels of memberships.

“We probably have about 200 members and are a lot busier in the winter, of course,” Potter said. Golfers can reserve tee times up online at the Canyonville web site, and there’s also has a 12-team league sponsored by the Mighty Mo brewery.

Statewide, simulators are common in most major markets such as Helena, Missoula, Billings, Bozeman and Butte, and even in smaller cities such as Shelby, Polson, Whitefish and Stevensville. Most are located at golf courses, but a few are operated as private businesses off-site.

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George Geise

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