A Utah company has purchased The Ranch Club on Mullan Road, and it has a Montana native bubbling.

“We’re excited to be a part of Missoula,” said Walt Willey, president of Vanguard Golf Management and a resident of Hamilton.

Vanguard, Utah’s largest golf management company, finalized the purchase of the 18-hole, par 72 course at the semi-private Ranch Club from a subsidiary of First Interstate Bank on Friday. It announced the deal via a news release Wednesday afternoon.

Willey said the beauty of the course and its “remarkable golf” drew Vanguard to buy its fourth course in the West. Two are in Utah and the other is in Mesquite, Nevada.

“We’re always looking (for more), but we’ve turned down a lot of courses,” said Willey, who owns Vanguard with its founder, Mark Whetzel, and Brandon Howard, both of Salt Lake City. “We only get involved with the kind of courses that we like – high-end, resort-style courses. We’re kind of picky.”

Willey, 51, is a fifth-generation Montanan who grew up in Polson and Hamilton and owns cattle ranches in the Big Hole Valley. He played basketball at North Idaho College but switched to tennis after a knee injury, transferring to the University of Montana in the mid-1980s. That’s where he met his wife, UM volleyball hall of famer Cindy Pitzinger.

Theirs is an athletic family. Son McCoy is a golfer at Utah State after spending a year at Brigham Young University. Daughter McKenzie was a heavily recruited high school All-American volleyball player who chose Arizona State, where she’s a sophomore.

Washington Corp. began construction of the course, clubhouse and restaurant originally known as Phantom Hills in 2002. John and Colleen Powers renamed it the Ranch Club when they took over in 2007. They relinquished ownership to First Interstate three years ago. Willey said it’s been managed by a San Diego company since then.

"We were playing golf up here last summer when we found out it was for sale," he said. "It's taken eight or nine months to put this deal together."

Vanguard bought the “business” end of the club: the clubhouse, liquor license, golf course, fitness center and swimming pool. A group of local investors, DAFJ Enterprises, bought the 175-lot real estate portion and will soon start on two new phases of that development.

A new indoor hitting facility built for the UM golf team was recently completed at the course. The 1,500-square-foot steel structure, the only one in the Big Sky Conference, features chipping and putting areas and four heated hitting bays that open onto the outdoor driving range.

Willey said Vanguard plans to enlarge the restaurant/clubhouse and bring in a new menu line. It’ll also relocate and enlarge the golf shop. Both improvements should be finished by the end of 2015.

Otherwise, don’t look for many changes.

“We’ve always said what’s not broke don’t fix it,” said Willey. “They’ve had good success out here. Membership continues to grow and flourish. The staff out here is exceptional and they’ve had good member support.”

Club members have the use of the indoor facility when the Grizzlies aren’t there, one of the perks of membership. But Willey emphasized that The Ranch Club course and restaurant are open to anybody.

“It is semi-private but public play is allowed, which a lot of people don’t know,” he said. “Mention the word ‘club’ at the end of something and everybody thinks that means exclusive.”

The Ranch Club course rambles over 343 open acres of ranchland that can be played from 5,096 yards to 7,020 yards. Earlier this year, Golfweek magazine ranked it No. 3 in Montana, behind the Wilderness Club of Montana in Eureka and Old Works in Anaconda.

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