Rifle golf helps hunters hone their skills

(MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Shooters take aim at targets at Spirit Ridge Golf outside Tremonton.
Story by Jeff DeMoss
Standard-Examiner staff
July 4, 2012
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WHITE’S VALLEY — There isn’t much to be found out here in the way of human civilization. This remote valley northwest of Tremonton consists mainly of dry farmland, rolling hills dotted with sagebrush, some cattle and sheep, and a few scattered buildings and trailers.

A traffic jam out here is a stubborn cow in the road. But anyone who happens to find themselves northbound off of exit 32 on I-84 during the summer might hear the sound of shots ringing out over the otherwise quiet, lonesome desert. Chances are they aren’t the sounds of people hunting animals — its probably what could best be described as glorified target practice.

Many shooting enthusiasts have discovered the sport known as rifle golf. It’s set up similar to regular golf, only the holes are wooden cutouts of animals and the clubs are various types of rifles. Participants move around to different stations where seats are set up on platforms and shoot at targets ranging from about 200 to as far as 1,000 yards away.

The Spirit Ridge Rifle Golf course is the brainchild of brothers Stuart and Jeff Petersen, who started it in 2005 as a way to have more permanent targets in place.

“We were tired of having to go out and set up targets every time we wanted to shoot,” said Jeff Petersen, who manages the range along with a staff of about six others. “My brother had the golf idea, and it just grew from there.”

Spirit Ridge is located on the 10,000-acre Goring Ranch, a working sheep ranch during the spring. After the sheep are moved to higher-elevation grazing grounds, the ranch transforms into a mecca for rifle enthusiasts, who come from all over the country to experience this one-of-a-kind operation.

The course is laid out with a central “clubhouse,” which is essentially a trailer and a tent over a group of picnic tables where participants meet for lunch, basic instruction, and lively conversation with fellow shooters. There are three main stations, each with three “holes” (a single hole consists of one close-range target and one long-range); a “driving range” for warming up and practicing, and a bonus station that features a 1,000-yard “hole-in-one” target.

Instead of golf carts, shooters ride the seven-mile course on ATVs, typically taking about three and a half hours to complete it. Most bring their own, but Spirit Ridge also has several side-by-side vehicles available for rent. However, Petersen said, they don’t rent guns because of liability issues.

A full round costs $50, or $75 for those who rent a vehicle on site.

In continuing the theme of regular golf, each hole has a “par rating,” and scoring is modeled similarly, with a premium on accuracy. Unlike regular golf, however, part of a shooter’s score is based on how long it takes him or her to complete each hole.

A spotter travels with each group, which typically consists of four to eight shooters, and acts as the equivalent of a caddy. The spotter keeps a high-powered scope trained on the targets, telling shooters whether they’re too high or low, left or right, and giving pointers on how to be more on target.

The targets themselves are plywood cutouts of bears, cougars, deer, elk, moose, coyotes and other animals, painted black to provide contrast against the hillsides. Each target has a steel plate on a hinge placed where the animals’ vital organs would be, and anyone who hits the plate hears the satisfying “ping” of metal on metal.

Petersen said the experience is much different from a normal shooting range. It’s much more like an authentic hunting experience, he said, because shooters at Spirit Ridge have to account for factors such as wind and large elevation changes — factors that hunters in the field must regularly deal with.

“It’s about as authentic of an experience as you can get without actually going hunting,” he said. “This really is set up for hunters to improve their shooting skills.”

A major part of being a good hunter, he said, is being able to make a clean kill, which obviously requires accuracy, especially at long distances.

“This is about ethics training as well,” he said. “You want your kills to be as clean and fast as possible to minimize the animal’s suffering. This training helps people decide whether they should take a shot when it’s a real animal, or if they should pass it up.”

Another helpful aspect of training at Spirit Ridge is that it helps people learn to accurately judge long distances — something many hunters think they can do when they actually can’t, he added.

Spirit Ridge has also become a useful tool for people in the shooting sports industry.

Jeff Spencer, part owner of Kent Shooters Supply in Ogden, was out on the course for his third time last week. He said practicing on the course has helped him improve customer service at his store.

“It allows us to use and understand the product we sell better,” Spencer said. “For shooters, this is the ultimate in my opinion.”

Last week, the course hosted an event for Nikon, which is best known for its cameras, but is also an industry leader in rifle scopes. About 130 Nikon dealers and sales representatives from around the nation were on hand to try out the course and show off the company’s latest technology.

“This is a phenomenal place for us to come and practice using our own stuff,” said Brad Staplin, a Nikon sales representative based in Sacramento, Calif. “If we can use it, we can obviously sell it better.”

Petersen said while he would like to see more locals come try the course, focusing on large group outings and corporate events is also a priority.

“Everyone in the corporate world goes golfing,” he said. “We want to provide an environment where this feels like a gentleman’s sport. The camaraderie, the swapping of stories — it brings everyone together.”

The course is also getting in on the adventure race craze. Later this month, it will host a race similar to a biathlon on foot in which teams of two will run around the course, setting up shots without the benefit of bench stations and racing against the clock.

Petersen said people have raised concerns about the operation in terms of fire danger, especially in a dry year like this one. He said Spirit Ridge only allows lead ammunition, which disintegrates on impact and doesn’t cause a spark. The danger occurs when people use full-metal jacket ammunition or Tannerite, an explosive substance that is often attached to targets for dramatic effect.

“If you use the right ammo, fire is not really an issue,” he said. “In eight years, we’ve never had an issue.”

The staff is also careful to clear all brush from around the targets, just to be safe, he said.

He hopes to continue expanding the offerings at Spirit Ridge, including an extra long-range area where .50 caliber rifle shooters can practice shots from 1,500 to 2,000 yards away.

In the meantime, he’s just happy to see a growing interest in a sport that’s helping people become better hunters, and glad that he and his brother’s “crazy” idea is catching on so well.

“It’s kind of like Field of Dreams. Some guy builds a field out in the middle of nowhere, and people come.”

Jeff DeMoss

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