BIG CEDAR LODGE
The geographical center of the United States golf map would have to be pretty close to Branson, Missouri. Incidentally the flight times from Los Angeles, New York City and Miami to Branson differ by less than five minutes — 7 hours from each — and the drive to Branson is nearly the same from both Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago — again only about 7 hours. So, I’m sure you’re wondering …
In roughly the middle of everywhere, is there any good golf in Branson?
IS THERE GOOD GOLF IN BRANSON?
It’s a rhetorical question. Yes, there is good golf in Branson. But, better yet, there is also world-class golf in Branson. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Branson, Missouri is home to three of America’s greatest golf courses built by three of the country’s most legendary architectural teams—Tom Fazio, Coore & Crenshaw and Tiger Woods—and a pair of epic, picturesque short courses built by Masters starters Gary Player and (a guy named) Jack Nicklaus.
Sounds like a lot of amazing golf for a town with a population of only thirteen thousand, doesn’t it? Begs the question, “Is there a smaller town in America with more, better golf?” Those in the know will throw out names like “Bandon, Oregon” and “Nekoosa, Wisconsin,” and rightfully so. But the point is this …
Sometimes the best golf in America is found in the places you’d literally least expect.
I sure never expected the “Mini-Golf Capital of the Midwest” and/or “Las Vegas of the Midwest” to become a golf mecca like Pinehurst and Pebble Beach. But, Branson Missouri has done just that. It has become exactly that. Thanks to the vision and indefinite investment of Bass Pro Shops owner, Johnny Morris, Branson not only has five incredible golf experiences, but a world-class resort with several one-of-a-kind amenities perfectly complementing historic contributions from many of the game’s greatest legends.
“Heaven on earth,” was how Johnny Morris succinctly described Big Cedar Lodge the one and only time I met him. What began as a Fish Camp on Table Rock Lake for dozens way back in the 70’s officially became a resort in 1988 that now hosts some 600,000 guests a year. Mr. Morris had everything built with a nostalgic theme, intent on taking everyone back to their hunting, fishing and camping days, with rustic, stone fireplaces, hand-carved everything, and bridges and streams crisscrossing pretty much everywhere.
I’ve never seen a resort property like it … never seen hand-carved bridges so beautiful … never driven through so many streams … never seen a more stunning lake sunset than those over Table Rock from the summit of Mr. Morris’s magnificent property. The main resort property is loaded with lodges, cottages and cabins, restaurants, shops, pools, mini-golf and so many other adventurous amenities.
There’s no descriptor that would be hyperbole at Big Cedar Lodge … not one. Whether or not it has the best courses in the country, Big Cedar Lodge is the golfer’s Disneyland, with its own versions of rides like It’s a Small World (Mountain Top) and Splash Mountain (Payne’s Valley Hole 19). Safe to say, for many a visitor, this collection of supernatural roller coasters is the Happiest Golf Place on Earth.
I’ve also heard it described as a Ritz Cracker — the perfect blend of Ritz-Carlton and Cracker Barrel. I laughed when I first heard it, but now share that analogy with everyone because it makes so much sense. It’s an exclusive “Discovery Land Company experience” but for the public golfer, with service, conditions and comfort stations few other places on the planet afford the everyday player.
Off the main resort property, you can stay in the most luxurious of accommodations — in a villa with a private putting course atop Tiger’s new creation (adjacent the otherworldly 19th hole) — or stay in a hotel room 4 miles down the road at The Angler’s Lodge. Both options allow guests to book scarce summer tee times far in advance, and to get free shuttles to/from the courses. They’re adding new lodging options and (one would expect) probably even more golf. But, even if they didn’t, you probably wouldn’t ask for more. Not if you were aware of everything they already have.
Bandon’s Preserve is, hands down, my favorite short course in America, and (being an ocean guy) I also consider it the most scenic. That said, there is no more diversely stunning par 3 course in the country than the 9-hole one adjacent the Big Cedar Lodge resort property, at Top of the Rock. (It’s even hosted the PGA Tour.) Hole after remarkable hole Jack Nicklaus capitalized on dramatic backdrops from Ozark cliffs, waterfalls and lakes to one of the most beautiful chapels you’ll find, and complemented those dramatic features with a fun golf playground that isn’t easy, but sure is easy on the eyes.
ARNOLD PALMER, TOO
As a bonus, guests visiting Top of the Rock can have dinner in Arnie’s Barn — a replica of the barn from Arnold Palmer’s hometown in Latrobe, Pennsylvania — catch the clifftop sunset cannon ceremony, and/or take a 2.5-mile cart ride through the tunnels and crevices of the Lost Canyon and Nature Trail. All together it’s an out-of-this-world “golf” experience.
And that’s just the beginning. The rest of the Big Cedar Lodge golf experience isn’t quite “next door,” but every self-respecting golfer appreciates a great drive. Am I right? Only seven scenic miles from the main resort, the other four golf experiences each carve their own unique niche on the memorable scale.
The first course you come to on Branson Creek Road is Tom Fazio’s Buffalo Ridge. My favorite course at Big Cedar, favorite public Tom Fazio course in the country, and a course I rank among my Top 25 ever played (of 648), I shot my lowest round of the last decade on this course last year (a 75) with 12 consecutive pars to start the round (Yay!) but also a 10 on Hole 14 (Boo!). I love it for the beauty and serenity, but most of all for the diversity.
The course has a little bit of everything — including roaming bison — with a topographical gamut that’s hard to believe. It was the original championship course at Big Cedar Lodge, and used to be the downhill neighbor of John Daly’s Murder Rock (golf course). Now uphill from Buffalo Ridge — instead of one Murder Rock — you’ll find Big Cedar’s newest three courses: Ozarks National, Mountain Top and Payne’s Valley.
Ozarks National was built by the talented tag team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. These masterful manipulators of turf created a course on a plateau that plays unlike any of their other mainland courses I’ve seen. One of the greatest compliments I can give the course (and the architects) is that it feels like that course has been there for 100 years. The views from the fairways and greens are astonishing. It played the hardest of all the Big Cedar courses to me, but not because the course itself was at all unfair.
“It’s almost feels like a Midwest version of Kapalua,” my son said, as we faced another blind shot. “Certainly a course you’d understand a lot more a second time around.”
He’s basically saying where the other courses at Big Cedar roll everything out in front of you, Coore & Crenshaw keep some secrets, and make you do some guessing. “The best part about it,” my son adds, “is that it’s completely different from everything else here.”
Different in a really good way.
TIGER’S FIRST PUBLIC COURSE
That was Tiger’s goal when he walked the grounds with Johnny Morris, visualizing what would be his first public golf offering in the United States. “I want it to be different … one of a kind,” Tiger told Johnny Morris. “Likewise,” Mr. Morris agreed, with his preference leaning towards “epic.”
It most definitely is that.
The course was built to honor the late local legend, Payne Stewart, and Tiger Woods was given the most scenic piece of golf land Mr. Morris owned (far as we know). Tiger wasted none of that incredible setting, producing a course that impresses from the clubhouse all the way through the bridge behind the 19th green.
Every minute of the Payne’s Valley experience impacts you in some sensory way. There’s plenty of visual stimulation from the scenery on all the elevated tees, and lots of photographic moments, especially on the Par 3 10th after an enjoyable comfort station stop. You’ll spend lots of time in nature, with no homes on the property, so that serenity is surprisingly impactful. All around, it’s just an enjoyable loop. Tiger gave the golfer 85 acres of fairways to hit, making it easier and more fun for most players playing from the proper tees, so there’s that, too. I have no complaints and nothing but praise — even beyond the golf. The cart ride alone is a stunning one, especially when you do finally get to that signature 19th.
The 19th Hole on Payne’s Valley isn’t a bar/restaurant like most 19th holes. At Payne’s Valley the bar/restaurant is technically the 20th Hole. The 19th at Payne’s Valley actually sits a couple hundred feet under the clubhouse, and is an island green experience unlike any on earth. Designed by Mr. Morris himself, this hole was literally carved out of a mountain of rocks. He called it “Big Rock,” and it features a green surrounded by a pond and massive granite walls, with tunnels and bridges providing for “wow factor” on arrival at the tee and “holy cow factor” until the green finally disappears from view. Mr. Morris not only doesn’t do anything halfway … he doesn’t stop at all the way. He literally moves mountains to go above and beyond.
“That kind of stuff sticks with ya,” our playing partner said.
Ya. It shore does.
LONG AND THE SHORT
Big Cedar has a second Short Course — this one sharing a clifftop clubhouse with Payne’s Valley and the massive Tom Watson Putting Course. Mountain Top is a 13-hole, walking-only Par 3 course, loaded with fun and stunning scenery. Similar to Tiger, Gary Player didn’t waste a foot of the incredible landscape, building holes that climbed and fell, twisted and turned, meandered along sheer drop-offs, through limestone canyons and across iron bridges. Had it not been dark when we finished we’d have gone right back out and around again. It was that much fun.
I sought out Matt McQueary, Big Cedar’s Director of Sales and Marketing, to thank him for the opportunity to visit again. “Worth the drive?” he asked. At fifteen hours from home I’d gladly drive twice that for the Big Cedar experience. “Every time,” I replied. “That was crazy awesome.”
The whole place is crazy awesome.
I can’t think of a more diverse collection of stunning golf scenery anywhere in the country. In fact, by the time you’ve seen all the courses at Big Cedar the only thing that surprises you is that you haven’t seen the ocean on any of them.
That might literally be the only thing that Big Cedar lacks.
Challenge extended, Mr. Morris.
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