By: Andrew Penner
The very first hole I played on my recent trip to Branson, Missouri – a sneaky-tough 170-yard par-3 on the Jack Nicklaus-designed Top of the Rock course at Big Cedar Lodge – was definitely a highlight. With a cool wind whipping off Table Rock Lake and the small, undulating green sitting snug between a Civil War-era cabin and a yawning snow-white bunker, I really had no clue what club to hit. I selected a six-iron and, after a couple of waggles, hoisted one up into the swirling wind. I pulled it well left of the green but my ball took a couple of hard-right hops and rolled to within a foot of the cup. A tap-in birdie. And one of many memorable moments from my trip to the awesome Ozarks.
Big Cedar Lodge. Remember that name. If you’re a traveling golf connoisseur, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of it. Perched on a beautiful bench high above Table Rock Lake just south of Branson – and boasting, perhaps, the most stunning setting for golf in the entire Midwest – this is a resort, a golf destination, unlike anything else in North America. And it belongs on your bucket list.
There are not many golf resorts in the world that are on the move, building courses, buying courses, and attracting some of the biggest names in golf. But Big Cedar Lodge (www.bigcedar.com) – now one of the favorite stops on the PGA Tour Champions – is doing all of this and more. Although the existing golf – a spectacular 9-hole par-3 course by Jack Nicklaus, an outstanding championship course by Tom Fazio, and a super-scenic 13-hole short course by Gary Player – is more than enough to get you there now, upcoming courses by Coore & Crenshaw (Ozarks National will open late 2018) and Tiger Woods (Payne’s Valley will open in 2019) will ensure you’ll have this place on your radar for years to come.
However, while Big Cedar Lodge is, without a doubt, the star attraction (from a golfer’s perspective) in the Branson area, there are a couple other rock-solid courses to play when visiting this history-rich place. Both Branson Hills GC (a beauty and beast of a course designed by Chuck Smith and Bobby Clampett) and Ledgestone CC (a semi-private parkland course with dramatic elevation changes) are definitely worth a visit. When you consider this compelling collection of courses, Branson is, rightfully, touted as one of the best up and coming golf destinations in North America.
Of course, Branson, which is dubbed “The Live Entertainment Capital of the World,” has been luring tourists for decades. While gambling and risque shows are a definite no-go in Branson (think of it as a “clean,” family-friendly version of Las Vegas), there are dozens of musical shows, comedy shows, theme parks, roadside thrill rides, and various other tourist attractions that cater to the masses. www.explorebranson.com
Silver Dollar City – a redneck “Disneyland,” of sorts – is also highly recommended if you’re hankering for some more hillbilly hullabaloo. With a number of wild roller-coasters, western saloons, BBQ cookshacks, the incredible Marvel Cave (the oldest tourist attraction in the Ozarks), and, of course, back porch bluegrass bands, Silver Dollar City was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my trip to Branson.
While hillbilly culture is certainly a theme in Branson (after all, this is the homeland of The Beverly Hillbillies), the human history here goes back a lot further than the early European immigrants who wandered here in the mid-1800s. The Osage Indians, for example, have called the Ozarks home for thousands of years. And, interestingly, this rich Native American history is, in a very compelling way, honored and celebrated at Big Cedar Lodge.
The founder of Big Cedar Lodge, Johnny Morris (owner of Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s), is, among many things, a passionate proponent of Native American culture. He also owns one of the largest collections of Native American artifacts in the world. And, located at the Top of the Rock clubhouse, the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum is your opportunity to view it. Although I only spent an hour, give or take, in the museum, you’d really need a couple of days to fully appreciate this awesome collection.
But when you consider the phenomenal golf options at Big Cedar Lodge, a three-day stay should be the bare minimum. The additional first-class amenities, activities, and fantastic food and beverage options are another vacation in their own right. So, suffice to say, the rustic lakeside cabins are beautiful. And the food (dinner at Osage Restaurant is a must) is exceptional at all eight of the restaurants.
And the golf? Well, where do we start? Although the Jack Nicklaus-designed Top of the Rock par-3 course is the showpiece right at the resort (the driving range might be the most visually impressive amenity of all!), the bulk of the golf is located on another site just ten minutes away.
In 2013, Morris, eager to expand his world-class golfing and fishing stronghold, purchased an existing Tom Fazio course called Branson Creek Golf Club. He promptly closed it, worked closely with the original architect, Tom Fazio, and gave it a complete overhaul. He also renamed it Buffalo Ridge Springs. The end result? It’s a stunner. Easily one of the best courses I played in 2017. Featuring stunning vistas, dramatic elevation changes, gorgeous bunkering, and a smooth-flowing route that incorporates the best that this rolling site has to offer (including actual buffalo), Buffalo Ridge will “wow” you from start to finish.
But Morris was – and is – far from done. Just up the hill, the newly-opened Mountain Top course – a 13-hole par-3 course designed by Gary Player – is unlike anything out there…anywhere. Incorporating eye-popping rock formations, panoramic Ozark Mountain views, and a contemporary architectural style complete with wild contours, striking white-sand bunkers, and a dizzying variety of shot options, the family-friendly, walking-only layout is, for a short course, one of the most creative and enjoyable concoctions I’ve ever played.
But Morris has, most likely, saved the best for last. The next two courses will, most definitely, catapult Big Cedar Lodge into rarefied air. After all, there is no resort in the world that boasts courses by Player, Nicklaus, Fazio, Coore/Crenshaw, and Tiger Woods.
Located on rocky and rolling terrain on either side of Mountain Top, the two upcoming courses certainly come with high expectations. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have designed some of the best new courses in the world in the past two decades. And the site they were given has plenty of bold natural features that they’ve dutifully incorporated. The course is scheduled to open in late 2018.
And, last but not least, Tiger’s course – called “Payne’s Valley,” in honor of the late Payne Stewart – will parade through a rocky, tree-peppered valley and has enormous potential for jaw-dropping golf.
On my recent visit, while playing the adjacent Mountain Top course, I stole many views of these upcoming courses and pondered the possibilities. Distant views of the Ozarks, the city of Branson, and the surrounding hillsides were mesmerizing. And I couldn’t help but think I was treading on ground that is – or would soon be! – considered one of the finest golf destinations in North America.