Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Bandon Dunes, and the Branson Ozarks in Missouri. To some that list of top American golf destinations may seem slightly askew. Branson Ozarks? Is that like citing Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Bart Starr, and Mitch Trubisky?
No! While this Ozarks area region in southwest Missouri doesn’t have the decades-long media-hype and established track record of the first three, in many respects it has more elements that golfers crave while taking trips. It starts with pristine topography that seemed destined for golf crafted by visionary designers such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Chuck Smith, Gary Player, Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw . . . and now Tiger Woods. It continues with scores of lodging options, hundreds of culinary venues, lakes for boating and fishing, museums, shopping, breweries and wineries, historic downtown, and dozens of live entertainment theaters.
To be concise, the Branson Ozarks is a premium place to visit, whether you’re a golfer or not.
MGM invites you to explore this rising-star golf destination, with its ideal combination of diverse yet astoundingly good courses, and off-course diversions catering to buddies’ trips, families, couples, girls’ getaways, even corporate meetings and events.
Day 1 – Checking In, Seeing Downtown
The Branson Hilton Convention Center served as our home base for five days and four nights in the heart of historic downtown Branson. The 12-story tower is highlighted by an impressive fitness center, luxurious pool, and the Level 2 Steakhouse. Not only do patrons get to choose their own knife style during the ordering process, but frequent guests get their initials carved into their blade of choice. I split the prime rib and airline fried chicken with a fellow golf writer, securing the best of both worlds. After topping it off with their legendary Butter Biscuit for dessert, I contemplated, “Why don’t I work for Midwest Culinary Magazine?”
The Hilton’s location is ideal as guests can walk two blocks to a collection of shops and restaurants that will take you back in time. Clockers Café and Dick’s 5 & 10 take you back to another time, a simpler time where pie, hot morning coffee and knick-knacks from yesteryear energize your spirit. One block in the other direction from the Hilton lies the riverfront Branson Landing, a multi-amenity place with restaurants, retail shops, even a huge water fountain area with light shows and music. Consider Black Oak Grill for a meal at the Landing. The food is as good as its location. Three blocks and a spectrum of attractions spanning from the 1950s to the brand new . . . only in Branson!
Day 2 – Big Cedar Golf is Mind-Blowing!
I had been playing this round in my head for a long time, and a four-hour round at brand-new Ozarks National did not disappoint. When golf’s greatest conservationist, Johnny Morris, pairs with golf’s greatest minimalists, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the results are breathtaking. So much so that in December, Ozarks National was named the “2019 Best New Public Course” by Golf Digest. Coore/Crenshaw somehow designed the 7,036-yard masterpiece on one ridge line after another, allowing the golfer to see 40 miles in every direction on nearly every hole.
“Our entire team put a tremendous amount of energy into Ozarks National and we are honored to be recognized as this year’s best new public course,” said Morris, Founder of Bass Pro Shops and Big Cedar Lodge. “It was so inspiring to work alongside Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who share our passion for connecting people to nature through the game of golf and other outdoor recreation activities.”
The par-5s are Ozarks National are otherworldly, including my favorite new hole of 2019, the 531-yard 11th. It’s a touch of Pinehurst in the Ozarks complete with a mogul-laden fairway and multi-tiered green. It begins a stretch of holes so pure that the experience outweighs your score.
After lunch our group toured Payne’s Valley, named in honor of golf legend Payne Stewart, an Ozarks native from nearby Springfield. (Speaking of Springfield, for those not driving, you can fly into the airport there. It’s an easy, scenic 45-minute drive to Branson.) Payne’s Valley is slated for a grand opening in mid-2020, the exact date to be finalized in coming months. The 19-hole layout – there’s an additional hole called “The Big Rock at Payne’s Valley™ (ideal for settling golf bets or adding another one!) – is Tiger Woods’ first public course offering. Showcasing the Ozarks’ natural beauty – something Morris has been doing in an unparalleled way for decades – Payne’s Valley is intended to connect more people to nature through golf, while providing a first-class layout that may someday host a professional tournament.
The walkable course is challenging yet player friendly thanks to wide landing areas, large putting surfaces, and graduated rough lines. Golfers will also find an unforgettable finish as they traverse through a breathtaking natural cave system to return to the clubhouse upon completion of their round. I have a sneaking suspicion that Payne’s Valley will join Ozarks National in the Best New Public Course category this coming December.
One of the most unique experiences at Big Cedar Golf is Gary Player’s Mountain Top Golf Course. A 13-hole, walking-only par-3 course, the 1,912-yard layout takes players on a memorable golf routing through millions-year-old exposed limestone formations (they are as geologically astounding as the golf holes are ingenious).
Player describes his creation perfectly by saying, “We’ve built hundreds of courses over the years, but never one as drastically stunning as this. The transitions between wonderful rock formations and magnificent views make this a true national treasure.”
As golf travelers know, the perfect way to end an epic day on the course is by enjoying an equally amazing meal, and every night in Branson we succeeded. Italian was the nationality of choice this night as our group reveled in salads, bread, pizzas, and pasta dishes at Florentina’s, a few blocks from Thousand Hills Golf Resort.
Day 3 – Branson Courses are Full of Value & Variety
One of the best Branson Ozarks courses is LedgeStone Country Club, a Tom Clark design, rated the sixth-best public course in Missouri by Golfweek. Located in StoneBridge Village, dramatic is the best word to describe the 6,881-yard, par-71 gem. Golfers are greeted with distinctive elevation change, water features, and undulating terrain throughout. The natural elements stand out on Ledgestone’s dynamic collection of par-3s. Even from the blue tees (6,420-yards), three of the four “one-shotters” measure 170 yards or more and require forced carries over a ravine or water hazard.
Our afternoon round took us to Thousand Hills, formerly rated “The World’s Best Par-64 Course.” Thanks to a recent lengthening project, it can now be known as “The World’s Best Par-66 Course.” Hole nos. 16 and 18 have been converted from par-4s to par-5s to form even a sterner test of enjoyable golf. Don’t let the par par-66 status fool you; this Bob Cupp designed course isn’t gimmicky or less satisfying than a par-72 routing. The 5,111-yard parkland layout is the closest course to downtown Branson, yet while playing it you feel miles away from the hustle and bustle. Half of the holes are par-3s that play from 205 to 102 yards based upon the tee box you choose. And there are par-4s and par-5s that demand your best. Some holes require forced carries over a meandering creek that winds through the property and is often bordered by stunning ravines. Thousand Hills rates can’t be beat, including their $29 replay rate. I recommend using their one to four-bedroom, golf-front condos as home base for your trip. They also debuted new 7- and 10-room cabins last year; they are perfect for larger group golf getaways.
Our Branson culinary tour continued with a stop at Danna’s, Branson’s most legendary BBQ establishment. You stand in line to order and then take your food to picnic tables with red & white tablecloths filled with multiple sauces and fixings. This is southern BBQ at its finest! So much so that one of the writers on our trip, Larry Olmsted, is writing about Danna’s in his “Great American Bites” column in USA TODAY. Look for that to be published in the near future.
DAY 4 – Ending our Trip on a High Note
Golfweek has rated Branson Hills Golf Club the first- or second-best golf course in the state every year since 2012, an impressive run that speaks to its outstanding quality. The 7,324-yard, Chuck Smith/Bobby Clampett design is the type of course you plan your entire trip around, making sure you play it at least twice during your visit. While many aspects stand out at the course (formerly named Payne Stewart Golf Club), General Manager Dan Davis succinctly describes its competitive advantages.
“Branson Hills has flourished by never losing sight of who we are and who our customers are,” began Davis. “Even though we are classified as a public course we try to give every customer the feeling of belonging to a club. We still have several staff members that have been here since the grand opening over 10 years ago and we have built relationships with many of our guests. At Branson Hills we feel as if the ‘experience’ is as important as the quality of the greens. This may be the best course our guests have ever played and we want the overall experience to live up to that level as well,” finished Davis.
Finishing with a Bang
What I love most about the Branson Ozarks golf destination – in addition to the fact that all the courses are proximate to one another – is that we played 94 holes over six different venues and no two experiences were alike. The most unique is definitely up for debate, and some media members on our trip ranked our final round – at Big Cedar Lodge’s Top of The Rock – as their most memorable. Designed by Nicklaus, the par-3, 9-hole course is gorgeous, challenging, and perched overlooking Table Rock Lake. If you go, check out the sunset views there. A Scottish bagpiper will be playing, and a Civil War era cannon will be fired by “soldiers” dressed in period uniforms. Morris tasked Arnold Palmer to build an adjacent practice facility of epic proportion. The result is a 1,200-acre synthetic turf paradise that features 10 target greens and a cascading waterfall. There is nothing like it anywhere. Fantastic! Plus, Top of The Rock patrons can take a 30-minute golf cart cave tour before or after their round that is included with their greens fee.
The anatomy of a top-end golf destination can be as complicated as the human body. Both must have heart, soul, and solid bones. With Big Cedar Golf and its five courses leading the way, coupled with Branson Golf’s five other good to great courses, this place is definitely worth visiting. I can unequivocally say the Branson area passes the eye test with perfect 2020 vision. Put it on your must-play list for this year. You’ll be thrilled you did. For more information on Branson and the Ozarks region, visit www.Facebook.com/BransonGolf and www.explorebranson.com.