“I like adventures, and I’m going to find some.”
That line from novelist, writer and poet Louisa May Alcott is framed atop an old wooden chest in unit 203 at the Holiday Hills Resort in Branson. For any guest who arrives at this cozy Airbnb rental in the woods, it speaks volumes.
The final stretch of U.S. Highway 65 into the historic southwestern Missouri town really sets the stage. There is a bombardment of billboards promoting musical shows and fun family activities. The drive coasts down and grinds up for long stretches. It bends at times around and through impressive limestone rock formations. The Ozarks is truly one of those special landscapes of America where the experience can feel awe-inspiring at so many spots – even in a car.
Perhaps that is why Midwest Golfing Magazine (MGM) this spring chose to make another road trip to the region. There were stops in Abraham Lincoln’s adopted hometown (Springfield, Illinois) and at the World’s Largest Gift Shop (Phillipsburg, Missouri) on the way. There was an intense hailstorm and driving rain to dodge coming back. In between was a golf experience that did so much more than awaken the senses from winter hibernation. It satisfied on many levels. It was about discovery and reflection. It was about connection – both human and to nature – just as founder Johnny Morris (of Bass Pro Shops fame) had envisioned.
Golf has never been more of an adventure than it is at Big Cedar Lodge, America’s Premier Wilderness Resort (www.bigcedar.com), which is home to five courses and what appears to be another on the way. Stay tuned.
Finding Ben’s Torture Tee
Chris sure seems like he has one of the best jobs in the world. The retiree had a successful career in IT for AT&T and chooses to spend his “golden years” as a starter for golf groups at Big Cedar. He is one of the rare few that have a residence on the Big Cedar grounds, just off the Buffalo Ridge Springs Course. As he talks about this environment just off the first tee, the smile never leaves his face – even on a chilly, overcast day with stiff winds that would have some looking for the nearest wood-burning fireplace. And there are many of those at Big Cedar, creating a campfire smell seemingly everywhere.
There is genuineness to Chris’ words and purity to the grounds he works on. Ozarks National (2019) is the most natural of the courses at Big Cedar which should come as no surprise given that its designers – the famed duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw – have made a name for themselves with such a minimalist approach. The big sweeping fairways define tee shots and the routing plays along long ridgelines. Many of the bunkers are built into those ridgelines, too, and select oaks give the course a sharp look. The conditions on the Zoysia grass play like links golf. The wind is a big factor, too, which is the norm. Branson is at about 800 feet elevation and the course is at about 1,300 feet. Multiple water towers for the surrounding communities can be seen from various vantage points on the course. Luckily the sheets of rain in the distance on this day never quite hit the golfers. But summer storm fronts and sunsets can be almost biblical.
Phil Mickelson once shot 61 at Ozarks National en route to winning his first PGA Tour Champions start ever in 2020. That round included a bogey on the par-5 ninth hole and a 29 on the second nine which is tougher (one stroke less to par) and longer than the opening nine (by over 300 yards). No word on whether Mickelson scarfed down a bison dog at the turn station but the mid-round “snack” is a must. Big Cedar’s version of a “hot dog” is included with any round at the Resort and can only be found there. According to Matt McQueary, Big Cedar’s Director of Golf Sales and Marketing, it comes from a local farm nearby that the Resort owns and is not yet available for commercial sale.
Unfortunately, the bison dog at the turn did little to keep a solid opening nine going considering it was MGM’s first round of the 2023 season in the Midwest. The stretch from holes 11-14 is particularly memorable – No. 11, a par-5 with its strategically-positioned tall pines, No. 12, a par-3 with a carry over a ravine to a massive green and No. 13, a par-4 that has maybe the prettiest tee shot to a wildly-sloping fairway that slings around the corner of a ravine.
Coming off the green at No. 13 there is a small sign that can be easy to miss. It hides off to the left in the wispy grass when the path to the 14th tee is straight ahead. But MGM ventured over to take a look and saw the old slab of wood that read in painted letters: “Ben’s Torture Tee.” The story goes that Crenshaw, on a visit, found an additional line to play the 14th from as he was admiring the views all around him. He and Coore never put an actual tee box there and that is probably a good thing. A long par-4, the hole is difficult enough with a beautiful reveal from the fairway of an infinity green set against the valley.
Ben’s alternate tee would require a mighty blow and a forced carry. And maybe another bison dog to get to the finish line.
Marveling at the Cathedral of Nature
There are so many spectacular views and vistas at Big Cedar Golf that it would be almost impossible to pick just one. There are many opinions and none of them are wrong.
How about the wide lens view from the Payne’s Valley clubhouse bridge? With the diabolical finishing par-3 at Mountain Top just below and the panorama of several holes at Payne’s Valley, where the golf carts look like ants?
Perhaps the view of the 15th hole at Buffalo Ridge Springs and its waterfalls from the vantage point of the 16th hole at Payne’s Valley high above?
Or maybe when first-time visitors drive into the main golf grounds and the setting from the 18th and 19th holes at Payne’s Valley reveals itself for the first time? (More on those holes later).
Perhaps because it was the last hole MGM played on the trip, the finisher of Jack Nicklaus’ Top of the Rock nine-hole short course burned a lasting image. A Stonehenge-like entry way to the back tee box frames a heavenly image – lush grass, three popping bunkers, a green just mown in orderly stripes, and a backdrop of Table Rock Lake and the Ozark Mountains. It felt a little like being transported to Lake Tahoe and the temperatures were warming up to match.
Top of the Rock was the site of the only golf at Big Cedar three decades ago before it became a major golf destination. That was back when the Resort was known almost solely as a wilderness and nature getaway. Nicklaus eventually re-designed Top of the Rock for a 2014 opening. It now serves as a much different but perfect complement to Mountain Top (2017), the 13-hole Gary Player short course also at the Resort. Top of the Rock has a medieval feel to it at points including a stone walkway to the island green at No. 6. It also buts up against the Chapel of the Ozarks (at the highest point in Taney County) and the “clubhouse” which houses the golf shop, Osage Restaurant, the Buffalo Bar and Arnie’s Barn.
MGM joined Cliff (from Iowa) and Steve (from Wisconsin) for a loop at Top of the Rock. The retired pair came to Branson with their wives for reasons other than golf. But they had not played since the prior season in their home states and wanted to get in a quick nine. They checked in at the golf shop and wanted to use the range to shake off the rust but found out there was no range. They thought that was strange being such a highly-touted golf destination. Instead they were told, “Here’s where the range used to be,” as they were directed to look out a window.
What was one of the most dramatic practice facilities anywhere – with multiple greens, bunkers, ledges and water features – essentially got swallowed up by a sinkhole in 2015. Forget the Golf Channel, the sinkhole made the national news. It could have been a disaster for the budding golf destination but instead became “The Cathedral of Nature.” Remnants of two greens and a few bunkers remain on one side of the massive sinkhole as excavation crews have uncovered rock formations that look like an underground fantasy world had existed there. A new cavern was found, too, as crews continue digging and shaping with a potential new adventure for guests a possibility there.
The sinkhole as it appears now has a calling sort of like that of the Grand Canyon. Onlookers cannot help but sit and stare and wonder. According to the Big Cedar web site, the sinkhole is 350 feet wide, 600 feet long and 200 feet deep. It certainly is no joke unlike at least one other presentation at Big Cedar.
The Most Humorous Entrance in Golf?
The wooden beam entryway to the Buffalo Ridge Springs Course is like that of national park or a campground. Just below the overhead sign that reads “Buffalo Ridge Springs Course” (accompanied with a logo of a bison) hangs another smaller sign. It reads, “Welcome Fishermen, Golfers and Other Liars.” That sign was handpicked by Morris after he once heard the biggest liars were fishermen and golfers. He makes a compelling point.
The course itself is maybe the most exacting on the Big Cedar property. It has a home-on-the-range feel right down to the herds that roam the prairies on the perimeter of the course. Tom Fazio and Morris collaborated to renovate the layout about 10 years ago (it was formerly known as Branson Hills before Big Cedar’s golf explosion) “to bring players in close contact with nature, native grasses and free-ranging buffalo from nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park.” It has some of the most impressive covered bridges and water features and even a few rocking chairs along the way. Holes 14 and 15 may be the most memorable back-to-back holes at all of the 18-hole routings at Big Cedar. Hole 14 is a true three-shot par-5 with a stream running down the entire right side before cutting in front of a table-top green. Hole 15, a par-4, begins with a dramatic downhill tee shot to a narrow fairway. A series of waterfalls serve as the hazard along the entire right side of the hole before finishing to a green adjacent to a wall of limestone.
On the second to last day of the trip, MGM joined Jeff (from Arkansas) and Shawn (from Missouri) and Jeff’s retired dad. Striding to the blue tee box at No. 18, a 548-yard behemoth with a huge section of the Ozark Mountain valley running the left side (not to mention 11 bunkers), the flagstick looks like it is hanging on the edge of a cliff in the distance. Just then, the famous Robin Williams line in his assessment of a golf hole comes to mind… “Right near the end, (they) put a flat piece with a little flag to give you (expletive) hope.”
No words could have been more fitting to that sight (not to mention a few other cliffhangers at Big Cedar). And from that final green, about a mile away across the valley, was a clear view of the finishing holes at Payne’s Valley as the sun was going down.
The Most Spectacular Exit in Golf
When Tiger Woods and TGR Design got the nod from Morris several years ago to design Woods’ first fully public-access course a 19-hole routing was not really on the radar. But Morris took an opportunity to create an “extra” hole to Tiger’s 18-hole plan that puts an exclamation point on any round at Payne’s Valley (2020).
An island green on its own, surrounded by a pristine pool of water, would have been a spine-tingling finish. But Morris went to extreme measures for a hole – “The Big Rock at Payne’s Valley” – that is likely the most famous and photographed at Big Cedar. The setting is almost mythical (think Roman Coliseum) in a massive blown out area against a 200-foot limestone cliff that creates a stadium feel. There are waterfalls of all sizes – including a big one in line behind the green – creating ambient noise. The multiple tee boxes sit on an outcropping right in the middle of the natural wonder. And there is even an outdoor bar off to the side (a second 19th hole so to speak) for one final swig before lining up an exacting wedge. The journey to get there from the par-5 18th and its rock wall running the right hand side is only superseded by the drive back to the clubhouse.
After playing the 19th hole, golfers take their cart on a multiple-minute drive essentially up the limestone cliff. The path is narrow and winding with rocky stretches, watery stretches and one-lane bridges along the way. There are valleys and cave-like areas to navigate, too (Note: After finishing at Top of the Rock, golfers actually drive through a cave to get back to the clubhouse and are instructed to turn on their headlights).
Also along the way is Payne Stewart’s name spelled out in script on a railing high above the island green setting. Woods designed the course as a tribute to the late Missouri native who had a decorated career on the PGA Tour. The tee markers and merchandise are stamped with Stewart’s images and Woods’ imprint is represented by the “Tiger Tees” (7,370 yards) with a silhouette of his fist pump on the yardage plates.
Woods made Payne’s Valley the most playable course at Big Cedar with its wide fairways (about twice the size of a regular course) and options around the green. He even paid tribute to the major championship courses where he achieved his greatest accomplishments. The bunker styling is reminiscent of Augusta National and the bunker placement conjures up strategy like the Old Course at St. Andrews.
A bachelor party group from St. Louis was soaking in the 19th hole setting as long as they could just two groups after MGM came through. Believe it or not, the “bachelor” getting married made an ace just three holes earlier on the tricky downhill 16th hole. Perhaps still overwhelmed and basking in their friend’s glory, the large group hit eight out of 10 shots into the water around the tiny island green, which was playing just 88 yards to the pin on the day.
The water balls were quickly forgotten, however, as the group celebrated with another round of drinks on the clubhouse patio high above Payne’s Valley. The golf staff presented a Payne’s Valley flag to the future groom to commemorate his one shining moment.
Hopefully his wedding day will be just as memorable.