Big Cedar Golf in the Branson Ozarks is America’s Top New Golf Destination

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{Editor’s Note: MGM is pleased to provide an early preview of our cover story within the Summer Issue of Midwest Golfing Magazine.}

Golf course openings across the nation are not at Haley’s Comet frequency quite yet, although they are getting close. But one man who has always dreamed big is changing that axiom in the Show Me State.

Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, MO in 1972, is now on a mission to provide the Southwest Missouri Ozarks a collection of new public golf courses that go head-to-head with any in the Midwest (and for that matter America), and wow has he succeeded!

Big Cedar Golf’s flurry of new properties began in 2017, with the opening of the dramatic 13-hole Gary Player designed Mountain Top. The following year the design acumen of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw became reality with the stunning Ozarks National, and now this summer Tiger Woods’ first U.S. public design, Payne’s Valley, officially opened.

Nine holes of Payne’s Valley were open for preview play last year, and 13 holes were made playable in early March. “We were beyond excited to give golf fans a taste of the truly remarkable course we are creating here in the Ozarks,” said noted conservationist Johnny Morris. “Payne’s Valley will be an unforgettable golf experience and we couldn’t wait to share part of it with everyone as we enjoy the beautiful weather here in the Ozarks.”

MGM received a preview tour of Payne’s Valley last October and almost traded a night in jail for the chance to sneak on and play the course. Our cart tour more than adequately showed off the property’s greatness in abundance, especially Tiger’s commitment to making the course player-friendly while at the same time difficult for the low-handicapper.

This is truly a partnership between Morris and Woods. The 15-time major champion made numerous site visits and poured his methodical nature into the project at all times. “I couldn’t be prouder to partner with Johnny Morris to debut my first public-access course at Big Cedar Lodge,” began Tiger. “Johnny’s incredible passion for connecting people of all ages and walks of life to nature is truly inspiring. Together we’re tremendously excited to create a publicly accessible world-class golf experience in the center of America,” gleamed Woods.

Tiger also made it a point to design a course intended to connect more people to nature through the sport of golf. The walkable course features large bail-out areas, graduated rough, spectacular green-scapes, and will provide an unforgettable finish where golfers will traverse through a breathtaking natural cave system to return to the clubhouse when the course reaches its full completion. I’ve said it before, imagine if Indiana Jones added golf course architecture to his archelogy background and it’s easy to imagine the a four-and-half-hour thrill ride you are in for at Payne’s Valley.

Payne’s Valley will also be home to the nation’s coolest 19th hole, a bet-settling par-3 that features an island green surrounded by streams and waterfalls flowing down to exposed rock walls. The ending journey to the perched clubhouse will also be a one-of-a-kind spectacle, and one I don’t want to spoil before you experience it for yourself!

And while Payne’s Valley may be receiving well-deserved fan fair this summer, a trip to Ridgedale, MO (a suburb of Branson, a.k.a. live music capital of the world) wouldn’t be complete without playing each and every one of Johnny Morris’ 77 palatial golf holes. Five courses comprise his golf empire, and each one offers a distinctive experience and joy.

Amazingly, Jack Nicklaus’ Top of The Rock (which opened in 1995) might fall under the radar thanks to all this newness, but it is a legendary par-3 design that serves as the foundation of the Big Cedar Golf empire. The 1,420-yard, par-27 course offers golfers remarkable views of Table Rock Lake and concludes with a golf cart ride through a cave as you head back to Arnie’s Barn. The 150-year-old barn was relocated from Arnold Palmer’s backyard in Latrobe, PA and is complete with historic photos and memorabilia from Palmer’s career achievements. I would save at least 30 extra minutes to tour the barn and a few more if you’d like to partake in an excellent meal at one of the three phenomenal restaurants (Osage Restaurant, The Buffalo Bar & Arnie’s Barn) located inside.

Less than eight miles from Top of The Rock resides Buffalo Ridge Springs, Big Cedar Golf’s first 18-hole championship property. The 7,036-yard layout originally opened in 2000 under the name Branson Creek Golf Club. Johnny Morris purchased the state’s top course according to Golf Digest in the fall of 2013 and immediately made sweeping changes for the better. Head Golf Professional Greg Thomas, who has been on site since 2000, details the transformation process.

“Mr. Morris closed the golf course in November 2013 and started with renovations consisting of new and enhanced water features, a complete bunker renovation, exposure of natural rock all throughout the course, four Amish covered bridges and last, but not least, the addition of American Bison to three areas along the golf course. The golf course was already great, but our founder has taken it to a whole new level of enjoyment with these enhancements and beautification,” concluded Thomas.

In my humble opinion, Big Cedar Golf and their famed Big Cedar Lodge is more than a destination, it’s a lifestyle. Hunting, fishing, hiking, and nearly every outdoor activity known to man is available to explore and enjoy. Just how many activities can you enjoy during your stay? Their dropdown menu on the “Things To Do” tab drops so far down I needed a larger screen just to read them all!

As you can see it’s so much more than golf that draws the legends of the game to Branson, Missouri – it’s a deep level of respect they have for the business and philanthropic leader. “There are people that live in this world that I admire who are contributors to society,” stated eight-time Major Champion Gary Player. “I think of my great father, Nelson Mandela, I think of Martin Luther King, I think of Mahtma Ghandhi. There are so many—Billy Graham, people that have been phenomenal contributors to society and Johnny Morris has done that,” resounded Player.

One of the most unique experiences at Big Cedar Golf is Gary Player’s Mountain Top Golf Course. The 13-hole, walking-only par-3 layout measures 1,912 yards and 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.”

Morris continued his hot streak a year later with the opening of Ozarks National, a Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw masterpiece that was named 2019 New Golf Course of the Year by Golf Digest. Somehow Coore & Crenshaw were able to navigate massive ridgelines throughout the distinctive layout that provide resplendent 360-degree views of the Ozarks. Thanks to the aforementioned ridges, golfers will be challenged with numerous forced carries and multiple approach shots that are high on the Wow Factor Scale. As with most Coore & Crenshaw courses, your strengths and weaknesses will be identified in their minimalistic less-is-more way.

What isn’t minimalistic at Big Cedar Lodge are their multiple stay options including cottages, private log cabins, glamping at Camp Long Creek, and camp cabins, besides their original lodge rooms that are the perfect mix of rustic charm and 21st century amenities. No matter what your family’s definition of “roughing it” is, Big Cedar has you covered. In total, Big Cedar Lodge is a 4,600-acre lakeside wilderness resort with premiere nature-based experiences for the entire family. The resort also features two marinas on Table Rock Lake and multiple family-based attractions and amenities including the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum and Lost Canyon Cave & Nature Trail. Families can also enjoy Fun Mountain, offering 50,000 square feet of endless entertainment including a full arcade, underwater-themed bowling, laser tag, a golf simulator and more year-round for kids of all ages. That’s why it’s no surprise Big Cedar Lodge was ranked the number one Family Resort in North America by Golf Magazine in 2019.

In conclusion, the world of golf is blessed to have Johnny Morris on its side during a time where golf course contraction is outweighing expansion. What started with a 9-hole, par-3 course designed by the game’s greatest major winner has now flourished into an emerging golf destination the likes the Midwest has never seen. For more information on Big Cedar Lodge and their 77 holes of greatness, visit www.bigcedar.com/golf/.

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Glen Turk is a Wisconsin native who has been the Senior Writer/Editor of Midwest Golfing Magazine since 2006. Besides being an avid golfer, Glen enjoys traveling, music, and cheering on the finest professional sports team of all-time, the Green Bay Packers. Glen’s ultimate golf goal is to play in all fifty states and currently he is more than half way there. His other dream, albeit far-fetched, it to record an ace in all seven states of our distribution area. Thanks to an ace in Illinois in 2015, and one in Michigan in 2016, he has three down, four to go!

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