As Ben Crenshaw once said, famously and prophetically, “Mark my words.” I’m going to use that very phrase by way of predicting that in the next couple of years, you – if you’re someone who likes to travel for new golf adventures – will be going to Branson, Missouri.
You may have heard of Branson before, as had I, but only in the context of it being the somewhat proletarian, down-home centre of country and middle-American entertainment — much of it from ageless entertainers like Dolly Parton, Johnny Mathis, and the late Andy Williams. It was that, indeed, and still is. But that doesn’t mean it’s out-of-date, or geared to old dudes like me. In fact, Branson has steadily upped its game as an attraction destination.
Even if golf isn’t your main “thing”, Branson has much to offer besides — dozens of live performance theaters, three pristine lakes, an international award-winning theme park, dozens of attractions and museums, a Historic Downtown district, a Town Center-style shopping complex, a full range of dining options, and a host of hotels, motels, resorts, RV parks, campgrounds, and meeting and conference facilities.
Dining, as you’d expect in a resort town, is wide and varied, but I have to put a plug in here for the petit filet mignon I had at Level 2, the in-house restaurant in the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel; “succulent” is the only word that applies. The hotel itself is an excellent place to stay, by the way; the rooms our group each had were large suites, nicely appointed, and the central location of the facility is a short walk from Historic Downtown, and the sleek Branson Landing development of fine shops and restaurants. (And also by the way, the Netflix series Ozark, good as it is, is hardly reflective of the experience you’ll enjoy in Branson.)
But this is a golf publication, so I’m going to focus on Branson and its golf. And here, you might be wondering what the heck I’m talking about. At this point, Branson and golf are not synonymous to most Canadian golf travelers.
By way of explanation, allow me to digress a bit before I get into it. Let me talk about fish for moment. If you enjoy that sport, you’ll undoubtedly be aware of Bass Pro Shops, the Wal-Mart of the angling game. Bass Pro was founded about 50 years ago by a gentleman by the name of Johnny Morris, a good ol’ Ozarks boy who hails from Springfield, Missouri, a flick of a flycast about 45 miles north of Branson.
Much the same as his friend Sam Walton over in Bentonville, Arkansas, Johnny’s business started small and grew huge in steady progression. And rather than count all the cash that came in from selling rods and lures, Johnny found his inner philanthropist and developer, and decided to put his earnings to good use… in many places, but principally in Branson, which had already begun to invest in luring people down to its natural and, ultimately, man-made attractions. And Johnny went big.
He built a resort around a structure he called Big Cedar Lodge, a family-friendly hotel property built of, well, cedars. But he knew that fishing and family fun could only go so far, so, let’s think about what else might bring people on down. How about golf?
(At last, Jim gets to his point.)
Big Cedar Golf has now built or acquired five of the most interesting and diverse golf courses you’re ever going to find in one place – except maybe Pinehurst. And within the Branson catchment area are another five fine layouts that you’ll be pleased to add to your list, trust me (and why wouldn’t you?).
On the Big Cedar menu are three truly outstanding championship courses, and two exhilarating short courses. I’ve just returned from a visit to them all, alongside a group of discriminating duffers, and my mind is still boggled at how surprisingly great the courses were. In fact, Big Cedar’s Vice President of Golf Operations, Bob Newell, says “trying to pick the best of the five of them is like trying to choose your favourite child. It’s almost impossible.”
Let’s start with the newest, called Payne’s Valley, just opened in 2021. First of all, from the spelling, you would correctly guess that it’s named after the late Payne Stewart, former U.S. Open champ who was born and raised in Springfield, who tragically died in an airplane accident in 1999.
The course is the first public access golf facility designed by Tiger Woods and his company TGR Design, and it’s nothing short of breathtaking. There are dramatic elevation changes throughout, with some spectacular views across the landscape and countryside. While the “mountains” in this part of the Ozarks are actually flat-top hills and deep valleys carved by water flow over the millennia, they offer great opportunities for stunning golf holes. Payne’s Valley isn’t necessarily a hard course, unless you’re a gorilla who likes to play from the tips. The fairways are generous, the greens are huge, but there’s water to avoid, and big yawning bunkers, and if you’re far off the fairway, you may find yourself way down in Hick’ry Holler. Also, keep in mind that if there are lots of holes with elevated tees and beautiful views, there then has to be a few where you go back UP-hill, and this makes 370 yards play more like 500. But it’s a pretty terrific experience, and you’ll be taking your hat off to Tiger and his gang for a very enjoyable round.
(I will also take my hat off to Tiger for enabling me to make one of the great pars of my life on the 10th hole. It’s a gorgeous, elevated par 3 of about 160 yards from the tee box I was playing. I skulled my tee shot, which caromed off a rock short of the green, took a sky high bounce into a greenside bunker, leaving me with a delicate, downhill sand wedge to the pin. Hit it soft and I’m still in the bunker. Hit it hard, and I roll down off the green into the pond. I channeled up all my decades of sand experience, hovered over the shot in deep concentration, took the wedge back nice and slow like Freddie does, then proceeded to skull the shot yet again. But the bullet hit the lip, popped up like a soda bubble, landed on the fringe like a butterfly, then rolled gently down to a one-inch, tap-in, par. Well deserved, in my view.)
The other distinguishing feature of Payne’s Valley is the 19th hole, which has already received due notice from players and golf magazines. This is designed particularly for golf buddy groups to provide an extra betting challenge, or wager resolution. It’s about 120 yards from an elevated tee to a green surrounded by water, with a stunning backdrop of a limestone cliff with dramatic waterfall. This amphitheatre of rock only magnifies the whoops and laughter that accompanies every shot made by the buddy groups. (I, of course, rinsed my tee shot about 10 feet short of the green, and lost my share of the closest-to-the-pin wager among my group. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my round immensely, as will you.)
Next on the roster is Ozarks National, another masterpiece in the design portfolio of the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw partnership, completed in 2019. These two gents are clearly the golf course architects du jour, having built an unparalleled reputation for their work in such meccas as Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Streamsong in Florida, Sand Hills in Nebraska, Sand Valley in Wisconsin, and, of course, the incomparable Cabot Cliffs in Cape Breton. Ozarks National is another great golf course, and most worthy of their imprint.
It’s a solid test of your game, but not unfair. The holes are all built along the top of one of these ridges that define the terrain. If the wind is blowing, and it usually is by mid-morning, Bill and Ben really make you think about where your ball is likely to blow, and where you’d like it to be for the next shot. That is, assuming you have the wherewithal to think about it, as each hole is just lovely to look at and the overall views are very distracting.
Both Payne’s Valley (in 2021) and Ozarks National (2019) were voted Best New Public Course in America by Golf Digest, which is about as fine an accolade as you can achieve, and both honours are well-justified.
Buffalo Ridge, a Tom Fazio re-design of an earlier golf course on the site, is quite different again from the other two. Named Best Public Course in Missouri, and ranked in the Top 100 U.S. Courses list by GOLF Magazine, this layout starts with a beautiful downhill par-5 and just keeps getting better from there. Lots of elevation changes, as you meander through rolling fairways, creeks with gentle waterfalls, lakes and ponds, and these sandy things called bunkers, but it’s not necessarily a gentle stroll through the park. Your game will be challenged. Your game will also be enhanced by the site of nearby live buffalo alongside a couple of the holes. (And your taste buds may well be tempted by the bison hot dogs that are available at all of the Big Cedar courses’ charming refreshment cabins.)
I’ve played a number of Tom Fazio courses here and there in North America, and I always leave with the sense that Tom somehow knows my game and puts it to a fair test… if I’m playing well, I’ll be rewarded with a good score; if not, I’ll pay the price. I know, you can say that about just about any course, but there’s something about Fazio that makes me think he respects the serious golfer, more than he’s out to punish us.
Two other courses make up the five on offer in the Big Cedar portfolio, and while they’re both “short” courses, they are absolutely, definitely worth your time, attention, and wallet.
Top of the Rock is a 9-hole, par-3 stunner, designed by Jack Nicklaus, with serious input from Johnny Morris, the owner. You’ll want your camera for a photo on every tee, especially the holes overlooking Table Rock Lake in the distance. I’m sure Jack would never want his design reputation crowned by a short course, but honestly, I don’t think the Bear has ever done a better job of combining beauty and challenge. The par here is, of course, 27; but if you can shoot 35 or better, then you’ve done a masterful job of selecting the right club, playing the wind, avoiding the water, blasting from sand (which’ll get ya sooner or later), and stroking your putts. I absolutely loved this golf course, and wish I’d had time to play it again. You may remember the Champions Tour had a tournament here for a couple of years. At the time, Commissioner Tim Finchem said, “If there was ever a par-3 course worthy of PGA TOUR tournament play, Top of the Rock is it.
Another note about Top of the Rock. As you drive up to the clubhouse, you’ll see a jaw-dropping canyon on your left, that borders one of the golf holes. This canyon used to be the driving range. It was “discovered” as a small hole in the ground about six years ago, was immediately considered a sink hole and declared unsafe for golfers. Excavations then revealed a depression that goes down hundreds of feet, among a series of limestone pillars. Johnny Morris, ever the astute marketer, has named this new “feature” the “Cathedral of Nature”.
Mountain Top is a 13-hole, par-3 design from Jack’s great pal, and fellow legend, Gary Player. It’s a short golf cart ride away from Ozarks National, so I suggest you make the two courses part of your single day’s itinerary. Why 13 holes? “That’s all the land that was available, but boy, did he make the best of it,” according to Matt McQueary, Director of Golf Sales and Marketing at Big Cedar.
Matt’s right. This course, again, is no dinky hit-and-giggle. Like Ozarks National, it’s mainly plunked on top of a ridge, but many holes are carved out of and around limestone outcroppings that add to the beauty and challenge of the short holes. The longest hole is about 190 yards, the shortest maybe 75, but all your skills will be put to the test here. It’s well worth the couple of hours it takes to play. And if you happen to be there with youngsters who are keen golfers, this is the perfect place to give them a sense of what Daddy and Mummy play on bigger courses. They’d love it, and so will you.
To be honest, I can’t think of any single-owned collection of three-or-more golf courses, all on the same property or in close proximity, that comes anywhere near the level of quality, variety of design, immaculate conditioning, and overall exhilaration as these five Big Cedar Golf layouts. (Except, again, Pinehurst.). From a cost for green fee standpoint, I think they’re very reasonable (rates vary according to season, and guests of Big Cedar Lodge get a generous discount). For value-for-money, I think any golfer would be totally satisfied with the expense.
Now, let’s move off the Big Cedar property, and over to two other courses in the Branson area.
Branson Hills is another beauty that comes highly recommended by a variety of golf media, and the praise is well-earned. Somewhat similar to Fazio’s Buffalo Ridge, Branson Hills was designed by landscape architect and agronomist Chuck Smith, with input from former Tour player Bobby Clampett, and they did a superb job from number one tee to the 18th green. Typically for the Ozarks, there are lots of peaks and valleys here, and a fair amount of water to avoid. But it’s all a pleasant experience, and again, you’ll want to pull your camera out of the bag on several holes.
My buddies and I also played Ledgestone Country Club, a par-71 layout from designer Tom Clark, who’s done dozens of well-regarded courses over the years, mainly on the eastern seaboard and mid-west states. I’m not sure if I’ve played a Tom Clark course before, but Ledgestone should certainly rank among his best efforts. He makes great use of the Ozark topography, making you think hard about whether that 150-yard downhill approach plays like a true 150, or maybe just a wedge, depending on the bounce you might get. And the last three holes here at Ledgestone are among the finest collection of finishing holes I can ever remember playing.
My group and I played all seven courses above over four days, which sounds herculean and it would be if we hadn’t been riding in carts (except for Mountain Top, which is fairly flat and walking-only.) Because of the topography, only Edmund Hillary could play these courses without motorized conveyance. But the nice thing about carts is they get you to the next tee, and the next spectacular view, that much more quickly and effortlessly. I can’t remember a golf trip where I used my camera more often… and that to me, especially at my advanced age, is what the golf experience is all about: the experience, the views, the nature, more so than my score and my unmatched ability to skull wedges.
FYI, the Branson area has a total of 10 courses on offer, and you can get more details on all of them, and all the other area attractions, by visiting www.explorebranson.com. For readers of Fairways who live in southern Ontario, Branson is about a 14.5 hour drive from the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, or just over 11 hours from the bridge at Windsor. Flying in to Springfield, about 40 minutes north of Branson, will require a stopover somewhere like Chicago or Atlanta, unless you have your own plane (and gee, who doesn’t?), that you can fly directly into Branson’s own private airport.
Part of the terrific Branson experience, for me, was also playing with a bunch of fellow good-to-mediocre golfers, with the requisite chirping, “great shot!”s, and far too many pseudo-sincere “too bad”s. I would gladly and sincerely LOVE to go back to Branson one day with my adult sons, and especially with my grandsons when they get old enough. There’s a million other things to do in this area besides golf, as I mentioned above, so everyone will have a good time.
As I also suggested above, I have no doubt that Branson will welcome thousands more golfers to the 10 million visits per year the area currently enjoys. That may scare you into thinking that it’ll get overcrowded and overpriced, but judging by the way the community has adapted and grown its offering over the last three decades, I’m sure it’ll continue to manage growth and expansion as more people discover its charm, and even more reasons to visit are developed. And if that means more golf courses being built, with the same degree of quality as there is now, then bring it on, I say.
Mark my words, I’ll be back.