Chicago golfers love going to great lengths to extend their golf season. Typically, this means a flight to Myrtle Beach, Florida, or California during the dark days of winter. But honestly, who wants to wait that long when an emerging golf destination is less than eight hours by car or less than three hours by plane?
Branson, Missouri, which has long been known as the Live Music Capitol of the World, is undergoing a transformation of sorts. Sure, their famous Country 76 Boulevard could be mistaken for the Las Vegas Strip on a crisp late fall night, but during the day, Branson brims with some of the best public golf courses in the nation.
Arguably the finest 77 holes in the Southwest Missouri Ozarks are the courses at Big Cedar Golf, which is part of Big Cedar Lodge, America’s Premier Wilderness Resort. Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, MO in 1972, is the Herb Kohler (owner of Destination Kohler in Wisconsin) of the South, as he has created a collection of remarkable public golf courses that go head-to-head with any destination in the nation.
Big Cedar Golf’s flurry of new properties began in 2017, with the opening of the dramatic 13-hole, Gary Player-designed Mountain Top. Imagine if Indiana Jones added golf course architecture to his archelogy background and you’d have Mountain Top, one the coolest properties you’ll ever play.
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. “We’ve built hundreds of courses over the years, but never one as drastically stunning as this,” says the 9-time major champion. “The transitions between wonderful rock formations and magnificent views make this a true national treasure.”
The following year the design acumen of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw became reality with the stunning Ozarks National, which won Golf Digest’s Best New Public Course of the Year honor in 2019. Incredibly, Coore & Crenshaw were able to navigate massive ridgelines throughout the distinctive layout that provide resplendent 360-degree views of the Ozarks. Thanks to those multiple ridges, golfers will be challenged with numerous forced carries and intimidating approach shots that are high on the “Wow Factor” scale. As with most Coore & Crenshaw courses, your strengths and weaknesses will be identified thanks to their minimalistic less-is-more design philosophy.
Big Cedar Golf’s bold expansion continued in the summer of 2020 when Tiger Woods’ first U.S. public design, Payne’s Valley, officially opened. If you were one of the millions to tune in on September 22, 2020 to view the Payne’s Valley Cup on Golf Channel, you understand what makes this dramatic piece of land so special.
Payne’s Valley is truly a partnership between Morris and Woods, whose combined mission was to honor the memory of Springfield legend Payne Stewart. To that end, Tiger 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,” Woods said. “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.”
Payne’s Valley is also 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 is a one-of-a-kind spectacle, and one I don’t want to spoil too much before you experience it for yourself!
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 and Arnie’s Barn) located inside.
Less than eight miles from Top of The Rock sits 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 one of the state’s top courses in the fall of 2013 and immediately made sweeping changes for the better. This might be the most underrated property of Big Cedar Golf’s stable, as golfers get to travel a cool collection of bridges while tackling the bold layout.
The aforementioned Big Cedar Lodge features 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. 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.
Chicagoans are truly blessed to be so close to the hottest golf destination in the nation. Plus, an eight-hour drive in late fall means better weather and the ability to extend your golf season! For more information on Big Cedar Lodge and their 77 holes of greatness, visit bigcedar.com.
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Glen Turk is a Wisconsin native who has been the Senior Writer/Editor of Midwest Golfing Magazine since 2005. Glen’s ultimate golf goal is to play in all 50 states and currently he is more than two-thirds the way there. Glen and his wife have a rescue German Shepherd dog and are passionate supporters of their local humane society. Glen also enjoys participating in charity golf tournaments such as those benefitting Special Olympics. You can read all of Glen’s previous works at midwestgolfingmagazine.com by clicking on the “Past Issues” tab within the main menu.