One of the most irresistible magnets of golf is the lure of new places to play or the challenge of finally playing some of the most famous courses in the world. No two are alike and the golfoholic will travel to any corner of the earth to check off a course on his bucket list.
Any golfer worth his driver has or will visit New York to play Bethpage, New Jersey to play Pine Valley, California to play Pebble Beach, North Carolina to play Quail Hollow or any other number of places where great championship golf courses can be found.
Now there’s a new box to check off that is gaining popularity each year – Branson, Missouri.
Yes, that Branson. The one hailed as the Live Entertainment Capital of the World. The one that
Is known more as a family playground because of its vast assortment of theme parks, recreational activities, museums, restaurants, and country music and more than 100 live shows each day.
Shoji Tabuchi, one of the legends of music that attracts hordes of travelers to the area each year, also is an avid golfer/fisherman who enjoys the little free time he has playing on some of the championship golf courses in the area or casting his line into some of the lakes of the Ozark country.
He performs nightly in own Shoji Tabuchi Theater which seats close to 2,000 fans and he packs them in throughout the year.
“It is good that so many visitors come to Branson and many of them see my show,” Tabuchi said during a recent round of golf at the Payne Stewart course where he is a member. “But at the same time, I notice more and more people are playing golf here. I think the word about our golf courses is finally getting out. I have noticed the increase of players, not only here, but on some of the other courses I like to play.”
During a four-day trip to Branson, I had time to play the Payne Stewart course, LedgeStone Country Club, Top of the Rock course and visited Buffalo Ridge.
On the driving range of the Stewart course I ran into a group of players that were there for the second day of one of their club’s tournament.
“This is our second trip to Branson,” said Mike Wheeler, whose golf club traveled from Austin, Texas. “This is our first golf trip and it’s great because our family will be out seeing shows and going to some of the other attractions while we’re playing golf.”
Lou Falco, another member of the group, said he was a little surprised at the beauty of the courses they had played.
“We played Buffalo Ridge yesterday, and it was amazing,” Falco said. “I am pretty sure we are going to make this an annual stop.”
As for the shows in town, Falco said the wives would make those decisions.
Decisions, decisions. For the golf part of your vacation, here are my suggestions in no particular order:
Payne Stewart Golf Club of Branson Hills
100 N. Payne Stewart Drive
Pro Shop: 417.337.2963
This is a must-play course for every golfer who ever enjoyed watching the late Payne Stewart, a native of nearby Springfield, Mo., whose life was brought to a tragic end at the age of 42 in an airplane accident less than two months after he won the 1999 U.S. Open, his third major championship and 11th PGA Tour title.
The course, designed by Chuck Smith with some help from Bobby Clampett, is a tribute course honoring the life and legacy of Stewart.
There is a plaque at every hole that has a story about Stewart’s career. The stories are thoughtful, entertaining, enlightening and moving. Stewart was one of the most colorful players on the tour, not only because of the flamboyant way he dressed with knickers, argyle socks and ivy caps, but also because of his graceful and elegant swing.
Here is the text from three of the plaques:
No. 1 – Trevino’s Tease: When Payne Stewart walked to the first hole of the 1982 Georgia Pacific Atlantic Classic wearing lavender Plus Fours, a Tam O’Shanter hat and matching argyle knee socks, playing partner Lee Trevino did a double take: “I thought you were going to a golf tournament, not a kindergarten fashion show,” Trevino said. The plus fours would become one of the defining elements of Stewart’s remarkable legacy.
Shake hands with your playing partners to start your round, just as Payne Stewart would.
No. 10 – The Call: When he reached the 10th tee at Kemper Lakes during the final round of the 1989 PGA Championship, still trailing the leader Mike Reid, Payne Stewart was thinking about winning. He spotted former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate on the tee doing television work for ABC Sports and he told him, I’m going to shoot 30 on the back nine and let’s see what happens.” What happened was Payne Stewart won the first of his three major championships?
Predict your score on the back nine today.
No. 18 – Fatherhood (On Father’s Day): In the moment of perhaps his greatest triumph – an instant after holing out a 15-foot par putt on the 18th green at Pinehurst to win the 1999 U.S. Open by one shot over Phil Mickelson – Payne Stewart thought not only about himself, but also about the man he’d just beaten.
Knowing that Mickelson was only hours away from the birth of his first child with his wife Amy, Stewart grabbed Mickelson’s face and told him, “You’re going to love being a father.”
The course itself winds through lakes, massive trees, and rugged and hilly terrain. Some of the views from the elevated tees enhance the stark beauty of the Ozarks.
This is easily the most difficult course in the area, but with six sets of tees, which make the course play from 5,323 yards from the Orange Tees to 7,324 yards from the Gold Tees, it is fair for players of all abilities. In case you’re wondering, it is rated 75.1 and sloped at 135 from the Gold.
Top of the Rock Golf Course at Big Cedar Lodge
Big Cedar Lodge at 800-225-6343.
Pro Shop: 417-339-5343
Give credit to a fishing guy to put together the most amazing Par-3 Course I have ever seen, and that includes the Par-3 courses at Augusta National and Threetops at the TreeTops Resort in northern Michigan.
That “fishing guy” is Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops and the owner of Big Cedar Lodge. It was his vision that brought together legends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson to build the masterpiece course on top of a hill with breathtaking views of Table Rock Lake.
From the moment I drove up toward the majestic clubhouse, I was captivated by the 70,000-square-foot putting green known as the Himalayas, designed by Watson and the driving range complex – 16 target greens surrounded by a multitude of bunkers, lakes and waterfalls — designed by Palmer.
That was a prelude to the Nicklaus Signature Course, a pristine 9-hole course that winds its way through precarious rock formations, waterfalls, bass-filled ponds, meandering creeks, tall cedars and lush vegetation. Water comes into play of five of the holes including an island green.
The course has two sets of tees – the Black, which plays to 2,840 yards and has holes measuring from 114 to 202 yards and the Bronze, which plays to 2,568 yards and has holes. Most of the holes are in the 140 to 170 range, and while that may seem short, please understand most of those shots have to be straight and precise. Although the greens are large, they are fast and tiered and you have to land on the correct level to have a good chance at birdie.
After you round of golf you can shop in the well-stocked clubhouse or go upstairs to have lunch in one of two restaurants. On the second floor you will also find Arnie’s Barn, a magnificent 150-year old barn relocated from Latrobe, Penn., complete with historic photos and memorabilia from Palmer’s career.
LedgeStone Country Club at StoneBridge Village
1600 LedgeStone Way
Pro Shop: 417-335-8187
This course might take a while to play because it’s what I like to refer to as a Camera Course. You will pull out your cameras many times, especially if you play the course in the Fall or in the Spring.
I would recommend you get there at least an hour before your tee time to take advantage of the wonderful practice area which includes a grass tee driving range, a greenside bunker adjacent to a chipping and putting green as well as a putting-only green next to a picturesque waterfall.
The course was brilliantly designed by Tom Clark who routed the course through natural hills, forest, creeks and ponds to frame a layout that uses five tees that stretch from 4,906 yards to 6,881 yards. There can be no excuses for poor lies on the Zoysia fairways or Bentgrass greens. If you hit a bad shot, it’s your fault.
There are strategic decisions to make on almost every tee and if you pay attention, the distinctive names of each hole will give you a clue as to how to play it.
The first hole, for instance, is named The Slot. It is perhaps the easiest drive on the course because both sides of the fairway bank toward the middle. It is hard to miss The Slot so it’s easy to get off to a good start.
Some of the other names are The Temptation, Deception and Straight Shooter.
The holes are exactly what their names imply. Temptation is a 136-yard hole that looks so easy, but there are bunkers short and right and OB left and long. Deception refers to the bunkers in front of the eights green. From the fairway, they appear to be at the edge of the green, but they are actually 20 yards short of the green. Straight Shooter is the ninth hole and the only way to play it is one straight shot at a time because there is trouble all over the place.
The 15th hole, The Quarry, is the postcard hole, the most picturesque hole on this Camera Course. From the back tee of the 200-yard hole there is a 100-foot drop to a putting surface that angles away from you and is protected on the right by a quarry.
If you don’t lose a ball in the quarry, you could lose one at 17, Gambler’s Revenge, a 232-yard par-3 from the back tees that is all carry over a four-acre lake. There is room on the right to bail out, but macho hitters like to go for the green.
If the long hitters have success at 17, they might try to reach the green in two at the 18th, The Plunge. Again, the hole is fraught with water danger, but there is a certain satisfaction of having a chance to make eagle on the final hole.
Relax after the round in the 27,000 square-foot, two-level clubhouse which has an outstanding restaurant, a fitness center, locker rooms, showers and outdoor pools.
Buffalo Ridge Springs (formerly Branson Creek)
1001 Branson Creek Blvd, Hollister, Mo.
Pro Shop: 417-339-4653
This course has a lot going for it. First, it is a Tom Fazio designed course in one of the most beautiful locations in Missouri. Second, it has been ranked as the No. 1 public course in the state by Golf Magazine and has been ranked among the top 10 courses in the state for 11 years in a row by Golf Digest. And third, it is the new home of The Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf presented by Bass Pro Shops.
Jeff Sluman and Fred Funk won the Champions Tour event at Buffalo Ridge and Top of the Rock in June.
The course was known as formerly known as Branson Creek and was sold in October of 2013. It was renovated and opened just in time for the Champions Tour event. Before the pros converged on the popular course, it was the venue for many corporate outing and golf groups from around the country throughout the year.
Besides a spectacular course with five sets of tees ranging from 5300 yards to 7100 yards, Buffalo Ridge also offers a full range of services including golf instruction, a large practice range, chipping area, putting greens, on-course player assistance, group arrangements, golf packages, catering and a staff of personnel trained in the Troon Golf tradition.
From Japan to Branson, from violin to fiddle: Shoji Tabuchi has pulled all the right strings
You can’t possibly see every show in Branson, but there are three fantastic ones plus a history museum that should be at the top of your list during your time in the popular Missouri hamlet that offers live shows every day 24-7.
In a town full of country performers, one of the top stars is from Japan where he was sent to a special school to be trained as a classic violinist.
“The turning point in my life came when Roy Acuff performed in Osaka,” said Shoji Tabuchi, recalling the moment he fell in love with country music. “I got to meet him after the show and he told me if I ever came to the United States, I should look him up.”
Fast forward about 50 years and Tabuchi is celebrating his 25th year as a star performer in the 2,000-seat Shoji Tabuchi Theater. Ain’t America great?
It wasn’t that simple, or that smooth. With the blessing of his mother – not so much his father – Tabuchi first landed in San Francisco with $500 in his pocket, his trusty violin and almost no knowledge of the English language.
With his single-minded goal, Tabuchi did what he had to do to survive. He washed dishes in a Japanese restaurant, he polished cars, he hooked up with other Japanese musicians and formed a group called the Osaka Okies and landed some gigs in some local nightspots.
He moved to Kansas City and landed a job as a fiddler in a country band and ran into Roy Acuff again.
“This time he invited me to play at the Grand Ole Opry,” Tabuchi said. He was well received there and wound up playing at the famous venue 27 times.
“I have been so lucky to meet all the right people,” he continued. “Even here in Branson, I owe my success to the work of my wife, Dorothy, who not only sings and dances, she is also the producer.” His daughter, Christina, who has become quite an entertainer as well, also joins him on stage.
“One thing people should know,” Tabuchi said. “The violin and the fiddle – there is no difference. They are the same. I owe so much to my parents for the early training as a classical violinist. It is that training that has helped me to transition into playing difficult songs like the Orange Blossom Special, a song every country fiddler has to know how to play.”
So although Shoji Tabuchi is considered a country entertainer, his fast-paced family variety show is much more than that. His show features a wide range of music genres from classical to contemporary, and he brings you a little tasted of Japan, too.
The Shoji Tabuchi Theater is located at 3260 Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. His show is on six nights a week and you can get tickets by calling 417-334-7469.
Presleys’ Country Jubilee
The Presleys are true originals. They are known as the First Family of Branson for a special reason.
If you have ever been to Branson, you know how much traffic there is on Highway 76, the strip that features most of the live entertainment and fine restaurants.
Long before those massive traffic lines, the Presley family built the very first theater on Highway 76, which was only a country road at the time. Forty-five years later, the Presley Theater s now famous as the home of the Presleys’ Country Jubilee, which features entertainment from four generations of Presleys.
It was the Presley brand of entertainment – rollicking comedy and country music is a family style – that helped make Branson a country music destination. Now, although it’s a high tech operation, the show continues to blend new and old country greats along with some soulful southern gospel and just the right dose of comedy featuring Herkimer and Cecil, a couple of characters invented and developed by the Presleys.
The theater itself has become a Branson landmark and includes numerous items of memorabilia and photographs of the legendary Presley family, as well as showcasing Branson’s musical heritage. The Presley’s Theater is located at 2920 W. Highway 76 and you can get tickets and information about the show by calling 800-960-3006.
This is a moving and well-orchestrated interactive museum housed in a building that is built to half scale of the original Titanic.
Each visitor is greeted by a crew member and presented with a listening device for those who like a narration of what they are seeing, and a boarding pass with the name of a real passenger of the Titanic. You don’t find out until the end of the tour whether your passenger was among the survivors.
Once you board, you proceed into the main entry where a fully scaled model of the ship is encased in glass and mirrors. From there, you follow a journey that takes you through rooms containing more than 400 original artifacts, including deck chairs, life jackets, postcards and recordings from some of the actual people who sailed on that fateful 1912 voyage.
You will climb a Grand Staircase, see replicas of many of the rooms, stand on the bridge and read some of the heart-wrenching stories of some of the passengers.
Near the end of the tour you will see replicas of three decks – each representing a different degree of tilt depending on how long it was after the iceberg was hit. You can step onto the decks and feel the pull of gravitation. By the time you step onto the third deck, you realize how hopeless it was for those passengers who didn’t reach a lifeboat.
This is a museum for the entire family. The Titanic is located at 3235 W. Highway 76. For tickets and information, call 800-381-7670.
Clay Cooper’s Country Express
Don’t let Clay Cooper slow country drawl fool you. The man can flat belt out a song on stage and moments later trade quips with his audience that will leave you rolling with laughter.
The amazing thing about his interaction with his audience is his memory for names. He might interact with a dozen people and throughout the show he will get back to them and remember their names and have fun with them.
Cooper is a master as moving the pace of the show seamlessly while featuring an impressive cast of singers, dancers and musicians.
Best known for his unique style of presenting his renditions of traditional and contemporary country music, he also adds some moving gospel songs and closes with some patriotic songs that honor the veterans in his audience.
You aren’t anybody in Branson until you have a theater named after you so Cooper is a somebody because his shows are at the completely renovated Clay Cooper Theater at 3216 W. Highway 76. For questions, information or reservations, call 800-504-0115.
By Fred Robledo