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Branson: America’s Newest Golf Destination

By Chuck “The Traveling Guy” Miller

Branson, Missouri has long been famous for its multitude of entertainment venues featuring famous country and pop culture stars from past and present. Over the years Andy Williams, Yakov Smirnoff, Jim Stafford, Willie Nelson, and a multitude of others have all starred there. 

For over fifty years the Branson area has also offered a myriad of things to see and do. This continues to be the case. Just minutes from downtown Branson, Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops and owner of Big Cedar Lodge, has developed an unparalleled golfing destination.

Morris, who started his incredibly successful business selling bait and fishing lures out of a small room in his father’s Springfield, Missouri liquor store, has created a golfing destination now known worldwide as America’s Newest Golf Destination. 

Locals and visitors from around the world play and enjoy the five courses Morris has developed with Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Gary Player, Ben Crenshaw and Tiger Woods, all of whom are recognized as among the greatest golfers and golf course designers of all time.

The first of Morris’ golf courses, Top of the Rock, is a nine-hole par-3 beauty unlike any other nine-hole course you will ever encounter.  It sits high on a bluff overlooking the Ozark Mountains and sparkling Table Rock Lake. 

The Jack Nicklaus Signature Course is so unique the PGA TOUR held four Champions Tour events there from 2014-2017. Former PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem had nothing but praise for the course when he said, “If ever there was a par-3 course worthy of PGA TOUR tournament play, Top of the Rock is it.”

When you play Top of the Rock you will not only be tested when it comes to your golf skills, you will be overwhelmed by its beauty.  Cascading waterfalls, amazing rock formations, gorgeous flowering shrubs and bushes, and immaculate tees, fairways and greens make golfing the Top of the Rock a most pleasurable and unforgettable golfing experience.

Before or after a round of golf at Top of the Rock, you can enjoy dining at one of the Rock’s three restaurants…the Osage, Arnie’s Barn, or the Buffalo Bar. The Osage Restaurant features up-scale American cuisine and gorgeous views of the Ozark Mountains.  Arnie’s Barn is located in the reconstructed 150-year old barn brought from Arnold Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It houses an excellent Mexican Restaurant and the Top of the Rock Pro Shop. The Buffalo Bar offers unique and delicious wood-fired pizzas and premium cocktails. If wine is your pleasure, the place to visit is the Rock’s End of the Trail All-American Wine Cellar. 

When you eat at Arnie’s Barn, look above the bar and you will see a huge, 1358- pound Giant Black Marlin caught in 1978 by Jack Nicklaus off Australia’s Barrier Reef.  It is an incredible sight.

At Top of the Rock you can also view, putt on, and learn about the massive putting green designed by Tom Watson, ride a golf cart or walk the Lost Canyon Cave & Natural Trail, and visit both the Chapel of the Ozarks and the Ancient Natural History Museum. And…if you are at the Top of the Rock at dusk, you can watch and listen as a bagpiper plays and a cannon is shot.  

A second course of Morris’ five courses is Buffalo Ridge.  

When he purchased the course in 2015, he commissioned Tom Fazio to reshape it into the beauty it is today. Playing it requires extra concentration because of the extraordinary views of the Ozarks and the roaming bison that graze on the prairie grasses surrounding the course.  

Also, the fact that flat lies are few and far between may possibly get you off your game. Elevation changes from tee to green on the hilly terrain also make correct club selection a must. Five tee boxes ranging from 5004 to 7036 yards give golfers of all abilities the opportunity to challenge the course according to their golfing capabilities.  

A third course, Mountain Top, is a Gary Player designed 1092-1912 yard 13-hole par-3 gem. Player, known for his love of the outdoors and the importance of good exercise, designed the course to encompass both. It is a walking course where you use large tire pull carts to carry your clubs. The course has few trees, is heavily bunkered, has up and down fairways, a few narrow holes, and finishes off with an uphill 95-yard dandy located just below the Mountain Top restaurant.  

Don’t let Mountain Top’s length fool you, from the 1912-yard tees it has four long par 3’s…176, 195, 200 and 200 yards, making it challenging even for scratch golfers. When playing from the shorter 1091-yard tees, golfers comment the course is still challenging and definitely not a push-over one might imagine.   

Morris’ fourth course, Ozarks National, a Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design, was the site of Phil Mickelson’s first Champions Tour event, the August 2020 Charles Schwab Series which he won by four strokes over Tim Petrovic. At 7036-yards from the tips, it is definitely a very challenging course. Fortunately for those of us who need a GPS to find the tips, the course has three other sets of tees, Gold at 6510-yards, White at 5903-yards and Red at 5025-yards. No matter which tees are played, it requires good golf skills because of the numerous carries, the rock formations and the abundance of native grasses and habitat that must be maneuvered over and around.  

Morris’ newest course is Payne’s Valley. He commissioned Tiger Woods and Tiger’s design firm TGR Design to design the Payne’s Valley course in memory of Springfield, Missouri native Payne Stewart. Woods was quoted as saying that he designed the course so it would be playable for golfers from 8 to 80. When the course opened in mid-2020, Woods first public U.S. course received superlatives like amazing, unbelievable, fantastic and incredible by those in attendance.  

If by chance you watched the course’s opening ceremony, the Payne’s Valley Cup on Golf Channel honoring the late Payne Stewart, you saw a 19-hole seesaw match pitting Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas against Justin Rose and Rory Mcllroy, and, can most likely understand why the course was described as incredible.  

Located in a large valley below the Mountain Top course and restaurant, it is an inviting track with wide fairways and large greens. From the 7370-yard Black tees, it carries a 75.6 course rating and a 132 slope. Its longest hole from the Blacks is a mere 653-yard uphill par 5. The course’s par 3’s from the Black’s are 183, 188, 224, and 267 in length. When played from the Green tees the course is 6876 yards, from the Blue tees it is 6133 yards and from the Red tees it is 4957 yards. 

The most spectacular and well known hole on the course is the 19th hole, a short 125-yard par-3 surrounded by water.  It was designed to be used to break ties. That was the case in the match between Woods and Thomas against Rose and Mcllroy as the two teams went to the 19th hole with their match tied.  Both teams halved the 19th hole with pars but Woods and Thomas won the match as the win was determined by which of the four players was closest to the pin.  Justin Thomas hit his ball to about eight feet and won the hole and the match for he and Tiger.  

Although there are all types of accommodations available in nearby Branson, for shear comfort the place to stay is Big Cedar Lodge. According to the Wall Street Journal, it has “Quickly Matured into the Best of the Best in the Region”.  Big Cedar Lodge has private log cabins, cottages, three grand lodges, and the new Camp Long Creek which has unique accommodations: shepherds huts, camp cabins and glamping tents.

Johnny Morris purchased Big Cedar Lodge in 1987 and over the past thirty four years has spent enormous amounts of time, energy and money making it, and his five golf courses, into America’s Newest Golf Destination.

To gain greater insight into America’s Newest Golf Destination, and why you might want to plan your next golfing vacation there, go to www.BigCedar.com. There you can read about and see photos of the five courses and the variety of accommodations available at Big Cedar lodge. You can also read about and see photos of the myriad of things to see and do at the lodge including the 50,000 Fun Center for kids of all ages.  

Whether you drive to or fly into Springfield, Missouri on your way to play golf at America’s Newest Golf Destination just 45 minutes from Springfield, take a half day to visit Johnny Morris’ Springfield Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium. Once you tour both the 1.5 million gallon Aquarium Adventure which showcases 35,000 live fish, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds, and walked the 1.5 mile wildlife trail where 4D state of the art dioramas help you visualize and learn about wildlife around the world, you will understand why it has been voted America’s Best Aquarium and Best New Attraction by USA Today readers. The Wonders of the World Museum and Aquarium is an absolutely amazing must to visit before, during or after your golf vacation at America’s Newest Golf Destination.