The Midwest's booming golf mecca
BRANSON, Mo. – Golf is booming and the landscape has become cluttered with destinations filled with players eager to test themselves on the country’s best courses.
North Carolina is home to the renowned Pinehurst, which soon will christen a 10th course. Florida features the three-course Streamsong and Bandon Dunes is the crown jewel out west.
Palm Springs, Scottsdale and Myrtle Beach also fancy themselves as golf destinations. So do Wisconsin and Michigan.
For years, middle America seemingly lacked such a site. And then Johnny Morris had a vision to turn his Big Cedar Lodge just south of Branson, Missouri, into just such an attraction.
So, with a collection of five (soon to be six) courses designed by some of the biggest names in their field, Big Cedar Lodge has become a must-visit destination for serious golfers. No travel resume is complete without it.
How good is Big Cedar’s lineup of courses? It has short courses designed by Jack Nicklaus (Top of the Rock) and Gary Player (Mountain Top), and 18-hole layouts designed by Tiger Woods (Payne’s Valley), Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw (Ozarks National) and Tom Fazio (Buffalo Ridge). A third short course called Cliffhangers is currently under construction.
It’s hard to find a better collection of courses set in such a picturesque setting in the country. Even better, one quality that sets Big Cedar golf apart from other destinations is that each of its five courses is unique. Payne’s Valley – Tiger’s first resort course offering – is a tribute to largesse – expansive beyond belief with fairways almost as wide as a football field, gaping bunkers and huge, undulating greens.
Coming off the 18th at Payne’s Valley, there awaits a bonus hole appropriately dubbed the 19th Wonder of the World, a 100-yard par 3 surrounded by water that Morris had built into the cliffs. Now, the hole features a bar that serves drinks, and in addition to a bartender, an attendant will take a picture of your group as a souvenir.
At the stunning Buffalo Ridge, seemingly every hole could be pictured on a postcard, not to mention the added excitement of seeing buffalo grazing lazily alongside the course on several holes.
Ozarks National, which opened in 2019, plays along a series of ridges with views of the surrounding foothills. The Coore/Crenshaw design team did a masterful job of designing a course that blends into the site’s topography. There are a variety of blind shots that make a player uncomfortable when it comes time to pull the trigger, and the set of five par-3s is memorable.
In 2022 Golfweek had all three of Big Cedar’s courses in the top four on its “Best Public Courses” list for Missouri.
The Nicklaus and Player par 3 courses are perfect complements to three courses, each challenging and highlighting the property’s scenic vistas of the surrounding Ozark Mountains. There’s also a Tom Watson-designed putting course.
Payne’s Valley was a game-changer
Matt McQueary, Big Cedar Golf’s director of sales and marketing, said that the unveiling of Payne’s Valley (named in honor of the late Payne Stewart who was from the area) put Branson on the golf map.
“When Payne’s Valley happened, it was the perfect storm,” he said. “It was the Covid boom year – golf had an amazing resurgence as something people could do and social distance. In general golf was strong. We opened up Payne’s Valley and we hosted the Payne’s Valley Cup, where Tiger and Justin Thomas played Rory (McIlroy) and Justin (Rose) in a year the Ryder Cup was delayed. It was on prime-time TV in the middle of the week and the end of the day, so it did really well.”
McQueary smiles when detailing what affect the opening of Payne’s Valley had at Big Cedar.
“When that course opened and the Payne’s Valley Cup aired, all of our systems broke,” he laughed. “We had 80,000 phone calls in three days. Our internet crashed, our reservations crashed, so we had to beef up everything. We went hard for the next year just to meet the demand.”
Because of golf, Branson shed its label as just a thriving outdoors/entertainment venue with Grand Ol’ Opry for evening entertainment. Branson in general and Big Cedar specifically, became a must-stop destination for golfers in what previously had been a flyover location.
“It just completely changed the resort from being back in the day a family resort by the lakeside where you come and your focus was going to the marina or bringing your own boat to fish or enjoy water sports, to now golf has been a heavy driver extending our usual regional drive-in market to national and international golf travelers,” he said. “It has definitely changed the landscape for us and Branson.”
Branson lodging options
To meet the demand, Big Cedar embarked on upgrading its lodging. A series of about 20 cottages opened in 2022 and have proved to be a needed and popular addition, perfectly suited to accommodate small-to-large groups of golfers. There is a mix of single-room cabins, two-bedroom cabins and four-bedroom cabins. Each bedroom has two queen beds and their own bathroom, so each four-bedroom cabin can really sleep eight, each with their own bed if they don’t mind sharing a room. The two-bedroom and four-bedroom each cabins have a kitchen, living room and outdoor space.
Other accommodations on site include the Spring, Valley and Falls lodges, log cabins and upscale exclusive housing, so there is something for just about everyone.
With a number of casual and fine dining establishments and a variety of outdoor activities available, Big Cedar Lodge is attractive to groups of golfers and to families looking for a relaxing vacation.
More golf options
In addition to the Big Cedar’s lineup, nearby Branson has five other public options, including Branson Hills (No. 5) and LedgeStone (No. 7), both of which were ranked in the top seven on Golfweek’s list of best public courses.
Dan Davis, the director of golf at Branson Hills, said the other area’s courses have reaped the benefit of Big Cedar’s recent popularity. He’s got a good product and the tee sheet is crowded.
Branson Hills, a Chuck Smith/Bobby Clampett collaboration, offers a different challenge from those at Big Cedar. Fairways are tighter and players must negotiate difficult greens complexes.
LedgeStone, a Tom Clark design, and the Bob Cupp-designed Thousand Hills also are worthy stops for golfers looking to expand their horizons. The Pointe and Holiday Hills, two more 18-hole public facilities, round out the area’s inventory.
With a combined population of 90,000 spanning two counties, it might seem like there is an overabundance of available golf in the Branson area. Factor in 10 million annual visitors, its accessibility, a climate that makes playing golf possible most of the year, and it is easy to see why the courses are filled.
In addition to golf, Branson boasts plenty of other entertainment options. It has dozens of theaters hosting more than 100 shows throughout the season. Table Rock Lake, Lake Taneycomo and Bull Shores Lake have over 1,000 combined miles of shoreline offering boating, fishing, swimming and scuba diving.
The area features more than 14,000 hotel/motel rooms and more than two dozen RV/campgrounds. The Hiltons of Branson are luxury hotels with easy access to Branson Landing and the historic downtown. The Level 2 restaurant at the Hilton Branson Convention Center offers a diverse, high-end menu that is a perfect way to cap a day in Branson.
Gregg Dewalt is the editor of Alabama Golf News
Featured image: Ozarks National Golf Course courtesy of Big Cedar Lodge