Branson golf is full of peaks in a land of plateaus

Branson golf is full of peaks in a land of plateaus

Set among the majestic Ozark Mountains near the Big Cedar Lodge, Payne’s Valley is the first public TGR Design golf course in the United States. Sprawling, wide fairways showcase playability, while also allowing strategic angles and shot values to be emphasized to challenge experienced players. The green surrounds are designed to promote creativity and a variety of recovery options, while the fairway rough will be maintained to low heights of cut to further promote a fun, enjoyable golf experience.

by Steve Pike, special to Golf News Net

Let’s begin with geography. Contrary to popular belief, Missouri’s Ozarks are a series of ridges and plateaus - not mountains.

Here’s another mistaken belief: Branson and environs is a destination strictly for the geriatric set to visit the plethora of country music theaters that line the Highway 76 “Strip.’’ Twenty years ago that might have been accurate. But today’s Branson, while maintaining its country music roots, has exploded into a cacophony of rock and roll, high-end restaurants, lakeside resorts and golf.

So much golf, in fact, that Branson and the Ozarks are often mentioned in the same breath as such destinations as Bandon (Ore.) Dunes, Sand Valley (Wisc.), and Kohler (Wisc.), each of which have transformed the definition of “high-end, destination’’ golf.

Bucket list? Branson should be at -- or near -- the top. Not only as a golf destination that includes the five courses at Big Cedar Lodge but for its diverse amenities off those courses. It’s those amenities and attractions, such as fishing and boating on Table Rock Lake, a day at the venerable Silver Dollar City theme park, and dining and shopping at Branson Landing, that set this area apart from other high-end golf destinations. Another advantage is the fact that approximately one-third of the country’s population lives within a one-day drive of Branson. Do the math and understand why the area is booming.

“We’ve grown like a mushroom,’’ said Lynn Berry, director of communications for Explore Branson.

And continues to grow. Imagine Resorts, for example, plans to open a resort in nearby Hollister as early as 2024 that will feature a 100,000-square-foot indoor water park along with 450 guest rooms and cabins.

Hasbro, meanwhile, is planning a Monopoly Branson Edition. No word yet on what Branson area sites might be the equivalents of Boardwalk and Park Place, but suffice to say a good candidate for either would be Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, about a 15-minute drive from the throwback shops in downtown Branson, where a visit to Dick’s 5 & 10 is like traveling through a 10,000-square-foot time machine of candy and collectibles.

Big Cedar Lodge is brainchild of Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, who was born and still lives in Springfield, Mo. Big Cedar Lodge is the epicenter of Branson’s golf boom. The resorts’ courses include the much-heralded Payne’s Valley, a Tiger Woods design that opened in 2020; Ozarks National (Coore and Crenshaw); Buffalo Ridge (Tom Fazio); the nine-hole Top of the Rock (Jack Nicklaus); and the 13-hole Mountain Top (Gary Player).

Each course has its own clubhouse (Payne's Valley and Mountain Top share one) and carries its own distinct design features and back stories. Buffalo Ridge (formerly Branson Creek Golf Club) came first in 1999, followed by Ozarks National and Mountain Top. Top of the Rock, one of the country’s top “short courses’’ begins with stunning views of Table Rock Lake and, believe it or not, gets better as it winds through bass-filled creeks and bass-filled ponds.

A round or two at Top of the Rock are themselves worth a trip to the Ozarks. But it’s Payne’s Valley, named in honor of the late PGA Tour star Payne Stewart, who was raised in Springfield, that gets most of the attention. The 7,300-yard, par-72 course is built out on the edges of a series of bluffs that often careen down into wooded ravines. The results are outstanding views of the Ozarks, wide zoysia grass fairways and as close to the perfect playing experience as you’ll find anywhere in North America.

The 19th hole hole at Payne’s Valley can be called “Mr. Morris’ Wild Ride.’’ Designed by Morris, the par 3 generally plays 125 yards across water. That’s the easy part. The “wild ride’’ returns players to the clubhouse through a series of limestone caverns, waterfalls and narrow cart paths. The hole and ride each are Johnny Morris at his visionary best.

Despite the success and prestige of its other four courses, the opening of Payne’s Valley was the tipping point for Branson and the Ozarks of making it among the country’s elite golf destinations.

“I think the golf course is as good as - or better - than the day it opened,’’ said Bob Newell, vice president of golf for Big Cedar Golf. “My personal opinion is, it’s not fully (mature) until it’s about five years old.

“But from an operator’s standpoint, Payne’s Valley improves the overall guest experience. We’re still working with John and looking at more lodging options. We’re even talking about more courses.’’

Each of the courses at Big Cedar Lodge are open to the public, depending on availability, meaning you don’t necessarily have to stay on property to play, but it helps. To book a tee time more than 30 days out, for example, players must stay on property. Big Cedar Lodge features 367 accommodations, including lodge rooms, villas, cottages and log cabins.

Outside of Big Cedar Lodge, the Branson area is loaded with lodging options, including the downtown Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel and its outstanding Level 2 steakhouse. The hotel is within easy walking distance of Branson Landing’s nightlife and only a few miles from the music theaters.

The area is dotted with small, “mom and pop’’ hotels and motels, while Table Rock Lake is a popular destination for home and cabin rentals. The 145-acre Westgate Branson Woods Resort, for example, is a popular destination for families and meeting groups.

Holiday Hills Resort, which features an 18-hole golf course, traces its roots back to Golf Ranch Country Club Golf, founded in 1938 by Chicago golf instructor Don Gardner, considered the “father’’ of Branson golf.

The Chateau on the Lake overlooks Table Rock Lake and features 301 guest rooms and a 32,000 square feet of meeting space.

Branson Hills Golf Club is the best-known public facility not owned by Morris. A terrific Chuck Smith design (7,327 yards, par 72,) Branson Hills is resplendent with North Carolina mountain-like elevation changes that show off the Ozarks’ natural outcroppings, creeks and waterways. The 130-foot drop from tee to green on the par-4 first hole (464 yards from the back tee) is a preview of what’s to come.

Branson Hills offers golf packages through Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel and Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing.

As with everything else in Branson and the Ozarks, Branson Hills gives you all you want.

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