Branson's golf scene is the plateau in the Missouri Ozarks
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Branson’s golf scene in the Missouri Ozarks is the peak of the sport

Kevin Dunleavy recently visited Branson, Missouri, as part of a media familiarization trip, during which he visited a variety of properties and courses in the area. He wrote about his experiences in a guest post he supplied to Golf News Net.

For the uninitiated, there are two Branson, Missouris – the one you think you know and the one that actually exists.

Most of the surprises are courtesy of Johnny Morris, Founder of Bass Pro Shops, an area native who has spared no expense gussying up the place. Over the past 30 years, Morris has helped transform a Branson that has become as much an outdoor playground as it is a live entertainment Mecca.

The best news for golfers is that Morris has recently become a passionate advocate of the sport. In an era when course construction is severely restrained – at least in America – Morris is plowing ahead with high-end projects by rainmakers in the field.

For example, at Buffalo Ridge Springs – a Tom Fazio design which hosts the PGA Tour Champions Legends of Golf event every April – players can glance over to the next bluff where courses by Tiger Woods and the illustrious design team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore are being built alongside a fascinating Gary Player short course, which opened in August.

Five miles to the southwest, near Morris’s dazzling Big Cedar Lodge, Top of the Rock Golf Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, is a monument to conspicuous construction. Each of its nine lavish par-3 holes is a postcard. So is the incredible synthetic driving range, designed by Arnold Palmer.

Woods was so enamored of the site that he will build another course for Morris, and also a par-3 that will encourage junior play.

For those who’ve never considered Branson a golf destination, it’s time to lose those preconceived notions and consider the area’s eclectic collection of courses.Here are the ones that any golf trip to Branson should include.

Buffalo Ridge Springs

Ranked No. 1 among publics in Missouri by Golf Magazine, Buffalo Ridge Springs is one of three courses under the Big Cedar Lodge umbrella. At 7,036 yards, the par-71 is a worthy test for PGA Tour Champions players in the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf.

Typical of Tom Fazio designs, Buffalo Ridge is about aesthetics first, with many of the holes playing easier than they appear from the tee. The wide fairways traverse hills and valleys with exposed limestone giving many of the holes a rugged, dramatic look. Ponds, rocky streams and waterfalls – most of them added for effect – ramp up the wow factor along with Fazio’s distinctive bunkering.

Glance beyond the limestone wall that runs down the fairway at No. 2, the toughest par 4 on the course at 471 yards, and you’re likely to see buffalo roaming in the adjacent land.

There are all sorts of bells and whistles that will send players scurrying for their camera phones.

An example is a lakeside log cabin beyond the green at No. 5 which serves as a snack shack with tables and rocking chairs on the patio for those who want to take a break, enjoy the scene and allow other groups to play through.

At Nos. 14 and 15, covered bridges – two of several on the course – enhance the backdrops to the elevated greens which are built into the sides of hills.

The green at No. 17, a 165-yard par 3, backs to a limestone wall with a large cave through which a stream flows and runs along the right side of the green.

It says a lot about the perfectionism of Morris – a devoted conservationist – that the course was already considered the best public in the state when he bought it and decided it needed a facelift. Morris changed the name from Branson Creek and brought Fazio back to expose more rock, build more bridges and add prairie grasses and water features.

And just when this opulent playground seems too ostentatious, Morris keeps it all in check with hand-painted signage – done by himself – to reminds players that they’re not at the Broadmoor or Homestead. His mission is to make his resort feel comfortably down-home, while showing off the natural wonders and spectacular scenery of his stomping grounds.

The practice facility at Top of the Rock is world-class and unique in golf.

Top of the Rock

Go ahead and scoff at the idea of paying $115 for a 9-hole par 3. But do that and you’ll miss one of the most unforgettable golf experiences of your life.

Designed by Jack Nicklaus on a mountain peak, Top of the Rock might be the most meticulously landscaped course west of Augusta National.

A wide variety of bushes, shrubs and flowers adorn every hole. Enormous boulders appear around greensites and tee boxes and in bunkers, hazards and fairways. Everything is in place for an aesthetic purpose on this tiny gem, which measures 1,420 yards from the back tees.

How many courses have an island green that rarely is mentioned? Such is the fate of No. 6, which is overlooked perhaps because it doesn’t have an overlook – like so many of the other holes at Top of the Rock – of Table Rock Lake.

Top of the Rock ranks No. 2 on Golf Advisor’s list of “America’s Top 10 Par 3 Courses”, trailing only Bandon Preserve in Oregon.

It also co-hosts the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf, making it the only par-3 course used on a professional tour. When the event debuted in 2014, PGA Tour Champions players were blown away.

“You have all these household-name golfers with their iPhones out,” said Jeff Wilhoit of Big Cedar. “They’re taking pictures and posting on social media, ‘This is greatest, coolest course I’ve ever seen.’”

The Arnold Palmer-designed synthetic range, named in 2016 among the “most inspiring” practice facilities by Golf Magazine, has a waterfall, 16 target greens, 21 bunkers and is lit at night.

When a Tom Watson-designed replica of the famed Himalayas putting green at St. Andrew’s was swallowed by a sinkhole in May of 2015, Morris viewed the setback as an opportunity.

Instead of hastily filling the hole with dirt, he decided to dig deeper, hoping to find other natural wonders. After more than two years of work, 60,000 dump truck loads of dirt have been hauled out of the hole.

“He’s out there almost every day, just looking at it,” Wilhoit said. “You know as a kid, you play with Tonka Toys, Johnny plays with real ones.”

Playing the course is one small piece of the Top of the Rock experience. Green fees include a self-guided golf-cart tour of the Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail. Inside the cavern and near a cascading waterfall, tourists can enjoy a drink at the Lost Canyon Cave Bat Bar.

Players will also want to linger at a clubhouse full of memorabilia, much of it courtesy of his illustrious golf pals – Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Watson, Woods and Crenshaw.

A view of the green for the second hole at the Mountain Top Course

Mountain Top Course

Gary Player’s 13-hole par 3, which opened in August of 2017, is one of the most intriguing courses you’ll ever play. It somehow manages to be a throwback experience, while also a peek into golf’s future with its fast, flexible layout.

As players finish at each green, they won’t find any tee markers for the next hole – just a multitude of widely arrayed, raised tee boxes, each with a subtle, black yardage plate, providing a different angle and length of approach. Ranging from 40 to 205 yards out, these are just the suggested alternatives as players are free to select any ground from which to tee it up.

On a recent trip with golf and travel writers, playing in a group of seven, the player closest to the pin on the previous hole had his choice of teeing ground and everyone hit from there.

Any way you work it, Mountain Top is fascinating. There is no motorized transportation at the course – just pull carts. And though there’s plenty of elevation change, it’s a relatively easy walk because of the close proximity of the holes.

There’s also no trees at Mountain Top – just short grass, tall grass, white sand and dramatic limestone formations.

The most memorable holes are near the finish. The green at No. 9 is backed by a vertical rock wall, more than 25 feet high. No. 10 is a rolling, windswept, uphill beauty, playing toward the clubhouse and to a diagonal green cut into the side of a hill.

No. 12 has dramatic bunkering on either side of the green that disappears into the horizon. No. 13 plays toward the back side of the clubhouse to another limestone-framed green.

True to the wishes of Morris, the unique aspects of Mountain Top combine to give the course a relaxed feel, welcoming to juniors, women and high-handicap players.

When the nearby Woods and Crenshaw/Coore courses are complete, Mountain Top will be a great complement, before or after a meal in the rustic but elegant clubhouse.

Branson Hills

The best course in the Branson/Lakes Area not under the Big Cedar umbrella is Branson Hills Golf Club. Formerly called Payne Stewart Golf Club before its naming rights were revoked, it is ranked No. 1 by Golfweek among public courses in Missouri.

Designed by Chuck Smith, with help from former PGA Tour player Bobby Clampett, Branson Hills is set on beautiful wooded land with lots of elevation change, rock outcroppings and water hazards.

With all the trees, it doesn’t have the jaw-dropping, long-range mountain scenery of Buffalo Ridge Springs. But strong players might enjoy the course more as it requires more strategy.

Many tees and greens are elevated. The fairways are wide and generally visible, but many of the approaches are to greens that are obscured, like No. 2 and No. 18. Hit a bad shot on an approach at Branson Hills and it is likely to be penalized.

One of the best holes at Branson Hills is No. 4, a par 5 that requires careful consideration on the second shot. Even though the hole measures 576 yards, it can be reached in two shots for players willing to gamble over water. With water all the way up the right side, a lay-up can be a chancy proposition as well.

No. 16, a par 3 with a demanding tee shot over water, and No. 17, with a demanding drive over the same hazard, are a memorable, challenging duo.

Thousand Hills Golf Resort

Don’t confuse this par-64 course for an executive layout. There’s plenty of teeth in the 5,111-yard course, which includes nine par-3 holes and one par 5.

Consider the most dramatic and difficult hole on the course: No. 9 is a 460-yard par 4 that plays from an elevated tee to a downhill fairway and then uphill to a green carved into the side of a cliff, guarded in front by a water hazard and in back by a vertical rock wall.

The other finishing hole is excellent as well – a 530-yard par 5 that can be reached in two. A stream runs along the right side of the green, then crosses the fairway and empties into a larger hazard which demands attention on the tee shot.

The Bob Cupp design is situated in a valley and surrounded by resort lodging, most of it on higher ground overlooking the course. The bentgrass greens, zoysia fairways and Bermuda rough are beautifually conditioned.

Thousand Hills also has top-notch accommodations for visitors. The spacious condominiums are perfect for golf groups as they are furnished with full kitchens and living rooms. Cabins – and soon to arrive four-bedroom cottages – are also available for larger groups.

Located just a few blocks off the main drag, Thousand Hills’ accommodations are a convenient option for those wishing to take advantage of Branson’s traditional attractions, like the 47 theaters that host more than 100 shows daily. We saw “Raiding the Country Vault”, a musical tribute to iconic country entertainers and songs performed by many top Nashville muscians and songwriters. The show was a stone’s throw from Thousand Hills at the Starlite Theatre, where we ate at Starlite’s supremely satisfying BBQ restaurant “Gettin’ Basted”.

Off the Course

A must for lovers of beef is Level 2 Steakhouse, which turns out incredibly tender cuts of meat thanks to a 1600-degree infrared broiler that speeds the cooking process. Those stopping at Level 2 should save room for the Missouri Butter Cake dessert, a gooey, tasty delight that is a must-try.

At Top of the Rock, lunch at Arnie’s Barn is a particular treat. It’s a Mexican restaurant with 31 fireplaces that overlooks the driving range. It gets its name from a barn Morris’ wife found close to Arnold Palmer’s property in Latrobe, Pa. When fire destroyed a previous restaurant at Top of the Rock, Morris decided to replace it with the rustic barn. It was taken apart, brought piece by piece and reassembled by an Amish family famed for its building expertise. The family also built the covered bridges at Buffalo Ridge Springs. When eating at Arnie’s Barn, it’s easy to overindulge on chips with three kinds of guacamole and not leave room for your entree.

The décor is similarly impressive at Big Cedar’s Devil’s Pool Restaurant which has a sumptuous breakfast buffet.

Farmhouse Restaurant in Branson’s historic district is known for its chicken fried chicken and blackberry cobbler, the latter so good that three of our group chose it for breakfast.

My visit only lasted three days, but I experienced enough to know that I’d only scratched the surface, and with the new courses soon to come online, I plan to return.