Historically, this small town of just over 15,000, located in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, has grown from a local getaway offering a wide variety of country music, stage shows and family activities to one that is quickly becoming known as a place to enjoy a premiere golf holiday.
Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Crenshaw and Tiger Woods – some of the great names of the sport have all been attracted to this area not only for golf course design in this land of woods and lakes, but they are also outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists who each developed a special link with Johnny Morris – the billionaire, who built his business empire around fishing, hunting, camping and boating (he created Bass Pro Shops and his first such Outdoor World opened in the nearby town of Springfield in 1972). In recent times because he has fully embraced golf in a big way, Branson has become a major player in a sport that figures to get only bigger here in the very immediate future.
One reason why is simply its location.
Situated within one day’s drive – 12 hours or less – to 50 percent of the U.S. population (one-third is within 8 hours), and five of the state’s top 10 courses are here (including the top four).
Of course, golf is another great outdoor activity at a destination known to offer that in abundance.
“Golf is a natural extension of what Mr. Morris enjoys more than anything – and that is to connect people with the outdoors. Here you’ll find mountain and valley layouts that offer a variety of playing experiences, suited for every level of play,” said Matt McQueary, the Director of Golf Sales and Marketing for Big Cedar, the company created by Morris.
That connection has resulted in some amazing, scenic, fun yet challenging world-class course layouts not only in 9-hole and 18-hole versions, but also 13-hole tests.
Here’s just a sampling of the range of tracks you can experience (peak seasons are April through June and September through October).
The newest of the premiere courses (opened in the fall of 2020) and named after the late Payne Stewart, an Ozarks-native and World Golf Hall of Fame member who won 11 PGA events before dying in a plane crash in 1999, it is Tiger Woods’ first public course design in the United States.
Woods said he was attracted to the project because of his long friendship with Morris and a desire to honor Stewart.
“I’ve traveled all around the world and played all around the world, but when it comes down to it, it’s about working with the people you want to work with,” he said. “Johnny and I go way back. I like spending time around people I like spending time with.”
Located on the site of the Murder Rock Golf Club, a John Daly course that closed when Morris bought the land in October 2013, Woods envisioned a course that is more casual player friendly including wider fairways that are shaped to keep more shots in play.
Being built to showcase the region’s natural beauty, the championship course also features an extraordinarily dramatic 19th hole, “The Rock,” that can be used to settle unfinished wagers. The hole was envisioned by nature-loving Morris, and is set in one of the most dramatic geological features imaginable. The striking par-3 plays into a 200 ft cliff-side green surrounded by a flowing stream running down exposed limestone.
The challenging but player-friendly walkable course will have an unforgettable finish where golfers will actually traverse through a breathtaking natural cavern system to return to the clubhouse after completing the 19th hole.
Honored as the Best New Public Course in 2019 by Golf Digest and the Best Course You Can Play in Missouri in 2020 by Golfweek. Ozarks National is located just south of Branson. This 18-hole course was designed by the award-winning team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
Measuring 7,036 yards from the back tees, the course represents the terrain of the Ozarks with not only beautiful views, but features challenging carries and a variety of visually appealing approach shots that are highlighted by the native habitat. The course also includes interesting features, such as a 400-foot wooden beam and plank bridge, which connects the tee box and fairway of the 13th hole that stands 60-feet above a flowing creek.
“There are so many beautiful spots on this course it’s unbelievable. There is a certain atmosphere about this place that we’ve never seen before,” stated Crenshaw who has designed courses all over the world.
Top of the Rock
This is a nine-hole par-3 course designed by Jack Nicklaus. It is certainly one of the most picturesque courses in the United States.
Filled with stunning views of Table Rock Lake, waterfalls and amazing rock formations, Nicklaus began building the course in 1996, and it became the first par-3 layout included in a PGA Tour-sanctioned competition.
Fellow legend Arnold Palmer also has a hand with the facility. A wooden barn was built 150 years ago in Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa., and was transported piece by piece and reconstructed at Top of the Rock. It houses not only the pro shop and an upscale Mexican restaurant, but there is a 1,358-pound black marlin that Nicklaus caught in Australia in 1978 mounted in the bar.
After a round, golfers have the option of taking a cave tour on their carts and/or visiting the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum (and underreported is an amazing collection of local Indian culture, Civil War armaments and early Americana).
There are also multiple restaurants, a spa, chapel and a conference center among other components.
Designed by Tom Fazio, this 18-hole championship course has been named the #1 Public Course in Missouri by Golf Magazine. Aptly named, anywhere you tee it up and survey your shot, you just might see a herd of free-ranging buffalo (hope their hooves don’t accidentally bury your ball).
Formerly known as Branson Creek Golf Club, Morris and Fazio have added new approaches, water features and bunkers, essentially redesigning the course layout to bring players in close contact with nature, native grasses and the aforementioned buffalo from nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park.
The course goes up and down with plenty of hills and valleys, wide fairways and lots of rock and babbling brooks, both of which are abundant throughout the rough and rugged Ozark Mountains. Be warned, at first glance, the greens at Buffalo Ridge Springs look rather tame and without much undulation. But it’s a clever disguise. Because a lot of the greens are built into the hillsides, what look like flat putts easily can bend three feet or more.
Morris and golf icon Gary Player share a similar passion for nature and golf. Through a joined pioneering spirit, they created a renowned golf experience.
Player’s design is a family-friendly short course 13 holes (all par-3) with tee boxes as far back as 205 yards for the best golfers and as close as 40 yards for kids.
Sitting atop the Ozark Mountains just south of Branson, it provides some of the most magnificent vistas in the area. The 13th hole is only 95 yards from the back tees, but the elevated green slopes downwards from back to front. The limestone rock formations and views from the clubhouse make it a finishing hole to remember.
“We’ve built hundreds of courses over the years, but never one as drastically stunning as this. The transitions between wonderful rock formations and magnificent views make this a true national treasure,” Player said.
Other 18-hole options in the destination include Branson Hills (Chuck Smith), LedgeStone (Tom Clark), Thousand Hills (Bob Cupp), The Pointe, and Holiday Hills. Branson Hills is a Top 10 ranked course in Missouri and earned a No. 32 ranking nationally from Golfpass and Golf Advisor players. LedgeStone and Branson Hills are particularly popular thanks to their creative designs, undulating Ozarks terrain, and their player friendliness.
And when you want to take a break from the links, the courses are situated near iconic Silver Dollar City theme park, museums (Titanic and the aforementioned Ancient Ozarks Natural History), wineries, distilleries, and countless other attractions without losing their idyllic settings amid the Ozarks’ natural bounty.
While the heart of the Branson-area may be the Big Cedar Lodge, the 4,600-acre lakeside retreat that connects over 1.5 million guests annually with a variety of nature-based experiences including Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a 10,000-acre nonprofit wildlife preserve, more and more it is the links this area is becoming known for. Annually voted a TripAdvisor community top U.S. destination, Branson ranked No. 3 in 2021.
The growing golf portfolio at Big Cedar Lodge is advancing Morris’ vision for a world-class outdoor resort that combines a shared appreciation for nature and a premier golf experience.
“Certainly, visitors can enjoy the wide range of outdoor activities from jet boats to mountain roller coasters, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, hiking, camping and conservation activities, but it is bound to be the distinct golf that brings you back time and again,” said McQueary.