By Ken MacLeod
The rest of the nation and most of the world may be in a recession when it comes to golf course building, but it is boom times in Branson.
Thanks to the vision, enthusiasm and resources of Bass Pro owner Johnny Morris, the announcement of a new course designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore was made at Tuesday’s Media Day for the upcoming Bass Pro Legends of Golf event . The press conference was held at the site of the former Murder Rock course, the back nine of which is in the middle of the new design. The course will eventually work its way into the rotation of the tournament, which currently uses the Buffalo Meadows Course and Top of the Rock.
One look around from the panoramic Ozark hill shows just how active Morris is. Below renovation on several holes is hurrying to a conclusion on the Buffalo Meadows Course (formerly Branson Creek) in time for this year’s event. On one side of the clubhouse work has begun on a new nine-hole family friendly course designed by Gary Player. The property for the Crenshaw-Coore course consists of what used to be the back nine of Murder Rock as well as pristine ridges and valleys purchased by Morris that were not part of the previous course.
Left unsaid is that Morris has plenty of land left over for another course and the whispers have already begun.
Without getting too far ahead, when the new Buffalo Ridge course opens likely in 2017, Morris will have at least four courses, including the incredible nine-hole Top of the Rock, and the future of Branson as a golf destination will rest largely in his hands.
"Quality has always paid off for us in the long run," Morris told Golf Oklahoma. "I visited their courses around Bandon Dunes, Pinehurst, Streamsong and they are all of such excellence that they are doing well. Our hope is that these courses will complement each other and create more critical mass.
"I got to go to Pinehurst last summer and saw the No. 2 course that they reworked. They have nine courses there, and in visiting with other people that own multiple courses, I think it will work. And part of it is not economics, part of it is passion. For the long term, it’s going to be enduring and very special and unique and it will pay off in the long run.
"This area is so beautiful and half the population of the U.S. lives within a day’s drive of here. We’re in now, so we’ll see how it goes."
Coore and Crenwshaw said they began talking with Morris more than two years ago, and both cautioned him many times not to build unless he was sure the market was there. Morris’ enthusiasm for the project won them over.
Coore said Morris visited them while they were working on their new highly-acclaimed course at Streamsong Resort and asked them to come take a look at the property. After the two walked the land for many days on several trips, they gave Morris the answer he was looking for.
"We can do it and it can be really, really special," Coore said. "Johnny had the greatest line. He said ‘I understand the thinking about, do we need another course? But building another course would be so much fun!’ He has been so good. His passion for this state and the land around here, we wanted so badly to tell him yes. But we wanted to make absolutely sure. And the more we’re here, the more we walk the property, the more we think this is pretty darn good."
Crenshaw and Coore have agreed on routing of about 15 holes. Construction won’t begin until they have completed the new Trinity Forest course in Dallas, which will be the new site of the Byron Nelson Championship. Crenshaw and Coore, known for their unique use of a site’s natural features, have designed 10 of the top 100 modern courses as rated by Golfweek Magazine, including No. 1 Sand Hills in Mullen, Neb.
"The terrain has numerous hills and sweeps," Crenshaw said. "We envision a diversity of holes. Presently we have 15 holes that are set and two or three that are adjustable. We’ll have slopes going this way, slopes going that way. Hopefully some very interesting holes."
Visitors to the Top of the Rock course overlooking Morris’ Big Cedar Lodge this year will see many major improvements Morris has made in the last year, including a natural history museum some have equated in quality with The Smithsonian.
His passion for all things outdoors is legendary, but the new emphasis on golf, triggered by his long and careful renovation of the Jack Nicklaus-designed par-three Top of the Rock, has started something that could turn Branson into one of the nation’s top golf destinations. In addition to Morris’ properties, the resort community boasts The Payne Stewart Golf Course, Ledgestone Country Club, Thousand Hills Golf Course, Pointe Royale and Holiday Hills.
Will there be enough golfers and outdoor enthusiasts to fill the tee sheets? Morris hasn’t made many missteps in his brilliant business career. With his newfound passion for golf, one of the nation’s premier golf destinations could soon be at Oklahoma’s doorstep.
By Ken MacLeod