by Tom Bedell
ORLANDO, Fla. – Five golf course architects walked into a conference room, and no one laughed. Well, actually there were a few laughs, but it wasn’t a joke. It was a Q&A press luncheon hosted by Big Cedar Golf, the increasingly mind-boggling golf destination in Branson, Missouri, at the 2019 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.
The annual January gathering in Florida is pretty mind-boggling itself, less a show than an extravaganza, the mother of all golf shows. But it was surely an ideal time for Big Cedar to gather a flock of golf journalists together to hear from representatives from five architectural firms involved in building the courses that are turning Branson into a must-visit golf destination.
Branson wasn’t doing too badly as a tourist draw to begin with, as a midwest entertainment haven, skewed toward country music acts. But when Johnny Morris, the founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops turned his hand to golf in the Ozarks, he soon became a major player in the area’s golf and tourism scene, as owner of Big Cedar Lodge and its golfing properties, including Buffalo Ridge Springs, designed by Tom Fazio and later reworked by Fazio and Morris.
Fazio was the headliner at the luncheon, and he set the tone from the start: “Of all the places I’ve been, you’re not going to find anything better or more distinctive than Branson.”
One wag suggested Fazio might want to sign on with the Branson Chamber of Commerce, but Fazio claimed he wasn’t making a sales pitch because his work was already done and the checks cashed. “These are just facts—this place is so amazing that it’s incredible.”
Anyone who has visited and marveled at the vistas near the Top of the Rock course, one hub of the seemingly ever-growing resort, would be inclined to agree, as all members of the panel did.
Aside from Fazio, the Murderer’s Row of architectural reps at the luncheon included Jeff Lawrence, senior designer at the Gary Player Design Group; Keith Rhebb, a design associate for Coore & Crenshaw; Beau Welling, a senior design consultant for TGR Design by Tiger Woods, and Tommy Hearden of Nicklaus Design (Hearden more a business development specialist than a designer).
All of the firms have a major hand in at Big Cedar, and spoke to some of the challenges and opportunities the work there afforded them. Nicklaus Design is responsible for the Top of the Rock Course, which is the first par-3 track to be part of a professional championship, the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf on the Champions Tour (April 26-28 this year).
Though originally opened in 1996, the course was reborn in 2014 with views of Table Rock Lake and the Ozark Mountains alongside an Arnold Palmer-designed and partially synthetic practice area, a Tom Watson-designed practice green modeled after the Himalayas putting course in St. Andrews (which later collapsed into a cavern which will eventually be a tourist attraction itself) a chapel, a Civil War era cabin and Arnie’s Barn overlooking it all. Both the pro shop and a cavernous restaurant, the building is reconstructed from the timbers of a 150-year-old barn dismantled not far from Palmer’s home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
It’s a lot of visual stimulus. As Fazio put it, “No words can really do it justice; you won’t really believe it until you see it and then there’s so much going on in your brain you just want to be there—you don’t want to leave.”
Nicklaus was happy to be involved in the project, said Hearden. “Jack is always looking for the chance to do something creative, something a little different that might be a way to grow the game. And this certainly seemed like a good way, a par-3 course challenging enough for the game’s best players but approachable by those of any skill level.”
The new Mountain Top Golf Course is a project which Lawrence claimed kept changing in concept. “From day 1 it was to be a par-3 course that could be playable by anyone. And walkable—there’s no cart path. But beyond that Morris told us to think outside the box and be creative. The Player Design group had the original design on paper for nine holes. Then it went down to eight. And up to 12. Back to nine. And finally to 13.”
Lawrence, as did all the panelists, credited Morris with the hands-on commitment to not just get things right, but spectacular: “Personally, he tested me to the limit. His vision and his passion brought the best out of everyone on the property. And the best feedback we’ve been getting is that after people play the 13 holes—they want to play them again.”
Ozark National is the newest golf property at Big Cedar, a Coore & Crenshaw design. Rhebb said that when the design team first arrived on site, “The vistas were simply amazing, almost distracting, it was so beautiful. The course runs all along ridges and when the Tour players arrive in April we hope they pick up on the details. We spent a lot of time on the contouring and the greens, and when the greens are running fast it’s going to play really well.”
Rhebb, too, noted that Morris wasn’t exactly a hands-off owner: “A lot of times we thought we were done, but Johnny would have one more notion to try. We were always amused in the mornings when we arrived and saw his pickup tracks running though bunkers on the green. He’s already been out looking things over. It was very refreshing to have someone that passionate out there.”
Twenty years ago Tiger Woods went fishing with Morris, a day that appears to have been a highlight for both men. Now the two are collaborating on the first public course from TGR Design, Payne’s Valley. Scheduled to open this fall, the track will also be a tribute course to the late major champion, Payne Stewart.
Welling said, “Morris loves nature and wants people to experience nature. And we want people to have fun out on the golf course. It all comes together on a 19th hole playing up to a truly spectacular piece of geology.” Welling admitted that the construction process wasn’t the easiest—a lot of blasting to be done—but that, “It’s all doable when the investment is there to get it done. The challenge was really an opportunity, and Morris had the commitment to make it happen. If he didn’t it wouldn’t be as spectacular.”
Fazio pretty much summed it all up when he referred to the famous sinkhole that appeared next to the Top of the Rock in 2015: “Most people would try to fill up a sinkhole. Johnny develops it.”