Big Cedar Lodge’s Newest Golf Course, Ozarks National, Draws Attention Of Golf Community To The Ozarks
When one thinks of great American golf courses, the mind automatically turns to places like Augusta National or Pebble Beach. Chances are the courses located in the Ozark Mountains region of Missouri don’t exactly make it on to your golf radar screen. Despite the area’s breathtaking scenery, comfortable weather, and easy access to additional world-class outdoor sports – hunting and fishing in particular – this neck of the woods is more closely related to the country music-themed theatres of nearby Branson than great golf. However, all that is beginning to change thanks to Johnny Morris and the golf courses of Big Cedar Lodge.
The founder of Bass Pro Shops and noted conservationist has teamed up with some of the biggest names in the world of golf—Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Crenshaw, and Tiger Woods two name a few—to create a handful of simply incredible public courses that are turning heads throughout the golf community. With four courses currently in play and one more in the works, the best-kept secret in golf is … well … not much of a secret anymore. That’s the plan, after all: transforming this region of the American Midwest into a world-class golf destination.
“That’s what’s being built as you and I are talking,” says Kirk Elmquist, Tournament Director for Big Cedar Lodge. Speaking by phone from his office at Big Cedar Lodge, Elmquist’s enthusiasm for the work to bring world-class golf to the Ozarks is simply infectious.
“Truly some of the most amazing opportunities to play golf in one weekend for a buddy trip, or a corporate event is why this is being designed,” says Elmquist. “What excites me is when PGA tour professionals come here and are excited to play this area, that tells me the quality is way above your normal golf area,” Elmquist adds.
Elmquist oversees the lodge’s signature event each year, the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge, a regular tournament on the PGA Champions Tour since 2014. Normally played on the nine-hole, par 3 Top of the Rock course—the first par 3 to be featured in a professional championship—the 2019 Legends of Golf tournament will be played on the lodge’s newest course, Ozarks National, which begins our tour through the incredible golf courses of Big Cedar.
Ozarks National is a visually stunning 18-hole course designed by the in-demand duo of Bill Coore and two-time Masters Tournament champion Ben Crenshaw. Built onto the top of two mountain ridges, Ozarks National was designed to accentuate the natural topography of the land. The goal behind the design of Ozarks National was to let the land dictate the flow of the course while creating a challenging but enjoyable golf experience. “The Core Crenshaw Group is very much a minimalist group,” adds Elmquist. “They really go with the contour of the land.”
The 39th course designed by the Coore-Crenshaw team since 1986, Ozarks National is a true representation of their philosophy of respect for the “golden age of golf architecture” and their admiration for classic courses such as Ross, Mackenzie, MacDonald, Maxwell, and Tillinghast. The Coore-Crenshaw portfolio includes such modern classics as Chechessee Creek Club in Okatie, South Carolina, Streamsong Resort in Fort Meade, Florida, and Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, Canada, a course named Golf Digest’s top new course of 2015 and described as the “second coming of Cypress Point.” Each Coore-Crenshaw course has its own identity coaxed by the natural contour, textures, and traditions of the land. Following this philosophy and guided by Morris’ wholistic commitment to the environment, what has been created at Ozarks National is truly remarkable. “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,” says Crenshaw. “The scenery and the way this property moves make it different than anything we’ve ever built.”
Measuring 7,036 yards from the back tees, Ozarks National showcases the Ozarks with an array of indescribable vistas and stunning views throughout the course. The course also includes many interesting features, such as a 400-foot wooden beam and plank bridge connecting the tee box and fairway of the 13th hole 60-feet above the creek below. “You don’t expect to see something this massive and beautiful on a golf course,” says Elmquist. “That was breathtaking to me.”
In fact, everything about the course, from the minimalist design to water recycling efforts to the use of native grasses, speak to the care Morris and Coore-Crenshaw take to leaving as much of the natural environment as possible undisturbed.
The 18-hole course features a collection of challenging carries and visually arresting approach shots that will leave golfers in a state of awe. Wildlife is also in abundance as whitetail deer and turkey roam on dedicated wildlife areas throughout Ozarks National. Morris has also added pheasant along the course as part of an effort to repopulate the species, characteristic of Morris’ dedication to the causes of wildlife preservation and environmental conservation. In fact, everything about the course, from the minimalist design to water recycling efforts to the use of native grasses, speak to the care Morris and Coore-Crenshaw take to leaving as much of the natural environment as possible undisturbed.
“We moved less dirt on Ozarks National than we did on the 13-hole Gary Player-designed Mountain Top Course,” says Todd Bohn, Director of Agronomy at Big Cedar Lodge. “Bill and Ben are just masters at finding good golf holes along with John. Their minds together are a dynamic team and are just really good at it.”
Not only is Ozarks National a feast for the eyes, but it’s also a feast for your golf game as well. Featuring wide fairways, a generous amount of roll-up areas, and greens with a consistent pace, Ozarks National was designed to appeal to golfers at all levels of ability. For instance, tee boxes were placed at strategic areas for the beginner through the intermediate to the professional golfer. “You only have to be inspired by the beauty,” says Elmquist. “I think the width of the fairways, the grass, the roll-up areas instead of so much fly-in area to me, makes this course so enjoyable for any amateur.”
Top of the Rock
Situated at the top of Table Rock Lake, Top of the Rock is billed as “nature and golf at its finest.” A Jack Nicklaus-designed course, Top of the Rock features waterfalls, wandering creeks, swans gliding across the tops of lakes, bass-filled ponds, and loads of rock formations accentuating the Ozark Mountains setting.
The mountain plays a large role in the course design as well. A nine-hole, par 3 course, Top of the Rock is by no means a long course, so no need to pack a driver. The key playable feature of this course is the elevation. The course was built on one of the highest points in the county, making teeing off loads of fun. “The drop-offs are amazing, like on Number 2. It’s just a 100-yard hole, but it drops straight off toward the water,” says Elmquist. “You hit it really high and land it where you want to land it.”
Buffalo Ridge Springs
Ranked as one of the top public golf course in the state of Missouri since 2001, including multiple top rankings, Buffalo Ridge is another nature-filled golf experience only available at Big Cedar. Deer and turkey are regular sights on this course, but the real unique feature is the large pen of American bison roaming along an area stretching from the first through fourth holes. “On number 1, you have this herd of buffalo standing just 60 yards behind a fence,” says Elmquist. “It’s unreal. You can’t believe this is actually happening.”
Designed by Tom Fazio, Buffalo Ridge is a player’s course with wide fairways, quick greens, and views of the surrounding mountains that seem to never end. “I tell Mr. Morris all the time there is no prettier hole in golf, in my opinion than Number 18 at about 5:30 at night when the sun sets,” says Bohn. “It just highlights everything.”
A Gary Player-designed course, Mountain Top proves that 13 is, indeed, a lucky number. This 13-hole short course winds through some spectacular rock formations and offers up more breathtaking views of the Ozarks.
While challenging enough for the most skilled player, many of the holes at Mountain Top were planned with the amateur in mind, particularly lucky number 13. Designed with strategically placed undulations on the green, the course’s final hole is designed to produce birdies and the ever-so-thrilling hole-in-one.
“We want to see more people make more birdies and more opportunities to make a hole in one,” says Bohn. “What’s wrong with having more birdies? There’s not a golfer on the planet who will tell you there’s something wrong with that. That’s one of the coolest things they’ve done on 13.”
Scheduled to open in the spring of 2020, Payne’s Valley will honor a local legend, the late PGA Tour great Payne Stewart. The first publicly accessible golf course designed by Tiger Woods and TGR Designs, Payne’s Valley will be yet another beautiful and ultimately playable course at Big Cedar, with pristine water features, wide open fairways, and large, inviting greens. It was also planned with younger players in mind.
“During his press conference, Tiger talked about growing up in Los Angeles and playing on courses that had the ability to make better scores,” explains Bohn. “I think he’s really taking it from a youth perspective saying ‘hey, how can we get more kids playing.’ that really lines up with Morris’ philosophy of impacting the next generation for being outdoors.”
Big Cedar Golf
The amenities, activities, and sights available during a visit to Big Cedar Lodge are almost infinite. From world-class fishing and boating, amazing restaurants and bars, to the Bass Pro Shop Shooting Academy, the chances you’ll be bored at Big Cedar is zero percent. However, there are a few items that must be on your to-do list when you visit the lodge for a round of golf.
• The Cathedral of Nature (a.k.a. The Sink Hole). When an enormous sinkhole opened up on the Top of the Rock course in 2015, Bass Pro Shop Founder Johnny Morris didn’t see a problem, he saw an opportunity. Choosing against conventional wisdom, Morris decided not to fill in the sinkhole, removing more than 70,000 tons of dirt in order to reveal an indescribable system of caves and rock formations below the ground’s surface.
• Arnie’s Barn. Named in honor of Arnold Palmer, Arnie’s Barn is a Mexican restaurant and pro shop housed in a 150-year-old barn originally located in Palmer’s hometown, Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The barn was disassembled piece-by-piece and reconstructed on site by noted Ozark craftsman Danny Schwartz.
• Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum. Celebrating the history of the Ozarks, the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum takes visitors on a voyage back in time. The museum tells the stories of the prehistoric creatures that roamed the area millions of years ago as well as the native peoples that lived on the land prior to the arrival of European settlers. The museum also houses an astonishing collection of artwork and artifacts from Native Americans and the Civil War era.