When you think of premier golf resorts in the United States, it’s the usual cast of suspects. My hunch is that Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Mo., might not make your list.
Maybe it’s because the brainchild of Johnny Morris (founder of Bass Pro Shops) bills itself as a premier wilderness resort, replete with myriad outdoor activities. Set against the backdrop of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake, Big Cedar has plenty to offer beyond its three 18-hole championship courses and two short courses.
Compared to golf-centric destinations such as Streamsong and Bandon Dunes, Big Cedar leans more toward a guilt-free golf trip designation. The city of Branson with its lengthy list of family-friendly activities is about a 15-minute drive from Big Cedar. More on that in a bit.
The point is that Big Cedar Lodge isn’t exclusively about golf. That said, for the golfing enthusiast, it easily could be.
Tee It Up
Payne’s Valley (April-October $325)
This is the newest addition to Big Cedar Lodge and the first public-access course from Tiger Wood’s TGR Design firm. If you happened to catch the Tiger Woods and friends “Payne’s Valley Cup” in September 2020, it was hard to ignore the generous fairways and copious exposed limestone.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Payne’s Valley is while the first 18 holes constitute the actual course, it’s the 19th hole that might provide the most indelible memory. The short, island-green par-3 was conceived as a convenient option to resolve any unsettled bets after 18 holes. For the record, I hit the green. A smooth pitching wedge to 12 feet left a pretty simple birdie putt, which I left woefully short. And contrary to what you might hear from TV announcers, it had no bearing on how much I enjoyed my dinner.
The 19th hole is an exclamation mark for a course where the vistas, exposed rock and rolling terrain will likely be more memorable for most golfers than the architectural elements of the design. Off the tee, Payne’s Valley is as open as a 24-hour pharmacy. It’s a resort-friendly style that manages to create plenty of challenge leading up to and around the putting surfaces. To be clear, I’m not saying the course is easy. But in a brief and entirely informal survey of a handful of single-digit handicappers, Payne’s Valley ranked high for “fun” but much lower for “challenge.” I concur and if given the opportunity to play one of the courses at Big Cedar multiple times, it wouldn’t be my first choice. That would be Ozark National.
In terms of general public recognition, Payne’s Valley will likely receive the most reservation requests. In fact, by the end of June, you can start making reservations for 2022. If you’re still looking for a time in 2021, it’s likely going to be mid-week in August at best. Call me a golf snob if you want but something about the dog days of summer in southern Missouri just isn’t all that enticing.
(Apropos of nothing … I’m not sure why Tiger decided to make his namesake tee markers so much larger than the others but, hey, it’s Tiger Woods. As much as the course pays homage to Payne Stewart, there are at least 18 not-so-subtle reminders that this is mostly about Tiger.)
Payne’s Valley is the Disneyland of Big Cedar Lodge. It’s enjoyable for the largest swath of skill levels. The walls of limestone and waterfalls provide a brilliant backdrop for all Instagram posts and storybook pictures. If Missouri golf had a magazine, Payne’s Valley would be the centerfold—but in a totally family-friendly and age-appropriate sort of way.
Ozarks National (April-October $250)
I saved the best for second. This Coore and Crenshaw design is my favorite course on the property. Simply top-of-class. It’s engaging, difficult and requires ample thought on every shot. That said, if you’re not able to play all three 18-hole courses and want to ensure that you leave with as many balls in your bag as possible, you might want to skip Ozarks.
More than anything, what I enjoyed was the variety of holes. Some par-5s were reachable while others demanded three solid shots to get to the green. The fifth is a short par-4 that appears to be driveable and it’s just tempting enough to make you think you can get there. You can’t. I didn’t even try so technically I don’t know.
Even so, the tee shot requires precision. The landing area is larger than it appears from the tee. If you navigate that successfully, a 200- to 220-yard tee shot leaves you a wedge or short iron to a severely elevated green. If you come up short? Don’t come up short. Trust me. Just don’t.
The par-3 12th hole is unique in that it features the largest green in the state of Missouri. One would think that should make it easier to hit. And, theoretically, it does. But the green tilts hard right-to-left and if you pull your tee ball just a bit, it will end up in a swale left of the green. So, now you’re chipping (again, theoretically) to a green that’s a good four feet or so above you and there’s a better than a 50/50 chance you have a downhill lie.
At this point, I’m sure you keep flashing back to several pivotal scenes during Season 1 of the Netflix series Ozark. To be clear, we never saw Jason Bateman, any poppy fields or country thugs. But we did manage to locate Ben’s tee marker of death.
Buffalo Ridge (April-October $175)
Sing it with me. Home, home on the range … Yep, Buffalo Ridge sits adjacent to fields where actual buffalo roam. No word on the deer and antelope contingents. Continuing the theme: the tee markers are buffalo heads which at first appear very real. And, at one time, they were. Until miscreants decided to pilfer them.
Of the three 18-hole courses at Big Cedar Lodge, Buffalo Ridge is the eldest. It’s a Tom Fazio design and leans on exposed limestone, caves, outcroppings, creeks, lakes and natural elevation changes to establish the basic blueprint. In typical Fazio fashion, the front nine is solid but arguably not spectacular. It finishes with a par-3 named “The Intimidator” after Dale Earnhardt Jr. I struggle to think of any hole as scary or menacing. Or maybe the converse is true that, for an amateur golfer, disaster can lurk around any corner and every hole is potentially daunting.
Whatever. It’s a nice par-3 that’s a lot more fun if you don’t chunk your tee shot. This is pretty much true of every par-3. But it is an aesthetically pleasing hole.
Moving on to the back nine, 12, 15 and 17 could all be signature holes. Then again, so could the par-5 14th. No. 12 is a brute of a par-4 that we played at 450 yards. And you don’t get the option to run your approach shot up on the green as it’s well-bunkered.
Hole 14 is a killer par-5 with a creek that runs along the right side of the entire hole until crosses in front of the green. If you manage to make par (or better) there, you’ll be in a good mood for the downhill tee shot on 15 that is again framed by a stream and limestone. My favorite feature of 17 isn’t the elevated tee shot. It’s the cave that sits in the rock wall behind the green. It seems like an obvious “challenge” shot that the management would prefer golfers skip. But, then again, they chose to put the green right in front of a cave. Amirite?
Plenty of short courses are three-club affairs. Bring a wedge or two and a putter and that’s pretty much all you need. Well, the 13-hole Gary Player Mountain Top course (April-October $95) requires a bit more. It ain’t no pitch and putt.
Depending on the wind, you will hit every iron in the bag and, quite possibly, a fairway wood and hybrid or two.
Holes 9, 10 and 13 will likely be the most memorable thanks to the 300-million-year-old limestone that seems a lot closer to the fairway than it actually is. A catwalk meanders through the limestone rock and adjoining caves connecting the ninth green and 10th tee.
If you struggle with heights, this might make you a little uneasy. With that, this is maybe one of the best photo ops on the course. Particularly late in the day, the lighting should be pretty ideal and the catwalk/limestone combination presents some awesome amateur modeling opportunities.
Of all the courses at Big Cedar Lodge, this one is the most logical for beginners or more casual golfers. It is walking only but really golfers of any skill level can play it.
Top of the Rock (April-October $150)
Holy botanical gardens, Batman! Hyperbolic or not, this has to make anyone’s list of the best par-3 courses on the planet. It’s not as diabolical as Scottsdale National’s Bad Little Nine but it’s so manicured, it almost feels fake.
Each hole has something memorable going on … and it likely deals with flowers, water, white sand or some combination thereof. The typical “pictures don’t do it justice” disclaimer applies. Except maybe the one of the island green or the aerial view of the chapel to the right of the first tee with Table Rock Lake in the background. Those come pretty close.
It’s impossible not to notice the ongoing sinkhole situation. Morris and his team prefer the term “Cathedral of Nature.” See, what had happened was, several years ago, the existing driving range and practice putting green started sinking. Rather than fill the sinkhole, Morris decided to excavate it. Eventually, plans include on-site lodging overlooking the sinkhole. Sorry. “Cathedral of Nature.”
Best of the Next
Neither will claim the same status as the courses as Big Cedar. But, then again, plenty of golfers aren’t looking to drop $200-$325 on every round of golf. Both Branson Hills and Ledgestone give you plenty of golf for around $100. Depending on your itinerary, either course fits nicely as a start or end to your trip, particularly if you arrive in the morning and want to slide in a round on the first day.
Branson Hills is a sneaky tough course. It’s 7,300 yards from the tips and when you check in and the pro tells you to “keep it in the fairway,” heed that advice. Of all the courses, this one felt the most mountainous to me and it’s probably because you’re pretty much in the middle of the Ozark Mountains. Makes sense.
Ledgestone Country Club used to be a fully private venue. But like so many others, it pivoted to public primarily to remain financially viable. Ledgestone offers a nice cadre of memorable holes but the downhill par-3 15th is the one that lives rent-free in my head. I managed to smoke an 8-iron long and left of the green. It subsequently banked off the large stone ledge behind the green and remarkably ended up just off the front of the putting surface. A chip and a putt. Another routine par.
The city of Branson is in the midst of a serious revitalization effort. To date, it’s remained attractive to the 55-plus crowd. However, that isn’t where Branson wants to be moving forward and, with the financial assistance of Johnny Morris as well as members of the Walton family (Walmart), let’s just say the typical challenges of capital support aren’t much of an issue.
The real challenge is trying to educate golfers (and not just those looking for a buddies’ trip) that Big Cedar Lodge and Branson, Mo., should be top of mind when brainstorming potential locations. It’s an onerous task, but it’s also likely why the Branson Chamber of Commerce and Big Cedar Lodge aren’t shy about dedicating a plethora of resources to support the outreach efforts.
Because food is an integral part of how I assess every travel destination, it seemed reasonable to dedicate a small section to the topic.
The dining onsite at Big Cedar Lodge is on par (sorry) with the golf experience. It’s a relaxed bar/grill-style atmosphere but the food is much better than what most are likely to expect.
The prices aren’t outrageous but it’s a step up in cost compared to similar restaurants in downtown Branson.
If you fancy a “Man vs. Food” type of endeavor, give “The Mountain” a try. Emphasis on try. This sandwich should come with a business card for the nearest cardiologist. Beef, brisket, pulled pork, bacon, cheese, BBQ sauce and whatever else they can slam in between two buns is an apt descriptor.
Before your round at Top of the Rock, I highly recommend sampling some of the Mexican fares at Arnie’s Barn. And, not for nothing, the clubhouse is actually a restored barn from Arnie’s younger years in Latrobe, Pa. Mexican food might seem an odd choice for southern Missouri but it was one of Arnie’s favorites so there ya go.
If you do venture into Branson, the landing is home to a number of fun restaurants on the water. If upscale steak is your thing, Saltgrass Steak House and Level 2 Steakhouse should be on the shortlist.
Whatever the case, I’d make some time to swing by Dreamsicle’s for a fun dessert treat. Or two. Or three.
Plenty To Do
We stayed at the Hilton Branson Convention Center primarily because Big Cedar Lodge was packed with reservations. However, the convention center does give you better access to historic downtown Branson and Branson Landing. As you might imagine, the landing features plenty of waterfront eateries and of course, a Bass Pro Shops retail shop. The amenities inside the convention center are pleasantly posh. I stayed in a full suite which was significantly bigger (and better appointed) than my first apartment.
Onsite lodging at Big Cedar Lodge runs the gamut from $200 a night (standard double-queen room) to more than $6,000 per night for a six-bedroom villa with private pool, hot tub and indoor theater. The convention center
Speaking of reservations, it appears the Tiger effect is alive and well. Your best bet if you’re considering a 2021 trip is a tee time in the middle of the week in August. And if southern Missouri in the dog days of summer is your jam, more power to you. The other option is to wait until July when Big Cedar will start taking reservations for 2022.
Big Cedar Lodge is a top-shelf golf destination wrapped inside a well-rounded family vacation. The city of Branson and the adjacent Ozark Mountains predate Big Cedar Lodge by a fair margin and, for a majority of visitors, still serve as the main attraction. That said, I get that most people reading this are golfers and that serves as the primary consideration. In that regard, the variety of courses (style, cost, and difficulty) might be the area’s greatest asset. Considering the ten courses (five at Big Cedar) in the Branson area, four are consistently ranked in the top 10 courses in Missouri (Ozarks National, Buffalo Ridge, Branson Hills and LedgeStone).
That said, is Big Cedar Lodge on the same level as destinations like Bandon Dunes, Streamsong, and Kohler, Wisc.?
Not yet. But that’s primarily because Big Cedar Lodge and Branson are in the midst of a generational facelift and golfers are just starting to get a picture of what the final product might look like.
A final note and word of thanks to PJ Koenig for the use of his super dope photography.
With all of that considered, if Big Cedar Lodge were a stock, I’m buying.