BRANSON, Missouri – For years, tourists have flocked to Branson to see entertainers such as Andy Williams, Mel Tillis, the Gatlin Brothers and Wayne Newton.
More recently, a new lineup of artists has helped to re-shape Branson’s image, not to mention much of its landscape. Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tiger Woods and the duo of Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw might not be able to carry a tune, but they sure know their way around CAD designs, irrigation lines and bentgrass greens. (Well, or at least their “band” does.)
The portfolio of golf courses in and around Branson keeps growing, and we’re not talking pitch-and-putters. We’re talking spectacular, brawny golf from some of the biggest names in the business.
Branson golf is, in a word, underrated. In two words, vastly underrated. As destinations go it’s not as top-of-mind as more established golf Meccas such as Myrtle Beach or Bandon Dunes, but just wait a couple years. If this isn’t the next bucket-list place to play golf, my name is Yakov Smirnoff.
To be sure, the 40 theaters and the ancillary businesses that cater to family fun are still the main draw here. Busloads of senior citizens and families packed into minivans pour into Branson (pop. 10,530) to the tune of 8.9-million visitors annually.
Slowly but surely, however, Branson’s image is changing as the marketing focus shifts to include an explosion of sports and recreation opportunities on and around Table Rock Lake and the area’s geologic wonders.
“We used to have that stigma of corny shows for old people, but it’s definitely changed,” said Dan Davis, general manager of Branson Hills Golf Club. “We’ve got quality live entertainment, but the Chamber (of Commerce) has done a good job promoting sports and recreation. Zip lines. The lake. All these outdoor activities and adventure-type stuff you can do. And golf fits in there perfectly.”
As a first-time visitor with a preconceived notion that Branson was “corny shows for old people,” I was impressed by the diversity of things to do and see. The place is a cross between a family-friendly Las Vegas (no gaming) and Wisconsin Dells on steroids.
But our group came primarily for the golf. And we left vowing to come back, having been blown away by the quality and variety of the courses and some of the most spectacular golf tableaus in the Midwest. Golf showcases the Ozarks, and vice versa.
We did catch one of the shows playing in Branson, “Million Dollar Quartet,” about an impromptu 1956 recording session at Sun Records involving Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. But the title also could have described four of the courses we played: Buffalo Ridge Springs, Mountain Top, Ozarks National and Branson Hills.
“The top four or five courses here,” Davis said, “are just out of this world.”
We started at Buffalo Ridge Springs, redesigned by Tom Fazio for Johnny Morris, the billionaire founder of Bass Pro Shops whose influence in and around Branson cannot be overstated. He’s turned Big Cedar Lodge into an outdoor lover’s Disney World with boat- ing and fishing, a 10,000-acre nature park and immersive wildlife attractions.
When Morris went in on golf, he went all in. Big Cedar Lodge boasts not only Buffalo Ridge Springs, but must-play par 3 courses by Nicklaus and Player, a newly opened Coore-Crenshaw (Ozarks National) and, coming in 2020, the first public-access course designed by Tiger Woods (Payne’s Valley). Buffalo Ridge Springs features waterfalls, limestone formations, caves and views of roaming bison grazing on native grasses at nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. Oh, yeah, and the course is pretty good, too. It has the rating pedigree, having been ranked the No. 1 public course in Missouri by one golf magazine and consistently among the top 10 in another.
We played on a sparkling late-October day, and that’s another great thing about golf in Branson. You can play through November and by late March temperatures are typically back in the 60s.
After the round, we drove over to Top of the Rock, the nine-hole par-3 course designed by Nicklaus on the highest point in Taney County. It’s the only par-3 course that co-hosts a PGA Tour-sanctioned tournament (the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf on the PGA Tour Champions).
After heavy rains opened up a 70-foot sinkhole next to the Top of the Rock clubhouse in May 2015, Morris saw not a problem but an opportunity. He had crews remove thousands of truckloads of dirt and rocks, digging ever deeper and exposing ancient limestone formations. He named the vertigo-inducing wonder the “Cathedral of Nature” and is building a lodge that will teeter on its edge.
Unfortunately, Top of the Rock was closed for some renovation work during our visit, so we dropped jaws at the million-dollar views of the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake, took the Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail tour and had lunch at Arnie’s Barn, a 150-year-old barn relocated from Arnold Palmer’s property in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
Next up was Thousand Hills Golf Resort, billed as the “World’s Best Par 64.” I didn’t count the hills but reckoned the course name was pretty accurate.
With nine tricky par 3s, eight short par 4s and one par 5, Thousand Hills won’t be everyone’s favorite, but anytime I can mark five 3s, four 4s and seven 5s on my scorecard, I’m happy. It’s kind of cool that you can shoot 14-over and still break 80.
Day 2 was, without question, our best eating day. We had breakfast at the Farmhouse Restaurant; lunch at Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, known for its singing servers; and dinner at Level 2 Steakhouse, which features 28-day aged beef and seafood flown in weekly from Hawaii. Diners who join the “Kut Club” choose from five signature knives, which are engraved with their names and saved for return visits.
On Day 3, we tackled Mountain Top, Player’s unorthodox 13-hole par-3 course, which winds through stunning limestone formations. The visuals are right up there with anything you’ll ever play. Every hole is a mini-adventure, and you can’t wait to putt out and get to the next tee to see what awaits. It was on the fifth hole where I witnessed my first-ever hole-in-one (alas, not by me). One of my playing partners, Vic Williams from Reno, Nevada, spun his wedge shot back off a ridge and into the hole. I think everyone in the Ozarks heard us whooping it up. I hit my shot to eight feet and made the putt for a birdie, which felt like a double-bogey. Playing Mountain Top was such a blast that I was literally disappointed when the round came to an end. The course earns the ultimate compliment: You can’t play it without a grin plastered to your face.
In the afternoon, we were among the fortunate few to play Ozarks National before it opened to the public (immediately following the conclusion of the 2019 Bass Pro Shop Legends of Golf). Coore and Crenshaw are masters at taking what nature gives them and not forcing something just because their names are on the scorecard. Nothing appears to be manufactured or even “built” on their courses and as a result they look like they’re 100 years old the day they open.
Ozarks National, which must be walked, bears striking similarities to the heralded Coore-Crenshaw design at the Sand Valley Resort near Wisconsin Rapids — generous landing areas, beautiful bunkering and green complexes that get your attention.
The fifth hole is a drivable par 4 with “risk” and “reward” written all over it. The landing area to the left is plenty wide but if you take dead aim at the elevated green and miss right, you are in a world of hurt. We played it at 248 yards (white tees) and watched as one of the players in the group behind us drove the green and nearly made a rare double-eagle, his ball rolling over the edge of the cup and stopping five feet away.
On our last day, we played Branson Hills Golf Club under overcast skies. As good as Morris’ courses are, this one might have been my favorite. It’s Bobby Clampett’s lone design (together with Chuck Smith), and based on what he did here it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been offered more jobs.
“This course was my pride and joy,” he said. “I put my heart and soul into it. We made 30-plus trips to Branson in our airplane. I remember the days of walking the land before anything was cut. It was truly a labor of love. We went so far over budget. I was told it ended up costing $34 million to build the course. I was pretty proud of it the way it turned out.”
He should be. Branson Hills features severe elevation changes, but the majority of the dramatic shots are downhill and thus favorable to the golfer. If you play this course, remember to turn around on the greens and look backward at the holes.
“People ask all the time what is our signature hole and that is the hardest question to answer because there truly are so many of them,” Davis said. “We don’t have fancy bridges and hand-hewn logs but the guts of the golf course is really good.”
Branson Hills opened in 2009 as Payne Stewart Golf Club. The name changed in 2016 after the original contract with the Payne Stewart Foundation expired. But there’s a nice tribute in the clubhouse to Stewart, who was born and raised about an hour away in Springfield, and other Missouri greats.
Stewart, who died in a plane crash in October 1999, will be further memorialized by Payne’s Valley, which will give Morris five courses at Big Cedar Lodge. We saw the TGR Design course under construction, which whetted our appetite for a return trip.
“I’ve thought for years that the golf in Branson was great, even prior to what Johnny is doing down the road,” Davis said. “He’s going to have three courses of high quality (not counting the par 3s). Combine that with us and LedgeStone (Country Club) and you’ve got one heck of a golf trip. Thousand Hills is a great course, too. There’s definitely a little something for everybody.”
Come for the shows. Stay for the golf. Or vice versa.
Visit explorebranson.com/golf for more information.