By Steve Donahue

Today’s Branson offers visitors activities such as dinner shows, zip lines, wineries, world-class fishing, hiking, jet boats, museums and much more...and, GOLF!

It used to be folks visited Missouri’s Branson/Lakes Area for its plethora of live family musical venues. That’s still the case, as many of 2016’s record 9.5 million visitors attended performances at the approximately 50 theaters staging productions.

Today’s Branson offers visitors activities such as zip lines, wineries, world-class fishing, hiking, jet boats, museums— Titanic and Ancient Ozarks Natural History are two favorites — Ballparks of America, Branson Landing and Branson’s historic downtown district.

However, the fastest-growing area attraction is actually golf, and our group of eight golfers sampled the destination’s best courses during an unseasonably chilly, very-windy 2017 late-October week.

We’re not talking basic golf here. For instance, at Big Cedar Lodge’s Top of the Rock’s stunning nine-hole par-3 course, your green fee includes golf and admission to a 2½-mile-long Lost Cave and Nature Trail Tour through waterfalls in an adjacent cave system via golf cart tour with a stop at an underwater bar.

At Big Cedar Lodge’s Top of the Rock’s stunning nine-hole par-3 course, your green fee includes golf and admission to a 2½-mile-long Lost Cave and Nature Trail Tour.

That experience is unique, but so is tackling the first-ever par-3 course to host a PGA Tour-sanctioned event. April 2018 will be the fifth year the course will host the PGA Tour Champions Legends of Golf, along with Big Cedar Lodge’s Buffalo Ridge Springs and new Mountain Top Course.

Deep-pocketed Bass Pro Shops and Big Cedar Lodge owner Johnny Morris, with help from golf legends Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer, spent nearly eight years crafting Top of the Rock out of the rugged Ozarks landscape. The course — with tranquil waterfalls, meandering creeks, nature trails and bass-filled lakes and ponds — sits high above serene Table Rock Lake.

This is not your garden-variety par-3, although the landscaping can give any arboretum a run for its money. As for playability, bring your A-game. Remember, the PGA Tour Champions stars love the course.

We played the Nicklaus design — which features four holes featuring huge water hazards, including an island green on the 121-yard sixth hole —  in a cold, 50-mile-per-hour wind. The course gave us everything it had, with the 163-yard ninth hole playing dead into the gale.

The adjacent Arnold Palmer Driving Range has three decks with recessed lighting, 16 fully lit target greens, and is entirely made of artificial turf, including the practice bunkers (white-sand turf) and greens (with longer turf and filled-in sand to hold shots). The only thing real is the water and rock. There’s no mowing or watering the range, which always looks perfect.

Watson designed the “Himalayan” Putting Green, inspired by the iconic Himalayas Putting Course at Scotland’s St. Andrews. Top of the Rock’s version features 20 feet in elevation change and putts up to 200 feet long.

Buffalo Ridge's #15th hole.

Arnie’s Barn — the golf shop/Mexican restaurant and bar — is an old barn Morris’ wife located near Palmer’s Latrobe, Pa., home. Amish craftsmen carefully disassembled the barn’s 46-foot timbers —some of which are over 250 years old — transported them to Top of the Rock and rebuilt the barn plank by plank. The unique clubhouse is complete with historic photos and memorabilia from Palmer's career achievements.

Big Cedar Lodge — rated the “No. 1 Resort in the Midwest” by Travel + Leisure readers —complements its superb golf offerings with outstanding accommodations, activities and restaurants. The omelets at Devil’s Pool Restaurant are a great way to start your day. Another great breakfast stop is Farmhouse Restaurant in Downtown Branson. The menu is huge, yet it was suggested that we order Blackberry Cobbler with vanilla ice cream, which we all did. Awesome.

Buffalo Ridge Springs in Hollister, a Tom Fazio beauty, with input from Morris, is another golf amenity of Big Cedar Lodge, which is a few minutes’ drive away. Buffalo Ridge is actually a major renovation by Fazio, who designed the original course, Branson Creek Golf Club, in 1999. Fazio and Morris revitalized the now par-71, 7,036-yard layout with new water features, bunkers and other enhancements, including free-ranging bison from nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. Buffalo Ridge is Missouri’s top-ranked Public Course by Golf Magazine and one of Golf Digest’s Top 10 Missouri Courses since 2001.Golfweek lists Branson Hills Golf Club, formerly Payne Stewart Golf Club, No. 1.

The completely renovated Buffalo Ridge Springs seemed like a fabulous new course.

I played the original Branson Creek in 2010 but when I played the completely renovated Buffalo Ridge Springs it seemed like a fabulous new course.

Big Cedar’s and Morris’ ambitious course development strategy isn’t slowing down with Buffalo Ridge Springs, contrary to golf development in general. Just up the hill in Ridgedale is Mountain Top Course, Morris’ successful effort with fellow conservationist Gary Player to create a world-class short course.

The stunning, 13-hole, walking-only, par-3 features transitions between rock formations and magnificent views. The course unfolds to present an amazing story of golf and the Ozarks. At the heart of the project, which opened August 31, 2017, is creating enjoyment in the game of golf for all ages and skill levels.

Mountain Top uses natural features to highlight a fun, playable layout whose green fee includes modern pull/push carts. A rock dome exposing ancient formations was included in the design. Excess rock creates retaining walls and large fills to improve fairway widths, implement large landforms and provide distance on some shorter holes.

There are no cart paths, and short green-to-tee walks and a creative routing allow for many playing options. Back-tee yardages range from 82 yards to 221 yards and from 66 yards to 114 yards from the forward tees. However, instead of predetermined yardages and tee markers, sticks suggest teeing areas and players can tee off anywhere. Time-crunched golfers have 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-, 9- and 10-hole loop options.

TOP: Branson Hills Golf Course, #2 hole.
BOTTOM: Gary Player's Mountain Top Course.

After a few post-round beverages in the clubhouse we headed to the Starlite Theater to see “Raiding the Country Vault,” a fun show on the history of country music. We dined at Getting’ Basted, a fantastic barbecue restaurant in the theater complex. I highly recommend it, as well as Level 2 Steakhouse in the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel at Branson Landing. We each ordered a main course (filet minon for me) and we shared a never-ending array of mouth-watering sides.

Just when you think Morris is running out of room for world-class golf courses he proves you wrong. In fact, plans are already well under way on three new Big Cedar Lodge courses — a Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed championship course called Ozarks National is scheduled to open in 2018, and two Tiger Woods courses are planned to debut in 2019 — an 18-holer called Payne’s Valley and a family friendly par-3 short course inspired by junior golfers.

Payne’s Valley, Woods’ first public course design, is named in honor of area native Payne Stewart, whose widow, Tracey, attended the course announcement with Woods and Morris, both friends of Payne’s. Being built to showcase the region’s natural beauty, Payne’s Valley will feature an extremely dramatic 19th hole, “The Rock,” that can be used to settle unfinished wagers. The hole was envisioned by nature-loving Morris, and is set in a dramatic geological feature. The challenging but player-friendly walkable course will have an unforgettable finish where golfers will actually traverse through a breathtaking natural cavern system to return to the clubhouse after completing the 19th hole.

To further honor Stewart’s legacy, Morris, with the help of Coore and Crenshaw, is also creating The Payne Stewart Learning Facility, an extraordinary practice facility that will contain a tribute museum displaying Stewart’s personal trophies, scorecards, apparel, equipment, photos and more.

TOP:Ledge Stone Golf Club, #18 green.
BOTTOM: Thousand Hills Golf Club.

Morris’ golf and related endeavors are numerous, but there are a number of other area noteworthy complementary golf courses.

We also played Branson Hills, Thousand Hills Golf Resort and Pointe Royale Golf Village. Branson Hills is a 7,324-yard, par-72 beast that demands long, accurate drives and approach shots on every hole. Thousand Hills is an 18-hole, 5,111-yard, par-64 barrel of fun. Before you think it’s a pushover, understand that there are a lot of long holes from the tips —enough, in fact, to force several of our aging single-digit handicappers to move down to the white tees because of the wind. We also stayed in Thousand Hills’ comfortable lodging units. Our final round was at Pointe Royale, which threads uphill and downhill between homes. The club’s restaurant also makes a mean bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich.

Branson is less than one day's drive for one-third of America’s residents. With low-cost flights to the Branson Airport (BKG – and nearby Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF), it has never been easier to access Branson.
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Branson/Lakes Area Golf