High notes in the Ozarks
Wayne Mills is a New England-based freelance writer who has been producing golf stories for over 20 years. He has written for national publications such as Golf Inc. and superintendent-related, regional golf-lifestyle magazines and websites in the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest and was a golf columnist for two daily newspapers. He has played over 700 golf courses from Canada to the Caribbean and from Cape Cod to California.
By Wayne Mills
Special to GolfWRX
Twenty years ago, Branson, Mo., located in the Ozark Mountains just north of the Arkansas border, was a modest river town with a colorful past that had become a regional tourist destination.
The White River had been dammed up creating Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake in the early part of the 20th century attracting summer visitors to the area. That in turn attracted musicians of the bluegrass, mountain and country variety to entertain the visitors.
Eventually the musicians established permanent theater type venues but it was the national publicity generated by a Time Magazine piece and a 60 Minutes television broadcast in the early 1990’s that turned Branson from a sleepy little burg into a tourism boomtown that today hosts over 7 million visitors a year — in a town with only 10,000 permanent residents.
Best known for its 40 live music venues and over 100 weekly shows, Branson offers 22,000 hotel/condo rooms and 242 restaurants. Other attractions include Silver Dollar City Theme Park, Shepherd-in-the Hills and the Branson Landing shopping and entertainment complex occupying 1.5 miles of waterfront in the downtown area.
Of course, any self respecting tourist destination has to offer top notch golf and Branson delivers on that too. The seven championship layouts present a full range of challenges from high end designs that will test the low handicapper to more family friendly recreational courses that will provide a pleasant day of golf for any skill level.
Given the rolling hill topography, the Branson area affords course architects plenty of opportunity for dramatic golf holes and vistas.
Branson Creek Golf Club has the pedigree of being a Tom Fazio design and offers all the design features that made Fazio the most in demand architect in the country. Built in the Ozark hills in a high prairie setting, Branson Creek offers sweeping, wide fairways and long range views with all sorts of challenges in the greens complexes. This stunning course is rightfully rated No. 1 in Missouri by Golf Digest.
The Payne Stewart Golf Club is named in honor of the late U.S. Open champion, a native son of Missouri, who died tragically in a plane accident in 1999 at the age of 42. The clubhouse at PSGC contains quite a number of Payne Stewart’s memorabilia and is a haunting reminder of his greatness.
When teeing it up at PSGC one had best bring their A game. Designed by Chuck Smith and Stewart contemporary Bobby Clampett, the course will test you on about every shot. You’ll want to be on the fairway because the approach shots are very challenging with well bunkered and elevated greens. Once on the putting surface, the slick bentgrass greens will test you again. Golfweek just picked Payne Stewart Golf Club as its No. 1 course in Missouri for 2012.
Troon Golf expertly manages PSGC and there are very plush condos right on site for golfing foursomes.
A couple of hills over from Branson Creek is Murder Rock Golf Club, a Landmark Golf project which is managed by Kemper Sports. Possessing many of the same topographical features as Branson Creek, Murder Rock offers a slightly more user friendly design without sacrificing the outstanding views and challenging elevation changes.
Many of the founding members are part of Branson’s musical elite and can be seen on a daily basis at the club along with an occasional visit by none other than John Daly.
Murder Rock’s vivid name comes from the infamous Alf Bolin, a notoriously bad man who was prone to terrorizing the locals during the lawless times surrounding the Civil War. As you might expect, Old Alfie met a bad end. The full story can be found on Murder Rock’s website.
Branson’s only true country club, LedgeStone Country Club is part of a mature residential community in Branson West. Golf Digest has called LedgeStone, “a masterpiece of mountain golf architecture.” The golf course is cut out of the Ozark Mountains but has managed to maintain the integrity of the surrounding area. The fairways are lined with mature native hardwood trees that make the surrounding community almost invisible in the summer time.
The fascinating Thousand Hills Golf Resort is located right in the heart of the action in Branson on Highway 76 a/k/a Country Music Boulevard.
At first blush the golf course with its par 64 over 5,111 yards would appear to be some sort of pitch and putt executive layout. No, it isn’t. Designed by venerable golf course architect Bob Cupp, Thousand Hills has 18 very legit golf holes. Yes, the course has nine par 3’s and eight par 4’s and a par 5 finishing hole, but each and every one will make you golf your ball.
Throw in superbly conditioned Zoysia fairways and bent greens and Thousand Hills definitely makes the cut for golf. This would be a great course for any level of player but would be grand for couples and/or younger golfers.
Where Thousand Hills really shines is in their packages, particularly in the accommodations. Thousand Hills offers four outstanding lodging options — two and three bedroom golf front condos, patio homes, luxury six bedroom log cabins at Grand Mountain and spectacular two ,three and four bedroom lakefront condos on beautiful Table Rock Lake. For traveling families or groups of couples Thousand Hills is the play in Branson. They can also hook you up with tickets to any show you’d like to see.
Worth playing is Pointe Royale Golf Club, another residential course that plays tough with water on eight of the holes. Recent green and bunker renovations have made the conditions superb. While there you might even see legendary singer Andy Williams who has a home on a fairway and a music theater in town.
Holiday Hills Golf Course was originally developed by Don Gardner in 1938 as the Golf Ranch Country Club, which makes it the oldest golf course in the Branson area. Don’t let the build date scare you away though, the golf course was redone from tee to green in the mid ‘90s and reopened for play in 1997. The “new course” has terrain more level than the typical Ozark Mountain golf course. Wide fairways, large greens and four sets of tees further enhance the friendliness. Holiday Hills plays 4,414 yards from the red tees and goes out to 5,771 yards from the back gold tees with a par of 68.
One truly unique place to see in Branson is The College of the Ozarks, also known as Hard Work University. It is called Hard Work U simply because the students don’t pay any tuition — they earn it the old fashioned way by working for it. On a very timely subject, all Hard Work U students graduate debt-free.
The 1,000 acre campus houses a working farm, a mill, a greenhouse, a museum and the soaring Keeter Center that includes a conference center, an auditorium, a 275-seat dining area and elegantly appointed suites at Mabee Lodge. The suites offer fireplace, private balcony, in room breakfast and jetted tub for two.
The best deal in town for a traveling golf couple is the Tee for Two package at Mabee Lodge which includes suite accommodations, golf and cart at Branson Creek Golf Club and a day snack pack for only $269 per night.
Here is what Branson isn’t — it doesn’t have casinos, bars open until 4 a.m. or, ahem, gentleman’s clubs. If you are looking for some kind of decadent knock down-drag out bachelor party atmosphere then you should look elsewhere.
Here is what Branson is — a warm and welcoming town with lots to do including the best music this side of Nashville and appealing activities for the entire family together with great golf and all served up with sincere Midwestern values. Check it out. It is truly a refreshing experience.