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Big Cedar Lodge takes aim at destination golfers, PGA Tour

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Recently, Big Cedar Lodge Resort just outside Branson, Missouri, became the center of the golf world when Tiger Woods emerged from his hiatus for a surprise press conference announcing his next golf course design project. But the event took an unexpected turn when Woods decided to hit a couple of shots onto a “19th Hole” green about 150 yards away that had been chosen as a scenic backdrop for the presser. Woods’ first shot went into the water and the Internet went wild with the story before the ball had even settled to the bottom of the pond. It was reminiscent of a similar scene last year when Woods dunked three straight shots at a media event for the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club just outside Washington, DC. The latest water ball and the announcement two days later that he was going to have a fourth back surgery buried the original purpose for event, which is the expansion of what could become the most influential destination golf project since Bandon Dunes in Oregon.

Woods’ firm, TGR Design, is partnering with Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris to build an 18-hole championship course and a “family-friendly” nine-hole track at Big Cedar Lodge. The championship layout will be named Payne’s Valley Golf Course to honor the late Payne Stewart, the U.S. Open champion who was a native of nearby Springfield. Scheduled for completion in 2019, it will be the first fully public-access course in the world designed by Woods. He says that he plans to combine minimal rough and limited forced carries with generous fairways to produce a track that challenges good players while allowing high-handicappers to play it without having to reload at the turn. And that 19th Hole where Woods sent ripples through the golf world (as well as the pond that guards the green) is backed by a limestone cliff that is so sheer, an elevator will be built to take golfers from the green to the clubhouse above.

Hole No. 10 at the Gary Player-designed short course at Big Cedar Lodge.

Hole No. 10 at the Gary Player-designed 13-hole short course at Big Cedar Lodge.

Morris is the mastermind behind Big Cedar Lodge. Originally purposed as a retreat for employees of the outdoor sports retail giant, the site as grown into a public resort that features world-class experiences in hunting, fishing, hiking and sport shooting. The resort covers 3,000 acres in the scenic Ozark Mountains near the Missouri-Arkansas border, and guests can experience everything from bass fishing and cave exploring to a spa day and fine dining, all without having to leave the grounds. No less an expert than Golf Channel Travel Editor Matt Ginella thought so much of the resort after a recent visit that he chose it to be the site of his wedding. An award-winning conservationist, Morris has designated part of the land as a parkland preserve where the buffalo literally roam (a small heard that visitors can see on a tour), and he has built several museums on the property to showcase artifacts from dinosaur skeletons to Civil War muskets that were found during the development of Big Cedar Lodge. Now he has set his sights on golf with the goal of combining the worlds of outdoor sports, natural preservation and the ancient game.

Top of the Rock Golf Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus.

Hole No. 2 at Top of the Rock, a short course designed by Jack Nicklaus. The course is home of the Champion Tour’s Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf.

As befits a man that grew a business from one shelf in his father’s liquor store to a multi-billion dollar sporting empire with 160 outlets, Morris has entered the golf world with both barrels blazing. By the end of 2020, Big Cedar Lodge will feature golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw, Tom Fazio and now Tiger Woods. The goal is ambitious; to be the best golf resort in the central portion of the United States. To achieve it, Big Cedar Lodge would have to leapfrog places like Destination Kohler, the Wisconsin complex that has hosted multiple major championships. But much like one of the racers in the NASCAR team that he sponsors, Morris is gaining on the leaders fast.

“We are within one day’s drive for 50 percent of the population of the country,” says one source associated with the project. “We already have one of the most compelling vacation experiences anywhere, and we are adding a world-class golf component to that. Best of all, we can offer it at a price point that can’t be matched by the golf resorts on the [Eastern or Western U.S.] coasts.”

Big Cedar Lodge already plays host to the Champions Tour every April with the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Tournament. The new additions, combined with its infrastructure and amenities that are the equal or superior to virtually any tournament location in the country, put the site in the running for everything from a PGA Tour event to the Ryder Cup. When asked about these possibilities, the self-deprecating Morris replies “It’s not necessarily in the plans now, but who knows? It would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

So far, every time Morris has cast his line he’s pulled out a trophy fish. Don’t be surprised if one day in the very near future, Big Cedar Lodge lands him the coveted mantle of major championship host.

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Williams has a reputation as a savvy broadcaster, and as an incisive interviewer and writer. An avid golfer himself, Williams has covered the game of golf and the golf lifestyle including courses, restaurants, travel and sports marketing for publications all over the world. He is currently working with a wide range of outlets in traditional and electronic media, and has produced and hosted “Sticks and Stones” on the Fox Radio network, a critically acclaimed show that combined coverage of the golf world with interviews of the Washington power elite. His work on Newschannel8’s “Capital Golf Weekly” and “SportsTalk” have established him as one of the area’s most trusted sources for golf reporting. Williams has also made numerous radio appearances on “The John Thompson Show,” and a host of other local productions. He is a sought-after speaker and panel moderator, he has recently launched a new partnership with The O Team to create original golf-themed programming and events. Williams is a member of the United States Golf Association and the Golf Writers Association of America.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Carlos Danger

    May 15, 2017 at 9:57 am

    Leaving in 3 days for our 4th annual Branson Golf trip. While its cool that its getting all this press and attention, I also wish this place could stay my little secret 🙂

    A few comments have suggested the same but want to reiterate how awesome of a course Buffalo Ridge is. I have been lucky to play some great courses (Torrey, Kapalua, etc…) and I will not go as far as to say Buffalo Ridge is “better” than some of those world class courses, but it might be my “favorite” course I have every played. It has the distance, challenges, condition, etc…to keep up with some of those great renowned courses…but most of all it is such a fun course to play. I have never met anyone that didnt immediately put it in their top 5. Excited for the other courses to get finished down there.

    There are other good courses in the area as well especially when you mix in a Top of the Rock range session and Par 3 course. If you live in the midwest I cant think of a better golf trip destination.

  2. Eric Evans

    May 13, 2017 at 10:49 pm

    I live in Springfield which is about 30 minutes North of Branson. I have played a lot of great courses here in the United States (Hawaii) and Mexico, and the courses in Branson with the two new courses being built by Tiger Woods and Ben Crenshaw, will make this area one of the best golf destinations in the United States. If you have not been to Top of the Rock where they play the Champions event, you are missing out. It is a phenomenal place that is manicured beyond belief…..I just recently played 18 at Buffalo Ridge and 9 holes at the par 3 TOTR course, and while I love BR, I was blown away by the par 3 TOTR course.

  3. Tom1

    May 13, 2017 at 11:12 am

    what option do you offer in it’s place?

    • Carlos Danger

      May 15, 2017 at 10:35 am

      Maybe a moat with Alligators would satisfy Bubba 🙂

    • Carlos Danger

      May 15, 2017 at 4:35 pm

      As my grandpa used to say…if you dont like where your ball ended up, you shouldn’t have hit it there

      Old guys have the best golf sayings…maybe that should be a new thread

  4. What?

    May 12, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    “the expansion of what could become the most influential destination golf project since Bandon Dunes in Oregon.”

    Did they pay you to write that line? What about what Keiser is doing at Sand Valley or what Mosaic is doing at Streamsong?

  5. Allen

    May 12, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    Morris has already been promised a major by the PGA. I live not too far from Brandon talking with the people building the golf courses around there, it is a done deal. I cannot wait.

  6. TK

    May 12, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Having played Pebble, Erin, all 4 Whistling Straits and tons in AZ, I can honestly say that Buffalo Ridge (formerly Branson Creek) and it is one of my favorite courses I have ever played. Great Fazio layout with risk/reward holes and zoysia tee boxes + fairways. Elevation changes, waterfalls, etc, you name it and this course has it. A good test from the tips, especially when the wind kicks up. Add to it the new courses by Coore/Crenshaw + Tiger and Big Cedar will have a world class facility at extremely affordable prices.

  7. J-Tizzle

    May 12, 2017 at 10:03 am

    I don’t live far from Big Cedar and have attended the Legends tournament every year its been here, plus played Top Of The Rock and Buffalo Ridge. Really excited to see what all ends up happening here. I’d think Johnny would almost need to design a legit champions course in order to host something like a PGA event or a major/Ryder Cup. Buffalo Ridge is nice, but its not overly difficult and you’d think the PGA guys would just shoot some silly scores there, plus its not overly spectator friendly.

    We’ll have to see what happens with the Tiger course, but from the sounds it’ll be a bit more resort friendly. Either way, I will play it a lot I’m sure.

    • Tom1

      May 12, 2017 at 10:56 am

      build it and they will come….atleast I will.

  8. TR1PTIK

    May 12, 2017 at 9:42 am

    Only being a couple hours away, I’m very excited for this project. I hope all goes well and it doesn’t get shelved or delayed by much.

  9. Keith

    May 12, 2017 at 9:22 am

    I live right here in the Ozarks about an hour and a half from Branson. It’s a pretty incredible venue that feels like it’s in it’s infancy. The anchor is Buffalo Ridge (Formerly Branson Creek), the Fazio designed course. It’s a beautiful course that flows nicely, can be as challenging as you want depending on the tees you play. Johnny brought Fazio back in to spruce it up and fix one really bad hole.

    Just having a range session at Top of the Rock or putting on the Watson putting green is an experience. Truly is a great place for a family getaway.

    • Carlos Danger

      May 15, 2017 at 10:34 am

      Agree with all of your comments except one…the Watson putting green is now a .25 mile deep cave 🙂
      http://www.news-leader.com/story/news/local/ozarks/2016/02/17/heres-what-top-rock-sinkhole-look-like-today/80495920/

      We were there 3 years ago and played hours of money games into the night on that putting green. A week later a worker noticed the ground was sinking on the edge. 2 days later the whole thing disappeared into the earth! I think they are trying to connect it to the rest of the caves up there so they are just constantly hauling dirt and rock out. Its a bummer that putting green is gone but the sink hole (mini grand canyon) is pretty cool to look at.

  10. ooffa

    May 12, 2017 at 7:52 am

    When is Tiger going to learn not to hit promotional shots that are over water.

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Branson, Missouri Continues to Evolve as a Golf Destination

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If you think you know Branson, Mo., it’s time to think again. While the live music venues that put the bucolic Ozark Mountains town on the map continue to thrive, its reputation as a top notch golf destination has grown … and continues to evolve.

Heck, golfers who’ve visited just a few years ago will find the scene almost unrecognizable. Sure, the awe-inspiring Top of the Rock — designed by legendary Jack Nicklaus and holding the honor of being the first-ever par-3 course to be included in a professional PGA championship — is as striking as ever, but its sister course, Buffalo Ridge, has undergone a metamorphosis.

No. 15 at Buffalo Ridge

Designed by renowned architect Tom Fazio and originally opened in 1999, Buffalo Ridge has done the unthinkable – make its list of previous accolades pale in comparison to what now graces the land. In conjunction with owner and visionary conservationist Johnny Morris, Fazio has exposed massive limestone formations, enhanced approaches and added water features to make every hole more memorable than the last.

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio masterpieces not enough? Gary Player has stamped his signature in the Ozarks with the recently opened Mountain Top Course. This 13-hole, walking-only short course is unlike anything you’ve ever played.

Strap your bag to a trolley and let your imagination dictate your round. There are stakes in the ground with yardage markers nearby, but they’re merely suggestions. Play it long or play it short. Play it from different angles. The only mandate is to enjoy the course, nature and camaraderie.

No. 10 at Mountain Top

The Mountain Top greens are huge and as smooth as putting on a pool table. Nearly as quick, too. And the bunkers are as pristine as the white sands of an isolated Caribbean beach. Capping off your experience, the finishing hole plays back to the clubhouse and the green boasts multiple hole locations that enhance golfers’ chances at carding an ace. Hard to imagine a better way the end an already unforgettable round.

It shouldn’t take you much longer than two hours to get around Mountain Top Course. If it does, you were likely admiring the stunning panoramas. One notable addition to those views is Tiger Woods’ (TGR Design) first public access design — Payne’s Valley (named to honor Missouri golfing legend Payne Stewart) — which is full speed ahead on construction and scheduled to open in 2019. As a treat, the 19th hole was designed by Morris. Named “The Rock,” it’s a short par-3 that promises to be amazing.

Payne’s Valley will be both family-friendly and challenging. It has wide fairways and ample landing areas along with creative angles and approaches that shotmakers love and expect from a championship course.

If two years is too long to wait for new golf, then Morris and his Big Cedar Lodge have you covered with the yet-to-be-named ridge-top course by the industry’s hottest design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. With all the heavy lifting complete, the Ozarks is scheduled to be unveiled in 2018.

The Ozark Mountains form the backdrop on No. 5 at Buffalo Ridge.

Once opened, this par-71 (36-35) track will play “firm and fast” and offer multiple avenues into each green. Both Coore and Crenshaw bristle at the notion that there’s only one way to approach the playing surface. Bring it in high or run it along the ground. Considering the exposed nature of the course and propensity for high winds, the latter may be your best option.

There’s more. Tiger won’t be finished with Branson when he wraps up Payne’s Valley. He’s also designing a family-friendly par-3 course on the grounds of Big Cedar Lodge. There isn’t a date attached to this project, so stay tuned.

These new tracks join the likes of Thousand Hills, Branson Hills and Pointe Royale Golf Village to make Branson a powerful player on the golf destination scene. Combine that with world-class fishing and camping, as well as countless museums, restaurants and points of interest and this bustling Ozarks town is a must-visit spot in Middle America.

Learn more or plan your trip at explorebranson.com.

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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club

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Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own. 

Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.

All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.

A view from the ninth fairway

Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.

Trees, or no trees?

The 18th tee

The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.

The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.

Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.

A good variety

Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16.  What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14.  These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set.  The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.

A view of the ninth fairway from across the Pennsylvania Turnpike

The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s tempt the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.

Green complexes are…complex

The green on the 18th hole

Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world.  They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.

The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a decent lie.

Ari’s last word

All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.

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Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure

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My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.

Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.

Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.

I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.

First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.

Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.

Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”

Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!

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