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.
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.
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.