Photos courtesy of Dan Shepherd Public Relations
Southwest Missouri’s Ozarks are the mecca of mid-America golf, as the abundance of courses in and around Branson prove.
Branson, Missouri, a spot pretty close to dead center on the U.S. map, deserves the full consideration of golfers from the left and right coasts looking for a new golf experience. It’s already a must-go destination for 11 million tourists annually but has risen to prominence on the golf travel radar in the last few years. Why? The golf is good and plentiful.
To repeat: The golf is good. There are 10 excellent public courses within 20 minutes in and around Branson, including designs by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Gary Player, Bill Coore, and Ben Crenshaw, as well as Tiger Woods, whose first public course in America, Payne’s Valley, opened in 2020. Five courses came into being over the last eight years, and more are on the way. Any one of them is worth a visit to the southwest Missouri Ozarks.
The destination has an endless supply of other attractions, too, from resorts like Big Cedar Lodge to music venues featuring performances like “Dolly Parton’s Stampede,” boomer-favorite “Anthems of Rock,” and true-to-the-hills local family bands, like The Haygoods and the Presleys. You can test your skills at the Bass Pro Shops Shooting Academy overlooking Table Rock Lake, and then take a dinner cruise on the 600-person Showboat Branson Belle. Or swing by multiple amusement and theme parks before you spend a few minutes at a wine tasting — or sampling some local moonshine.
But among all these options, you must leave time for lots and lots of golf. An excellent place to start is at Branson Hills, a course that has been rated number one in the state. Architect Chuck Smith and his associate, PGA Tour stalwart Bobby Clampett, carved the design through the Ozark mountains, around rock outcroppings and waterfalls. The first hole sets a spectacular tone, with a 130-foot drop from tee to green. Six sets of tees make the course an accessible challenge for golfers of all skill levels.
Big Cedar Lodge offers five courses designed by the most famous names in the game. The tracks make up a unique collection: One has nine holes; another 13; two have 18; and the newest, Payne’s Valley, gives you 19 targets for par. Together, they make a perfect three-day golf excursion all on their own.
On your first morning, tackle Ozarks National, 18 holes from the Coore & Crenshaw team that take full advantage of the Ozarks terrain. The five par 3s range from 134 to a heart-stopping 213 yards, while six of the par 4s measure 400 or more. Stop to savor the views and native habitat as you play, especially the 400-foot wooden-beam-and-plank bridge leading from the 13th hole tee box 60 feet above a roaring creek.
That afternoon, have some fun at Top of the Rock, a Jack Nicklaus signature course, and the first-ever par-3 course to host a professional championship. The nine holes feature spectacular views of Table Rock Lake, winding paths that pass through rock tunnels, and numerous picturesque yet menacing water hazards. If you time your round to end at sunset, you’ll have an incredible photo opportunity and a chance to experience the signature Sunset Ceremony at the Buffalo Bar, headlined by a Civil War cannon.
Tackle Buffalo Ridge the second morning. Tom Fazio recently redesigned the 18 holes at the first course at Big Cedar Lodge to provide a visually interesting and quite playable round. The fairways are friendly, and there’s always a clear place to aim your second shot. And yes, there are bison in sight from the nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park.
After lunch, put on your walking shoes and explore Mountain Top, the fascinating 13-hole par-3 course designed by Gary Player. The course winds through 300-year-old limestone rock formations that frame devilishly difficult greens that challenge your accuracy both from the tee and with the flat stick.
You don’t have to save Payne’s Valley for last, but you’ll be glad you did. It’s one of the most memorable rounds of golf you’ll experience. Tiger Woods designed the course, using the native limestone to dramatic effect that starts when you go to the first tee through a tunnel carved into the rock. The course sprawls across the landscape, with plenty of bailout areas and inviting greens that make it eminently playable — as long as you choose the right tee markers for your game.
Your parting memory will be the 19th hole (a golf hole, not a watering hole). Johnny Morris, the founder of Big Cedar Lodge and Bass Pro Shops, dreamed up this gem himself and directed his crew to blast away untold tons of rock to create a 134-yard par 3 with an island green that cries out for a photo — and there’s a friendly staffer on hand to shoot it for you.
Branson is as good a buddy-trip destination as you’ll find just about anywhere. With so many other attractions and activities, it’s perhaps even more perfect for families. It’s an easy trip, too, with plenty of connecting flights from HPN, LGA, and JFK to Springfield-Branson National Airport, which is less than an hour from downtown Branson.