Big Cedar Lodge is located in Ridgedale, Missouri in the southwest corner of the state just outside of Branson. Many know Big Cedar as a lavish, wilderness retreat that is ideal for the hunting and fishing groups. For many years, golf in the area has pretty much been an add-on and not the main focus for many travelers. Well, that attitude is going to change with what is underway and what is on the horizon. Big Cedar is well on its way to becoming one of America’s next great golf destinations.
Many of the pieces are already in place. Location, lodging, restaurants and attractions are already large feathers in the Big Cedar cap. Next on the docket: providing numerous, world-class and unique golf options for groups from around the world. The visionary overseeing this new golf mecca is Johnny Morris, owner of Bass Pro Shops. Mr. Morris called on Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus to help him create the amazingly unique Top of the Rock par 3 golf course. Tom Fazio was brought on to revamp what was formerly known as Branson Creek Golf Club. The rebranded Buffalo Ridge Springs Course is now the top rated course in Missouri by Golf Magazine. The PGA Tour Champions now hold an annual event at Big Cedar utilizing both Top of the Rock and Buffalo Ridge Springs.
Mountain Top is the latest addition to the golf offerings at Big Cedar. It is an extremely unique par 3 course designed by Gary Player. Mountain Top offers 13 holes, is walking only, and feels like it is situated just below the clouds in the sky. There are no tee boxes, just stakes in the ground, and there are incredible natural rock formations found on numerous holes. Next up is the yet-to-be-named Coore/Crenshaw course that is under construction. Set to open in September of 2018, this new championship layout has all the makings of another masterpiece by the well-respected design team. Last but not least, is the new Tiger Woods design that is under construction. The course will be called Payne’s Valley and will have one of the most unique finishes in all of golf. The plan is to have a 19th Hole for groups called The Rock which will be a par 3 at the base of a 500-foot rock wall (see photos below). After playing the hole, you will drive through a series of caves discovered in the rock wall to get back up to the clubhouse.
With Top of the Rock and Mountain Top, and what will be three of the top 18-hole courses in the state, the future of golf at Big Cedar is glaringly bright.
Top of the Rock
My first visit to Big Cedar started with a round at the Top of the Rock. I was lucky enough to join my partner in crime, Glen Turk of Midwest Golfing Magazine. I had heard that the driving range at Top of the Rock was out of this world, and I was immediately captivated by it. But equally as impressive as Johnny Morris’ work is what Mother Nature has decided to add to the scenery. In 2015, a massive sinkhole began to show itself just off of the driving range at Top of the Rock. Digging commenced, and the rock formations that are now visible are like seeing the Badlands of South Dakota on steroids. Construction is now underway on Arnie’s Lodge which will overlook the sinkhole and the driving range…it will be quite a spot.
The par 3 Top of the Rock course lives up to all the hype. Each hole, no matter how big or small, has it’s own character and charm, and I believe the course can be enjoyed by all ages and levels of golfers. When I describe the course as a thrill ride, it doesn’t mean there are any hokey or quirky holes. Just about every one of the 9 holes would probably be the signature hole of any course they were duplicated on…they are that memorable. My favorite hole is probably #3. The hole itself is relatively benign playing from a medium distance for most golfers, but the overall setting is spectacular! First you have the church’s magnificent bay window hovering above you on the tee, and then at the green you get an amazing overall view of the Top of the Rock Resort itself. We ended our day with a great dinner at The Osage Restaurant, and had to be pretty much thrown off the driving range at closing time that night. To top off a terrific day, we checked into our Lakeside Cottages at Big Cedar.
The next morning we drove to nearby Buffalo Ridge Springs Golf Course. We were fortunate enough to be joined by head pro Greg Thomas for a playing tour of this amazing facility. We got a late start due to the weather, but got to play or see every hole on the course. I absolutely fell in love with the place. From the rock formations lining holes to the actual buffalo roaming the plains off the course, my jaw seemed to drop on every tee box. Combine the scenery with the fairness of the course and it’s overall playability, and you have a true winner in my book. Buffalo Ridge may have cracked my personal top 10 list with how much fun I had.
Our final stop was just up the road and even higher up on the mountain. I guess that’s why they decided to call the course Mountain Top, because that is right where you will find it. Johnny Morris and Gary Player set out to create a unique short course that could be enjoyed by top pros and families alike. All I can say is I have never seen or played anything like it in my life, so the term UNIQUE certainly applies. Mountain Top is walking only and offers large-wheeled, rickshaw style carts to carry your bag. The course contains only 13 holes with tee shots ranging from 50 to 220 yards. What’s remarkable is the unreal variety of shots you must consider and execute to traverse the layout effectively. There are false fronts, false backs, penal bunkers, and scary shots around every corner. Not to mention the extremely fast greens with severe slopes and distinct levels you will find. But if some of the holes were so challenging, why was I walking around with a giant smile on my face the whole time? That is the pure splendor and beauty of Mountain Top…a course you definitely need to add to your personal bucket list.