These days, Jack Nicklaus appears much more keen to revel in his fishing accomplishments than his golf; at least that was the case at the Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge last month.
Prior to the competition, Nicklaus and Gary Player traded stories of big game hunting in South Africa and reeling in mythically sized marlins before heading out to compete in this unique Champions Tour team competition together.
For these two sporting giants, hooking up with another legend in the outdoors, Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, seemed inevitable.
Morris' Big Cedar Lodge and the Top of the Rock, an Ozarks heritage preserve and resort in the heart of Missouri, is an outdoorsman's paradise no matter your sport. Truth is, the resort, complete with a mix of cabins and hotel rooms in the main lodge, could suffice just fine without any golf at all, and it did so for a good amount of time when Big Cedar opened in 1988.
But with the addition of golf brings a whole new element of the outdoors. For those guests here for fishing or hiking and have never touched a golf club in their lives, one glimpse at Top of the Rock's driving range -- complete with ponds, waterfalls, rock outcroppings and an incredible view -- may prompt them to trade out their reel for a driver, at least for a few hours.
The driving range is the first example that soft-spoken Morris is out to make a real statement in golf. Anyone who's stepped foot in a Bass Pro Shops knows no square foot's details are spared, and the same is to be expected at this Ozarks destination. You'll need to walk through the Top of the Rock complex -- complete with a carbon dated Wooly Mammoth and American lion, other artworks and patios -- several times to soak it all in.
Morris, a relative newcomer to golf course development, certainly hitched his wagon to the right luminaries in the sport. Tom Watson, Player and Nicklaus have all assisted with various elements. Arnold Palmer assisted with the driving range, and an old log cabin from Palmer's hometown of Latrobe, Pa., was disassembled, brought to the Top of the Rock and reassembled by local Amish. It is now home to Arnie's Barn restaurant.
Top of the Rock officially opened in 2014, the first year the Legends of Golf moved to Big Cedar. A year earlier, Morris purchased Branson Creek Golf Club, a Tom Fazio design. He's been working on upgrading the course (in fact, there was one temporary hole during the legends event in 2015), exposing rock outcroppings and enhancing facilities.
And now, his latest acquisition was the purchase of the now-defunct Murder Rock Golf Club, which will be used as the site for a brand new Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design.
"It's a wonderful addition to have," said Palmer, who called Top of the Rock better than Augusta National's par-3 course. "[Morris] will probably have six names [in golf] attached to this development. Then where do you have hunting and fishing and trail walks and museums? You just don't see it in the world."
Coore and Crenshaw, known for their design subtleties and naturalist approach, will bring to their effort a new kind of Yin to Big Cedar's current yang: long waterfalls, like you find plenty of on the Fazio-designed Buffalo Ridge Springs Course that Morris bought in 2013, or the spectacular artificial-turf driving range accented with ponds, bunkers and rock structures, or the Top of the Rock par 3 that blends Augusta National-like conditions and beautification with enough rock outcroppings and long views to make it unmistakably Ozarks.
"We have a shared passion about working the land and nature and getting people connected to it," Morris said on Golf Channel's Morning Drive. "They're suited to help us with this particular piece of land."
Along with the Player-designed family friendly course, currently under construction, Top of the Rock and Big Cedar will soon deliver four entirely unique golf courses, not to mention a spectacle of a driving range and putting course, that will cover the spectrum of the game unlike any golf resort in the U.S.
Watch: Johnny Morris announces a new Coore-Crenshaw design at Top of the Rock
Stay and play at Big Cedar Lodge
As relaxing as this nature preserve in the heart of the Ozarks can be, there's a lot to see, so you may need to set your alarm to wake up with the fishermen to do it all.
The property has been a resort ever since the 1920s, though it's greatly expanded since 1988, when Morris opened Big Cedar Lodge. Today, there are a wide variety of accommodation types, from rooms in the main lodge and Spring View lodge to 81 private log cabins and eight Knotty Pine cottages inspired by the area's history. Rest assured, as rustic as the resort's surroundings are, you'll be in total comfort in whatever accommodation you select, all of which are equipped with modern and comfortable furnishings. For added comfort, the 18,000-square-foot Cedar Creek Spa opened in late 2014.
Getting to Big Cedar Lodge and Top of the Rock
Big Cedar Lodge and Top of the Rock are located about five minutes from one another. Guests can use the resort's shuttle service to get back and forth. The property is located 40 miles south of Springfield, Mo., which has an airport (SGF) with connections to larger cities. You can also fly into Branson Airport (BKG), which has some other charter and regional service that varies by season.
You can find more travel information on visiting Big Cedar and Branson at ExploreBranson.com.