HOLLISTER, Mo. -- It was a difficult secret to keep, but the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, upon arrival at the site where the new golf course was being built at Johnny Morris' Big Cedar Lodge near Branson, Mo.
The tram taking media, dignitaries and volunteers down to where the press conference would be held was decorated Jurassic Park style, with the words, "Johnny and Tiger's Adventure Tours."
That could only mean one thing in the golf world: Tiger Woods and his TGR Design team's second golf course in the United States and first public golf course would be in Missouri, at a resort owned by a man who personally delivered a bass boat to Woods some 20 years ago.
The championship level golf course will be named Payne's Valley, in honor of the late Payne Stewart, who grew up in nearby Springfield, Mo. Construction has already begun, and the course is expected to open sometime in 2019.
The design includes a "bonus" par-3 19th hole named "The Rock," which was the backdrop for the day's announcement:
When completed, it will join the already existing Top of the Rock par 3 course and Buffalo Ridge Springs, which are host sites for the PGA Tour Champions Bass Pro Shop Legends of Golf Tournament each spring. But even more golf is in progress. The nearly complete 13-hole Gary Player Mountain Top Course (expected to open this year) and a 7,000-yard Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore design called Ozarks National, is expected to open in 2018.
Morris, who built his empire from a small bait and tackle shop in his father's liquor store, is a renowned conservationist in Missouri. He has expanded Big Cedar Lodge over the past decade as a way to bring people to the great outdoors.
"I love this land so much," Morris said," and I know that Tiger will treat it right."
Morris and Woods go way back
Morris relayed how he first met Woods. It came 20 years ago.
"Shortly after Tiger won his first Masters Tournament in 1997, Tiger actually ended up buying one of our Bass Tracker fishing boats," Morris recalled. "My son and I had the opportunity to deliver his boat and spend the day bass fishing with him…You really get to know a person when you’re able to spend quiet time on the water fishing together. My boy and I were both very impressed by how down to earth and engaging Tiger was, and by how much he loved to fish."
Flash forward 20 years and Morris, in search of the architect for his next course, visited Bluejack National, Woods' first U.S. design, just north of Houston. Morris liked what he saw, particularly the 10-hole Playgrounds short course as well as the championship course, which has an Augusta National feel to it.
So at Big Cedar Lodge, not only is Payne's Valley being constructed, but there are also plans for a par-3 course closer to the Lodge.
But first, Payne's Valley: Woods said he's honored to design the course to pay tribute to his good friend Stewart, who was killed in a plane crash in October of 1999. Woods recalled his first Ryder Cup in Valderrama, Spain, when Stewart called him as well as fellow rookies Justin Leonard and Jim Furyk over to speak to them.
"So Payne, being the elder statesman, pulls us aside, and I'm thinking, 'Okay, I'm going to get some words of wisdom,'" said Woods. "At the time I had won a major championship that year, I was ranked pretty high, I was like on cloud nine. I'm representing the United States.
"He says, 'Boys, I know this is your first Ryder Cup. Just don't suck this week,' and he walked away."
In honor of Payne Stewart
To further honor Stewart’s legacy, Morris, with the help of Coore and Crenshaw, is also creating The Payne Stewart Learning Facility, an extraordinary practice facility that will contain a tribute museum displaying Stewart’s personal trophies, scorecards, apparel, equipment, photos and more.
Morris will also honor Stewart by expanding support to a number of charitable initiatives linked to the course. 2017 marks the third year Big Cedar Lodge will host the American Junior Golf Association for the Bass Pro Shops Payne Stewart Junior Championship. The new course will serve as a future home for the event.
In conjunction with the new course, Morris also will open a local chapter of The First Tee, a nonprofit youth development organization that provides educational programs to build character, instill values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf. In addition, both the Morris and Stewart families are long-time supporters of Kids Across America Leadership Initiative (KAA), a nonprofit sports and outdoor youth camp based in the Ozarks. KAA’s mission is to serve underprivileged urban and minority youth through camping, boating and outdoor educational and recreational activities. The new course will be made available for KAA campers, free of charge, as part of their camp experience and from time to time host special events to raise funds and awareness on behalf of the organization.
Stewart's widow, Tracey Stewart, was on hand for the announcement at Big Cedar Lodge. "Payne thought so highly of you," she said to Woods. "I know you're going to do an awesome job."
Similar to Bluejack National, Woods intends to make Payne's Valley a player-friendly design, meaning there will be little rough, underbrush will be cut out and there will be opportunities to run the ball onto the greens or putt off the greens. There will also be few, if any, forced carries.
The difference between the two, though, is topography. While Bluejack has hills, it's nothing like the elevation changes on Payne's Valley, which is right next to the Tom Fazio-designed Buffalo Ridge. Woods says he plans to flash bunkers, both for aesthetics and strategy. ""Some will be in play, some will not,". Woods said. "We want them to be really eye-catching."
As for how much the course will cost to play, Morris wasn't ready to divulge green fees.
"For the quality we're going to have, we want it to be great value." Morris said.