Johnny Morris doesn’t do things in a small way. Having turned a 40-square foot bait and tackle stall into a billion-dollar outdoor gear and apparel company, he decided to make his native Ozarks region a world-class tourist destination. He started with a small lakeside ranch and now, with Big Cedar Lodge, he’s got 260 guest rooms, four wedding chapels, an Ozarks natural history museum, eight fine-dining restaurants and four golf courses, two of which serve as host of a PGA Tour Champions event.
Next up: a golf course designed by Tiger Woods. It’s called Payne’s Valley, in honor of two-time U.S. Open champion and World Golf Hall of Fame member Payne Stewart, whose hometown of Springfield, Missouri, is only 55 miles to the north. Springfield is also the hometown of Morris, whose youthful fascination with hunting and fishing would become Bass Pro Shops.
Morris, 72, is an avid outdoorsman if only an occasional golfer. “I’ve been blessed my whole life to spend it outdoors, fishing and hunting, “ he said. “I have a great respect for nature and conservation and want to share that message.”
He’s been showing it to great effect, most recently at Big Cedar Lodge with the opening of Ozarks National, a design by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw that flows over some very dramatic valleys and is rioted on the top of those falloffs. The property abuts the Tom Fazio-designed Buffalo Ridge Springs Course, opened in 1999 and acquired by Morris in 2013.
Both courses have a traditional core routing unimpeded by real estate. They’re also very walkable – with the tough terrain reserved for the areas outside of immediate play.
As traditional as these venues are, Morris also has an eye for the unconventional. An example: his promotion of par-3 golf, evident in two of the country’s most spectacular short courses, which he’s built at the resort.
Top of the Rock, a 9-hole par-3 layout, is a Jack Nicklaus design that holds nothing back in terms of shotmaking demands, aesthetics, scale or conditioning. It sits alongside a night-lit driving range and an open-pit limestone rock formation. The quality of the layout allows it to be part of the PGA Tour Champions Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge. Yes, scoring counts on this par-3 layout. Top of the Rock has previously shared hosting duties with the Buffalo Ridge. In 2019, Ozarks National takes over as co-host.
Morris explains his affinity with short, accessible courses via analogy to fishing. “Start’ em on perch,” he says, “and get the rod bent for a few afternoons and they’ll be hooked for life.”
Not satisfied with one par-3 layout, Morris hired Gary Player to design yet another short course, this one a stunning 13-hole layout called Mountain Top that features half a dozen infinity edge holes against a backdrop of deep ridges and endless valleys. The layout, 1,912 yards, from the back tees, 1,091 yards from the forward markers, makes demands upon every club in the bag and is highlighted by two elaborate sets of walkways right through the middle of exposed limestone columns.
Payne’s Valley, set to debut in late 2019, starts from the same clubhouse as Ozarks National and Mountain Top, at an elevation of 1,314 feet above sea level. But the holes are set in lower valleys and broader, open meadows than any of the other courses associated with Big Cedar Lodge. And it has a lot more fairway – over 80 acres of central short grass, much of it engulfing fairway bunkers and surrounding putting surfaces to form vast low-mow areas of recovery.
In this sense it’s evocative of Woods’ debut U.S. golf course, Bluejack National, outside Houston. But it has much more elevation change – 430 feet in all. And the playing surface requires far more treatment to whip into shape because the layout sits on what superintendent Todd A. Bohn terms “a caustic geology” ill suited by nature for quality turfgrass. It had to be capped with a combination of topsoil and sand in order to be made arable.
Moreover, the routing was complicated to work out given the terrain and the occasional severity of the ground. Even after work had begun and a site map developed, the finishing sequence was altered to make for a more dramatic ending. The front nine has a vaster, more lateral feel; the back nine kicks into high gear along a creek bed and more vertical formations, culminating in a par-5 18th hole cut through steep slopes. From there, the round resolves itself by virtue of a Lombard Street-style uphill path to a bye-hole of undetermined length and configuration, as a stopover point back to the clubhouse.
Like any good businessman, Morris knows his limits – enough to leave things to the experts. “I have no idea how to design a good golf hole,” he says. “But I do appreciate the scenery of the Ozarks. Thus the emphasis on infinity edge greens at Mountain Top and the importance of those long views at Payne’s Valley.
We have incorporated rough here not as a hazard but to limit lost balls and speed up play.
Woods told Golf Advisor he appreciates Morris’ commitment: “Johnny is passionate about connecting people with the outdoors, and it is an honor to be part of his efforts.”
The par-72 layout, with a back tee distance provisionally measured at 7,308 yards, will have plenty of more forward teeing ground to accommodate diverse players. According to Woods, “the course will have wide landing areas off the tees, but a premium will be put on fairway positioning for the better players looking to score."
Rough will be at a minimum – less to punish wayward shots than to contain shots that travel askew from tumbling into the more severe peripheral ground. “One feature that will be different from my other designs,” says Woods, “is the addition of rough along the fairways. We have incorporated rough here not as a hazard but to limit lost balls and speed up play.”
In 2018, we saw Woods make headlines once again with his play. Now in 2019, he also will be making headlines with his design work – this time at Big Cedar Lodge with his debut U.S. public layout.