RIDGEDALE, Mo. -- Some things are just bigger than life. That's Johnny Morris' Big Cedar Lodge in the Ozarks of Missouri.
I’ve literally been to more than a hundred golf resorts, from value to ultra luxurious, and it wouldn’t even be accurate to say this falls somewhere in between. On one hand, this "rustic" destination, most of which has been developed in the last few years by Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, is certainly luxury at the highest levels. The cabins we stayed in illustrated as much, as did the dining, the spa, the golf and all the other amenities. I've never lodged in cabin that had least a dozen set of eyes staring at me from stuffed animal hides or mounted heads, yet also sported one of the best Jacuzzi tubs and bathrooms I've seen anywhere.
On the other hand, there's something down to earth about this 4,600-acre lakeside retreat, perhaps because everything here is geared to the outdoors, whether it be fishing, hunting, trap-shooting, nature trails or golf.
For these reasons and more, playing in the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Pro-Am at Big Cedar Lodge was certainly one of the most unique experiences I've had in the golf industry. This would be one for the ages.
But first there was business
The first day of my itinerary included the biggest news of the week: the announcement of a new golf course at Big Cedar Lodge. What made it big was the architect designing the course, none other than Tiger Woods, which will be his first public golf course, expected to open in 2019 sometime.
The fanfare surrounding the announcement was nothing short of over the top (ironically, Top of the Rock is sometimes called "Over the Top of the Rock"). Volunteers from nearby College of the Ozarks lined our welcome to the site of the new course. They even clapped for the throngs of media attending (now there's a twist), as we made our way to a makeshift par-3 hole that will eventually become the 19th hole of the new course. It also served as the backdrop where Morris and other dignitaries, including Tom Lehman, introduced Woods and his company, TGR Design, as the creators of the new course called Payne's Valley, named in honor of the late Payne Stewart, who is from nearby Springfield.
In another twist, when Woods was asked about his health and his back, he responded that he has "good days and bad days." The next day he was back on the operating table for his fourth back surgery.
We were just getting started
But the Woods announcement, which will eventually give Big Cedar Lodge 86 holes of golf if you count the extra hole at Payne's Valley and an eventual par 3 course by Woods, was just the beginning. Next on the agenda was a preview round on the Gary Player-designed Mountain Top Course on Buffalo Ridge. The course is grown in and will open sometime this year, and was already playable. It is 13 beautiful holes, some of them a little bit linksy in nature, and the course complements the spectacular Jack Nicklaus-designed nine-hole Top of the Rock, which is the only par 3 course in the world to be used for either a PGA Tour or PGA Tour Champions event.
One of the best fields in senior golf teed it up at Top of the Rock as well as the revamped Tom Fazio-designed Buffalo Ridge Springs Course, a championship course that doesn't disappoint with its vistas either. I would spend two days of pro-am golf with two very affable and accomplished pros: David Toms and Loren Roberts. But first there was another pro-am (before the golf) that really surprised me.
I'm a high handicapper on the water
Admittedly, I really wasn't all that excited about my Tuesday morning activity, a guided fishing experience on TableRock Lake. I got there in time to meet my fishing partner, a fella named Edwin Evers.
In case you’re not familiar with Evers – and I certainly wasn't beforehand – this guy is star in his sport, which entails a lot more than casual observers realize. First off, Evers, who has won nearly $3 million as a Bassmaster Elite Series Angler , took me to our fishing spot on his $65,000 bass boat -- at 70 mph. That sure woke me up. Pretty soon I was getting tips on how to secure lures, work the bait, cast to the right spot, haul a fish into the boat and so-on. There was a lot to it, a lot more than I realized, and it was evident that Evers, whose wife Tuesday is a pretty good golfer, is a pro's pro in this sport.
My biggest surprise was to learn that Evers, who is from Talala, Okla., works out every morning for about an hour with a personal trainer. Yes, you have to be in shape for fishing at this level. These guys spend a lot of time out on the water, standing and casting quickly. It can wreak havoc on a shoulder or elbow. Stamina is important.
As for our haul, Evers helped me catch six fish, only one of which could have counted in the tournament (it was just under 16 inches). We tossed them all back into the crystal clear lake and didn't register my one legal catch. Afterwards, I started to hear from my angling friends on social media. "It’s one thing all the golf you play," one said. "But now you’re fishing with Edwin Evers. Now I'm jealous."
Golf on top of the world
For David Toms, 2017 marks his rookie year on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, so he had never played the sensational Top of the Rock, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Morris. (Nicklaus as well as Gary Player and Lee Trevino were there playing in the Legends portion by the way).
"That was some driving range," he said of the practice facility that looked better than the majority of golf courses. Then he looked at the views from the second tee and said, Yeah, I can see why they call this Over the Top of the Rock. But it’s pretty cool."
PGA Tour Champions Pro Ams are usually scrambles, so we relied on Toms' tee shots throughout. He showed the same steady beautiful rhythm that won his the 2001 PGA Championship at. Atlanta. Athletic Club and 12 other tournaments on the PGA Tour, and we appreciated it. I actually made three birdie putts myself, but our team never seriously threatened the leaders.
The next day is was golf with Loren Roberts at the resort's Buffalo Ridge Springs. Getting a sizable advantage off the tee, we played a handful of my tee shots, but that’s wasn't the important part. I wanted to watch the Boss of the Moss roll the rock. And while he may have been a little bit off that day, not sinking anything long, the 62-year-old’s stroke looked as good as ever. I asked him for his best putting advice, and it wasn't disappointing:
Your putting style should match you full swing, he told us. That is, if you play a fade, more straight back and straight through. If you hook the ball, the putting stroke should be more of an arc. Plus if your tempo is quick with your golf swing, don’t artificially slow down your putting stroke. Most of all, distance control is way more important than direction. Figure that one out, he said, and your putts per round will go down.
Dogwood Canyon is another Morris' legacy
The idea behind Morris' outdoor resort is to connect families to the outdoors with a variety of nature-based experiences. Drawing more than 1.5 million guests annually, one of the signature attractions is Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a 10,000-acre nonprofit wildlife preserve. On one or our days, we took a two-hour guided tour through the park on tram. There we saw plenty of wildlife, countless species of trees and plants, waterfalls and beautiful terrain, including valleys, water crossings and hills.
The tour was followed by dinner at the new working Mill and Canyon Grill Restaurant, built right on Indian Creek, and later we explored an elaborate tree house next door.
This nature journey ended with a bang, an outdoor concert at the Bass Pro Shops Shooting Academy (which has a 10,000-seat amphitheater by Hank Williams Jr., that drew thousands of fans despite thunderstorms that night. The VIP pro-am participants as well as tour players fortunately were shielded from the weather at the three-story clubhouse above the concert grounds. They got to take advantage of multiple open bars and food stations that included some of the best peach cobbler I’ve tasted in a while.
All the while, we got to hang out with the legends of golf, including Mr. Nicklaus, who had his wife Barbara with him. It was a legendary experience from start to finish.