When night falls in Branson, Missouri, it's lights up, showbiz time along "The Strip." Here country music stars like Mel Tillis, Tony Orlando, the Osmonds and other famous headliners entertain more than 8 million visitors who come to the "Live Music Capital of the World," home to 100 live shows and 50 or so theaters. Branson is hot.
Country music stars such as the Gatlin Brothers; Shoji Tabuchi, who plays a mean fiddle; and "Mr. Banjo" Buck Trent of "Hee Haw" and "The Roy Clark Show," play to packed houses.
Off stage, they trade in their cowboy boots for golf shoes to perform on another "stage," the golf course.
The stars tee up at Branson Creek Golf Club , Murder Rock Golf Club , Payne Stewart Golf Club [Editor's Note: In June 2015, Payne Stewart G.C. changed its name to Branson Hills Golf Club ], LedgeStone Country Club , Thousand Hills Golf Resort and other Branson-area courses.
"We just show up, play golf and go do our shows. Oh, yeah," said Trent giving a thumbs up, his signature move.
Playing a round at the Payne Stewart course, he points to his guitar-shaped ring about the size of a hubcap encrusted with diamonds. "Dolly Parton gave this to me," he said. Indeed, Trent was lead guitar for many of Dolly's original gold records including "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You." He invented the electric banjo for heaven's sake.
In between shots he shares stories about Dolly, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams and other music legends. And even with all those stories and that flashy guitar on his finger, he just about shoots his age (75). Holing out on the 18th green, Trent said, "You gotta have a show here. You just can't come out pickin' and singing. Oh yeah."
Perhaps Trent likes Payne Stewart Golf Club so much because the holes also tell stories: Highlights of Stewart's life are recalled on each hole. For example, no. 4, Albatross, recounts the time when Stewart made the only double-eagle of his professional career at Spyglass Hill at the 1991 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Rudy Gatlin on Branson golf
Gatlin Brothers Larry, Steve and Rudy perform in Branson on a regular basis and are avid golfers.
Rudy, a scratch player loves the game. "I play every chance I get. If it's a pretty day, I'll make time to play, and on bad weather days, I hit balls," he said.
"Brother Larry and Brother Steve play. They don't play quite as good as I do -- I'm kind of taking over right now. But my game could go south, and theirs could get better. They could catch me," Rudy chuckled in his smooth, easy Dallas drawl.
Rudy's ideal pal foursome in Branson?
"Well," he said. "It might be Shoji -- I hear he plays, but I've never played with him yet. Then one of my brothers, Mel (Tillis) and maybe Jim Stafford -- I don't know if he plays, but that would be pretty good."
Where to play is never a problem. "One of my favorite courses is Branson Creek," Rudy said. "Tom Fazio is a wonderful course designer. The course has beautiful topography with wide, sweeping views of the Ozarks."
Indeed, the $22 million course is characterized by spectacular par 3s and elevated tees, allowing plenty of opportunity for rip-'em-up drives.
Murder Rock is another favorite. "It's beautiful. Great views. Lots of history, too," Rudy said.
Gatlin also likes LedgeStone, especially dramatic holes such as no. 3. Aptly called "The Wall," it's a 65-foot drop to the green with both grass and bunkers guarding the front.
Asked what holes in Branson Gatlin considered the scariest, he laughed. "Oh God, the scariest? The one I'm playing. They're all scary. Your shots can go right or left. There's always trouble. I love guys that say all the trouble is on the right side because that's mainly where they hit the ball, but there's trouble on the left side too."
These days, when they're in Branson and not on the golf course, you can find the Gatlin Brothers thrilling audiences with their old classic hits: "All The Gold In California," "Broken Lady," "Talkin' to the Moon," and others.
And perhaps they'll treat you to some newer pieces from their "Pilgrimage" album with songs such as "Johnny Cash Is Dead (And His House Burned Down)" and "Sweet Becky Water." Like their golf game, the music is stellar.