“It’s not your grandma’s Branson” is an old slogan but one that needs reinforcing as Branson is evolving. In great part, the evolution is due to Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shop, with his Big Cedar Lodge creations. But wait for that in this story because while Big Cedar has elevated the destination, there is much about Branson’s original appeal that still merits exploration:
Table Rock lake is ideal for year-round boating, given that it lies not too far north or south. It is one of the cleanest, most picturesque lakes for scuba certification and coast guard training. Chateau on the Lake Resort and Spa was built by John Ammonds. The story goes that stubborn Missourian bankers thought it would be a mistake on the lake and denied him a loan but now they all come in to stay. They love his atrium and we love the 9th floor balcony view day or night.
Missouri is the show me state after all. Ok, expect some corn in the musical shows but it is good corn and great family vocals, moves and instrumentation in the popular Haygoods Show at the Clay Cooper Theater. Then there is the famous illusionist, Rick Thomas. Imported from Vegas where he staged with tigers like his mentors Siegfried and Roy, his Dream Mansion act is mind boggling, entertaining and a bit inspirational the way he encourages the audience to live their own dreams.
Let’s talk shops. Branson has an outlet mall and riverfront shops and restaurants on Branson Landing which is electrified by the “mini Bellagio fountain show” set to music. And the Five and Dime downtown is not to be missed. Everybody finds something there as it invokes childhood memories of Newberry’s, Woolworth or the general store with stitchery sections and toys of all ilk, old time candies, novelties and gadgets. It’s a must stop to shop but beware, the narrow aisles are packed with fun item seekers. It is best to go close to opening or closing. The shop is walkable, as is Branson Landing from the comfortable Hilton of Branson.
Within the Hilton of Branson Convention Center, the upscale Level 2 Steakhouse delivers gourmet concoctions like Ahi tuna on Himalayan salt block, flown in from Hawaii. Waiters offer a choice of nifty steak knives before entrees are served. Dine five times your cutlery weapon will be personally engraved, awaiting your next visit. Sommeliers were proud to pair courses with Chuck Wagner’s Caymus and Conundrum from NAPA.
Believe it or not, before prohibition, Missouri was the 2nd largest wine growing state and Merrimac was the first AVA designation in the US. Grapes are not grown in the Ozarks, but in an area near St. Louis. After the Noble Rot virus in Europe, vines were grafted back there so they say people around the world are actually getting drunk thanks to Missouri grapes. St. James Winery in Branson makes magic out of them. A tasting will produce a favorite for every palette.
We didn’t go, though we heard the train whistle from Silver Dollar City and we almost made it to the Ferris Wheel but, there is only so much time and there is so much golf to fit in.
Branson has been a repeat golf destination for buddy trips long before Johnny Morris conceived Big Cedar.
LedgeStone begins with waterfalls behind the green leading to a progression of tiny streams, ponds, and a river. It is brimming with flowers through the woods. The quarry setting on number 15’s par 3 epitomizes the LedgeStone name.
Branson Hills runs along a tributary creek. From elevated tee boxes with waterfall features to large lakes providing water hazards, Branson Hills is the consummate reflection of the rocky formations that permeate the area. Bridges cross not only the water but a floral menagerie.
Now, Big Cedar
Dang, this really is big! The entrance to Big Cedar Golf begins with a surprise to the guests as well as the owners and developers. It turns out the original practice green was built on a sink hole which when sunk revealed a new set of caverns which are being carefully excavated for the Cathedral of Nature. It cut in to the driving range a bit but only enhances its unique design with cliff side target greens with pearl white sand bunkers and water features. You might say the range and the entire complex is Disneyesque. The clubhouse is Big with a stylish pro shop and multiple dining venues, including Arnie’s Barn relocated from his family farm in Pennsylvania leading out to the patio where a sunset canon ceremony is performed every evening and the iconic horse and native American statue are valiantly poised high above Table Rock Lake. The Buffalo Bar gets crazy every night, with patrons vying for open seating. The adjacent Osage is reservation only so book far ahead.
Johnny Morris has been obsessed with natives since a kid. His museum under the clubhouse holds the largest collection of artifacts including his own arrowheads. Also, on the lower level is a grand wine cellar we’ll have to see next trip along with the cart tour through the original caverns. Again, we focused on the golf:
Top of the Rock is a quick but challenging nine-hole course beginning with a stunning first tee setting beside the Clubhouse complex and the statue with an endless view of Table Rock Lake below and a little chapel off to the right. Cue the lucky bride and groom. Holes are connected by paths through the woods with seemingly every imaginable type of vegetation. A purple rose covered canopy drive transports to the 2nd tee boxes beside the back of the church and a wide waterfall. The 3rd tee has a spectacular 360-degree view with the lake to the left, a pond to carry, and the clubhouse gallery above. The middle holes encircle a couple of ponds where a heron habitually perches on top of a rock in one and a swan swims around between both while bright red cardinals flit about. This little 9 hole is a story unto itself.
Buffalo Ridge Springs is the former Branson Creek, built 30 years ago by Fazio and yes, there is a herd of buffalo grazing on the hillsides. Tee boxes are marked with their skulls. The number one green is positioned in front of a picturesque water cascade. Number 3 sits at the top of the ridge and # 5 is elevated with a pond below and a cabin with restrooms. Wilderness in Big Cedar is enhanced so you might wonder what is real and what is imagined.
Mountain Top is a short 13-hole walking course, easy push carts included. It really does feel on top of the world. Ominous buzzards lurked in a tree beyond one of the infinity greens, laying wait for a weary golfer? A couple of holes are linked by a type of metal skywalk over cavernous ground. This is a layout you want to immediately repeat.
Ozarks National is the newest course on the world’s edge. Hit the fairway or the native grasses will make your ball and score disappear. Pheasant fields are marked in a few areas for the upcoming sporting club. A separate mini clubhouse is set up for staging and two halfway cabins offer tasty treats.
Tiger’s Payne’s Valley is coming this fall and will share the clubhouse with Mountain Top, Buffalo Ridge and Ozarks National. Big boys with their Tonka toys are excavating the hillside, moving dirt and rocks, carving the course. It is an operation we could watch all day from the balcony. Tiger pops in now and then like a ghost in the night to check the progress according to the pros. Stay tuned for the grand opening report on his 19-hole masterpiece. The 19th par 3 is going to be a very extravagant design with an island green and tall cascading falls over a limestone wall.
Don’t wait to book a trip to Branson for golf and entertainment galore. Erase the stereotype Branson theme of hillbilly Broadway and forget anything you might see on the Ozark series. This is beautiful countryside and world class golf!!!