Branson, Missouri is definitely not a destination that would be found on anyone’s “luxury” vacation spots. Or, for that matter, on almost any serious golfer’s Must Visit lists. And, frankly, that’s too bad.
Having just returned from a five-day trip to Branson, I’m happy to suggest that it can and should be included on your To Be Considered agenda, on the grounds that it’s underrated and underappreciated.
Payne’s Valley, No. 1
Golf in the Ozarks: A trip to Branson, Missouri
You may have heard of Branson over the past few years. The town of roughly 12,000 permanent residents actually began to attract tourists over 120 years ago, with the opening of a large cave attraction (that still exists). But it was really in the early 1980s that the first of several music theatres was opened, in the name of country music star Roy Clark (familiar to old TV viewers as one of the stars of Hee Haw!)
More theatres soon followed, headlining other country stars, and making Branson somewhat of a competitor to Nashville for country and western fans. About a decade later, non-country popular singer Andy Williams opened his own theatre there, instantly transforming Branson into a more middle-American music and entertainment destination.
Buffalo Ridge, No. 8
Breadth of entertainment options
It remains that today, and if entertainment is your objective, you’ll be amply rewarded with a weeklong visit. There are simply too many theatres and attractions to list, but let’s just say that almost no form of music is not covered, and interesting family attractions include an aquarium, a Ripley’s museum, a Dolly Parton theme park, and a Titanic museum featuring a half-scale replica of the doomed passenger liner.
There’s also lots of nature to see – Branson is part of the Ozarks, with natural hills and valleys that are inspiring to hike – and lots of nature-oriented activities to enjoy, from sportfishing to ziplining.
Payne’s Valley, Aerial
Does all of this qualify as luxury travel? No, not really. There are lots of other places in North America with equally enticing attractions. But outside of Vegas, or New York, I doubt if you’d find any destination with the breadth of entertainment options for the whole family. If luxury accommodations are mandatory for you, there are several hotel options, including Big Cedar Lodge, developed and built by Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, and a couple of fine Hilton Hotels right near the waterfront. (I can personally vouch for the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel, whose rooms are all generous and well-appointed suites.)
First public course designed by Tiger Woods
But I’m a golf writer, and that’s what I want to tell you about, in Branson. With a group of fellow gentlemen golfers, I managed to play seven courses in five days, and I would give six of them a Well Above Average grade, and four of them an Excellent rating, which I don’t apply easily.
Let’s start with the four Excellents. All of them are part of a five-course menu offered by Big Cedar Golf, which is a division of Big Cedar Lodge.
Ozarks National, 18th
Ozarks golf: Payne’s Valley
Payne’s Valley was opened in 2021 to rave reviews, and the distinction of being designated Best New Public Course in America by Golf Digest. The course is named after the late Payne Stewart, a Missouri native and former U.S. Open champion who died tragically in a plane crash a generation ago. It’s also the first public course designed by Tiger Woods. Not only is it stunning to look at, from the clubhouse perched high on a hill, but also from many of the elevated tees. The course itself is generous to all levels of player, but it’s no pushover.
Osage Rotunda Room
The big topic of conversation at Payne’s Valley, however, is the jaw-dropping 19th hole, a bit of extra par-3 fun designed to settle bets or win the day’s bragging rights. The backdrop of this hole is a wall of limestone, with a roaring cascade of water. The cart ride back up to the clubhouse is equally breathtaking.
Payne’s Valley – No. 19
Ozarks National, No. 8
Ozarks National: Best New Public Course according to Golf Digest
Very different in design, but equally impressive and challenging, is Ozarks National, a hop and a skip away from Payne’s Valley. It, too, was named Best New Public Course by Golf Digest, in 2019. The architects here were the tandem team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, probably the hottest names in course design over the past 15 years. (Cabot Cliffs, in Cape Breton, was a Coore/Crenshaw achievement, and it’s arguably Canada’s finest golf course.)
Most of Ozarks National is built high upon a ridge (regrettably, not “just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge”.) Typical for Coore/Crenshaw, the holes are strategically designed to challenge, but also reward, all levels of player. Unless the wind is “blowin’ rill quick”, as they say, no one will leave this property without thinking they’ve played a gem of a course.
Top of the Rock, No. 8
Payne’s Valley, Aerial
Number Three Excellent is a Tom Fazio re-design of an earlier course, renamed Buffalo Ridge because, well, there ARE many buffalo to be seen just over the fences. I’ve always admired the Fazio courses I’ve played, and this was no exception. Every hole is pleasing on the eye, but never egregiously difficult. Tom was probably the busiest golf course designer in the 90s and early 00s, and his courses always stand the test of time.
Golf in the Ozarks: Jack Nicklaus-designed Top of the Rock
The last on my Excellent list for Branson is a 9-hole par-3 layout, from the great Jack Nicklaus himself, called Top of the Rock. As one of the world’s most respected and prolific course designers, Jack doesn’t do a lot of short, par-3 courses, and based on what I saw at Top of the Rock, that’s a real pity. This may be the prettiest 9 holes I’ve ever seen. The holes themselves are gorgeous, with lots of bunkers, and water, and rock outcroppings to please your eye; and some holes have views that go on for miles, including vistas of Table Rock Lake in the distance.
But don’t let the good looks or short carries fool you. This little track has some real teeth to it. From personal experience, I know that Jack himself can be a real teaser. This course does that to you, too.
Top of the Rock, No. 2
Gary Player-designed 13-hole short course
For more relaxed golfing fun, there’s another course in the Big Cedar Golf group, called Mountain Top, a 13-hole short course designed by Gary Player. It’s a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, again offering jaw-dropping views of the Ozark topography.
And both of the other courses we played (out of a total of 10 courses in the Branson area), Branson Hills and Ledgestone, were certainly worthy of mention and recommendation. Branson Hills has been voted Best Course in Missouri in recent years, and it was a fine test of my game, and will be of yours, no doubt.
Mountain Top, No. 13
Branson, Missouri is not hard to get to. From Toronto, it’s about a 16-hour drive – a little less than the hike to, say, Hilton Head. To get there by air, you’d need to fly into Springfield, about 45 minutes north of Branson, after changing planes in Chicago or Atlanta, most likely. Or, you can always fly your own plane into Branson’s private airport, and be on the tee in a matter of minutes.
But no matter how you get there, I think you’ll be mighty impressed with the whole package of golf, activities, entertainment, accommodation, dining, hospitality, and… did I mention golf?
Jim Deeks writes occasional articles and travel features on golf… when he’s not busy producing and hosting CANADA FILES, a television interview program that appears on over 250 PBS channels throughout the United States.
Top image: Ozarks National, No. 18; Images: Big Cedar Lodge