RIDGEDALE, MISSOURI | Players competing in the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf beginning next week will be treated to something old and something new when they return to the Ozark Mountains of Missouri for this popular PGA Tour Champions event.
The old is the Jack Nicklaus-designed Top of the Rock golf course, a scenic nine-holer at the Big Cedar Lodge resort that affords sweeping views of massive, smallmouth bass-rich Table Rock Lake and is the first par-3 course ever to be used for a professional golf tournament. It’s been part of the rota for this event since it moved to Big Cedar Lodge in 2014.
The new is Ozarks National, a recently opened and equally panoramic 18-hole track laid out on a series of nearby ridges by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
The garden-like Top of the Rock is a known entity, having been the centerpiece of this popular tournament for the past five years. Ozarks National is a new addition and a good one. Competitors surely will like what they find here.
Opened last fall, the par-71 track plays just a tick longer than 7,000 yards from the back tees, and roughly 6,500 yards from the gold markers. The par-5 first is a perfect starter, with a wide landing area and lots of room to snuggle a second shot in the fairway short of the green.
Next up is a short par-3 that requires no more than a mid-iron to clear a yawning bunker front right – and stay out of the sand back left. And No. 3 is charming short par-4 with a visually intimidating cross bunker looming on the right off the tee. It’s only 165 yards to carry from the back markers, which means it should be easy to clear. But often times, that is easier said than done.
More than anything else it is the mix of holes on the front nine that will tickle the fancy, especially how it finishes, with a par-3, a par-5, another par-3 and finally the par-5 ninth, a fun variety of holes that both challenge and entertain.
I also like the Zoysia fairways because of the way a golf ball sits up on that strain of grass, and the bentgrass greens roll true and just fast enough.
The Ozarks are not actually mountains. They’re valleys, a geological distinction lost on the average observer but one that is critical in creating a golf course.
Then there are the sweeping views from the three separate ridges across which the holes are routed, and of the wooded canyons that line several of them, especially on the right of the fourth and fifth holes, and the left of the seventh. It gives golfers a sense of the rugged beauty of this region, which is exactly what Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris wanted when he created Big Cedar Lodge.
Morris was born and raised here. He prowled local woods and waters as a young boy with rod and gun in hand. He became a good enough angler to make a living for a while as a professional bass fisherman. Then he started selling lures to fellow competitors. As that business grew, Morris started calling it Bass Pro Shops and opened his first retail outlet under that name in 1972, in back of one of his father’s Brown Derby liquor stores in Springfield, Mo.
Today, Bass Pro boasts 75 retail stores around North America and welcomes 120 million visitors annually. Morris is now one of the richest men in America and one of the most unassuming billionaires in the world. Wearing jeans and flannel, he is always a humble host, ready to fetch you a drink or show you around the area, quick with a story and always eager to listen to one of yours.
Morris created Big Cedar in the late 1980s, believing that a wilderness resort would be a great way to show off his beloved Ozarks. Initially, it featured such activities as fishing and clay target shooting as well as hiking and horseback riding.
Eventually, Mr. Johnny, as everyone in this area calls him, discovered golf, and he quickly came to believe that it, too, was a terrific way to get people to come to Big Cedar. So, he began building and acquiring courses, getting Tom Fazio to revamp a layout now called Buffalo Ridge Springs and engaging Nicklaus to design Top of the Rock. Then, Morris asked Gary Player to fashion a 13-hole, par-3 course named Mountain Top. Soon after, Mr. Johnny reached out to Coore and Crenshaw.
“I had never been to the Ozarks when Johnny first called,” says Coore, a North Carolina native who was on track to become a college classics professor before getting into golf course design as part of Pete Dye’s construction crew. “And I did not know what to expect when I first visited in 2014. Johnny showed me several pieces of property, and it all had heavier soil as opposed to the sand we had mostly been working on. But we found through a couple of trips that the natural contours of that land took care of the drainage if we stayed on top of the ridges. The land forms also lent themselves nicely to some interesting golf and enabled us to apply Old World design concepts without having to move a lot of earth.”
The Ozarks are not actually mountains. They’re valleys, a geological distinction lost on the average observer but one that is critical in creating a golf course. The formation of a peak dictates soil composition, foliage, drainage and grading restrictions. Coore appreciated everything that he found in the region.
“The ridges radiated out in different directions, which also let us give golfers different views of the surrounding land while ensuring that wind would blow in different directions on different holes,” he explained. “We could force a player to hit over a hill that prevented them from being able to see the hole, on occasion, or have them play shots away from a green and use the cant of the fairway to run their golf balls up. In the end, we were able to build a very traditional golf course on what initially seemed to be a very non-traditional piece of property.”
Coore said that he and Crenshaw wanted to be sure the course possessed a “rustic” feel, adding, “I told Johnny that our goal when we finished was have it look like he had run out of money.”
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The back nine at Ozarks National is a bear, and it begins with a long dogleg right that feeds to a big, well-bunkered green. I consider par-3s to be respites, but the 12th gives you all you can handle with a 215-yard tee shot from the gold markers over a deep, grassy canyon to the largest green on the course – and one of the biggest putting surfaces I have ever seen. Thankfully, I manage to put my drive (and yes, I hit driver) some 20 feet or so to the right of the pin and then two-putt for my par.
Next up is 13, and that may be my favorite hole on Ozarks National, for the testy tee shot that must clear a gaping ravine and a pair of cavernous fairway bunkers on this long dogleg left, and for the 400-foot wooden beam-and-plank bridge I have to cross afterward. Built by Amish artisans, it runs some 60 feet above a small creek, and I stop in the middle of the span to admire its construction.
It is a true work of art. Classic. Rustic. Pure. So is the entire golf course.
Top photo: Ozarks National
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