Last seen trying to defend his 2019 Masters title at Augusta National, Tiger Woods continues to compete on the PGA Tour. But health issues associated with multiple knee and back surgeries prevent him from playing nearly as often as he once did. Which is likely one reason why the 44-year-old father of two is devoting more of his time these days to golf course design.
His first course in the United States, at the private Bluejack National Club and Community outside Houston, Texas, came online in 2016 to largely rave reviews. And the El Cardonal layout he fashioned among giant dunes at Diamante in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, is regarded among the best in that golf-rich region. Now comes Payne’s Valley, a sort of tribute track to his old friend Payne Stewart that is located in the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri. The late golfer once called that part of the Show Me State home, and the public-access course that bears the name of the three-time major championship winner who died in a 1999 plane crash is part of the spectacular Big Cedar Lodge retreat that Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris created there more than 30 years ago.
Payne’s Valley officially opened on Sept 22 with Stewart’s son, Aaron, hitting the ceremonial first tee shot. Then Woods played a televised exhibition match with Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Justin Thomas. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were also on hand for the occasion, in large part because they, too, have crafted courses at Big Cedar.
Sadly, I was unable to attend that affair, primarily due to concerns about air travel in the age of COVID-19. But I did have the chance to walk and ride the course on a couple of occasions during construction. Those visits gave me a good sense of both the land and layout – and good reason to credit the comments I heard this past fall about Payne’s Valley being the best work to date for Tiger’s TGR Design.
Woods certainly had a suitable site, one that featured ridges and hollows as well as creeks and ponds. Limestone rock formations give it a sense of the dramatic, as do sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.
Tiger also is fortunate to have a superb client in Morris. Born and raised in the Ozarks, he prowled local woods and waters as a young boy, rod and gun in hand. In time, Morris became an accomplished enough angler to compete on the professional bass fishing circuit. While there, he started selling lures to fellow competitors. As that business grew, Morris started calling it Bass Pro Shops. He opened his first retail outlet under that moniker in 1972, in the back of one of his father’s Brown Derby liquor stores in the nearby city of Springfield.
Today, the company boasts 177 retail stores in North America, including outlets that carry the Cabela’s name, and welcomes 200 million visitors annually. Bass Pro Shops also made Morris a billionaire, though you wouldn’t know he was so flush from looking at him, clad as he usually is in jeans and flannel.
When Morris created Big Cedar, he envisioned it as a way to show off his beloved Ozarks. Initially, the 4,600-acre property featured such activities as fishing, skeet and trap shooting, hiking and horseback riding.
“Tiger wanted this course to be challenging for really good players, approachable to average golfers and accessible to all.” – Beau Welling
Then, the man who is best known in these parts as “Mr. Johnny” determined that golf was another way to attract people to the area. After hiring Tom Fazio to revamp a layout now named Buffalo Ridge Springs, Morris asked Nicklaus to design a nine-hole, par-3 course dubbed Top of the Rock. Morris later engaged Player to build a 13-hole, par-3 layout called Mountain Top – and then Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to build an 18-hole gem, Ozarks National. Next up was the course that Tiger came to build.
Another asset for Woods in the Payne’s Valley job was his senior design consultant, Beau Welling.
“Tiger wanted this course to be challenging for really good players, approachable to average golfers and accessible to all,” said Welling, a longtime associate of Tom Fazio who has run his own firm since 2007. “That’s why he made the fairways very wide, and why there are several sets of tees, running from 7,370 yards to just under 5,000 yards. We amped up the greens a bit but made sure there were lots of recovery options around the putting surfaces.”
The greens at Payne’s Valley are bentgrass, Welling added, and the fairways and rough are zyosia.
As for the bunkers, Todd Bohn, the director of agronomy at Big Cedar Lodge, said they have “a lot of Augusta National in them.”
“Johnny and Tiger love the bunkering at Augusta,” he explained. “And these have that same size and feel and that flashy white-sand look.”
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According to Welling, who has a physics degree from Brown University and an international business degree from the University of South Carolina, Morris was anything but an absentee client. “In fact, Johnny was very involved,” he said.
“He’s not a golfer, per se. But he gets design and is the greatest choreographer of experience I have ever seen. We learned a lot from him in the process.”
As for the finished product, Welling says Payne’s Valley comprises “a really good collection of golf holes.”
“There are a couple of short and very drivable par-4s in Nos. 3 and 12 that I like a lot,” he said. “The 17th is a good one, too. It’s a long 4-par and sort of a Bottle hole with center-line bunkers. All three are laden with strategic options and ask golfers to really consider the shots they are going to make.”
“As far as the most visually interesting of the bunch, I would start with the 10th,” said Welling, who also studied landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and drama at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. “It’s a par-3 that plays over a creek to a green that has a pond to the left and a waterfall backdrop.”
The 18th is also something to behold in Welling’s book because of the limestone rock escarpment that backs the green, framing the putting surface like seats in an amphitheater. “Then, there’s the 19th hole, which was Johnny’s idea and design,” added Welling. “It’s a par-3 and a place to settle any outstanding bets from a round, with a green surrounded by water and backed by waterfalls and limestone cliffs.”
According to Welling, the project took more than three years from start to finish. “And with construction spread out over that period of time, it allowed Tiger to get even more involved in the details of the design because he was able to make more visits to the site,” he said.
That also made the pride of ownership that much greater and Welling described Woods as “beaming” during the official opening.
Woods no doubt liked showing it off to his pals from the PGA Tour, each of whom declared themselves to be smitten by the course. Jack and Gary, too.
“Johnny Morris was also very happy, and that pleased Tiger as well,” Welling added. “Their relationship goes back awhile, to the time that Tiger bought a boat and trailer from Bass Pro Shops, and Johnny personally delivered it. Tiger also enjoyed helping Johnny achieve what he wanted with his latest golf course.”
That would be getting more people to come to the Ozarks to play golf.
A course like Payne’s Valley only sweetens the deal.
Top: No. 1 at Payne’s Valley (photo: Evan Schiller)
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