Located in the heart of the Midwest, Branson provides golfers with the ultimate opportunity to experience the perfect blend of natural beauty and challenging terrain. Branson, Missouri, is famous for its live entertainment, scenic Ozark Mountains, and exceptional golf courses that attract golfers worldwide. Whether you’re a seasoned golfer or just looking to enjoy the game in a stunning setting, Branson’s golf courses will leave a lasting impression.
Visiting this past October, we discovered that the Ozarks and Big Cedar Lodge has emerged as America’s newest must-visit golf destination. We stayed in the Payne’s Valley Cottages, adjacent to the newest Big Cedar Golf course.
The new 1-, 2-, and 4-bedroom Payne’s Valley Cottages are rustically elegant with vistas of Ozarks terrain as well as several holes at Payne’s Valley. The wood, glass, and stone buildings have kitchenettes, cathedral ceilings, porches with rocking chairs, and BBQs.
Payne’s Valley Golf Course, the first public-access course by Tiger Woods is rated one of the country’s Top 100 public courses, named in honor of golf legend and Ozarks native, the late Payne Stewart. Through a partnership between Johnny Morris, noted conservationist and founder of Big Cedar Lodge and Bass Pro Shops, and Tiger Woods, the 19-hole layout was created with the intent to foster a deeper connection to nature through the game of golf. The walkable course is challenging yet player-friendly and includes an unforgettable finish where golfers must traverse through a breathtaking natural cave system to return to the clubhouse.
Carved through walls of 300-million-year-old limestone rock formations, the drive from the practice green to the 1st tee is a dramatic start to the round. The daunting tone set by this this ride is in contrast with the overall friendliness of the course itself. The course is routed across an expansive piece of land, winding up and down and out — but mostly out. The routing never returns back to the clubhouse until the 18th (and 19th) holes. The golf course has flow to it and it has movement. There are many of bail-out areas, mostly on the right side of the holes to accommodate the slicers among us. Generous fairways make you want to unleash off the tee, and large aprons around the greens and forgiving green complexes make approach shots pleasantly inviting.
You can stretch this course out for a challenge but even if you play from an appropriate set of tee boxes, and there are four to choose from that range from 4,957 yards to 7,370 yards. The movement in the greens are so subtle they can be tough to read. The subtleness is enough to keep golfers on their toes without punishing them unnecessarily.
Set behind the 18th green and at the base of towering rock walls, the unforgettable 136-yard bonus 19th hole is an island green and you won’t find a more dramatic location at which to settle a bet. This was not a Tiger-designed hole, but one by Johnny Morris himself. Johnny has worked with a slew of high-profile architects while developing the courses on his property: Jack Nicklaus (who designed the par-3 Top of the Rock); Tom Fazio (Buffalo Ridge); Gary Player (par-3 Mountain Top); Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (Ozarks National); and now Tiger. This time, it was Morris’ turn at this 19th hole.
The ride from the 19th green up to the clubhouse is like something out of an amusement park. Called the “Cliffhanger Trail,” it’s a one-mile nature trail that winds up the rock face. The passage winds around some unprotected cliffs and through streams and over rock surfaces, requiring slow, precise driving.
Ozarks National designed by world-renowned golf architect duo Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, opened at Big Cedar Lodge in 2019. The 18-hole championship course is the first and only golf course in Missouri designed by Coore & Crenshaw, which was honored as the Best New Public Course by Golf Digest in 2019. With breathtaking views the course also includes interesting features, such as a 400-foot wooden beam and plank bridge, which connects the tee box and fairway of the 13th hole that stands 60-feet above a flowing creek.
Coming off the green at No. 13 there is a small sign that can be easy to miss. It hides off to the left in the grass when the path to the 14th tee is straight ahead. We wandered over to take a look and saw the old slab of wood that read in painted letters: “Ben’s Torture Tee.” Crenshaw found an additional line to play the 14th from as he was admiring the views all around him. He and Coore never put an actual tee box there and that is probably a good thing. A long par-4, the 14th hole is difficult enough with a beautiful reveal from the fairway of an infinity green set against the valley. Ben’s alternate tee would require a mighty drive and a forced carry, hence “Ben’s Torture Tee” which is not used for play.
I really enjoyed playing Ozarks National but Buffalo Ridge Springs is still top of the herd in my books.
Buffalo Ridge Springs, 18-holes, designed by renowned course architect Tom Fazio and visionary conservationist Johnny Morris. Ranked by GOLF Magazine as the No. 1 Public Golf Course You Can Play in Missouri for multiple years, the course features herds of roaming bison grazing on the native prairie grasses that surround the golf course boundaries. Buffalo Ridge Springs covers approximately 450 acres of Ozark Mountain terrain with flowing creeks, scenic lakes and natural limestone formations.
Why is it important to mention 18-holes so often when talking about Big Cedar Golf? Because not all world class golf needs to be eighteen holes!
Rounding out the Big Cedar collection are two short courses. The Top of the Rock Golf Course is a true celebration of nature and Ozarks heritage. Honored as the first par-3 course to be featured on a PGA TOUR-sanctioned event, the 9-hole course offers an unrivaled golf experience with unparalleled panoramic views that highlight the work of the course architect, Jack Nicklaus.
Mountain Top is “Nature’s Course.” Here Johnny Morris, who by nature is a very hands-on kind of guy, teamed up with World Golf Hall of Fame legend Gary Player to create a world-class 13-hole short course that delivers an unparalleled experience. The course routes through unforgettable rock formations and includes some of the most dramatic views in the Ozarks. Thousands of hours of painstaking pick and shovel excavations revealed 300-million-year-old limestone formations, creating an over-the-top experience that golfers will never forget.
With five courses in play to date – designed by Woods, Nicklaus, Fazio, Player, and Coore-Crenshaw (all certified by Audubon International for their environmental and sustainability best practices) – Big Cedar continues to improve.
A sixth course (Cliffhangers) is currently under construction. It’s an 18-hole, par-3 design located adjacent to Payne’s Valley.
Big Cedar Lodge, located 15 minutes south of Branson in the heart of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, is an ideal place to call home on area visits. Recognized as America’s “Premier Wilderness Resort” – and fueled by Morris’ passion for the region (he grew up in nearby Springfield) – the 4,600-acre lakeside retreat connects families to the outdoors with a variety of nature-based experiences (touring caves, fishing, boating, hiking, water skiing, shooting). Other amenities include a spa and wellness offerings, retail shops, restaurants, Top of the Rock, and Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a 10,000-acre non-profit wildlife nature park 15 minutes from Big Cedar Lodge. Named “Number One Resort in the Midwest” by the readers of Travel + Leisure, the resort offers genuine Ozarks hospitality. www.bigcedar.com
In addition to Big Cedar’s five courses, there are five others that combine to comprise Branson Golf’s 10 playing venues (with an 11th under construction). They are Branson Hills, Thousand Hills, LedgeStone, Holiday Hills, and The Pointe.
Branson Hills Golf Club, situated in the heart of Branson, caters to locals and travelers seeking a challenging and visually captivating golf experience. This 18-hole championship course, designed by Chuck Smith and Bobby Clampett, is known for its creative layout that seamlessly blends into the picturesque Ozarks landscape. It boasts lush fairways, pristine greens, and strategically placed bunkers and water hazards, offering a test of skill and precision for golfers of all levels. With elevation changes that provide breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding hills and cityscape, Branson Hills Golf Club is a golfing paradise and a feast for the eyes.www.bransonhillsgolfclub.com
Maybe the best kept secret in the Ozarks, and it is semi-private so no wonder they keep it a bit of a secret, LedgeStone Country Club at StoneBridge Village.This 18-hole championship golf course, designed by Tom Clark, seamlessly integrates with the area’s rolling hills and lush landscapes. Golfers of all skill levels will appreciate the challenging layout, featuring tree-lined fairways, strategically placed bunkers, and water hazards that demand precision and strategy in each round. The course is known for its scenic beauty, and its stunning vistas provide a serene backdrop for a day of golfing in Branson.
One last thing, OK maybe two, just about an hour north of Branson in Springfield, MO is home to another Johnny Morris creation, Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium. The name pretty much says it all – voted America’s Best new Aquarium and Best New Attraction by USA Today. When I was first told I was visiting I suggested that 1.5 hours would be enough time for me. Ha-ha, wrong! I have been twice now and honestly have no problem spending the good part of a day there. wondersofwildlife.org
Where to Stay?
You can stay at any number of lodging types at Big Cedar during golf trips – from Payne’s Valley Cottages to traditional lodges and hotel rooms. You need not ever step foot off Big Cedar to enjoy a remarkable golf getaway and its other features; marinas, nature trails, family amenities, and shops.
For those that are not able to stay at Big Cedar Lodge, two Hilton hotel options are located in Branson between waterfront Branson Landing Town Center (with retail shops, bars, restaurants, and family friendly venues) and historic downtown Branson (with Dick’s 5 & 10 and the 110-year-old Branson Diner).
Branson is less than one day’s drive for over a one-third of America’s residents.
If you prefer flying, Springfield-Branson International Airport (SGF) has a variety of commercial airlines (American, Delta, United, Allegiant) and is only 50 minutes away, while Branson Airport (BKG) primarily services private flights.
If you have never been to Branson, don’t overlook all that the destination has to offer. There is much more to be had, including over 100 shows happening at 37 theaters in the city (population roughly 13,000).