By Erik Matuszewski
As our dusty camouflage utility vehicle squeezed past several excavators on one side of the gravel path behind Big Cedar Lodge’s Mountain Top clubhouse, a group of workers armed with compressed-air devices called air spades was on the other, painstakingly clearing dirt and rock from a wall of limestone outcroppings.
Minutes earlier, looking down on the distinctive formations from the back deck of the clubhouse, I asked Todd Bohn how laborious the process is to expose them.
Bohn is the director of agronomy for Big Cedar’s golf properties and on this steamy Missouri afternoon was giving me a tour of the first public golf course in the U.S. built by Tiger Woods and his design firm. As we rumbled past the formations, Bohn explained how they were first dug out by excavators, then blasted with high-pressure water before the final clearing is meticulously done by hand.
Indeed, the impressive visuals hit you from the start at the Woods-designed Payne’s Valley layout, as the path to the first tee goes past this dramatic wall of rock. This after having been treated to seemingly endless views from the Mountain Top clubhouse that sits on the highest part of the property in southwest Missouri, just over 10 miles north of the Arkansas border. It’s all a part of the experience at Big Cedar, which has grown into one of the game’s leading golf destinations.
Less than a minute later, we stood on the first tee, a downhill par four with a wide, untouched fairway that tumbles down to a green perched on the edge of a hill. Miles of densely treed hills provide the backdrop for the opener, which looks achingly ready to play, except for the fact there are no tee markers, no flags, and no holes cut in the greens. There are no divots either, as Payne’s Valley—the fifth course in the Big Cedar portfolio—isn’t scheduled to open until summer of 2020.
My tour showed it will be worth the wait, a scenic treat that lives up to Woods’s fun and player-friendly pledge while offering strategic challenges throughout.
“You could land a jumbo jet on some of these fairways,” says Bohn, noting that there are 85 acres of fairway at Payne’s Valley.
A former high school football star in Kansas, Bohn holds a unique place in the golf world. As the on-site point man who oversees a team of contractors to implement the plans from TGR Design, he’s about to help open a third new golf course in three years. Ozarks National (Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) and Mountain Top (Gary Player) both opened for full-time play within the past two years.
Most of the holes at Payne’s Valley are fully grassed and look like they’re ready for play, with a handful still undergoing work before winter. Among them are the par-five 18th hole, which sits at the base of the limestone wall, roughly 160 feet below the clubhouse. Just beyond that unfinished green, the par-three, bet-settling 19th hole is tucked on a shelf in the side of the rock face. When completed, a dramatic waterfall will spill down the limestone wall from up near the clubhouse, dumping between 4,000 and 6,000 gallons of water per minute.
The fairway of the 18th fairway was sodded with Zoysia grass from Tulsa, Okla., in August—one of the final few holes to get grass. But even though parts of the course might look ready to welcome eager golfers, Bohn says its essential to have a full growing season. Especially after he was kept up many nights “trying to keep things alive in the heat” of the summer.
“The earliest I’d like to play on that is May or June of next year,” Bohn says. “It’s going to root down the rest of this year, but it’s not going to grow when it goes dormant.”
Payne’s Valley is a par-72 layout—10 par fours, four par fives and four par threes—that will play 7,375 yards from the back tees and about 5,900 yards from the most forward tees. As the name would suggest, it plays down and through a beautiful valley on one side of the Mountain Top clubhouse. It’s also an homage to the late Payne Stewart, the three-time major championship winner and Springfield, Mo., native who died in a 1999 plane crash.
The 4th hole is a shorter par five that incorporates rock outcroppings behind and in front of the green, which is also protected by a six-acre irrigation pond. The par-three 5th hole plays to an island green of sorts, as it’s surrounded on all sides by the same pond that fronts the 4th hole.
Work is still being finished at the visually arresting par-3three 10th hole, which will have a small waterfall behind the green to the right. A faux stone bridge crosses over the waterfall, which connects a higher pond to a lower one on the left side of the 10th green.
The concept of the 12th green reminds Bohn of the short, par-four 10th hole at Riviera Country Club outside Los Angeles. It’s potentially drivable for some, but miss to the left and your ball kicks away from the green and rolls away. Miss to the right and you’re in a sea of bunkers.
“And then,” Bohn says as we round a corner to the par-five 13th, which can play 660 yards, uphill, from the back tees, “this course kicks you in your teeth for a few holes.”
The conclusion, like the introduction, is a thrilling one. By the time you approach the 18th green (and the bonus 19th hole), you’re left wondering how in the world golfers will get back up to the clubhouse high above. A portion of that rock face had been exposed originally, but the Big Cedar team uncovered twice as much—just adding to the drama. Tiger’s course itself only adds to the rich bounty of golf at Big Cedar, and it left me counting the days to when my next go-round is in a golf cart instead of a utility vehicle.