By Graylyn Loomis
Big Cedar Lodge is a combination sporting club, museum, and nature preserve with golf. Owner Johnny Morris sums it up as a “wilderness resort,” but it might be better described as Johnny’s playground, filled with examples of his passions that he wants to share with the world.
Staying at Big Cedar also feels like visiting Morris’s home: His name is everywhere, along with photos of him fishing, playing golf, and with friends. The staff speaks about him as a role model as well as a friend they expect to see any minute. Over the course of a visit, you get a good idea of who he is and what he likes. And you can’t help but gain appreciation for what he’s done.
Morris is the founder of Bass Pro Shops, which he started by selling fishing tackle out of his father’s liquor store in 1972. Today, the chain has nearly 200 locations and more than 200 million visitors a year. Forbes estimates his personal fortune at $6.3 billion, and he’s invested hundreds of millions in his native Missouri, including creating a 10,000-acre nature conservancy called Dogwood Canyon Nature Park and a museum/aquarium called Wonders of Wildlife.
Big Cedar Lodge—located 55 miles south of Springfield, Mo., on 4,600 acres overlooking Table Rock Lake—has been a Morris passion since he acquired the property in 1987. Originally a resort where fishermen, hunters, and outdoorsmen could enjoy the Ozark Mountains, it has steadily grown. It hosts more than a million guests annually, with more and more of them golfers.
The first course, which opened in 1996, was the Jack Nicklaus-designed Top of the Rock, a fittingly named par-three course with views of the Ozarks and Table Rock Lake hundreds of feet below. Top of the Rock was also the first par three to host a professional championship, the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf event on the PGA Tour Champions.
Adjacent to Top of the Rock is a complex that includes restaurants, bars, and an Arnold Palmer-designed practice area with one of the wildest ranges you’ll ever see. Built with artificial turf, it features greens set on rock terraces, the tops of waterfalls, and steep slopes, and grants long views of the mountains. It’s lit at night and guests bring their drinks for fun and games. When an enormous sinkhole opened next to the range, Morris decided to dig it even deeper and create a nature trail through the base. The combination of driving range, sinkhole, and views create sensory overload that will have you doing a double-take to take it all in.
Part of a building behind the range is called Arnie’s Barn, a 150-year-old, Amish-built barn that Morris had disassembled and moved from Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa., then rebuilt in Missouri by a team of Amish craftsmen. Inside is a trove of Palmer memorabilia. Downstairs is the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, housing one of the largest private collections of Native American artifacts in the world. It takes more than an hour to weave through the exhibits, everything from Native American warrior headdresses to Civil War items and a wooly mammoth, some 75,000 items—and apparently just one-third of Morris’s collection.
A few miles from Top of the Rock are the four other golf courses at Big Cedar Lodge: Gary Player’s 13-hole Mountain Top short course, Tom Fazio’s Buffalo Ridge Springs, Coore & Crenshaw’s Ozarks National, and Tiger Woods’s soon-to-be-completed Payne’s Valley.
In 2013, Morris purchased a course he renamed Buffalo Ridge Springs, which became the first 18-hole design in the Big Cedar portfolio. Fazio had designed the course in 1999, then returned following the purchase to do some renovation and redesign. It’s a dramatic layout with elevation change, lakes, and a slew of risk-reward par fives that remain clearly in mind long after the round.
Gary Player’s Mountain Top is a 13-hole short course that opened in 2017. Fitting its name, the course is located atop a high ridge and is routed through limestone rock features that were excavated and exposed during the construction process. Holes range from 82 yards to 221, with many of them offering long views of the surrounding mountains. Starting this year, Mountain Top will join Top of the Rock and Buffalo Ridge Springs in the course rotation hosting the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf.
Ozarks National, which opened for play in late 2018, is a Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw creation, which with its steep terrain and rocky base is a far cry from the sandy sites and flattish landscapes the duo is known for. But give them credit, they found a way to incorporate their usual minimalist style in a genius routing that runs along ridgelines within the Ozark Mountains.
“Our job was to fit this piece of ground and make it look like the course has been here for a long time,” said Crenshaw during construction. The elevation changes force multiple decisions from every tee: Wide sloping fairways often funnel balls into the rough or bunkers, and golfers must consider where balls will bounce and run, plus the resulting stance and approach shot. It’s a mental workout for the low handicapper and a fun, no-balls-lost day for the carefree resort player.
Tiger Woods is bringing a similar commitment to width and ease of play to his Payne’s Valley course, which will open in early 2020. Named after Missouri native Payne Stewart, it will be Woods’s first public course in the U.S. Many of the fairways and green sites had to be blasted out of the limestone base. There will be little rough and sharp-edged, Augusta National-style bunkers filled with bright white sand.
Finding those wide fairways will be key: Play to the correct part of the fairway to be rewarded with a better angle for the approach. Miss on the wrong side and you won’t lose a ball or find a hazard, but the approach will be more challenging. The par-72 course will stretch to 7,308 yards from the back tees but will have boxes for every level of player.
Morris and Woods are longtime friends. They met after Tiger won the 1997 Masters, purchased a boat from Bass Pro Shops, and Morris delivered it personally. They’ve connected over fishing and golf ever since.
Big Cedar Lodge is all about building those sorts of personal connections, not only with Morris but among guests. The resort appeals to a broad range of people with a broad range of interests. There’s none of the pretension that too often accompanies golf resorts. Hunters and vacationers dine with golfers and fishermen; pick-up trucks share the parking lot with Porsches and Mercedes.
And everyone is there to enjoy the place that Johnny Morris built.
Big Cedar Lodge Travel Tips
Presented by OGIO
- There is a hidden bar at Big Cedar Lodge that you’d never stumble across. Follow the stone stairs at the rear of Osage Restaurant at Top of the Rock to End of the Trail—a wine cellar and bar with a whiskey room, cigar room, and cognac room.
- On your arrival or departure day, make time to visit Wonders of Wildlife in Springfield, Mo. The natural history museum and aquarium is one of the most impressive in the U.S. If you’re flying with your clubs, OGIO recommends their Mutant or Straight Jacket travel bags.
- If the weather is bad, or you have children in the group, visit Big Cedar’s Fun Mountain. It has go-carts, a ropes course, bowling, laser tag, bumper cars, an arcade, a climbing wall, an indoor golf simulator, billiards, mini-golf, and more.
- Even if you don’t have clubs, don’t be afraid to hit balls at the Top of the Rock driving range. Complimentary rental clubs are included with the purchase of range balls.
- It’s tempting to visit Big Cedar Lodge solely for golf, but leave open days to explore Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, the sporting club, or one of the other non-golf amenities. Pack clothing for every occasion and use a bag that can carry it all. OGIO recommends their ALPHA Convoy series of luggage to get the job done.