Par three golf courses are often built as an afterthought — nothing more than glorified practice areas with worn out astro-turf tee boxes and greens so rough the ball hops like a bunny rabbit all the way to the hole. Not so for Top of the Rock at Big Cedar Lodge, a par three course that is the destination.
Big Cedar’s owner, billionaire Bass Pro Shop magnate Johnny Morris commissioned the Jack Nicklaus Design course atop an Ozark peak that boasts glorious panoramic views of Table Rock Lake from nearly every tee. All nine holes are striking and said to be inspired by the course at Augusta National. Four tee shots require healthy over-water carries and the sixth green is situated on an island that players reach via pontoon boat. Even though the course is short, it still presents a significant challenge for players of every skill level, including the players on the PGA Champions Tour. Mountain winds gust frequently, bedeviling tee shots, while subtle breaks require the player’s full attention even on short puts.
While the course itself is stunning, players should not race past the practice area. An elaborate driving range, designed by Arnold Palmer, and an 18 hole putting course, by Tom Watson, make even the warm-ups seem like a bucket-list experience.
One of the biggest complaints about golf is that the game is time consuming. Because its a short course, a round at top of the rock should take a little over an hour for 9 holes and about two and a half if you replay for 18, which means if you tee off early, you can be back at Big Cedar just in time for a savory biscuits and gravy breakfast, worth the caloric splurge.
(The second hole at Buffalo Ridge is lined by a massive vein of exposed rock.)
After fueling up your tank, there is more golf to play. The resort’s 18 hole, par 71 course, Buffalo Ridge was designed by Tom Fazio and is one of the best in the state of Missouri. Formerly Branson Creek Golf Club, the track plays a shade over 7,000 yards from the tips. Recently, Morris tapped Fazio for a substantial and nearly-complete renovation to enhance players’ exposure to the Ozarks’ natural beauty, with numerous water falls, caves, and exposed rock formations. A new cub house and half-way station evoke the down-home charm mingling with the uber-luxe vibe that has made Big Cedar famous.
Later this year, Big Cedar plans to open a 12-hole, family-friendly circuit, designed by Gary Player, which is designed to be un-intimidating for beginners and help bring some new players to the game. Morris also recently commissioned golf architecture darlings Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to create a new 18-hole course alongside Buffalo Ridge, which should see its first tee shots some time in 2017.
(With a massive population of rainbow trout, the catch-and-release fly fishing at Dogwood Canyon is as good as it gets.)
If you still have some energy leftover, the resort serves as a base for a number of outdoor activities including guided bass fishing on Table Rock Lake, shooting at Big Cedar’s academy, or fly fishing lessons at the Orvis School at Dogwood Canyon, a stunning 10,000-acre preserve, created by Morris, and aggressively stocked with rainbow trout.
More information: Big Cedar is located about hour from Springfield, Missouri, where a room goes for $179 a night. Nine holes at Top of the Rock runs $135 and you can replay the course on the weekend for $90. A round at Buffalo Ridge on Friday or Saturday cost $110.
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