With every hole telling its own story about one of golf’s greatest gladiators, the course at Branson Hills (formerly Payne Stewart Golf Club) is a fitting tribute to famous Missouri golfers.
Much of the recent fanfare tied to golf in the immediate Branson area has centered around the ongoing activities tied to the Big Cedar Lodge and the recent opening of Ozarks National and the forthcoming opening in 2020 of Payne's Valley, the first Tiger Woods design opened to the public.
But, one of the best available options has been making headway since it opened just over a decade ago.
Branson Hills has been at the top of the pecking order for courses open to the public in The Show Me State. The course is situated on wonderful rolling land -- you're introduced to this immediately at the eye-catching 1st hole. Here you plunge downhill with two fairway bunkers in different directions -- one on the left and the other positioned a bit further down the fairway on the right. There is a saddle area in the fairway so balls will tend to move towards a flat are for the approach. The green is well-defended on the left by a water hazard and for those who err too far right you'll be working twice as hard to successfully recover as the green moves noticeably away from that position. Given the significant downhill nature of the hole it would have been far better for the left side fairway bunker to have been positioned much further down the fairway in order to make strong players think twice before proceeding to launch away.
The 2nd is a hard as nails par-3. You commence from a highly elevated tee and the hole does move downhill before rising to a green that's nearly equal in height to the rear teeing area. The key is getting the approach to work away from the frontal greenside bunkers. If you finish to far left the demands to pitch the ball close to the pin is anything but easy. The key with the 2nd is taking sufficient club because having one's ball short of the intended target will likely mean a fast bogey or worse.
Changing gears at the 3rd comes the short driveable par-4. The hole starts from an elevate teeing area and then moves downhill. The fairway area tapers down considerably so the question to ask is just how aggressive should one be. Having a short par-4 in the mix works well following the opening two holes but the imagination for what could have been an elite hole is somewhat missing here.
Following this trio the next three holes plays in a relatively straight line and while I am not usually a fan of this the variation in the holes does work quite well. The par-5 4th is a tough three-shot hole with a water hazard ideally positioned near the green. The long par-4 5th is ably defended by a left side rock wall that narrows the fairway appreciably. The 6th is another mid-length par-4 but the key rests with a superbly crafted putting surface. The green provides for an array of different pin locations with the far left frontal location being quite a test of nerves with the approach shot.
The downside with Branson Hills comes with the next two holes. The 7th is simply a lackluster short par-3. There's no real design details that truly elevate it. The par-5 8th is located on rolling terrain but there's little teeth to bite the longer player from simply launching a tee shot with little real risk.
Fortunately, matters changes with the sterling par-4 9th. Pay close attention to a creek that runs up the entire right side. Ample run exists to the left on this 432-yard par-4 but going too far to that side and you can be blocked by trees that hang near to the green. It would have been a real plus if a fairway bunker were positioned on the left side thereby narrowing the available landing area and causing stronger low handicap types to think twice about pounding a driver up that side. Nonetheless, the approach shot is testing. The creek encountered down the right side moves in front of the elevate green. When the pin is cut to the very front or far left side you have to especially prudent in one's execution. Go too far with the approach and the green will then run away from you. A first rate hole to end the outbound side.
The 10th hole starts the inward half in good fashion but the hole is fairly similar to the preceding hole. The uphill par-5 11th is very, very good. The key is positioning the drive and second shot for a reasonable approach length. Keep in mind, the green is quite deep so any uphill approach must have sufficient club to get to the pin location. My only wish list to strengthen the hole is moving the center-placed fairway bunker from its existing position and having it located at roughly 300 yards from the extreme back teeing area.
The par-3 12th is a good hole -- here water enters the picture guarding the green and the putting surface features two distinct locations on the far right and left side. The downhill par-4 13th at just under 420 yards is a disappointing hole. The severe drop-off does have a rather large fairway bunker at roughly 350 yards off the tee but the design details are fairly simplistic. Given the terrain involved something more creative would have been far more effective.
The 14th and 15th holes that follow have one common flaw -- the paved cart path is a bit too close for comfort given the playing line is quite near to that side. The best part of the par-5 14th comes with the long green -- especially in the far rear area. The 15th is highlighted by a superbly crafted green - the serpentine target features a frontal area that dips in the middle and rises towards the rear. The target is 55 yards in length so it goes without saying that proper club selection is pivotal.
The final three holes provide a fitting ending to the round. The 16th is a quality par-3. Water is in the picture but it's the green design that stands out. When the pin is placed in the far right corner the landing area visually from the rear teeing area shrinks measurably. The par-4 17th is all about positioning. The elevated tee provides a clear visual assessment of what lies ahead. The hole does turn right in the drive zone but the key is actually aiming at the two far side fairway bunkers. From just in front of them the approach. The key is again selecting the proper approach club. The putting surface is elevated and being near to the target can avoid a careless three-putt. As good as the penultimate hole is the 18th is truly a beast.
Few courses will feature an uphill hole in the 18th position and the one encountered at Branson Hills is done well. At the tee you'll observe serious elevation upwards. Pay heed to the solitary fairway bunker to the left -- there's more room to the right but go too far right and
the approach shot will only be blind but can be snared by vexing rough. The key to decide at the tee is how close can you come to the left fairway bunker. The distance to carry is listed at nearly 250 yards but the "effective length" with the elevation makes it play longer. Factor in the prevailing wind which can be in your face and you have a perfect storm to overcome. Those fortunate to find the ideal placement will then have to select the proper club to get to a green that is a bit elevated and pitched from right-to-left. Those walking off the green with par can rightly congratulate themselves on their good fortune and golf skill.
One of the real pluses about Branson Hills is that the round does not return to the clubhouse at 9-holes. The design was smart enough to realize that the overall virtues of the site would work far better in keeping players engaged for the entire 18-holes.
Branson Hills is clearly a layout worthy checking out when in town. Kudos for the turf quality of the greens and when the zoysia fairways are primed the ball sits very nicely although I do question how firm the surface can get. Yes, there are a few things that could be done to enhance the course but minus those small points previously mentioned, the totality of what is there is very good.
Missouri's State motto is "show me" and Branson Hills certainly demonstrates that.
M. James Ward