From the log cabins set out on the tree-lined shores of Table Rock Lake to the Lost Canyon Cave & Nature Trail and Dogwood Canyon Nature Park’s 10,000 acres, Big Cedar Lodge has been fashioned by its founder Johnny Morris as a destination where visitors can easily connect with the natural beauty of the Ozarks.
Golf is yet another way for guests to explore the region’s wonderful landscape, with seventy-six diverse holes in play here: there's a 9-hole par three course designed by Jack Nicklaus (Top of the Rock); a 13-hole short course laid out by Gary Player (Mountain Top); and three 18-hole layouts from the architectural teams of Tom Fazio (Buffalo Ridge Springs), Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (Ozarks National) and Tiger Woods (Payne's Valley).
Unveiled in 2019, Ozarks National is set out on a series of ridges that offer sweeping views of the foothills characterizing the region. The resort’s other golfing layouts feature exposed rock formations, partially excavated caves and sinkholes, but the landscape on which Ozarks National is laid out is a little more subdued.
“We try to find property that looks and feels like golf in its natural state,” Bill Coore explained. “Properties that don’t require extreme alterations. Then we let the natural characteristics of those sites be the guide to create the character and strategy of those courses.”
Tom Fazio’s Buffalo Ridge Springs 18-hole course and Jack Nicklaus’s Top of the Rock short course are both designed in a conventional manner, dictating more of a target golf approach. Ozarks National, on the other hand, is set up to play firm and fast, allowing players the chance to utilize a ground game strategy if they so wish.
“The thing that’s going to be the most important of all is having the ability to improvise and maybe think a little differently,” said Coore, understanding that many golfers are only used to playing an aerial game of golf. “If you have an adventurous or inquisitive spirit, you’ll go out there and discover ways that you can be successful. To us, that’s interesting and fun.”
Gorgeous views was really my biggest takeaway from Ozarks National. It is a course that is for a single digit capper. It is one where you would most likely play much better after having played through it once. That being said, knowing where to land the ball is crucial with there being a lot of blind shots and severe slopes that would take the ball 50-100 yards left or right. I felt like I hit a number of great drives, only to find that my ball rolled off the fairway or even in to a hazard. The greens rolled very fast and very true. The course was in pristine condition and is a great test of golf. I am an 11 cap and I broke 90 here which felt like an 80 break at most any other course
Mostly Disappointed in this new course. Although in excellent condition, did not like layout. All holes are on hills, creating windy conditions. Many fairways are on side hills so drives near the middle of the fairway take crazy hops & disappear down steep drops. If miss fairway, rough is thick & ball is lost unless you walk right up on it. Saw one other group on course all day as locals seem to play elsewhere.
A new era is dawning at Top100, but the wide panel of reviewers here would be remiss not to acknowledge the work of Keith Baxter, Jim McCann, and team, who shepherded the site into the incredible community it is today. I’ve only personally been along for the ride for the last few years of it, but I would like to give the outgoing staff my personal thanks for their achievements here and wish them the very best in their future endeavors.
With that said, this review can begin. The southwest corner of Missouri has blown up over the past half-decade as a golf destination unlike any the region has previously seen, thanks to the developments taking place at Johnny Morris’s Big Cedar Lodge. Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, is a golf nut and his attention to detail and creating a diverse golfing experience for his guests has shown. This golf renaissance has included the construction of three new courses in the last five years (Ozarks National by Coore and Crenshaw, TGR Design’s Payne’s Valley, and Gary Player’s thirteen-hole par three Mountain Top) as well as the earlier acquisition of one other existing layout (Tom Fazio’s Branson Creek, renamed to Buffalo Ridge Springs) to go with the original course at the Lodge, Jack Nicklaus’ nine-hole par three Top of the Rock. The three new courses were built atop the massive property that was the site of an ill-fated early 2000s design effort by John Daly, named Murder Rock Golf Course; while I never personally played Murder Rock, it was somewhat legendary in Missouri golfing circles for its ridiculously spread-out routing and penal nature along with the majestic mountaintop views it offered. Ozarks National sits on what was its back nine, while Payne’s Valley occupies the former front nine’s footprint.
Ozarks National opened its doors for preview play in the fall of 2019, and quickly rose to the lofty position of the consensus best public course in the state; here at Top100, it found its way into the #2 spot overall. While it is likely best evaluated as part of a romp through the full Big Cedar portfolio, such a stay proved to be logistically difficult for this father of two very young children. Ultimately, a very long day trip from nearly four hours away was required for me to fulfill my rather primal need to see this particular golf course. It was a targeted strike, with barely a look at the other four courses at the resort, but after playing Ozarks National I consider it to have been well worth the trip.
In Missouri, the most common grass for fairways and teeing areas is zoysia, a hardy creeper that goes dormant in the late fall and in that state can either play like a sponge or like granite, with very little middle ground, depending on the level of moisture present. On my early November day playing Ozarks National, it was the latter, which along with a stiff autumn breeze caused a set of eighteen holes built atop a mountain ridge – with commensurate heavily sloped fairways – to play nearly as difficult as they possibly could, certainly more than the 73.9/131 slope and rating would lead you to believe. I’ve lived in Missouri most of my life, and I’ve never seen firm and fast fairways and greens in the state quite like what I saw that wild afternoon in Taney County. I watched several tee shots land what appeared to be safely in the middle of the fairway, only to watch them roll off one slope or another, trickling into the edge of the thick stuff – not far enough to lose a ball in most cases, but often requiring a pitch out. On top of that, the greens were lightning fast, enough so to make their more understated contours even more diabolical than they otherwise would be, and firm enough not to show pitch marks on a few full shot approaches.
Ozarks National’s first three holes are somewhat nondescript, a bit of a warm-up for what lies ahead. The most notable aspect of these holes is how well-routed they feel; the tee boxes are simply an extension of the previous hole’s fairway, only a short walk off the previous green surface, somewhat of a throwback to Golden Age designs before the advent of the golf cart. This cohesiveness of routing is a theme throughout the round, leading to many cases where it is imperative that one bring their club for the next tee to the green with them after parking one’s cart. Needless to say, I don’t think Ozarks National would have been a difficult walk at all, and I regret not playing it that way. (Perhaps next time.) The fourth hole represents the first true challenge of the round, a long par four along the edge of a ridge with an infinity green that somehow is also invisible. Yes, you read that right; a cluster of mounds and bunkers blocks one’s view of the surface from most of the fairway, leading to an uneasy approach where only the top of the flag can be seen; fortunately, most balls rolling off the edge of the green will be caught by a collection area before falling off into oblivion. To the left of that green is the tee for the fifth, my favorite hole on the front nine and one of the best par fours on the course. The uncomfortable tee shot on the short fifth requires faith in distance control to find what appears to be a very narrow ripple of fairway climbing to a hilltop green; in reality, it is a lot wider than it appears, but hugging the right edge does provide the best approach angle. Oddly enough, the fifth is the last par four on the outward side which finishes 3-5-3-5, highlighted by the brutish uphill ninth.
The course’s inward side (and it is truly “inward”, as the eleventh hole is as far as one gets from the clubhouse) features some of the best holes on the golf course in its opening stretch: the par fours tenth and thirteenth feature quite a bit more elevation change than has been seen to that point in the routing, adding an extra layer to the challenge of ensuring one’s distances are correct, while the eleventh is a simply excellent par five that uses two lone pine trees to create a bit of danger on the more direct line to the hole in two shots. The par three twelfth, extremely long but downhill, is creatively played with a low draw that runs onto the green from the right side, especially with the large slope in the middle of its green funneling the ball down to pins in the lower-left portion. The fourteenth and fifteenth are par fours that play down and back a ridge and feature blind tee shots; aside from that point, they couldn’t be much different. The fourteenth green is enormous and slopes from front to back, rendering it extremely difficult to hold despite measuring over fifty yards deep; the hole is completely exposed to the wind, with the prevailing summertime wind from the southwest blowing directly into the player’s face. The fifteenth plays uphill over a deceptive series of bunkers that can be easily carried, but swoops hard to the right across a bit of a crowned slope; it’s short enough that when downwind, it encourages the use of a longer club off the tee to sneak the ball down in front of the green. I did not particularly enjoy the sixteenth, which I found a bit boring – long and narrow with a smallish green, penal for the sake of being penal – but I loved the two closing holes: the seventeenth is a short drop shot par three with a killer view and extensive bunkering around its green, while the closing hole is a sweeping dogleg right playing to an elevated surface full of intrigue.
Ozarks National is an excellent golf course, certainly the best I have played in the state of Missouri, and worthy of its ranking here at Top100. Its creative routing is the star of the show, relying on what certainly appear to be the natural contours of the land and maintaining playability despite sitting quite literally on the top of a mountain. I consider it to be my favorite course played in 2021, which is an appropriate venue for what will be my final posted review under the auspices of Keith and team. For that group, may your days be long and full of great golf, and for the new leadership and team at Top100, I look forward to continuing to contribute to the site and am anxious to see what you (or, as we say in Missouri, “y’all”) have in store.
Played November 9, 2021
Very well said Jeff. It’s the best website on the web and that didn’t happen by accident. I’m sure many of us will be echoing your sentiments.
…and so say all of us (which nobody can deny)
The dynamic duo are at it again, and the mastery of Coore/Crenshaw is in full-view in the “show-me” state of Missouri. Pre-game discussions with the golf staff suggested that this is the hardest course at Big Cedar in terms of the demands it makes on shot-making, forced carries, judging elevation and green-speeds. I was fortunate to join up with a group of scratch-golfers who have been visiting the resort for years, and unsurprisingly, Ozarks National was their favourite course. While “favourite” is a subjective concept from one person to the next, after playing the course, I could see myself why a variety of players will rate Ozarks National the highest. It’s a great problem to have when you have so many diverse courses to choose from, and opinions are varied. I personally loved Ozarks National, and appreciated how skillful the architects are with such a challenging piece of land. The holes feel natural traversing up and down hills, and the green sites are just superb, especially on each of the 5 par 3s. Many aspects of this course reminded me of one of my other absolute favourites – Old Sandwich GC. There are uphill, downhill, and flat par 3s, 4s and 5s. It’s a very unique offering, and the heroic carries across gully’s, chasms and ravines are just glorious. I found the course to be very walkable, with a very short distance from green to next tee. The opening par 4 plays up and over a hill that channels towards one of the many infinity greens and immediately gives you a grand view of the iconic bunkering that you’ll enjoy from start to finish. The holes move so naturally with the land, especially when they dogleg around a ravine, just like at Old Sandwich and Friar’s Head. It’s all there in front of you and it’s clear how the land will kick your ball when it lands. The ground is very firm, which means the ball will bounce and the ground game is a constant factor / option. The design of the holes often offers the ability to hit less than driver off the tee, and I love this about Coore/Crenshaw courses. The short par 4s are prime candidates for a long-iron or a fairway wood to give yourself the best angle into the greens. It reminded me of the short par 4s at some of MacKenzie’s courses in Australia, where the reward for a strategic tee-shot is most satisfying. You often feel a great connection with how a hole is designed when you flow with what it’s asking you to do. When you miss a green (and aren’t in a bunker), you often have 14 clubs to choose from in order to recover, just like the best Links courses in GB&I. It’s all about how best to use the land in your favour. I also found it to be a thrilling driving course off every tee, as you are challenged to find the best platform on the fairway or enjoy a thrilling panoramic vista. While many players cherish the adventure of playing downhill from elevation, the uphill holes are just as enjoyable as the holes reveal themselves to you as you navigate towards the green. As is expected, the fairways are very wide and the ball will bounce on the firm ground, but golfers are given a chance to play an excellent course on a terrain optimized for golf. Many people comment that the views at Ozarks National aren’t as frequent or spectacular relative to the other courses at Big Cedar, but you’ll be so engrossed by the magnificent golf holes that it’s a testament to how the designers keep your attention focused on what’s in front of you. Ozarks National is definitely in the top half of Coore/Crenshaw's portfolio, and a must-play for every golfer.
Of the three at Big Cedar Lodge, this is definitely the course that you should not miss. Coore & Crenshaw did a fantastic job with Ozarks National of utilizing the Ozark Mountains and creating a routing that plays across the tops of them so it plays very friendly and walkable, with incredible variety. The fairways are very wide, but there is no real rough on the course as the closely mown grass transitions straight to the native grasses. The back would be the stronger side, but 1 to 18, there aren't more than a couple of weak holes. Particularly strong holes below:
3 - Short par 4 with a very sharp, elevated green that falls off hard on all sides.
4 - Excellent mid to long par 4 that plays up and over the ridge and veers from left to right. Second shot is semi blind as you can't see the front and everything kicks hard from front left to back right.
11 - Reachable par 5 with two large centerline trees. One that makes you pick a side off the tee, and another one to contend with on the second shot.
12 - Long par 3 with a massive undulating green and views of the Ozarks mountains
14 - Longer par 4 that plays across the side of the ridge and slopes from right to left. Some of the best views on the property.
Overall, definitely worth a visit. Fantastic piece of property for C&C to start with as a canvas, and they painted a masterpiece.
Ozarks has possibly some of the best views of any golf course in the midwest. It's a pretty cool track with a lot of really fun holes and interesting Coore Crenshaw green complexes. However, because of the fact that its literally built on top of a mountain, the course has tight playing corridors, and its not unlikely that you'll hit your ball just off the fairway and find it in a 10,000 foot crevice. I think that this is definitely a course you have to play multiple times to figure out, as angles are definetly important. The course also plays firm and fast, which is a nice bonus.
The twosome of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore have created an astounding array of dazzling designs -- elevating "art" in architecture and proactively knowing when to step into the shadows in allowing the land to speak for itself. Like archeologists searching for rare artifacts the C&C approach is never about heavy handed disruption -- just gentle caresses bringing to life a magnificent merger between Mother Nature and golf.
Just examine a few of their efforts -- Sand Hills, Friar's Head, Cabot Cliffs, Bandon Trails, Lost Farm at Barnbougle, Kapalua / Plantation, Streamsong / Red, Sand Valley, Old Sandwich. Unparalleled triumphs. Many architects would love to have just one of those efforts in their portfolios. On a personal level, my standing includes visits to 21 of their 18-hole original designs.
The C&C game plan is quite specific and ever clear: work for someone sharing their vision and showcase a property where holes work within the canvass -- never outside it. Given the aforementioned prerequisites the talented duo have politely but clearly said "no" many more times than saying "yes" to prospective owners and the respective sites they own.
Given this resolute process C&C are extremely successful -- never stretching themselves beyond a work load they are comfortable handling. This is, without question, not fast food golf course production. With such a sterling track record, anytime this dynamic duo comes forward with a "new" design the anticipation level, quite rightly, is clearly off the charts.
Credit Big Cedar Lodge owner / operator Johnny Morris in securing the involvement of C&C. Morris has spearheaded an incredible transformation of Big Cedar Lodge as a long time proponent of the great American outdoors. The majestic nature of the property, in concert with his passion for conservation, clearly is resonating with visitors and certainly served to attract C&C . Morris wisely provided C&C with a carte blanche situation.
Big Cedar Lodge is moving rapidly -- searching to attain national prominence equal to any of the key American resorts. To do that, the golf side of the equation had to rise beyond what was already present. The recent opening of Ozarks National and the planned opening of Payne's Valley, the new Tiger Woods design coming in 2020, is clearly signalling a "go" effort when so much of the American golf market is retreating given the sputtering pipeline of players and the over supply of courses.
The underlying strength of C&C is not overplaying their hand. The tandem are ably assisted by arguably the finest of shapers -- crafting an end product where the tell tale signs of human fingerprints are rarely easily discerned.
Ozarks National is located on a eye-catching ridge line providing a panoramic view of the immediate Ozarks region. There's no competing clutter -- just an unfiltered connection -- golf and countryside. The property is also relatively devoid of trees so varying wind patterns are a daily matter for golfers to negotiate.
But, the critical question is does Ozarks National break new ground -- either rivaling or exceeding what C&C have already accomplished? The answer is no.
Ozarks National starts off rather slowly -- a par-5, par-3 and par-4 combination. However, the trio of holes is merely adequate to the task at-hand and given the stature of C&C hardly worth anything more than footnote of attention.
Things do ramp up with the solid uphill par-4 4th. The tee shot tested and the approach even more so. There's also a devilish rise of land -- almost a knob -- just before one gets to the putting green. Those intent on bouncing balls onto the green had best be aware of the various twists and turns this ground condition can cause.
The short dog-leg right uphill par-4 5th is a fun hole that tests patience over sheer brawn. You start from an elevated tee and as the hole turns right you have to decide how much of the corner is worth cutting off. For those bailing too far left you then face a singular tree that engulfs that side and will require an extremely lofted shot to escape. The two-tiered green is also done well -- mandating a crisply played iron shot to set-up a good look at birdie.
The 6th and 7th holes are a par-3 and par-5 respectively. The former presents a head-on shot to a long green ably protected by flanking bunkers. The 7th is a disappointment because there's little in the risk side but much on the reward side. The fairway is overly generous and the left side fairway bunker is merely a cosmetic addition as strong players can fire over it and gain the benefit of the downslope and thereby having little more than a mid-iron into the green. The par-3 8th changes the dynamic with an approach over a steep native area to a diagonal green -- the more left the pin is placed then more precise the execution must be. The finishing hole on the outward side is a first rate three-shot par-5. From the back teeing area you can't see much beyond the massive left fairway bunker which serves as your aiming point. Be sure to give it a wide berth as there's more fairway to the right side. The key rests with the player in deciding how close to the left fairway bunker do you wish to play. Those able to carry it will gain yards and have a far better angle on the second shot. The terrain adds plenty to the hole -- turning left continually and ably protected by a series of bunkers that forms the boundary with the adjacent native area.
The inward side has the better overall consistency of holes although there are at least two that simply serve as filler. The 10th is a stout par-4 which plays slightly uphill. There's more room to the left but one has to be especially careful in going too far in that direction. The right side is the preferred spot but another bunker hugs that side closely. The elevated green is best approached from the right.
The 11th is a quality risk/reward par-5. An aggressive tee shot played down the right center will provide an opportunity to go for the elevated green. The putting surface is also well crafted -- missing to the left will spell certain doom as the closely mown area will simply propel your ball down a considerable slope.
One of the real virtues of the course comes in having an outstanding long par-3 which comes at the 12th. Playing slightly downhill the 249-yard hole permits shots to bounce onto the green with a right side shoulder area encouraging balls to find their way. Stronger players can fly the ball onto the green but those who opt for this route had best be keenly aware the green runs away from the tee. There's also a soft spine that separates the right and left sides of the green. When the pin is cut to the near left side -- a frontal bunker provides ample defense. Long par-3 holes are often bemoaned by many players but they clearly have a role and when the design is done in such a thorough manner they can truly excel as demonstrated by the 12th.
The 13th and 14th holes are two quality long par-4's. The former plays from an elevated tee as you hit over a deep ravine with the hole turning left. Those playing as close as possible to the left side receive a more favorable angle and shorter distance to the elevated green. The 14th lists at 450 yards but there's a more distance tee called, "Ben's Torture Tee," and this provides the hole with at least 40 additional yards. The hole plays to blind uphill landing area. Once you ascend the hill you see the green in the distance -- elevated and quick to repel all but the most soundly played of approach shots. The putting surface is quite narrow in front and then widens out somewhat in the rear. The key is being ever accurate with your 2nd shot. The slightest push or pull will mean some serious recovery time to escape with a par. One of the finest holes at Ozarks National.
The 15th that follows is a letdown. After a run of several really good holes, this par-4 is simply manufactured with a sequence of cross bunkers strung along the drive zone. The land is acceptable and the shot requirements simply pedestrian.
Things do change noticeably at the long par-4 16th. The back tee is located immediately next to the refreshment house. Native area to the left must be avoided and when played from the tips one can aid directly at the distance right side fairway bunker. What makes the hole far more interesting is when the hole is played from the gold tees because at that point there's a real possibility for strong players to have to negotiate a narrowing landing area on the left and the aforementioned bunker. The green is considerably higher than the fairway and likely requires an additional 1-2 clubs to get to the target. The green tilts slightly from right-to-left and just behind the green is a playful addition with a doghouse named for "Willy."
The penultimate hole is a short par-3 -- played from an elevated tee as a dropshot hole. C&C have often excelled with short par-3's -- the 5th at Bandon Trails and the 17th at Clear Creek come quickly to mind. That's not the case here. The hole generally plays downwind and while the scenery is clearly a plus there are no serious details with the green to place a high premium on the approach.
The finish hole does quite well -- a dog-leg right long par-4 descending slightly from the tee before rising noticeably to one of the better greens at Ozarks National.
All in all, Ozarks National is a good layout. It's just that C&C have created such a lofty position that merely "good" is not good enough. Ozarks National's main strength is the site itself. The sweeping grandeur is ever present but there are glaring omissions where the philosophy of "less is more" simply produces an unintended consequence of "less is less."
What will be most interesting as we head into 2020 will be the opening of Payne's Valley, the new Tiger Woods course on property and what C&C do at Sheep Ranch -- the newest addition at Bandon Dunes. These two new layouts will clearly impact the standing of Ozarks National. Unabashed fans of C&C will likely relish all that is present no matter what.
However, under the deep dive of true comparisons with the tour de force layouts created elsewhere by golf's most talented design twosome, Ozarks National delivers in baseball terms a solid double -- just not the home run it might otherwise have been.
M. James Ward
Dang! I was hoping to be the first reviewer for Ozarks National since it's right in my backyard. Great write up; I'm sad to see it's a little disappointing, but I still hope to make it down there next year.
Thank you for the very comprehensive review. My bucket list involves running a timed (usually chairity) 10K or half marathon in every state and I have yet to run in Arkansas. I have played The Alotian and Little Rock CC so I was going to combine my eventual race there to play at Cedar Lodge. Based on your review, I will go AFTER Payne's Valley opens up, although your review is enough to send me there despite the inconsistency of the quality of the golf holes.
I will state that I think Lost Dunes is a cut below their other designs while I think Kapalua Plantation is a so-so resort golf course but to fair it is on a bad piece of land for a golf course.
Payne's Valley will not open any earlier than June 20 from what I and other press people were told when we toured the layout in late October. The front nine is nearly complete. The Tiger Woods design is a good bit different than what Ozarks National is about.
One other thing -- you mentioned Lost Dunes -- likely you meant Lost Farm at Barnbougle. Lost Dunes is in Michigan and is a Tom Doak layout.
In regards to the Plantation Course at Kapalua -- C&C were called upon to update the course and will be very interesting to see the results when the PGA Tour heads there in January for the Sentry Tournament of Champions. I actually like the property -- although no doubt it's severe in certain key locations throughout the round. The key is having key bunkers placed where they actually serve a purpose given the length the top players hit it today.
C&C fans will no doubt find much to love with Ozarks National. I liked the course but when you have a roster of designs that the duo have already created the bar for inclusion at that elite level is rightly high.
Since you said you will be going to the area -- I do recommend checking out the Fazio course called Buffalo Ridge at Big Cedar Lodge and if your schedule allows -- nearby Branson Hills is well worth playing too.
Of note, Ozarks National was selected to host the 2020 Missouri Amateur Championship. It'll be interesting to see how the best in the state fare on the new layout.