Mention Branson, Missouri, and immediately eyes begin to roll. At first, mine did…..but not for long.
Once considered a poor man’s Las Vegas down in the rumored ‘redneck’ lands of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, one would be wrong on all three assumptions: it is not a poor man’s anything, it is not like Las Vegas, and the streets are not plastered with junk cars and battered trailers. And, while Las Vegas made an ill-fated attempt at fashioning a family friendly image a few years ago, Branson succeeds. Every attraction is suitable for the sandwich generations of grandparents to great-grandkids. Centrally located in southern Missouri, Branson is a about a one-day drive for half of the U.S.
In fact, Branson is so surprising, so refreshing, that sooner – rather than later – it will likely become the next hot destination for golf, entertainment, dining, shopping, boating, and other outdoor sports. While Branson does resemble Vegas in its offering of high quality show productions, the range of performances outshines the artificial lights of Vegas itself. Over 45 theatres with 59,000-plus seats offering 150 live shows are on display at any given time, all of them quality productions and extremely well done. New York and Las Vegas combined cannot top this. A number of performers have purchased their own theaters and thus, have a vested interest in continued success here. Many artists play golf; a perfect scenario for any entertainer: fabulous golf during the day and adoring crowds at night. Branson favorites Shoji Tabuchi, a Master Japanese fiddler and top-selling performer, country music performer Buck Trent, and members of the Baldknobbers Jamboree Show happily joined us for golf at various locales.
For outdoor activities – especially golf – weather is near optimal in Branson, with average highs of 56 in the fringe months of March and November and from 70 to 88 for the months in between. I was there in October and enjoyed five days of sunny skies and temps in the mid-80’s. Even in the winter months of December through February, the average high is 42-45 degrees, certainly warm enough for northern golfers who are snow-weary and tired of winter. Many golf courses are open all year.
Golf offerings in Branson are expanding so quickly it is tough to keep up with all the new courses joining the fray. I’ve played four of them, Ledgestone, Branson Creek, Payne Stewart, and Murder Rock, and would be hard pressed to pick a favorite.
Ledgestone Golf Club, a semi-private club with an elegant feel and rolling Zoysia fairways, was an appealing mix of really tough holes along with easier ones, which often came about the time you needed to catch your breath. As you make the turn, holes 10 and 11 are perfect examples of this: the tough 448-yard par-4 10th (341 from the Forward Tees) plays almost as a par-5 since it is slightly uphill and position is paramount when teeing off rather than a booming drive, which could take a wrong bounce and feed down the hill into a right-side creek….or worse. At 288-yards (178 from the Forward Tees), the drivable par-4 11th is a pleasant enough thought, but visions of eagle may vanish quickly after you contemplate the bunkers guarding the green, along with the mammoth and hilly putting surface. Yes, you may hit the green, as I did, but unless your yardage calculations are spot-on, you’ll be faced with loooonnnng putts even Tiger wouldn’t sink in his prime. Yes, I 3-putted…..darn. Do make sure your putter is working: large, undulating greens on most holes along with tricky pin placements will test your greens reading ability. Water comes into play on many holes, but especially so on finishing holes 15 through 18, a collection as good as you’ll find anywhere. The par-3 ‘postcard’ quality 15th ‘Quarry” with its 100-foot drop; ‘The Big Chill’ 16th, another elevated par-4 with water all along the right side, and hindering an approach to the green; the picture-perfect par-3 17th, ‘Gamblers Revenge’ which will terrify right-handers who are prone to pulling or hooking long irons or fairway woods; and finally, at 544-yards (448 from the Forward Tees) the 18th is a 3-shot dogleg right par-5, considering entry to the peninsular green is either over water or via isthmus on the far right side, all the right ingredients for a superb finishing hole.
Branson Creek, designed by renowned architect Tom Fazio and operated by Troon Golf, boasts many Golf Digest and Golf Magazine ‘Best Of’ kudos, including ‘#1 Best Public Course in Missouri’ for over ten consecutive years. That’s saying something. Branson Creek has wide open fairways on expansive property, and is deserving of its reputation, as well as being a truly fun course to play. Beginning with the opening hole, a downhill sweeping par-5, and ending with a superb dogleg resembling the par-5 18th at Pebble Beach – without the ocean (some things you just can’t duplicate), every hole in between offered enough difficulty to keep it interesting while maintaining ample playability and optional paths to the greens, certainly encouraging return visits.
This is not a course where you’ll lose a myriad of golf balls – except perhaps on the difficult par-5 14th and par-4 15th. The 14th, ‘Long Creek’, is 615 yards from the Blacks and even 500 from the Forward Jade tees, perhaps a bit much for the ladies. The creek meanders along the entire right side and appears in front of the slightly elevated green, creating the one instance where rolling the ball up to the green is not possible.
No. 15 tee is right behind the 14th green, providing Branson entertainment of a different sort, with groans from golfers finding the water or cracking shots off the trees which back the green, safely sheltering the teebox. It’s a great thought since golfers will want to stay for awhile: the view from the elevated 15th tee is breathtaking as the fairway sweeps down into a valley framed by rock walls left and waterfalls, right, hence the namesake of the course Founder, ‘Bill’s Falls’. The hole then heads back uphill to a multi-tiered green.
You probably won’t lose any golf balls on the charming, 17th, a par-3 which ranges from 165-yards to 108-yards at the Jade Tee, that is, unless you fly it into the cave that was uncovered as more land was excavated to complete the hole. The day I played, I was demonstrating focus techniques to my teammates for getting a hole-in-one. Perhaps they were skeptical, but not after my ballmark was discovered six inches behind the hole….how it didn’t hit the flagstick I’ll never know, but the resulting 6-foot putt was knocked in for birdie.
While playing Branson Creek, you’re afforded an almost mystical glimpse of the Murder Rock clubhouse, which sits atop the pinnacle of the course, about a mile or two away. The club got its name from a legend that bandits or ‘bushwhackers’ would hide in the brush behind big rocks, waiting for stagecoaches and other hapless travelers to pass through the hills. They would then rob and murder the unsuspecting passengers and dispose of their victims in the brush. Murder Rock is almost two courses in one: one nine up in the hills, the other in the valley. Almost all of the holes have elevation changes, with heavy brush bordering most
fairways, close enough to lose a lot of golf balls if your aim is even a wee bit awry. There are some forced carries and playing the course more than once is in order…..that way, course knowledge on some of the holes is definitely an advantage as you discover rolls and bounces that GPS information could not possibly provide. However, without the cart GPS, a number of blind tee shots might result in some nasty surprises. The bent grass greens are fast and true and will provide enough challenge for even the best putter.
A visit to the Payne Stewart Golf Club, at Branson Hills Resort and Golf Club, is a must. Who can forget the tragic ‘ghost’ plane mishap that took Payne’s life only weeks after his U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst in 1999? To honor Stewart, a native of nearby Springfield, a partnership between HCW and Stonegate Realty culminated in the development of the legacy course fashioned and named in Stewart’s honor. Close family friend and fellow tour professional Bobby Clampett offered his expertise in designing the course, with the blessing of Stewart’s wife, Tracey.
Payne Stewart’s memory is everywhere – from photos and memorabilia in the clubhouse to names and plaques on every hole which commemorate Payne’s accomplishments, stellar shots, or significant quotes. Each hole is named based on a characteristic or ‘Payne-ism’ of Stewart’s too few years on tour. Check out the Men’s Locker Room for an especially ‘cheeky’ picture of Payne with some Tour friends. Don’t ask me how I know.
This course is as pleasurable to look at and admire as it is to play. With elevation changes everywhere, each hole creates a visual picture to be admired – if only for a few moments to maintain pace of play – before actually teeing off. Depending on the time of day, trees surrounding the masterfully contoured fairways provide such a vivid contrast of shadows to sun that it is magical to watch……almost as if Payne is there to guide your experience. The club’s website has superbly detailed information on the course and each hole and is worth a read.
Course conditions at all of the Branson destination clubs were excellent, an indication of the prime climate with a long growing season; even the newest courses were in surprisingly great shape. This should prove to be a great reason for golfers to add Branson to their list of places to play.
Four courses I haven’t played but am looking forward to are certainly worth a mention here, given the quality of golf I’ve seen so far and also based on website look-sees: Pointe Royale, offers plenty of challenges for the average golfer. Water hole fans will love the fact that 12 out of 18 holes have some type of liquid hazard on them. Recently renovated, the 6501-yard par-70 layout has rolling Bermuda fairways meandering among mature hardwoods. Bent grass greens assure players of a firm and true roll.
Thousand Hills Golf Resort is located right in the heart of the city of Branson so you can easily schedule a tee time and a show time without rushing from one to the other. Even better, the par-64 5,111-yard course should be a quick and enjoyable play with 9 par-3’s, 8 par-4’s and only one par-5. Many proponents of faster playing times in golf have suggested course designs exactly like this. With so many things to do in Branson, speedy play on a beautiful course should be high up on your list. Don’t let the short yardage fool you though: the Robert E. Cupp design, Michael Riley’s architectural touches, selection of zoysia fairways – where lies are always good, fescue roughs, and Crenshaw bent grass greens should prove to be a first class experience. Call 1.888.809.9875 for more information.
Holiday Hills Resort and Golf Club has quite a history: Chicago golf professional Don Gardner and his multi-talented wife Jill founded the Golf Ranch Country Club back in 1938. After the war came and went, the couple settled in Branson and created the kind of place that stars and regular folks alike could enjoy. There were many firsts here: the enterprising pro hitched a trailer to his tractor so he could haul students back and forth to golf lessons; wife Jill, an author, lecturer, radio broadcaster, musician, and world traveler demonstrated her culinary artistry by frying up chicken and baking pies to feed hungy golfers; a landing strip was available for private planes delivering anxious golfers and pupils; murals of Don’s life were painted in the Golf Ranch hallways and are still there today. The Gardners sold the club in 1964, though Don remained as a teaching professional for many years. Recently, a multi-million dollar renovation has spruced up the resort facilities and the course, which plays to a comfortable 5800 yards. Hybrid bermuda fairways and bent grass greens, many of them two-tiered, and 50 bunkers offer playable yet challenging conditions.
Opening soon will be the long awaited Jack Nicklaus designed Top of the Rock golf course. Situated at the breathtakingly beautiful and rustic Big Cedar Lodge, this little 1330-yard par-3 gem, complete with waterfalls and gardens, overlooks Table Rock Lake. Nicklaus rival Arnold Palmer has his magic hands in this facility as well: he’s created a specialized practice range which includes 8 to 10 target greens, elevated tees, and lighting for nighttime practice. Big Cedar Lodge and Bass Pro Shops owner ‘Johnny’ Morris obviously likes things done right. With its one-of-a-kind backdrop, Top of the Rock goes an extra step further and has attained the status of an Audubon Signature Cooperative Sanctuary Program, only one of eleven in the U.S. Turf on the practice range is ‘Tour Turf’ similar to what is used at football stadiums, so no chemicals are necessary to maintain conditions. To read more about Audubon Signature programs, see my article, The Nature of the Game. If you’re hungry, both inside and outside dining options are available. Now, doesn’t a wood-fired pizza, al fresco-style, sound terrific as the waning light reflects off of Table Rock Lake?
Speaking of dining, Branson restaurants are appealing whether you’re looking for gourmet cuisine or down-home food. Either way, your culinary wishes will be satisfied. For a filling golfers’ breakfast, don’t miss Billy Gail’s Cafe for the hubcap-sizedpancakes. Their tagline ‘We do breakfast best’ is right on target. Many places boasting the biggest anything may not include quality as part of the equation, but that doesn’t apply here. I did order their signature hubcap blueberry pancake, never thinking I’d eat the whole thing. And yes, they really are that big but the made-from-scratch ‘secret’ recipe batter is so light and thin, almost 49-er flapjack-style, that you’ll be able to finish it. Thankfully, you can order one, two, or three pancakes. One was plenty for me. Billy Gails is located 1/3 mile south of Hwy. 76 on Hwy 265, or call 417.338.8883.
For a very memorable dinner experience, make reservations at the Level 2 Steakhouse, located in the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel. Choices include 28-day aged Midwestern Corn-fed beef, fresh seafood flown in from Hawaii, Heritage Missouri pork, locally raised produce, and housemade desserts, featuring the local and decadent Missouri Butter Cake with caramel sauce. So many special touches add to the experience, including a special method of cooking steaks: the kitchen boasts a 1600-degree infrared broiler which sears the meat and speeds up the cooking process, yielding a moist and tender steak no matter what doneness you order. Presentation and service is unsurpassed by any other top-level steakhouse in the country. Level 2 also has an extraordinary eating implement program: The Cut Club allows frequent patrons to have their names engraved on preferred custom knives. New guests should not despair; you get to use one of five signature knives chosen according to your dinner entree, that is, if you’ll even need one to cut the ever-so-tender steaks. Level 2 also offers an outstanding brunch; allow a little extra time so you can savor all of your breakfast favorites.
Lodging choices are many in Branson, but to be in the center of all things shopping and entertaining, the Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing is a great choice with its premium offerings. An arm of Lake Taneycomo stretches alongside the promenade, providing a scenic backdrop for the hotel, lakeside amphitheater, water and fire shows which erupt periodically, dozens of shops including anchor stores Bass Pro Shops and Belk Department Store, and restaurants galore. The White River Fish House and Cantina Laredo, where excellent hand-crafted cocktails play a starring role, are popular dining spots.