Destination golf usually conjures up images of ocean cliffs, island resorts, the misty moors of Scotland. But if you look a little closer, destination golf doesn’t have to involve thousands upon thousands of dollars scattered all up and down far-flung coasts. In fact, right smack dab in the middle of the U.S. is Branson, Missouri, a longtime domestic tourist destination that is fast becoming known as “Golf’s Ozark Mountain Oasis.”
Synonymous with the Branson/Springfield area is Bass Pro Shops and its founder, Johnny Morris, who has begun rather dramatically transforming the former Murder Rock Golf Club property he acquired back in 2013. While still undergoing slight finishing touches, Morris and architectural legend Tom Fazio’s redesign (of what had been Branson Creek) is largely complete, and the result is the stunning, rugged beauty of the Buffalo Ridge Springs Course (18 holes, Par 71, and the #1 rated public course in Missouri). And yes, the name doesn’t lie – you’re often able to gaze out at the free-ranging buffalo roaming the fields in the adjacent Dogwood Canyon Nature Park.
Alongside its even more dramatic sister par-three nine holes at Top of the Rock Golf Course (of Jack Nicklaus design), Buffalo Ridge Springs is a championship course and now the annual home of the Champions Tour event, the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge (April 18-24, 2016). As the first tournament to combine two-man teams competing over 54 holes – 18 at Buffalo Ridge Springs followed by nine at Top of the Rock each day – the Legends of Golf tour stop is an immediate can’t-miss, highly entertaining event. Visit BassProLegends.com for more information on tickets to next year’s throw-down.
Practice at Buffalo Ridge Springs is fantastic, with an extensive range set just beneath the clubhouse that looks out over a vast, gently sloping hillside. With so much open space, you will never have trouble finding a range spot, complete with complimentary balls that feed out of specially designed wooden troughs. It’s a lot easier – or at least a lot more fun – to breathe deep, focus, and get the game warmed up when you have a whole horizon of rolling Ozark hills and live buffalo looking on. A course-style chipping green also has plenty of room for pitch and sand reps, so getting ready to play is a breeze with everything you could want within a stone’s throw of the clubhouse and the first tee.
Amenities & Customer Service
The clubhouse has a style all Johnny’s own, modeled after a log cabin hewn from the surrounding woodlands. If you had to put a label on the style of the property, from the décor to the grounds to the tee markers, it would have to be rustic luxury. Even the fencelines are beautifully constructed split rail enclosures that reinforce the handmade, celebration-of-the-outdoors style that permeates the place.
The most remarkable amenity would have to be the “halfway house,” another log cabin set beside a lake in the heart of the course’s main valley. It’s a perfect place to stop off, order a drink and some course food, and “set awhile” in the rocking chairs at the lake’s edge. Word is, the marshals have to come chase people out of there on occasion to keep the pace of play on point, but that speaks to the comfort of the experience. You will want for nothing while out on the course, except for maybe a straighter tee shot.
The grounds are well kept across the board, which is an accomplishment given the amount of construction still going on out there. In addition to the second course still being developed, the Buffalo Ridge Springs course is still being landscaped in a few stretches, but nothing that impairs play whatsoever. It struck me more as a sign of attention to detail and innate excitement in a property where signs of activity and continual improvement are everywhere.
The fairways are zoysia, well-edged and maintained but often sloped, usually lined with thick Bermuda rough and/or some form of hazard. You’ll want to stay on the short stuff out there because a) the rough is thick and usually requires some form of escape, and b) searching for a wayward ball can quickly take you into uneven, rocky hollows or thick underbrush, or even more likely, some form of water.
The bunkers are numerous and wide, usually fanning out with various heights and angles of lip. Fazio knows where we want to hit it, and tends to do us the courtesy of putting a welcoming bunker or two somewhere close by. The sand was wet the day we played, and the consistency was a little chunky, but they are well-filled and lies are usually just what bunkers should be – not completely penitential but always affecting your strategy.
As for the bentgrass greens, they are Champions Tour worthy, with the smooth, well-grown surfaces rolling true and at an enjoyably challenging-but-not-ridiculous pace. The greens tend to be spacious enough and without too many buried-boxcar-breaks, but a putt of any substantial length is going to have a bend or two to it. Overall, I’d say the course is kept in great shape from tee to green.
The only minor nitpick I can think of is that, while the massive, brass longhorn skulls that mark the tees are a playful touch, we did have trouble identifying which tee was which from time to time. A stronger coat of tee color paint on the horns could do wonders for eliminating any confusion.
Beauty & Scenery
The look of Buffalo Ridge Springs would have to be what sets it apart – an homage to the land on which it’s built, each hole strikingly framed by the surrounding hills, the natural and man-made waterways, and as is only natural, the prototypical Fazio bunkering. Playing the course feels as if you are home on the range, and I don’t mean driving range. This feels like rolling ranchland, and every angle of the course has hole design interlaced with rock, water, and wild grasses.
Right beside the course is Morris’ incredible Dogwood Canyon Nature Park – a 10,000 acre wildlife park that’s great for exploring on its own or just admiring from the course. Nature is everywhere out there, and the Ozarks don’t get enough attention for their natural, rugged beauty.
Course Design & Difficulty
This is certainly a Fazio special here, and you’re not just playing against the layout, but in many instances the landscape itself – as in, the land on which the course was built. Tee shots require carry and almost always land in areas beset by bunkers on both sides. Second shots tend to angle off in another direction, the green always a beautiful, undulating sight – accessible, fair, but demanding.
Punishment for waywardness is most evident on approaches, many being visually daunting with tiered greens appearing smaller than they are due to the surrounding bunkers, rock, and streams. If you’re accurate, scores are certainly out there to be had. If you’re inaccurate, you aren’t devastated, but you’re paying with a stroke at the very least.
The aptly named “Intimidator” (No. 9) is an uphill par 3 with what feels like a mile of exposed rock lining the right side and a dramatic waterfall set in just beneath the green. It’s reachable for most, but the drama of the landscape makes you grip the club juuuuust a little tighter.
The gorgeous par 5 14th takes a carried tee shot into a slanted fairway, a rocky stream in play all along the right side. Unless you’re Rory-long and accurate with those long irons, you’re laying up before approaching the elevated green, which is set into a rocky cliff with the stream cascading diagonally across its front. If you’re on in three here, take a bow.
And the beautiful crescent-left par 5 finisher is an impressive vista to close it all out. Everything drops off into heavy bunkering, fescue, and scrubland along the inside left edge. But there’s room to land an accurate drive and some frontage to work with in front of a smaller green.
As you can hopefully tell, it’s rugged out there, ruggedly beautiful. This is the Ozarks’ land, and we’re just playing golf on it.
All in all, Buffalo Ridge Springs lives up to its No. 1 public course in Missouri reputation. On a gorgeous day, with the buffalo grazing on the hillside, and your game in decent shape, it’s a highly enjoyable and memorable challenge.
If you’re planning a trip, stay at nearby Big Cedar Lodge, which is the original heart of Morris’ linked properties, an expansive “wilderness resort” with various lodging options and more activities than you can imagine set among the woods beside Table Rock Lake. While you’re there, stop by and see Chef Big Fish at Devil’s Pool Restaurant – the preserved trapper’s lodge décor, breakfast buffet, and you-call-it omelets are supreme.
In a few years, with Johnny’s vision fully realized and the Big Cedar properties boasting 45 holes of stunning, championship golf, Top of the Rock will be more than Golf’s Ozark Oasis – it’ll likely be the game’s Mecca in Missouri.