50 Words or Less
Ozarks National at Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Missouri is the most challenging course at the resort. Demands your full attention on every shot. Ruggedly beautiful landscape.
I was talking to a friend in advance of my recent trip to Big Cedar Lodge, and we got to the topic of golf courses. “I’ve heard the Coore & Crenshaw course is really good,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “and also water is wet and the sky is blue.”
Such is life for the most heralded design team in golf. Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore get their choice of the best projects, but they must also deal with sky high expectations. They can’t make a course that’s merely good, it must be great, and a great course is what they created at Ozarks National.
Check out Big Cedar’s original course, Buffalo Ridge, HERE
Ozarks National has the full complement of practice facilities that you’ll need before a challenging round. There’s a large driving range and a putting green that mirrors those on the course. My favorite element is the massive short game area, shown above. There are multiple greens, numerous bunkers, and acres of fairway. This gives you the opportunity to practice all the testing short game shots you’ll need to save pars at Ozarks National. I love that the greens are all situated above or below the surrounds, just like on the course.
Customer Service & Amenities
Ozarks National has a full clubhouse of its own stocked with soft goods bearing the ringed pheasant logo. As with all Big Cedar Lodge properties, the customer service is excellent.
There is a Turn Station at the 10th hole which offers your standard assortment of mid-round snacks. What’s unusual, in a good way, is that everything (except alcohol) is complimentary.
Finally, there are forecaddies available at Ozarks National. This is the one course at Big Cedar Lodge where I think having a caddie will impact your round because the design of this course is so nuanced. Knowing where to aim your tee shots and what hazards to avoid will save you strokes and boost your enjoyment.
Beauty & Scenery
Ozarks National has a rugged beauty that stands in sharp contrast to what you’ll find throughout most of Big Cedar Lodge. Where Payne’s Valley [review HERE] is beautiful in a very manicured way, Ozarks National has a more natural aesthetic.
Another thing that sets Ozarks National apart from the other courses at Big Cedar Lodge is that it’s played entirely atop a set of ridges. Buffalo Ridge and Payne’s Valley play up and down elevation, but Ozarks National remains high throughout the round. This affects the play, which I’ll discuss later, and it also provides long, gorgeous views of the Ozarks on every hole.
A quick peek at the scorecard could lead you to underestimate Ozarks National’s length. Across four sets of tees plus a combo set, it ranges from 5,025 yards to 7,036 yards. But before you strut to the tips, take a look at the pair of meaty par 3s – 216 and 254 yards – and recognize that this course plays to a par of 71. The blue tees at 6,510 are plenty of golf for all but the best players.
Similarly, at a glance the fairways at Ozarks National seem pretty generous. A closer look reveals that the fairways pinch and swell at strategic distances. If you’re content to lay back, you often have more margin for error. If you choose to push your drive to the limits, the course will demand superior accuracy. Ozarks National never takes driver out of your hands, but it does occasionally suggest alternatives.
Adding to the demands of the tee shot is the fact that these fairways will run out a lot. Because Ozarks National is built on ridges, it drains the fastest and is exposed to the most wind. This means that it plays the firmest and fastest of any Big Cedar Lodge course. You can land your tee shot in the fairway then watch helplessly as it runs into trouble. This is a major reason why forecaddies, or hard-earned local knowledge, are key to scoring well.
There are only two cuts at Ozarks National: fairway and the native Buffalo Grass. The Buffalo Grass is thin and wiry, but it is allowed to be quite tall in spots. If your drive strays from the fairway, you’re rolling the dice. You may get a benign lie, you may find your ball tangled in long strands of Buffalo Grass, or you might lose it altogether. There are certainly situations where you’d rather be in a fairway bunker than tangled in the native grass. The best solution is to hit all thirteen fairways.
The large, gentle movements of the fairways combined with the firm, fast conditions mean that you won’t have to deal with many difficult stances. Tee shots tend to collect in low, flat areas, so accurate drives are rewarded. On the other hand, you can find some very athletically challenging positions in the Buffalo Grass.
Thanks to the conditions, you do have the ability to run the ball into the green, if you choose. However, because many of the greens are elevated, this is not necessarily the easier route. The greens at Ozarks National are above average in size, so landing a shot on them isn’t too difficult if you’re playing from the short grass. That said, the firm conditions I’ve mentioned so many times continue through the greens, so you’ll need to come in high with spin or land short of your target.
Greens & Surrounds
Outside of the Buffalo Grass, there is no rough at Ozarks National. This means that the surrounds are a short game playground where anything goes. The grass here is a little fluffier than at Payne’s Valley, but it’s cut tight to allow for putting from anywhere, running chips, or flop shots, if you have the nerve.
The primary challenge in the short game is that most of the greens are elevated. This means that your bunker shots and pitches will need to rise quickly then check. The ground game is an option, but only if you leave your ball in the correct locations. Even then, correctly judging pace is no easy task.
Once you get your ball onto the putting surface, the vast majority of your work is done. The greens at Ozarks National are pretty tame, favoring gentle movements to sharp undulations, tiers, or ridges. These greens will keep every match tense to the last. Even if you miss a GIR, any pitch onto the green is likely to have a reasonable chance of saving par.
From the aesthetics to the strategy, Ozarks National is the mirror image of Payne’s Valley. Where Tiger’s course packs the challenge into the greens, Ozarks National demands more of your ball striking. I would also say that there’s more to take in from a design and strategy standpoint at Ozarks National. I heard this course referred to as “PhD-level golf,” which is a term I’ll certainly be appropriating for future use.
It’s also worth noting that Ozarks National is the most walkable full length course at Big Cedar Lodge. The green to tee distances are minimal, and there aren’t many dramatic elevation changes. Walking the course gives you a great chance to appreciate the movement of the land and the subtle design elements.
#5 – Par 4 – 352 Yards
At 352 yards from the tips, this might not seem like a drivable par 4, but it plays downhill and will definitely tempt you to go for it. The trees to the left of the fairway will make the conservative player reach for a mid-iron. No matter how you play it, you’ll want to try it again.
#17 – Par 3 – 144 Yards
The scorecard would lead you to believe that this short par 3 is meant to ease you into the end of the round. While it isn’t long, there’s nothing easy about it. You have very little margin for error left or right, and the bunker shots that will follow an errant approach are extremely challenging.
Coore & Crenshaw have designed some of the best golf courses in the world, and Ozarks National deserves to be considered among them. This is a beautiful, engaging course that you’ll want to play again as soon as you walk off the 18th. To me, that’s the surest sign of a great course.