50 Words or Less
Payne’s Valley at Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Missouri is a Tiger Woods design with massive fairways and greens to make golf more inviting and fun. Tough greens provide a staunch defense against low scores.
Payne’s Valley is Tiger Wood’s first public-access golf course. Pair that with the namesake, Ozarks-native Payne Stewart, and there are big expectations before you ever set foot on the first tee. But big is exactly what this course delivers: big fairways, big greens, big views, and big fun.
Check out Big Cedar’s original course, Buffalo Ridge, HERE
At the time of this writing – fall of 2021 – the practice range at Payne’s Valley is still under construction. Practice facilities for this course are limited to the putting greens that it shares with the Mountain Top short course. Those putting greens do include Tom Watson’s Putting Course, which is a lot of fun.
The range, when complete, will be very impressive. It will be fully lit with synthetic hitting surfaces, allowing for practice well into the evening. The range will be centrally located so you can move quickly from your warm up to the first tee.
Customer Service & Amenities
Payne’s Valley shares a large clubhouse with Mountain Top. Inside the clubhouse you’ll find locker rooms, a pro shop, and the Mountain Top Grill. Mountain Top Grill is excellent, and I strongly recommend that those with big appetites try “The Mountain.”
On the course, the first amenity you’ll notice is the touchscreen GPS in the carts. The GPS screen provides all your distances as well as occasionally giving helpful notices.
At two points around the middle of your round, you’ll pass a comfort station. Currently, that’s a small building with a bar and snacks. Soon, it will be a massive, three-story structure that will better fit the over-the-top vibe of the resort. As with all the courses at Big Cedar Lodge, everything at the comfort station is free, excluding alcohol.
Beauty & Scenery
When I think about the look of Payne’s Valley, three things stand out. First is the unbelievable amount of short grass. The average golf course has 100 acres of turf grass. Payne’s Valley has 200 acres. Everywhere you look, there are massive fairways, neatly trimmed swaths of rough, and enormous greens. There’s so much of it that my eyes went looking for variety, which they found in the long views.
Though this course is aptly named – most of it is played at a low elevation – there are still long vistas in every direction, particularly early in the round. If you’re unfamiliar with the Ozarks, it’s a gorgeous landscape full of tree-covered, not-quite-mountains. For maximum visual impact, play in the fall when the colors are changing.
Finally, there’s Big Rock. The massive stone face that houses the 19th hole is the visual centerpiece for much of the course. You get your first head-on look at it playing #9, then you finish toward it on #13, #14, #15, and #18. After playing the entertaining 19th hole, you take a long drive up Big Rock back to the club house. I recommend being the passenger so you can enjoy the views and not worry about keeping the cart on the path.
From the Tiger Tees at 7,370 to the forward tees at 4,957, Payne’s Valley offers a huge range of length options. There are also two sets of tees in the middle plus a combo set. While the allure of playing the Tiger Tees is quite strong (check out those the tee markers!), look at the second hole (267 yard par 3) and think about whether or not that’s a wise choice. And while I don’t advise playing longer tees, it is worth noting that this course plays shorter than the number because of several substantially downhill holes.
What’s most notable about the tee shots at Payne’s Valley is the aforementioned width. The fairways are huge. Bunkers and water do make the fairways look tighter in spots, but don’t be fooled. Pick a good line with the help of your on-cart GPS and swing freely. Payne’s Valley does not play as firm and fast as Ozarks National, so you don’t need to worry about your drive landing safe then running to trouble.
One area where Tiger’s influence really comes through is in the importance of strategy. Because there’s so much width and many intelligently-placed hazards, nearly every hole has one side that creates better scoring opportunities. There are also a couple of drivable par 4s where, depending on your accuracy, hitting a shorter club could be the better play. Though this is a course that allows for mindless bombing from the tee, that’s not the path to low scores.
One final word of warning: many of the holes at Payne’s Valley provide two options: fairway hit or lost ball. There is some rough, but this is a course made for padding your driving stats. Maintain your focus on the tee even when it looks like a can’t-miss fairway.
After you’ve piped your drive into the fairway, you’re likely to have a good lie. The fairways at Payne’s Valley have a lot of movement, but it’s gentle. You may find the ball slightly above your feet, but you’re not going to have to make any baseball swings. That said, most of your approach shots will have to factor in some elevation change.
If you do find the rough, pay careful attention to your lie. It’s not overly long or thick, but it’s capable of creating a wide array of lies. In my foursome, we saw everything from “teed-up” lies to the ball sitting far down and needing to be hacked out.
The greens at Payne’s Valley are as big (proportionally) as the fairways. This combination makes for a faster, more enjoyable round because most players are going to hit a lot of fairways and greens. For the low handicap player seeking a frame-worthy scorecard, hitting the green is not going to be enough. The greens are very challenging, so you need to hit it close to expect birdies.
Finally, though the greens are large, they will not always look like inviting targets. Hitting the green can become a challenging proposition if you’re forced to play over hazards. Playing the right angles not only makes the green look welcoming, it opens up the potential of playing the ground game. Also, many of the greenside bunkers have very steep faces which can obscure your view of the green. Check your GPS to see how far you need to carry your approach – there may be more green than you realize.
Greens & Surrounds
With big fairways and big greens, you might assume that Payne’s Valley is an easy place to post a career low. It’s not, and the primary reason is the shaping of the greens. Tiger Woods has created putting surfaces with aggressive undulations that will make any long putt an adventure. If you’re more than twenty feet from the hole, it’s likely you’ll have to move up or down a tier or over a sharp spine like the one on #2 (above).
Around the greens, you’ll find acres of tightly mowed grass. Payne’s Valley uses a finer grass around the greens than the other Big Cedar Lodge courses, and this makes the lies tighter. It also opens up the possibility of using putter from further off the green. There’s a lot of movement in the surrounds, often placing you well below the putting surface.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the bunkers around the green tend to have steep faces. They’re not that deep, but they can be intimidating if you’re not confident from the sand. Payne’s Valley is not overly bunkered, so you should be able to avoid sand traps altogether with smart target selection.
Payne’s Valley embraces many of the best concepts in modern golf course design. Thanks to its wide fairways and large greens, this is a course that anyone can play. However, this is also a course where the elite player can separate himself from the competition with precise shot-making and navigation of the tricky greens.
Another thing that I like about Payne’s Valley is the way it blends easier and tougher holes. Everyone starts on a hole that encourages a big drive and a fairly easy par. #3 and #12 can be drivable, and several of the par 5s provide birdie or eagle opportunities. But you need to get that scoring done early, because holes 14 through 17 are tough.
Finally, I have to mention the nineteenth hole, The Big Rock at Payne’s Valley. This hole was designed by Johnny Morris, the owner of Big Cedar Lodge, and it’s a really entertaining way to finish your round. It shouldn’t require more than a wedge, but the green is surrounded by water and, perhaps more importantly, lots of spectators. If you’re able to make an ace, more than just a handshake awaits you in the pro shop.
#12 – Par 4 – 341 Yards
The second drivable par 4 at Payne’s Valley is fantastic. Unlike many short 4s, it doesn’t get narrow near the green or use hazards to scare you into laying up. However, there is a bunker on the right side of the hole that will cause players to favor the left. Since the fairway tilts left, shots started in that direction are sent to a collection area that’s well below the level of the green. This allows the opportunity to recover and even make birdie, but only with a very skillful wedge shot.
#4 – Par 5 – 544 Yards
This hole epitomizes the concept of being playable for all but only yielding birdies to the best. The hole hinges on the second shot. The layup area is massive, but anything center-left leaves a very tough approach. If you can lay up to the right side, you can play your wedge shot right into the mouth of the green.
Tiger Woods has made Payne’s Valley a great place for an enjoyable round of golf and a wonderful complement to the other courses at Big Cedar Lodge. Whether you’re testing yourself from the Tiger Tees or aiming for a low score from a more reasonable yardage, it will be a memorable round.