There are plenty of course options in and around Branson, Missouri, aka “Golf’s Ozark Mountain Oasis.” But none of these quite capture the beauty, history, and excitement of the area as dramatically as Top of the Rock Golf Course.
Synonymous with the Branson/Springfield area is Bass Pro Shops and its founder, Johnny Morris, who – with a little help from his friends — spent eight years carving this deluxe nine-hole Par 3 course into the top of a mountain. As with everything Johnny Morris, every inch of the property is crafted with great attention paid to nature, the outdoors, and the surrounding landscape.
For the jewel in his Missouri outdoors & golf resort complex, Morris enlisted the holy triumvirate to design the course (Jack Nicklaus), the practice facility (Arnold Palmer), and the putting course (Tom Watson). What results is a gorgeous and highly entertaining golf experience.
Alongside its 18-hole counterpart at Buffalo Ridge Springs (a Tom Fazio design), Top of the Rock is the annual home of a 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 for next year’s throwdown.
Before you even pull into the parking lot, Johnny and his Legend friends ratchet up your expectations with one of the more remarkable practice facilities around.
The Arnold Palmer Driving Range appears otherworldly and provides one of the most awe-inspiring views on the whole property. Set below the clubhouse, the range boasts three decks of tees (one grass and two synthetic) that hit to a spectacular layout of 16 target greens set amongst a slew of design elements, including bunkers, waterfalls, trees, and more. Taken as a whole, the target area looks like no course you’ve ever seen before in your life, the drop-offs and waterfalls and cliff’s edges looking like an immaculately constructed bonsai garden that you can play golf in.
Not to be outdone, Tom Watson designed the Himalayan Putting Course, a tribute to the famous Himalayas putting track at St. Andrews. The fantastically undulating green covers a full acre and resembles a mogul ski slope, countless tiers and mounds and hole locations cascading down to the water’s edge. You can make your way from hole to hole or hit a 10-break putt with 20 feet of elevation change. Whatever your fancy, the Himalayas are a remarkable tribute and ridiculous fun.
Both areas offer as much if not more fun than the Par-3s, with each target green and putting hole giving you and your group endless fodder for pre- or post-round wagers, challenges, and practice reps. While we only spent a few minutes challenging each other out there, you could spend all day doing it, and you’re missing out if you don’t.
Amenities & Customer Service
Top of the Rock isn’t just about the golf either, with more than a few options available for gearing up, relaxing, and dining. First, there’s the pro shop, complete with an impressive selection of signature merchandise as well as high-end gear (and top-of-the-line cigars if you need one). Then we have the clubhouse area that has a player’s lounge, complete with televisions, a pool table, a massive fireplace, and leather couches.
For dining, there’s the famous Arnie’s Barn, a reconstructed wooden barn that was salvaged piece-by-piece from a lot beside where Arnold Palmer grew up. The high-ceiling dining area has a rustic, homey feel to it, and the options for dining and drink make Arnie’s Barn a fun place to grab lunch.
If that’s not enough, there is also Osage Restaurant, located in what had been the home of the original property owner, Dr. M. Graham Clark. The intricately designed wooden interior features iron, wood, and leather accents, as well as giant windows that offer magnificent views of the lake and mountains.
If THAT isn’t enough, there is the “End of the Trail” All-American Wine Cellar, a stylish dungeon-like setting for enjoying the finer things in life: wine, whiskeys, cognacs, and cigars.
Oh, and there’s a cave tour, too, that you can take via golf cart, complete with prehistoric fossils (see the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum), a dozen waterfalls (both above ground and below), and a subterranean bar.
Johnny wants everyone to enjoy themselves at Top of the Rock, from golfers to couples to families. He has spared no expense in creating destination golf and leisure options unmatched in the region. Do yourself a favor and come for the golf, then stay for a meal, a libation, and a cigar while you gaze out across the beauty that surrounds you.
With so much attention to detail, the course conditions are some of the nicest you’ll find in the area. While the pace of the greens is sure to gear up around the Champions Tour event, they are kept at a fair, fast slope to keep golfers of all abilities challenged. Each green is surrounded by bunkers of varying depths and designs, all of which are well-filled with professional-grade sand.
For all of the divots and ball marks that a Par-3 track takes, the tee boxes and greens are kept in impressive shape, allowing players to focus on the beauty of the design and the unique challenges of each hole.
Beauty & Scenery
Technically, all we need to play the game of golf are a stick, a ball, some grass, and a cup, but in select locales, the game becomes an altogether different experience because we get to play it amidst spectacular natural beauty. Top of the Rock is one of these places.
The Ozarks are ancient mountains and the history of the region is ingrained in every detail of Top of the Rock – from prehistoric fossils, to the preserved cabin and chapel overlooking the lake, to the Trail of Tears infinity pool. Each hole is a spectacle unto itself, with painstakingly landscaped water and rock formations and bunkering. When you set each intricately crafted hole into awe-inspiring views of the surrounding mountains and Table Rock Lake below, the experience gets pretty memorable, pretty quickly.
This isn’t the shores of Hawaii here, but it’s still quintessentially American, and if you’ve never been, the landscape will surprise you.
Course Design & Difficulty
The Golden Bear’s design is both challenging and fun, with attention paid to the land itself, as well as creative, singular additions to each hole. Obviously iron accuracy and distance control are paramount, as are sand saves and sure putting. But as long as you’re playing from the appropriate tees, Top of the Rock is a great time for golfers of all skill levels.
The short 2nd hole is a wedge straight off the side of the mountain – a trickier stick than it appears with a 100-foot drop off, a narrow green, and the distracting view.
Hole No. 5 is a another short hole, but this narrow green is fronted by several deep bunkers, with even more on the backside. This takes an incredibly accurate shot to make the green, much less have a shot at birdie.
No. 6 is an elevated tee hitting onto an island green, a beautifully landscaped hole that is quite the challenge to stick. While there’s a bunker on the right side of the island, and some forgiving rough along the edges, there is not a lot of room out there. While pros get ferried across the water during the Legends of Golf event, the rest of us have to make due with a backside stone bridge. Either way, it’s the signature hole and a great challenge.
Top of the Rock is an experience and a can’t-miss stop on any trip through the region. You’re paying for the beauty here, and a relatively quick, remarkable nine holes that demand great ball-striking and distance control. When you throw in Arnie’s Practice Range, Watson’s Himalayas, and the seemingly endless array of amenities, you’re getting your money’s worth. Make a point of stopping through, and if you can manage, catch a sunset from beside the infinity pool.