With a cascade of activity, the Missouri property has become a full-amenity destination while also enhancing its distinctive Ozark experience.
Checking in for a round of golf at Top of the Rock, the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course at the Big Cedar Lodge resort in Ridgedale, Mo., involves a little more than just picking up a scorecard and pencil.
As at most courses, players are set up with everything they need for their rounds, and their carts are loaded up. But, they’re then informed, your route to the first tee is going to take you through the Lost Canyon Cave & Nature Trail—and don’t worry, it’s included with your fee (non-golfing guests to the resort pay $20 for the experience).
If a golfer is really intent on hitting his or her first shot right away, a detour to the course can be arranged. But in the relaxed atmosphere of a resort course, most are fine with the idea—especially since they’ve already had a taste, after arriving at the property and making the trip up to Top of the Rock (so named because of its perch over Table Rock Lake) that there are new wonders to be found everywhere you turn at Big Cedar. The property was acquired by Bass Pro Shops in 1987 and has since been lovingly developed by the retailer’s founder, Johnny Morris, as his personal ode to the natural beauty of the Ozark Mountains.
And once golfers start to guide their carts through the trail, it’s quite possible they’ll end up wanting to spend more time enjoying its features—even if it means paying for a return trip—than they’ll actually spend playing golf on the par-3, nine-hole Top of the Rock course.
The two-and-a-half mile ride, taken in electric carts to preserve the silence, guides golfers and guests through a series of dramatic features: past natural rock formations and sweeping views of the lake, across covered wooden suspension bridges made by Amish craftsmen, and under a series of cascading waterfalls. Whitewash-style “mountain man” signs—hand-painted by Morris himself—provide colorful, if not always politically correct, commentary (“Happy UR Here,” “Danger: Gals Drivin’ ”), to further immerse riders in an authentic Ozarks experience along the way. And in the middle of the four-story Lost Canyon Cave, there’s even a “moonshine still,” as part of an elaborate cave bar (libations include Bat’s Blood).
Building Up the Anti-Branson
The Lost Canyon trail opened in June, as part of a flurry of activity—much of it centered around golf—that occurred this year to round out, and greatly elevate, the profile of Big Cedar Lodge as a destination resort.
The property’s history dates to the 1920s, when two prominent Missouri businessmen built resort homes—one a log mansion, the other a Tudor-style retreat, and both of which have been restored to be used as dining venues today—in an area known as Big Cedar Hollow. A dam was built to form the lake in the 1950s, but by 1987 the property had been run down and reduced to the “value” reflected in a tiny classified ad that was buried in the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, under the Income/Business Property heading: Scenic 42-acre resort on Table Rock Lake. 62 motel units + cabins, marina, pools. Owner will slash price for quick sale.
Johnny Morris’ wife, Jeanie, saw the ad, and Morris, who had started Bass Pro Shops in 1971 after having success selling homemade bait in the back of his father’s Springfield liquor store to fishermen on their way to Table Rock Lake, responded and closed the deal (securing quite a “slash” in the process, undoubtedly). Morris was eager to seize the opportunity to not only diversify his company, but also—at a time when Branson, Mo., was starting to build up its “Vegas without the booze” strip of dinner theaters favored by the white-belts-and-shoes crowd—create an alternative attraction to draw more active people to the region, so they could discover and appreciate its wealth of natural attractions, too.
For many years after the Morris purchase, activity at Big Cedar Lodge largely centered around what the resort offered to families and for its group meeting business through its conference center, with an emphasis on enjoying the lake as well as hiking, biking and other ways to explore the surrounding area.
The Top of the Rock golf course enjoyed some popularity after it first opened in the late 1990s. But after a kitchen fire in 2005, the course was closed. It, and golf, stayed inactive for another seven-plus years at the resort—but then both burst back on the scene with a splash that got widespread attention.
When Big Cedar Lodge finally reopened the Top of the Rock course, it also opened a new clubhouse for it: Arnie’s Barn, built around a frame brought in from a 150-year-old structure found near the golfing legend’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa.
The Barn now overlooks a new Arnold Palmer Driving Range facility that features 16 target greens surrounded by traps (one green is perched on the side of a bluff, with a cascading waterfall) and three teeing decks (two synthetic and one grass). The most eye-catching feature, though, comes out at night, when the range is illuminated with recessed, in-ground lighting—this attribute is promoted on table tents in the Arnie’s Barn restaurant that proclaim, “Trust us…your swing will look better after dark!”
On another side of Arnie’s Barn is the Tom Watson-designed “Himalayan Putting Green,” a one-acre expanse inspired by the Himalayas course at St Andrews in Scotland; Top of the Rock’s version features a 20-foot elevation change and can accommodate putts up to 200 feet in length.
Concurrent with the development of these new facilities, golf was also revived at Big Cedar Lodge at a separate property, the 18-hole Buffalo Ridge Golf Course that was formerly Branson Creek Golf Club. Tom Fazio was brought in to redesign that course and his work introduced more native grasses, to enhance players’ opportunities for viewing free-ranging buffalo from nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park (run by a foundation using land acquired by Morris).
With the resort’s burgeoning connection to so many big names in golf, not to mention its buildup of top-notch facilities, it became reasonable to assume that the property might now catch the attention of the professional side of the game. And lo and behold, when Liberty Mutual Insurance dropped sponsorship of the Champions Tour’s Legends of Golf after 35 years, Bass Pro Shops, and Big Cedar Lodge, came to rescue.
The announcement that the 2014 Legends tournament would move to Big Cedar did not come until late February, leading to a scramble to reschedule it from its usual spring time slot to June 4-8—which was as soon as Big Cedar could get ready to host it, anyway. The move also made history, marking the first time a PGA Tour-sanctioned tournament would be played on a par-3 course, as the Nicklaus nine-hole course was used for the competition along with Buffalo Ridge.
Even with the short notice and amidst all of the other facilities-related activity, the first Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf Presented by Bass Pro Shops came off well, with the Nicklaus course, despite being less than 3,000 yards long, getting special acclaim. “If there was ever a par-3 course worthy of Tour play, Top of the Rock is it,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said.
Behind the scenes, Golf Course Superintendent David Hardesty and his team earned plaudits for their efforts in preparing the Nicklaus course (which competitors turned around and played a second time, from different tees and to different hole placements, to register their 18-hole scores). To prepare for that, Hardesty says, his crew cut two cups each morning in advance of play, and then covered one.
The tournament was also a whirlwind for Big Cedar Lodge’s new Head Golf Professional, Eric Smith, who arrived from Lake Cora Hills Golf Club, a public facility in Paw Paw, Mich., to take his new position in April. Smith, Hardesty and everyone else at Big Cedar Lodge are now looking forward to the luxury of having nearly a full year to prepare for the 2015 Legends of Golf, which will move back to its accustomed time slot, to be held from April 22-26 of next year.
But while it’s clear that Big Cedar Lodge has now secured a prominent place on the golf map, activity to continue to raise that part of the resort’s profile won’t stop. Plans are also in the works to have yet another big name from the game, Gary Player, help with the development of another fresh twist to traditional golf—this time a 12-hole layout, carved out of the former Murder Rock Golf Course that was part of the same development as Branson Creek (Morris bought Murder Rock in October 2013 and Branson Creek a month later).
And the property isn’t standing still in other areas, either. A new 18,000-sq. ft. spa, featuring 11 treatment rooms with fireplaces and an indoor grotto pool, is coming on stream later this year. In food and beverage, Kevin Dott, who arrived this March from Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys to step into the newly created position of F&B Director, is eager to work with Executive Chef Mike Halbert, who’s now been on the property for eight years after arriving from England as an intern in 2006, to explore ways to build on an operation that now includes seven full-time and two seasonal outlets.
“There’s certainly still room for our existing restaurants to grow, especially the newer ones like Arnie’s Barn,” notes Dott. “There’s also still plenty of space to create new [outlets] as needs dictate.”
And who knows what else might get created, should any more caves get discovered on the property.