Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris may be the outdoorsman version of Walt Disney, and Big Cedar Lodge appears to be the Cinderella Castle for golfers. The property located just 10 miles south of Branson, Mo. began as a wilderness resort for families, but the iconic golf courses are drawing professional athletes from all over to the Ozarks.
Peyton Manning’s discovery of Big Cedar proved to be the tipping point for other athletes’ intrigue about the property as a spot to unwind in the offseason. From there, legendary eight-time Pro Bowl defender Von Miller hosted the 2018 Pass Rush Summit when the star was with the Broncos. The event featured NFL legends like Warren Sapp and Bruce Smith working with some of the top current pass rushers in the NFL.
“In June of 2018, a gaggle of the NFL’s most talented defensive players gathered at Big Cedar Lodge, a luxurious resort in Missouri’s Ozarks,” ESPN’s Sam Borden wrote on December 9, 2020. “Von Miller led the group. Bradley Chubb and Bud Dupree were there, as well as legendary sack masters such as Bruce Smith and Warren Sapp. The men ate big steaks and drank. They raced go-karts. They went bowfishing in the middle of the night, firing arrows into the black waters of Table Rock Lake.
“They also dissected pass-rushing techniques as if they were science textbooks. Stutter steps and cuts, arm-locks and power — they discussed it all.”
Pro Athletes Are Flocking to Play Tiger Woods’ Only Public Golf Course
Since then, a series of other notable athletes have followed Miller and Manning’s lead making their own pilgrimage to the Ozarks. Chiefs star tight end Travis Kelce came to check out the golf scene and stayed to mingle with surprised fans at one of the resort’s notable restaurants. Kelce’s Chiefs teammate Patrick Mahomes, an avid golfer, also made the trip in order to play the Big Cedar courses. Saints Swiss army knife playmaker Taysom Hill explored the resort while engaging in an all-steak diet during his stay, something not hard to do with Big Cedar’s plethora of restaurants.
Tiger Woods’ TGR Design firm helped create Payne’s Valley in 2020, and more athletes are sure to follow to play the legend’s lone public course. There are no shortage of options for any visitor, but it is easy to see what continues to attract celebrities to Branson.
“I think so many pro athletes have visited Big Cedar over the years for a few reasons. For one, pro athletes tend to be active and enjoy getting outdoors, which Big Cedar has a lot to offer in that regard,” Big Cedar director of golf sales and marketing Matt McQueary told Heavy Sports in an exclusive interview. “But the bigger reason would be golf, and a lot of the pro athletes today grew up watching Tiger Woods.
“For us to have the only public Tiger Woods golf course is a huge draw. Plus, the magic and uniqueness of the 19th hole really helps spread the word among golf addicts, which a lot of pro athletes seem to be these days.”
Big Cedar Lodge Turned Arnold Palmer’s Old Barn Into a Restaurant
During my brief fall stay, stories of Morris’ adventures continued to circulate like the Oz of the Ozarks adding to the mystique of the resort. Perhaps the best example of Morris’ magic is the founder finding Arnold Palmer’s old 46-foot timbers barn in the golfer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa. Instead of making it a museum, Morris turned it into a living memorial as a Mexican restaurant affectionately called Arnie’s Barn which is open to the public.
People can share tacos, nachos and even a little bison chili while looking around a room where Palmer spent a great deal of time. All of this was made possible as Morris managed to find a way to move the barn from Latrobe to Branson.
Payne’s Valley Has a Magical 19th Hole to End a Spectacular Round of Golf
No one in golf holds the appeal of Woods and the legend’s stamp of approval on Big Cedar Lodge is one of the reasons that pro athletes continue find the locale appealing. The Woods-approved Payne’s Valley includes a “19th hole” where golfers drive their carts through a cave to arrive at a beautiful grand finale with the flag located on an iconic small island about 112 yards from the closest tee box. Golfers attempt to hit a hole in one or simply wager with a friend on who can land closest to the pin.
Big Cedar offers Woods’ only public golf course, something that is appealing to fans and athletes alike. Unlike other courses designed by PGA Tour stars, Payne’s Valley is approachable for golfers of all skill levels as Woods wanted the feel to be similar to those he grew up playing on with wide open greens.
“Tiger and his team wanted Payne’s Valley to be a course that everyone could enjoy together and that shows in the final product,” McQueary explained. “For pros, the course tips out at well over 7,000 yards and greens have a lot of movement and slope making it a challenge to get birdies consistently.
“And for beginners, the course has several tee box options and wide open fairways, so players won’t be punished off the tee for hitting a wayward shot. Also, the greens complexes are surrounded by zoysia grass instead of fescue like most courses, so players have the option to putt or chip from anywhere off the green which really helps beginner players.”
Woods: ‘I Just Want to Have People Enjoy Coming Out Here & Being a Part of Golf & Nature’
I was fortunate to play Ozarks National, Buffalo Ridge and Payne’s Valley, a few of Big Cedar’s golf staples, with each course offering something unique from the previous day’s 18 holes. Getting an up-close look at bison on several hole locations at Buffalo Ridge and enjoying a bison dog at the turn was one of the highlights from a busy three days of golf.
As a golf beginner, each course admittedly offered some frustration, but the anger quickly subsided as I looked into the expansive Ozark views offered on each course. Woods emphasized enjoyment when describing his goal as people play Payne’s Valley, somewhat of a rarity for courses designed by elite golfers.
“The experience that we had here coming up 19, that’s what it’s all about,” Woods told reporters in September 2020 after playing the course with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose. “I just want to have people enjoy coming out here and being a part of golf and nature.”
You may not remember your score each day, but a trip to Big Cedar Lodge is sure to be full of lasting memories. Big Cedar now offers special golfer’s cabins perfect for families or a buddies’ trip. The spaces are full of unique details including specially designed cabinets to put your golf bags in and each cabin offers breathtaking views of Payne’s Valley. Instead of a backyard, the cabins come equipped with fire pits and an expansive putting green that ensures golf does not have to stop at sunset.
Your trip to Big Cedar Lodge will assuredly include spotting beautiful wildlife, but don’t be surprised if your favorite athlete is at a nearby tee box.