PAYNE, JOHNNY AND A VAST VISION
Payne Stewart is a saint in southwest Missouri, hailing from Springfield, an hour’s drive north from Branson. Though he’s been gone nearly two decades, the two-time U.S. Open champ, he of knickers and syrupy swing and cocky attitude, hovers over the booming golf scene here like a grinning, born-again specter. He is one of many Missouri-bred golfers honored in the expansive, elaborate clubhouse at Branson Hills (which resides on Payne Stewart Drive); in 2019 his name will grace Tiger Woods Design’s first-ever public course, Payne’s Valley — the fifth jewel in a golf development crown also forged by big-time design names like Nicklaus, Fazio, Coore and Crenshaw and, yes, Player, that’s as bright and beautifully crafted as any in the American resort golf lexicon.
Which brings up a name that approaches Stewart’s in power and influence, though in a much different and tangible way: Johnny Morris, the billionaire behind Bass Pro Shops and the collection of golf, lodging, dining and recreational amenities that embody what I’ve come to call “rustic luxury.” At the center of it all is Big Cedar Lodge, which Morris opened as a fishing camp for Bass Pro Shop employees and buyers of his Tracker boats. It’s since grown into the 260-room hub of a polished, unpretentious, down-home destination empire that stretches for several thousand hilly acres encompassing stunning golf from top-tier architects, a nature park, a natural history museum and a shooting range. And nobody’s gonna say that Morris is anywhere near done expanding on his vision.
Nor is the once-sleepy hillbilly outpost-turned live country music showcase of Branson and environs anywhere near done asserting itself as a drive-in destination juggernaut that shouldn’t be underestimated or overlooked. Even without my hole-in-one, I’d have headed back home a true Branson believer, and not just because of Morris’s courses — I played a handful of others that truly got the ball rolling in these parts, Branson Hills included, before Morris went all in.