HOLLISTER, Mo. — Tiger Woods, the architect, really wants you to have a good time. That was the main takeaway after experiencing the 13-hole preview loop of his first U.S. public course, Payne's Valley, in early August.
Tiger is not used to sharing the spotlight, but he'll have to earn his stripes in the field of design. Payne's Valley opens the same year as Bandon Dunes' new Sheep Ranch, by Coore & Crenshaw. His design will be compared to another C&C offering just steps from his own: Ozarks National. He's also designing the new short course set to open at Pebble Beach.
Payne's Valley, named in honor of Missouri's own Payne Stewart, is the third, full-length 18-hole course at Big Cedar Lodge, Johnny Morris' 4,600-acre Ozarks resort. In a relatively short time, Morris has turned the property into one of the top American golf destinations. It's certainly got a unique offering with two short courses, three full-length courses and a spectacle of a driving range.
So, how does Payne's Valley stack up?
The Payne's Valley experience
Payne's Valley plays next to Mountain Top, the 13-hole, walking-only short course design by Gary Player. Arriving at the bag drop at dawn is surreal as shadowy, untouched hillsides slowly reveal themselves to sunlight. Green slivers of fairway stretch across distant Ozarks ridgelines.
It's easy to see some serious earth moving and effort was required to assemble golf holes up here at an elevation of up to 1,300 feet. But the nearly finished product reveals seemingly effortless hole corridors crafted in a routing that is surprisingly walkable given the severity of the surrounding terrain. From the clubhouse, it's a short jaunt down a gravel path to the secluded first tee. The opening view tickles the senses: a straightaway, downhill par 4 with a big fairway and even bigger green valley beyond.
Tiger wants to give you a little comfort out of the gate with a collection of holes that all head gently downhill. It isn't until the 7th that you're finally on a tee box looking up to a fairway and green. There are plenty of birdie chances but the best for recreational players may be on the chip-shot, downhill par-3 10th, which plays between 120 and 140 yards from the middle-back tees. A waterfall rushes behind it and after putting out, you'll walk or drive your cart along a bridge over it. A Johnny Morris staple is entertaining cart rides, and Tiger's design with lead associate Beau Welling takes it to heart with paths that wind through outcroppings, bridges that curve over water, cruise across waterfalls and dance along ridgelines.
Based on what I've experienced at Tiger's private Bluejack National in Texas and now Payne's Valley, the TGR way appears to be broad shaping, ever-so-few trees to worry about and continual expanses of green with tee boxes blending right into the fairway. On the par-5 4th, I found myself hitting a layup about 50 degrees right of the green in order to give myself a good angle across water into a back left pin (it felt a little like a layup strategy of the 15th hole of a certain course in Georgia he's fond of). Landing areas are generous - there are over 80 acres of fairway - with big, round and crisp bunkers that are nevertheless avoidable, especially if you take smart lines of play. The greens are huge with some movement, but they lack severe slopes or fall-offs. Adding to the general pleasantry is the tough, Meyer zoysia turf blades push-pressing your orb up into a plush fairway lie. Zeon zoysia surrounds allow for easy putting and bump-and-runs. There are some little clusters of rough areas, in many cases intended to slow down scooting strays.
So while Payne's will measure 6,700 yards from the middle-back tees and tip out at over 7,200, it will play a few hundred yards shorter, with 450 feet of elevation change and much more of it going downhill than back up. Low handicappers will separate themselves at Payne's Valley with powerful tee shots and aggressive lines off the tee and the ability to execute approach shots typically on slightly sloping ground to greens at a different elevation.
Tiger's quest to catch Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors is among the most documented goals in sports. Woods is charting a very different course with his design style. When you consider the infamous reputation Nicklaus' 1980s designs earned, perhaps a product of the era ushered in by the mad genius of Pete Dye, it is clear that Tiger isn't as interested in such a penal philosophy. Visiting golfers will adore the scenery and playability of Payne's Valley. They'll likely find Ozarks National to be bolder and the Tom Fazio-designed Buffalo Ridge Springs a little tougher.
For the time being, golfers can only play holes 1 through 13 at Payne's Valley. Perhaps the holdup is the big reveal: a 19th hole rumored to be a spectacle. At the time of my visit there was some serious excavating going on in the rock beneath the clubhouse. What do Johnny and Tiger have up their sleeve?
Payne's Valley and Branson golf: What you need to know
The latest from Big Cedar is that Payne's Valley preview play will close on September 12th and will open the full 19-hole experience on September 24th. The current $195 preview green fee includes cart, range balls at Ozarks National and a baggie of snacks. Payne's 19-hole green fee for 2020 is $225. While the course is cart-path-only at the moment, it will be available to walk with shuttles to and from the clubhouse.
For COVID-19 operational updates at Big Cedar Lodge, visit their coronavirus page here.
Big Cedar Lodge is a great all-encompassing golf resort for the outdoor lover. But if you want to take in the sights and sounds of Branson, you'll want to consider staying off-property. The Hilton in downtown Branson is in a festive location next to Branson Landing, featuring a collection of bars, restaurants and shops along the waterfront. Guest rooms are spacious with fantastic beds and huge HDTVs. The hotel has golf packages and preferred rates at Branson Hills Golf Club, considered among the best non-Big Cedar experiences in the area.