A case could be made that Branson is sort of the mini-Las Vegas of the Midwest, just add corn bread and take away the casinos.
The little town south of Springfield, high in the Ozarks, has exploded in the last couple of decades into the gangly epicenter of live country music, country kitsch and country money.
It all started with a cave, believe it or not – they have Ripley’s here, too by the way.
About 100 years ago, people came to see Marble Cave, which is actually limestone. Then they made a movie about the area from the best-selling book, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” starring John Wayne, and people started flocking in.
A couple of brothers calling themselves the Baldknobbers began putting on shows, showcasing both country and western music – in case you’re wondering, there is a big difference between the two. Slowly, musical acts began trickling in until they reached a flood, and in 1991, “60 Minutes” did a story on the town.
Then things really took off.
They’re still going strong, and have only felt the country’s economic woes mildly; the value of new construction in 2006 in Branson topped $200 million, breaking all previous records. People may be feeling the money pinch, but you can’t keep them away from the Presley Country Jubilee.
Or how about a Red Skelton impersonator? Come to Branson.
When a place gets this big, it often starts thinking about becoming a golf destination, because, let’s face it, golfers spend a lot of money.
That’s where Branson is at. They have about a dozen courses in the area now, and some of them are excellent.
“We’re just starting to get to the point where we can call ourselves a golf destination,” said Cliff Easum, the head pro at the Thousand Hills resort.
The area will get a huge boost when the Payne Stewart Golf Course opens some time in the fall.
Must-play Branson golf courses
The golf course plays up and down the hills of the high plateau that takes up most of southern Missouri. Those holes that play along the high, rocky ridges give off grand, misty views, and the holes that plunge down to the valleys are perhaps even more scenic, with purple-flowered hills rising gracefully above the fairways.
It is a dazzling layout in this part of the postcard-ready Ozarks, and its scenic beauty is matched only by the artistry of the Tom Fazio design.
“I’ve played all the nice courses in Missouri, and there aren’t any that compare to this,” said Easum.
You won’t find many public, daily fee golf courses of this caliber. One beautiful hole flows from the next, and although there seems to be a plethora of dogleg lefts, every hole brings a separate adventure.
The scenery is everything you’d expect from a mountain course high in the Ozarks: Lakes, ponds, little mountain streams and rugged rock outcroppings to go along with the purple redbuds, white dogwood, and pine and cedar trees.
The green fees here are substantially cheaper than they would be for a golf course of this standing in certain other parts of the country.
• LedgeStone Championship Golf Course unfolds inside the ritzy Stonebridge Village, just outside Branson. The Ozarks aren’t a mountain range in the typical sense, but LedgeStone is, for all intents and purposes, a mountain golf course with sweeping, distant views and steep, rocky hills rising above the fairways.
It is an excellent course, consistently ranked among the best in the state by golf magazines. The course was designed by Thomas Clark, who’s done such courses as the TPC at Avenel in Maryland and Blue Ridge Shadows and the Woods Course at Kingsmill Resort, both in Virginia.
At LedgeStone, Clark let the surroundings showcase the course; it climbs up and down the steep terrain, with some serious elevation changes. LedgeStone is indeed a dramatic layout, 6,800 yards from the tips with a slope rating of 133, but it is also playable, especially if you don’t get too bull-headed and play on the conservative side – at least on your first few trips around.
Golf Digest has described it as a “masterpiece of mountain golf architecture.”
• John Daly’s Murder Rock Golf and Country Club is 6,600 yards from the back tees. The next set of tees goes down to less than 6,200 yards, one of the few drawbacks to this lofty layout, high in the Ozarks and south of the live, country music capital of Branson.
In fact – gulp – it’s been called “lady friendly” by Murder Rock officials, and we’re not talking about Hooters girls. The course has few forced carries, and many of the greens are open in front, qualities many women enjoy.
“Obviously, it’s not a long golf course,” Assistant Golf Professional Mike Meade said. “But, it can be demanding as far as accuracy. The back nine, it can get breezy, and it’s all about hitting the right spot on the green.”
It gets breezy because Murder Rock occupies the highest place in Taney County, 300 feet above the neighboring Branson Creek, which itself is considered a mountain golf course. The view from the big window at Murder Rock’s clubhouse bar is spectacular.
“I guarantee you this is the longest 6,600-yard golf course you’ll ever play when the wind blows,” Meade said.
The greens are excellent. They’re Crenshaw bentgrass and have a very lush look and feel. Though slower and smaller than Branson Creek, the greens at Murder Rock have enough slope and undulation, but not too much, to make putting on them a pleasure.
Branson golf: Solid seconds
The only factor holding this course back is its lack of length; it measures only 5,111 yards from the back tees with a par of 64. That includes nine par 3s. Thousand Hills is a good course to test your short game with all the par 3s.
• Holiday Hills Resort & Golf Club suffers from a myriad of problems. The fairways are too close together for one thing, and the course isn’t in particularly good shape. It’s a short course – none of the four tees measures over 6,000 yards with the longest being 5,625 with a slope rating of 115. It has a par of 68.
All that being said, the course does have its charms because it is busy; it’s one of the locals’ favorites. It does have history on its side. It is the oldest golf course in Branson – Charlton Heston used to play here. Also, there are some interesting green complexes and some of the mounding around the greens is imaginative, and the fairway mounding does what it can to keep wayward balls in the proper fairways.