RIDGEDALE, Mo. – Sure, Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose squared off in the Payne’s Valley Cup for Tuesday’s grand opening of the newest 18-hole track at Big Cedar Lodge in the Ozark Mountains on a nationally televised broadcast. But it was hard to get a handle on exactly how the course would play for the rest of us by watching that elite foursome.
First, the details: The course can be stretched to 7,370 yards off the back and plays to a par of 72, the site is atop various ridgelines stretching out beneath the clubhouse and the maximum posted green fee is $225. There’s hardly a flat spot on the property.
Johnny Morris, the founder of Big Cedar Lodge as well as Bass Pro Shops, gets the design credit for the par-3 19th hole at Payne’s Valley, not Woods. And while short 19th holes used to settle a bet are nothing new, this one is striking and has become somewhat of a social media sensation since Tuesday’s exhibition.
The hole can be stretched to about 140 yards and played 120 for Tuesday’s exhibition opener. And the shorty is unlike just about anything else. It features an island green at the base of a 150-foot-tall rock formation, with the clubhouse perched high atop the cliffs above. There’s a waterfall that cascades down the rocks behind the green. The green is basically a small rectangle, and it sits only a couple feet above the well-maintained water level thanks to how the pond drains down and away toward the right and the 18th green.
This place is big- Typical fairways at most courses range between 35 and 50 yards wide. At Payne’s Valley, the short grass frequently extends 80 yards side to side.
There are plenty of bunkers and slopes, and sometimes having all that width only makes it easier to overswing and send a foul ball into something nasty. Remember, Woods opened the match with a hard pull into the native gunch left of No. 1 fairway and quickly gave up the search, and that downhill fairway is wider than an airport runway. If Woods can lose a ball that easily, so can the rest of us.
The fairways are Zoysia grass, an incredibly thick grass that doesn’t offer the most roll but does hold the ball up, almost as if it’s on a tee. And these fairways are one of the most luscious Zoysia presentations this traveling writer has ever seen. Every approach shot begs for a good swing from such perfect lies.
There are stretches of rough in spots alongside most of the fairways, and it is incredibly thick Zoysia. But it really isn’t intended to play as punitive rough – Woods said it’s more like a safety measure to keep balls from rolling too far and shooting off the many cliff edges into unplayable and frequently unfindable lies.
Woods said he followed a philosophy of building wide fairways to accommodate children, maybe their grandparents and plenty of occasional golfers. It’s very different than the two other 18s at the resort – Ozarks National by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, and Buffalo Ridge Springs by Tom Fazio, which are the two top-ranked courses in Missouri on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list for public-access tracks. Woods said he wanted to build a fun course with plenty of rolling terrain across which it’s somewhat difficult to lose a ball. And with that as his intent, he knocked it out of the park – both as a designer, and in his first-tee foul ball, as a player.
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