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.
After my full round on Wednesday, a couple things became more clear about the layout named for Ozarks native and three-time major champion Payne Stewart, who died in a plane crash in 1999.
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.
More importantly, here are five things you should know about the first public-access course in the United States designed by Woods and his TGR Design team.
First, the last
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.
Did I mention the cliffs? It has to be seen to be believed. We’ve all seen island greens, but not with a setting like this.
Just don’t book a trip too soon expecting to play the bonus hole. The tee was recently sodded, the grass on the green is still growing in and the hole wasn’t open the day after the exhibition, in which the players swung atop that fresh and immature sod. It will be at least a few weeks before it’s ready for regular Joes to take a swipe at that 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.
But don’t think all that width necessarily makes the fairways a pushover. 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.
The greens are the real story
The bentgrass greens are simply perfect. The ball hugs the ground, never hopping, never wavering. Hit a good putt, you get a good result. But they are relatively fast for resort play – downhill puts can really scoot, and there are several opportunities to roll a ball off a green.
Woods said Tuesday that the wide fairways must be navigated with a strategic approach to set up the best shots into the greens, which feature all kinds of bunkering, roll-offs and internal mounding. It’s clear that the four-time Masters champion took some inspiration from Augusta National in this regard. If a good player wants to hit a shot close to a tucked pin, a tee shot to the proper line in the fairway is a must.
The greenside surrounds also are Zoysia but a different strain with finer blades than the in the rest of the fairways. It’s a fantastic surface for chipping, but the thinner blades and lower cut allows players to consider a putter from off the green’s surface. The immaculate conditioning allows for a wide range of options on how to play any shortgame shot: Putt it, bump it, flop it, maybe use a hybrid. Your call.
There are several worth noting. The downhill par-5 fourth plays 544 yards off the back tees and is a classic risk-reward opportunity over a pond for accomplished players. The par-3, 188-yard fifth is effectively an island green, even if technically it is a peninsula. The extremely downhill par-3, 183-yard 10th is gorgeous – players will be whipping out their cameras for a shot of this one over water. And 18 is a solid closer, a 552-yard par-5 curving rightward and playing toward those rocks that house the bonus hole.
But I’ll take the short par-4 12th as a favorite. Playing 341 off the Tiger Tees but only 282 from what would be considered the member’s tees, the hole offers all kinds of options. It’s slightly downhill, so many players can try to blast one onto the green, allowing for a right-to-left slope to carry the ball onto the putting surface. For players without the gusto to reach the green, there are several bunkers to navigate in the fairway.
The 12th green is one of the best on the course, following the terrain with a right-to-left slope. A ball that rolls onto the center of the green can just as easily roll back off to the left into a lower chipping bowl. And there’s a somewhat circular mound in the center of the green to complicate matters, deflecting approaches and putts in all directions and making it easy to 3-putt after smacking a driver to the center of the green. Just ask me how I know … been there, done that.
The back nine can be a killer
Sure, 12 is a short, slightly downhill par 4. It’s in keeping with a trend where most of the holes play downhill. But in this case, what goes down must come up. At Payne’s Valley, that would be Nos. 13-15, which feel more like a mountain-climbing exhibition than the rest of the course’s downhill joyride.
No. 13 is a 653-yard par 5 off the tips and climbs upward almost the entire way. It’s a special kind of long. For example, McIlroy nutted a driver then a 3-wood in Tuesday’s exhibition match, and he still had about 140 yards to the flag. It’s not often that McIlroy catches two woods flush and has that far into any hole. The landing area for the second shot is incredibly wide, perhaps the most accommodating I have ever seen, but that fact alone doesn’t make this three-shotter (hopefully) an easy proposition.
No. 14 is a 421-yard par-4 turning rightward up the hill to the narrowest green on the course. Miss the green right and you might stand a shot at par. Miss it left and forget about it … deep bunkers, tall grass and a steep dropoff await.
No. 15 rounds out what could be described as this longest mile. It’s a 456-yard, uphill par 4 sliding to the right. The tee shot screams out for players to try to knock the ball over a bunker guarding the inside right corner of the fairway, but don’t be fooled by what might seem to be a short yardage over the sand. It’s steep from the tee up to the fairway, and tee balls that would easily cover the trap if it were on flat ground can be swallowed up. Then it’s even more uphill to a green guarded right by deep traps and a steep runoff. To top it all off, the green is bisected front to back by a steep ridge that repels less-than-perfect approaches. Good luck on this one.
For my round Wednesday, each of these holes also played into a surprisingly strong mountain wind. Let’s see, that made three steep, curvy, windy holes with two of them playing toward the most unforgiving greens on the course. Just try to keep your good round going here.
So yes, Payne’s Valley is wide. But that’s only part of the story.