RIDGEDALE, Mo. – A year ago, during the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf, Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops and owner of Big Cedar Lodge, drove me around the site of Gary Player's 13-hole Mountaintop Course. Meanwhile, PGA Tour Champions players were competing on the nine-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed Top of the Rock and the 18-hole Tom Fazio-designed Buffalo Ridge Springs. Just east of the Springs, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were hard at work on The Ozarks, a fourth course, scheduled to open in 2018. Morris boasted that the land under construction would be "our best chance to host a really major championship someday."
You mean, like, the U.S. Open?
"You have to dream big," he said, his face breaking into a smile. "You never know. But I always aim high."
One year later, Morris did just that, announcing Tiger Woods as the designer of a fifth course called Payne's Valley.
Nicklaus. Fazio. Player. Coore-Crenshaw. Now Woods. Here's another list of great names. Pinehurst. Pebble Beach. Kiawah Island. Bandon Dunes. Kohler, Wis. And … Branson? As Jim Connell of the local paper here, the Springfield News-Leader, so aptly put it, "It sounds like a game of 'One of these things is not like the others.' "
Morris is making a valiant effort to make the Ozarks in the southwest corner of the state, near the Arkansas border, the next great golf destination. Golf is only a part of this outdoor-recreation paradise that spans fishing, hiking, shooting, horseback riding and water sports.
Strangely enough, Morris isn't much of a golfer, but he recognizes how golf can be a means to connect people to nature and bring families together. The most popular family activity at his sprawling resort, he tells me, is miniature golf. (Of course, there is a hole where players putt through the mouth of a bass rather than a clown.)
"If we can have a course that is the next step above putt-putt, then the whole family can come and play," Morris said.
As part of the deal with TGR Design, Woods also will design a par-3 course at the Big Cedar Lodge resort.
"It's going to be putt-putt on steroids," Morris said.
Payne's Valley, named for one of Missouri's favorite sons, the late Payne Stewart, will be the first public-access course designed by Woods.
During a news conference, Woods made two swings in public – one bad, one good – from a makeshift tee at what will serve as a dramatic par-3 19th hole once the course is built.
"The back is progressing," he said. "I have good days and bad days. I've had three back operations, and that's just kind of the nature of the business, unfortunately. That's all I can say."
Far more revealing were the anecdotes shared by Woods on why building a public golf course matters to him. Woods learned the game at military courses and munis. He described growing up playing a par-3 course in Long Beach, Calif., and how as a 6-year-old he needed driver and 7-iron to reach the greens.
"It was lit at night, just like most of the people who were there," he cracked.
At age 8, he made his first hole-in-one, ran to the green and celebrated before realizing he'd left his bag on the tee.
"How do we expedite rounds? How do we get more kids interested?" Woods said. "The easiest way is, never lose a damn ball."
Woods described his design philosophy as limiting forced carries, creating options for players to use their imagination and making golf fun.
"Use the ground as your friend," he said. "That's an element that has been taken out of the game."
He wants the course that he will build for Morris to play fast and firm like his favorite courses in the linksland of Europe and the Australian Sandbelt.
"I don't care if it is brown,” he said. “Brown is OK. Brown is good. I want the ball traveling on the ground, and this course allows that."
Woods also turned nostalgic, reminiscing about late-afternoon rounds with his late father, Earl, when they would play until dark or until he lost his ball.
"He always wanted to go 19 holes,” Woods said, “and we'll have a 19th hole here.”
The Woods course is scheduled to open in 2019, and it surely will bring added attention to one of the fastest-growing golf destinations in the country.
As Woods said of the beautiful piece of land with which he will work, "My job is not to screw it up."
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak