Looking for golf’s newest hotbed? Check out the booming Ozarks

Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris and Tracey Stewart hug during a press event for a new golf course designed by Tiger Woods, in Hollister, Mo., on April 18.
Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris and Tracey Stewart hug during a press event for a new golf course designed by Tiger Woods, in Hollister, Mo., on April 18. AP

The Bass Pro Shops Legends of Gold has proven popular since coming to the Ozarks in 2014, and now Johnny Morris and others and trying to make the area a destination for people wanting to play golf.

The PGA Tour Champions event is scheduled to conclude Sunday at Top of the Rock, the only par-3 course used by the PGA Tour. The event also makes use of the nearby par-71 Buffalo Ridge Springs course, but Morris isn’t content to stop there.

Several other golf courses are being planned with help from some of the game’s top stars near Morris’ Big Cedar Lodge resort about 10 miles south of Branson.

Gary Player is designing a yet-to-be-named 13-hole par-3 course designed for play by families, and Ben Crenshaw and course designer Bill Coore are involved in an 18-hole course called “The Ozarks” that is under construction.

And if that wasn’t enough, Morris and Tiger Woods announced Tuesday a partnership with the family of the late Payne Stewart, a Springfield native who became a PGA Tour star before he died in a plane crash in 1999, to create the first public access golf courses designed by TGR Design. It will be called Payne’s Valley.

“I couldn’t be more proud to partner with Johnny Morris to debut my first public-access courses at Big Cedar Lodge,” Woods said during his appearance. “Johnny’s incredible passion for connecting people of all ages and walks of life to nature is truly inspiring. Together we’re tremendously excited to create a publicly accessible world-class golf experience in the center of America.”

Payne’s Valley is set to open in 2019, and the facility will also include a par-3 course for families.

“If this land was not really special, I don’t think this man would be here,” Morris said of Woods’ involvement.

The regular course will be designed to showcase the region’s natural beauty, and golfers will go through a natural cavern system to return to the clubhouse after completing the 19th hole. Yes, instead of having the normal 18 holes, the course will have a 19th hole that could be used by golfers to decide unfinished wagers.

Woods said the par-3 course will be one like the ones that shaped his game as a child.

“I grew up on a par-3 course in Long Beach, Calif.,” Woods said during his appearance in the area Tuesday. “It was lit at night, just like most of the people were. My favorite golf in the world is played on the ground, which is links courses. Everyone knows I’m dedicated to the things I care about and this is one.”

Woods said he’s doing this for golfers who play for fun and not to land a PGA Tour event. However, Morris acknowledged that Payne’s Valley, as well as The Ozarks course, may help the area land bigger golf events.

“It’s going to be the quality when it’s all said and done that might give us the opportunity to host something really grand here,” Morris said.

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus says the development of courses by Gary Player, Tiger Woods and others is great for the game in the Ozarks region.

The course honors Stewart, who won three major championships among 11 PGA Tour triumphs during his career. Woods said he likes that he and Morris can remember Stewart through golf.

“I express my gratitude for what you are doing to honor Payne,” said Stewart’s wife, Tracey Stewart. “This area means so much to him. His sisters still live here in Springfield. I know he is looking down from heaven today and he is so proud.”

To further honor his legacy, The Payne Stewart Learning Facility is being created. It will contain a museum displaying Stewart’s personal memorabilia, including scorecards, trophies and photos.

During his appearance, Woods gave no indication when he might return to the game as he recovers from back problems. But he did mention that he is not that far away (nine years) from his 50th birthday and a chance to play in the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf and other PGA Tour Champions events.

“It’s around the corner now,” Woods said. “Most of the guys on the Champions Tour are guys I grew up playing with.”

Funk, Sluman take Legends lead at 10-under par

Fred Funk and Jeff Sluman teamed to shoot a course-record 10-under par on Saturday to take the opening-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions’ Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge.

Funk and Sluman, who won the tournament in 2014, birdied five of their first six holes on the par-3 Top of the Rock course while playing modified alternate shot and closed with five more birdies on the back nine in a four-ball format.

Davis Love III and Scott Verplank birdied their final four holes to finish at 6 under and in a tie for second place along with Fred Couples and Jay Haas. Love and Verplank did so despite a pair of bogeys on their opening nine holes, while Couples and Haas birdied the 18th to reach 6 under.

Six teams finished five shots back of the leaders at 5 under.

The opening round of the tournament was postponed on Friday due to heavy rain, shortening the tournament to 36 holes – with both rounds being played at the Top of the Rock course.

Play was able to resume on Saturday, though the players battled cold and misty conditions for much of the day.

The team of Ben Crenshaw and Jerry Pate was one of the groups at 5 under, bolstered by a stretch of five birdies on the final six holes – including one on the 18th.

“Jerry got going great on the back,” Crenshaw said. “We were able to put something together, but it was tough out there.”

The other five teams at 5 under were Tom Jenkins/Mark O'Meara, Corey Pavin/Duffy Waldorf, Billy Andrade/Joe Durant, Olin Browne/Steve Pate and Paul Goydos/Kevin Sutherland.

Allen Doyle and Hubert Green won the Legends Division for players 65 and older, shooting a 5-under par in a rain-shortened nine holes.

Butch Baird and Al Geiberger finished second at 4 under, while Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were alone in third at 3-under par.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.