It was almost exactly four years ago when the announcement came that the renowned golf design firm headed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw was adding a new course to the stable of offerings at Big Cedar Golf.
There was a bit of hesitancy, though, when Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris first approached Coore and Crenshaw about the project.
That had to do with the land in question, just east of the Buffalo Ridge Springs Course, with the challenges of the terrain and the vast canyons and elevation changes on the property.
“Generally speaking, when you think of long-range vistas, you think of huge elevation changes,” Coore said. “To us, that is a bit of a red flag that goes up.
“There’s so many elevation changes, you’re going to have all of these long-range vistas, how is that going to accommodate golf, to where it’s enjoyable to play and it’s the same traditional style of golf that we like?”
When they visited the site, though, some of those red flags went back down. They found the tops of the ridges radiate out in different directions, and saw they are wide enough to accommodate full golf holes.
After dozens of trips out to plan and supervise the construction, with work days that typically ran from sunup to sundown, their vision has come to reality.
Ozarks National had opened for preview play last fall, and officially opened with a ceremonial first tee shot on Friday from Crenshaw, a World Golf Hall of Famer, before the tournament hosted rounds as part of the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge.
Even with Crenshaw’s low-key mannerisms, you could see his pride in the project and how it all turned out.
“From what we saw in the beginning, it’s a beautiful piece of land,” Crenshaw said. “Obviously when you look around, you have not only the holes that you’re working on, but also the land around you, which for me is a big part of the atmosphere around you when you look off into the distance.
“You know you’re in the Ozarks, and now it was our job to compliment that, with the way that the holes fit together, and the directions they are going.”
As Crenshaw waited to meet with the media on Thursday afternoon, he looked out on various directions from the patio at the Ozarks National clubhouse.
From one side was the putting green and first tee, then the fourth hole and the “hidden” green he is so proud of, then the finishing hole and the 18th green.
He looked very much the part of a proud father, ready to see his firm’s creation be exposed to the greats of golf.
“It adds up to a theme, and to see it now, when we started to what we see now, we’re very proud of what we see,” Crenshaw said. “It has been hard work, with a lot of local people who we listened to when we were planning the holes.
“What you see is a culmination of a lot of work and time. You wish it could go quicker, but it can’t.
“We’re very proud of the final piece here.”
Part of the challenge, both Coore and Crenshaw said, was to craft a course that could be challenging enough to test some of the best players in the PGA Tour Champions field, yet still make it appealing for weekend players and individuals coming to the area for golf vacations.
“The holes themselves have a big breadth to them, and we wanted them to be accommodating to all classes of golfers,” Crenshaw said. “We know how to test some of the best players in the world. It’s wide enough quarters, and some of the greens are open in the front, to allow some of the lesser people to play, as well.”
One of the most talked-about holes is the signature No. 13, a par 4 playing 480 yards from the tips. The downhill tee shot needs to carry 201 yards across a deep ravine and two bunkers, then the approach is straight uphill to a green protected by two more bunkers.
After teeing off, players cross a 400-foot wooden beam and plank bridge, standing 60 feet above a flowing creek, to reach the fairway.
“It’s part of the framework of the layout,” Crenshaw said. “There are a lot of different holes out here. There’s short holes and delicate holes, and holes that require power, but hopefully there’s 18 different little tests that are a little bit different, but they come together.”
The course has been the subject of rave reviews since opening, from some of the biggest names in golf.
Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion who has played in the Legends of Golf event for years with Tom Watson, talked on Friday about the enormity of the golf resort scene here and what it means.
“The fact that you’ve got a destination in Missouri that’s fantastic, you’re going to get people coming in from all over trying to get a chance to watch it here,” he said. “The gentleman who’s caddying for me is getting e-mails from friends in Phoenix that are watching us play.
“People are understanding that this is a neat place to come, and Johnny makes it fun to come here and there’s a lot of other things to do. It’s only going to be good for business and golf.”
Within the golf at Ozarks National is a bit of “mystery,” where different aspects of the holes and the course itself remain hidden even after playing the course several times.
“If you do things to the point where the course reveals everything when you play it the first time, how can it possibly maintain your interest if you play it more than a time or two?” Coore said. “If they experience it more than a time or two, they may find some things that are a little different than the first time or two they played it.
“That’s what we strive for, long-term interest as well as short-term interest.”
Both Coore and Crenshaw talked about how unique it is to have a golf resort situation with such a variety of looks and courses offered.
There’s the par 3 Top of the Rock in nearby Ridgedale, adjacent to the Big Cedar Lodge property, then a short drive away is the Buffalo Ridge Springs Course, the Gary Player-designed Mountain Top 13-hole short course, and elite-level offerings in Ozarks National and Payne’s Valley.
Where in many resorts, other than the celebrated and signature course, much of the golf looks and feels the same. At Big Cedar Golf, the assortment is varied in both how it all looks and plays. Sometimes vastly different.
“It’s amazing how different they are,” Crenshaw said. “That’s a good thing. People come here to recreate, and to hunt and fish, and boating and everything they want to do.
“Then when they turn to golf, there’s a lot of variations. I guess it’s like when you go into the ice cream store, and you look around, and you can try pistachio today, and vanilla tomorrow. Nothing is the same, which is good.”
As Crenshaw took another look out at the property, he perhaps reflected back on one of the first trips he made to the site.
Where he once saw just land untouched by nature, he now sees a golf course dropped onto the landscape, showing off the beauty of the Ozarks.
For a Hall of Fame figure who has his thumbprints on some of the great golf courses around the world, he clearly has a soft spot for his new course and the Ozarks in general.
“This one just feels right,” Crenshaw said.