BRANSON, Mo. – Most mornings at the crack of dawn, you can find country singer Marty Haggard on the first tee at Thousand Hills Golf Course, squeezing in a round before he takes the stage for his 2 p.m. show at The new Clay Cooper Theatre. Thousand Hills is a favorite teeing ground for Branson’s many entertainers because it’s conveniently located just off Highway 76, better known as The Strip, which bisects town.
It’s a par-64 layout, but don’t let that fool you. Water is in play on 16 holes and trouble left means that a hook plays about as well as a guitar string that busts mid-song. So the course-record 58 that Haggard shot a few months ago was no small feat, even if he seems pretty blasé about it.
“I’ve shot lower than that,” said Haggard, the son of Merle. “I just didn’t have anybody with me.”
Tourists come to Branson to see acts such as Haggard and his frequent golf partner, Shoji Tabuchi, the fabulous fiddler who has been one of the biggest acts in town since he opened his own theater in 1989. But golf has become a growing attraction; Branson is home to three of Missouri’s top four public-access courses in the Golfweek’s Best rankings.
The newest is 2-year-old Payne Stewart GC, which could host a tour event tomorrow. There are no sub-60 rounds to be had there. Each hole honors a moment in the career of the course’s late namesake, who was raised 45 miles to the north in Springfield. By the par-3 second – “Chandelle,” which demands a high, 210-yard fade from the middle tees – it was plain the course would be a handful.
“Whoever designed this must have been angry the first few holes,” Haggard said as we pulled away from the second tee.
Just a hunch, but architect Chuck Smith probably was ecstatic when he saw this land. It’s everything one would expect of golf in the Ozarks: dramatic swings in elevation, hardwood-lined fairways, and streams that weave in and out of target lines. Like the surrounding mountains, it’s the kind of course that can make one feel small.
“This is a man-sized hole,” Haggard said as we surveyed 200-yard approaches into No. 10. His assessment of the long uphill march on the par-5 11th: “This is just a rude hole.”
That has the makings of a catchy country lyric.
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It seemed quaint when the pleasant young woman at Branson Airport’s rental-car counter suggested a detour to my hotel to avoid midday traffic. A traffic jam in a town of 10,000 residents? But when you pull off U.S. Route 65 – whether turning left toward the theater district or right toward the lake-side Branson Landing shopping plaza – you’re likely to run smack dab into a slow-moving conga line inching along The Strip.
Every year, according to Branson officials, more than 7 million tourists pour into town, drawn by the 100-plus shows playing at more than 50 theaters. Twenty percent of all of the hotel rooms in Missouri can be found here.
How did this tiny fishing and hunting village in southwest Missouri become “The Live Music Show Capital of the World”?
“Branson is almost an accident,” Ross Summers told me as we played Branson Creek, which is, by no accident, the state’s perennial No. 1 public course.
When Summers, the CEO of the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau, was growing up here, the only acts in town were the Presley and Baldknobber families. “It wasn’t even country music; it was hillbilly music,” he recalls. In 1967, the Presleys built the first theater, but hedged their bets by installing a flat concrete floor so that they could use it for boat storage if they couldn’t make it in show business.
Dozens of other acts followed, including “Hee Haw” host Roy Clark, who opened his theater in 1983, and Andy Williams eight years later. In the bar at Williams’ Moon River Grill, along with his gold records, you’ll find photos of the indefatigable crooner with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and other greats at the old San Diego Open. Now 83, Williams still is belting out his classics, currently performing with Ann-Margret.
Think of Branson as the music world’s answer to the Champions Tour – an extended encore for acts that still have plenty of game and a desire to keep playing.
“It’s like Andy said: I want to die in front of that microphone,” said Buck Trent, 73, the man credited with creating the electric banjo. Trent still does daily morning shows, leaving his afternoons free to play at The Pointe at Pointe Royale, his home course just south of The Strip. Trent settled here 20 years ago and found the people and pace to his liking.
“They’re my kind of people,” Trent said. “They’re like kinfolk to me.”
His fans feel the same way. They often arrive by the busload, from as far away as Maine and Washington state. He greets them before each show, shaking hands, posing for pictures, reminiscing about his years performing with the late Porter Wagoner, himself a serious stick. After years of touring, Branson suits Trent just fine.
“You live life at regular speed here,” he said.
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By 1991, when CBS’ “60 Minutes” came to Branson to do a story on “Hillbilly Heaven,” some 4 million music lovers annually were visiting a town that had only 3,000 residents.
Like Hollywood, Branson is a company town, and the business is entertainment. Even Joe Lennon, the chiropractor who gave me an emergency tuneup between rounds at Branson Creek and LedgeStone, moved his thriving practice here from Los Angeles 17 years ago so that he could harmonize with other members of the singing Lennon family. Good thing, too: Without Lennon’s crack work, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy LedgeStone. Though its ranking trails some of Branson’s other courses, LedgeStone’s back nine – with its elevated tees, doglegs and risk-reward options – might be the most thrilling stretch of holes in town.
Beyond Branson’s music, golf and other activities, what you’ll find here is a full-throated, unapologetic acclamation of the best of America: enterprise, initiative, unabashed love of country. Many of the stars have built their own theaters and run their shows with the help of family members. The College of the Ozarks, just south of town on the banks of Lake Taneycomo, bills itself as “Hard Work U” because all students work their way through school in lieu of paying tuition. And the annual Veterans Homecoming Week in November is the nation’s largest tribute to military veterans.
No one understands all of this better than Tabuchi, a classically trained violinist who fell hard for country music while growing up in Japan. He came to America in 1968 with $500 and dreams of being a country fiddler. These days he tells his audience that every time he travels abroad, he’s reminded of “how good we’ve got it here.” His musical choices are eclectic – everything from Cajun to Classical, from Brahms to Broadway – but his show always ends with a patriotic flourish, with Tabuchi leading his cast and audience in the singing of “God Bless America.”
Tabuchi jokes that he hopes his daughter Christina, who has a budding career in Nashville, “makes it big real quick so I can play golf every day.”
His love of the game was evident as we played Branson Creek with Summers and Gene Lintner, Tabuchi’s long-time aide. This Tom Fazio design, with its long views of the Ozarks, helped put Branson on the golf map when it opened in 1999. Fazio’s emphasis on playability is evident from the generous landing areas, which also create more options. That’s most memorably displayed on the par-5 18th, a mountainous riff on Pebble Beach’s famous closing hole, with a “sea of trees” on the left rather than the Pacific Ocean.
Branson Creek is part of a 7,500-acre development project south of town that includes Murder Rock, the state’s fourth-ranked course, and Branson Airport, the nation’s only privately funded commercial airport. With nonstop flights from Atlanta, Denver, Phoenix and other major cities, it’s becoming an increasingly popular way to reach Branson. There was not an empty seat on my flights to or from Branson.
Upon departing, there’s a final touch of distinctly Midwestern hospitality. As our plane sat on the tarmac, five members of the ground crew could be seen standing in a line. When we began edging toward the runway, the ground crew did something that you’ll never see at any other commercial airport.
They waved goodbye.