OSAGE BEACH, Mo. – It's the time of year when golfers who live in wintery climes begin jonesing for the fairways and greens. Temperatures rise outside, and the fever of a new season sets in. According to health professionals, the most effective treatment for this yearly malady is planning an early season golf trip -- tossing the clubs in the trunk and driving just far enough south to find the first clear fairways.
Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., is famous among anglers and boaters as an almost year-round mecca of aquatic fun. But golfers, especially in the Midwest, should consider it as an almost year-round golf destination, too. With some 15 courses dotting the countryside surrounding the massive, amoeba-like lake, there are as many golf holes to explore as there are fishing holes. And if non-golfing family members tag along, they'll have just as many off-course attractions to explore.
Lake of the Ozarks formed between 1929 and 1931 with the construction of the Bagnell Dam on the Osage River. Not long after the lake -- the largest man-made lake in the Midwest -- came into being, a booming tourism industry emerged along its shores.
The rolling, wooded, watery mix of land and lake make for outstanding and challenging golf courses. The Lake of the Ozarks Golf Trail comprises 12 courses and more than three dozen resort and vacation properties collaborating on play-and-stay packages that rival anywhere in the nation.
Osage Beach is one of the several centers of fun and relaxation around the lake, and it's ideal for first-time visitors to the area, as most of the best golf courses and most famous attractions are within easy reach. In Osage Beach, Emerald Bay Resort (pmglake.com) boasts dramatic views of the lake and serves as a luxurious "home base" for exploring the area.
With respect to the golf courses themselves, it's difficult to single out "must play" tracks, because each is inherently unique, thanks to the varied and dramatic landforms in the area. Nevertheless, there are a few that any golfer coming to the lake should keep in mind.
The Oaks at Tan-Tar-A Resort is a 6,432-yard, par-71 layout on the grounds of the most historic resort on the lake. With greens fees topping out at $55 during peak season, and plenty of challenges off the tee, it's worth a couple of plays.
Bear Creek Valley Golf Club is another excellent value, with peak rates at or below $60. Measuring 6,792 yards from the tips, and just more than 6,100 yards from the regular tees, this superbly conditioned layout won't overwhelm players with length, but it will test every bit of their imaginations.
The Club at Old Kinderhook may have the area's highest greens fees, but these are still just $85 at peak times. The 6,833-yard Tom Weiskopf design features narrow, snaking fairways lined with dense trees and brush and demands accuracy and control from the elevated tees to the undulating greens.
The Lodge of Four Seasons features three of its own 18-hole golf courses, including two available to the public. The original Cove Course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Opened in 1965, the course was recently renovated and is sporting brand new bent grass greens and hole routing. The Ridge Course was added in 1991. Designed by Ken Kavenaugh, the course features moderate elevation changes and plenty of elevated tee shots and generous fairways that make the course a player-friendly favorite. Additionally, members of Four Seasons can play the private, Jack Nicklaus-designed Club at Porto Cima.
With 1,150 miles of shoreline and approximately 617 billion gallons of blue water, the biggest off-course attraction in the area is the lake itself. Bring your own boat, water skis and fishing gear or rent it all once you get there (iguanawatersports.com). The lake is full of enormous bass and other sport fish, and most of the area's resorts and eateries can be accessed just as easily by boat as by road (sometimes more easily).
A great way to get the lay of the land, or rather lay of the lake, is by booking a 90-minute cruise with Tropic Island Cruises ($16, tropicislandcruises.com), leaving daily at 4 p.m. from the grounds of the Tan-Tar-A Resort. Rather get an eagle-eye view of the area? Then book a helicopter tour instead (lakeozarkhelicopters.com).
You say you get seasick and are afraid of heights? Then you should head underground to either Bridal Cave (bridalcave.com) or Jacob's Cave (jacobscave.com). Some 2,100 couples from around the world have taken their vows among the scenic rock formations in the bridal chapel located deep inside Bridal Cave.
Besides these caves, there is also a state-owned cave -- Ozark Caverns -- and two state parks -- Lake of the Ozark State Park and Ha Ha Tonka State Park. The former offers camping sites along 85 miles of shoreline and its own airstrip, while the latter contains the ruins of an early 1900s castle and estate.
The famous Bagnell Dam Strip is the location of several blocks of mom-and-pop storefronts, along with a haunted house, old-time photo parlor, and a home base for a new zip-line adventure. If you're hankering for some big-time shopping, though, head out to the Osage Beach Premium Outlets, where 61 acres of retail paradise await.
And finally, if you just can't get enough golf, even after dark, there are plenty of lighted mini-golf courses around the lake, including my personal favorite, Sugar Creek, with its two 18-hole courses winding down into and back out of a lush, wooded glen.
Cuisine on the lake ranges from fast food to fine dining. But perhaps the area's "signature" eateries are casual establishments situated right on the water. Some of the most well-known are The "Original" Gators Bar and Grill, Franky and Louie's, Dog Days Bar and Grill, Bulldog's Beach House, Pickled Pete's Sports Bar and Grill, and Shorty Pants Marina and Lounge.
Many of these places have a Cajun flair and feature seafood fare. And somehow, as you're sitting on a deck overlooking the lake, tossing bread crumbs to schooling sunfish and carp, eating seafood gumbo, and sipping a cold beer, you sort of forget that you're nowhere near the oceans from which the ingredients have been flown in.
You're just happy to be relaxing at the Midwest's own inland sea.
For more information, visit www.funlake.com.
The Golf Channel Am Tour makes a spring stop to the Lake of the Ozarks for a 36-hole major event. For dates and registration information to this two-day event or to find a local tour near you, visit GCAmTour.com.
March 1, 2011