BRANSON, Mo. -- Missouri has been keeping a little secret. There are a half dozen top-tier golf courses in Branson alone that are worth a trip to the Ozarks.
Of course, while you're there, you can check out one of the 40-plus shows on stage any given day. You can't golf after dark, anyway.
A course well worth a round is Thousand Hills Golf Resort. It was designed in 1995 by Robert Cupp, who created a quirky tract of 18 holes with a par of only 64, thanks to a single par 5 and nine par 3s. Land limitations and lots of rock made it tough to carve out a championship course.
But dispel from your mind the notion that this golf course is a cake walk. If you think you'll get off easy because it's only a par 64, you'll be surprised and probably frustrated.
All the holes are dramatic and involve either startling elevation changes or offset greens bordered by rock walls, drop-offs, mounds or a mountain stream.
"It's such a fun design and layout," said Matt Dillman, head golf professional. "Every level of player can enjoy it."
It has only three tees, which has some appeal in its simplicity. Also, "it's not often you get two par 3s back to back," Dillman said. "You can try a few different things.
Thousand Hills "favors a nice, high, controlled fade off the tee because most of the trouble is on the left. The elevation changes are a challenge, but the biggest challenge is the amount of trouble on both sides" near the greens.
And the trouble isn't subtle. This course doesn't have drop-offs. It has abysses in abundance. A creek wanders through the course, creating a variety of carries -- some off the tee, some midway to the green and some at the end. A few holes have more than one.
Thousand Hills Golf Resort is in the middle of Branson and provides entertainment for the entertainers. Fixtures at the course include Marty Haggard, son of Merle, and showman and violinist Shoji Tabuchi, a Branson institution for more than two decades. This is the spot for star gazing.
The first hole starts with an elevated tee, then a creek and finally bunkers in your face. That's all before you reach the fairway. The fairway then swoops down to the green with only air on the left and mounds on the right.
The second hole is a par 3 guarded by a recessed bunker left, mounds right and another bunker back. If you're really far left, you're not going to see that ball again, thanks to a another drop-off. Get used to paying frequent ball taxes. (Taxes in the form of lost balls.)
John Redford, one of the course developers, played with us and demonstrated his mountain-goat skills that include standing at odd angles in order to bump shots off the sides of steep hills covered in thick rough onto the green. It's a skill you'll practice, too.
The third is one of the toughest holes at Thousand Hills Golf Resort, a par 4 that falls onto the fairway and then stops at the creek. From there, you have to launch a shot up about 20 feet to the green that is perched on a shelf between two rock walls. If that's not enough, there is a bunker cluster to the right. A stunning, beautiful hole.
Next are two par 3s, one uphill to a large, undulating green, the other downhill to an undulating green beset by bunkers. On most holes, getting on the green is just a minor piece of the puzzle. Getting the ball in the hole is the real trick.
Then it's onto No. 6, a par 4 that launches nearly straight up to a fairway with a couple of bunkers right in the middle of it. Gauging distance and roll makes this hole a calculation nightmare.
No. 7 is a benign looking par 3 till you get on the green with a wicked slope. It's the same for No. 8 but more on that.
The eighth tee gives you a view of the College of the Ozarks and its prized cattle behind the green, but it does not give you a view of the fairway. It's somewhere beyond that persimmons tree you must clear to set up a shot at the green. But lots of bunkers and mounds await around the corner for your tee shot. The green itself is sharply sloped, so a two-putt is cause for celebration.
The front nine ends with a mountain-top tee to a dogleg left that disappears around trees. Unless you're way right or you cleared the trees at the corner, you'll have a blind shot to the green.
The back is more of the same, including No. 10 with a pot bunker right in front of the par 3 green and No. 16, a par 4 that requires a lengthy drive and second shot to go to the green fronted by that creek again.
The course winds up with the only par 5 on the course, which descends to another cross over the creek to an elevated green with a bunker cluster to the right.
Thousand Hills Golf Resort can't just be plopped somewhere else. It's unique, beautifully maintained and dramatic.
It's also interesting to play a par-64 course, giving you opportunities to nail par 3s and boost your confidence. You'll need that confidence with the long holes.
Don't let the scorecard fool you -- Thousand Hills has it all.
Lodging possibilities at Thousand Hills Golf Resort are vast and roomy. They range from log cabins up to five bedrooms that are anything but rustic, condos and patio homes at the golf course, or lakeside condos at Table Rock Lake. All options are equipped with everything you need, such as fully equipped kitchens, a bath for each bedroom and wireless Internet access. Package deals kick in after just two nights. As a guest you'll also have access to a nearby pool, hot tubs, golf (of course), tennis, basketball, children's play areas and exercise facilities.
May 18, 2011