In the dire days of the Great Depression, a utility company dammed the Osage River in central Missouri and filled more than ninety-three square miles of hills and hollows with water. The water attracted campers and fishermen, who later built cabins on its 1,150 miles of shoreline. The cabins multiplied. So did the number of visitors eager for a quiet, hickory-scented getaway. When the bass and catfish sank to the depths for their long summer nap, the tourists required another pastime, and Robert Trent Jones Sr. was commissioned to bring golf to the area.
The Lake of the Ozarks now beckons as many golfers as anglers to the three counties that border its graveled banks. The quaint cabins of yesteryear have been rebuilt as million-dollar mansions with picture windows facing wake-controlled coves and docks with sedan-bridge yachts in the slips. Far enough from both Kansas City and St. Louis to seem like the wilderness, the region heaves through the middle of the state like folded cake batter. The landscape is abrupt and rugged, creating dramatic landforms that are perfect for tournament-tested golf. Zoysia fairways bend through patches of brilliant-red royal catchfly and thick forests of high-canopy hardwoods and shortleaf pines. Bent-grass greens thrive in Missouri’s balanced climate, which stretches the golf calendar to nine months or longer. Now that modern course designers like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Arnold Palmer have planted flagsticks in the path of the pioneering Jones, the once-sleepy center of the Show Me State rivals anything in the lower Midwest for a golf experience worth sampling at least once.
Or more. Missouri just might show you enough that you’ll find yourself going back time and again.
The Lake of the Ozarks bustles during the summer, especially around Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. Even then, there’s enough room around the enormous lake to accommodate weekenders and zealous golf trippers alike. The airports in Kansas City and St. Louis are about three hours away, but by flying into the regional airport in Springfield you can shave ninety minutes off your travel time.
Settle in your room, one of over three hundred at the Lodge of Four Seasons. Pause on your balcony at the forty-four-year-old, family-owned resort, a Shawnee Bend hallmark that maintains splendid Japanese gardens and the fifteen-thousand-square-foot, world-class Spa Shiki. After savoring the view, it’s just a five-minute shuttle to The Cove, the first of the resort’s two eighteens.
The Cove, designed by Robert Trent Jones, will reopen in May after being outfitted with redone greens and greenside bunkers and a new clubhouse. The course’s short but arresting doglegs once beguiled contestants in the national club-pro championship. Glimpses of the lake arrive early in the round, but you really know where you are at number thirteen, a 227-yard par three that plays over an inlet on the wide main channel. Stop and stare for a while—especially if a forty-foot Sea Ray is churning through the chop.
Finish your day with some batter-fried lobster tail at the historic Blue Heron, which has the lake’s most refined wine cellar and a sweeping view of the water. The Heron has a rustic air, but the restaurant has been serving the area’s most interesting dishes for decades, and there’s good reason it attracts a loyal band of foodies.
Start your morning with breakfast in the lodge’s atrium at Breezes or Soleil, two of the resort’s three restaurants. Depart at dawn on a guided fishing trip, booked through the Lodge, or sleep an extra few hours and visit Bridal Cave, an onyx-laden cavern where escorted tours last an easy hour and the temperature hovers at about sixty degrees.
If you’d prefer to spend the entire day with a club in your hands, arrange an early-morning tee time at The Ridge, the second course built at the Four Seasons. Ken Kavanaugh carved a generous, sporting layout of 6,447 yards with tree lines so close that drives echo like jackhammers. With 180 feet of elevation change, shots seem to ride the jet stream.
Stop for lunch at JB Hook’s, order the grouper sandwich and take in a panoramic view of the water. Then head to the Club at Old Kinderhook in Camdenton, the largest town on the west side of the lake and a thirty-minute drive over the Community Bridge from the resort. Inviting fairways lead to some of the smoothest putting surfaces in the state. A striped tee shot on the 516-yard par-five final hole gives you a chance to punctuate—or redeem—your round, provided you can summon the mettle to carry the water in front of the green.
For dinner, don’t even start your car. Just order some whiskey steak bites with wild mushrooms at the Trophy Room, which sits next to the golf shop. Anything from a golf shirt to a coat and tie is appropriate attire.
With advance booking through the Lodge, you can play the Club at Porto Cima, perhaps the finest private golf course built in Missouri since Robert Trent Jones completed his work at Bellerive and Old Warson in St. Louis.
Jack Nicklaus applied a magnificent string of heart-fluttering holes to previously undisturbed shoreline. Fifteen through eighteen hug the water, with the 393-yard par-four seventeenth taking you over the lake twice. The bedeviling length of the par-four closer (461 up-the-slope yards) is almost a relief after so much hydro-drama.
Play early so you have time for lunch in the grand clubhouse, which overlooks the marina. Then cross the Community Bridge for a peaceful, rejuvenating stroll along trails through ancient oaks and hickories at Lake of the Ozarks State Park, a sanctuary of nature that harks back to the undeveloped decades before cigarette boats, parasailing and beachfront condominiums came to the middle of Missouri. If you want to sample the state’s burgeoning wine output instead, drive forty-five minutes to the capital, Jefferson City. Sip the chambourcin at Native Stone Winery, a stop on the Missouri River Wine Trail. That night, dine a short walk from your room on seafood flown in daily at HK’s, named after the Lodge of Four Season’s founder, Harold Koplar.
With no more than three hours to the airport, you have time for one more round. A short drive from the Lodge is the twenty-seven-hole Osage National Golf Resort, which opened in 1992 in the low country under Bagnell Dam. By all means play the original sides: River and Mountain, in that order. Arnold Palmer laid out the meandering River Course along the Osage River and the exhilarating Mountain Course on, over and through the Ozark hills. The latter’s par-five fifth tumbles sharply from a plateau to a remote green you can’t see until you’re safely on a level lie in two. Then, just for fun, see if you can hit the green in regulation on the par-four eighth hole—all 484 yards of it.
None of these courses is so busy that it takes more than four hours to play, so you can budget time to stop at Bagnell Dam for a moment of introspection high above the Osage River. Just think: The half-mile-long relic of Depression-era imagination, engineering and resolve restrains more than six hundred billion gallons of water and electrifies forty-two thousand households.
Who knew, all those years ago, that it would also give rise to golf that’s just as remarkable?
The Club at Porto Cima Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 2000. Yardage: 7,036. Par: 72. Slope: 141. Green Fees: $100–$230. Contact: 573-964-3100, portocima.com.
The Club at Old Kinderhook Architect: Tom Weiskopf, 1999. Yardage: 6,855. Par: 71. Slope: 137. Green Fees: $45–$95. Contact: 573-346-4444, oldkinderhook.com.
Osage National Golf Resort Architect: Arnold Palmer, 1992. Yardage: 7,150. Par: 72. Slope: 145. Green Fees: $50–$89. Contact: 866-365-1950, osagenational.com.
The Cove Golf Course Architect: Robert Trent Jones Sr., 1971. Yardage: 6,557. Par: 71. Slope: 133. Green Fees: $55–$90. Contact: 800-843-5253, 4seasonsresort.com.
The Ridge Golf Course Architect: Ken Kavanaugh, 1991. Yardage: 6,447. Par: 72. Slope: 130. Green Fees: $50–$80. Contact: 573-365- 8544, 4seasonsresort.com.
The Lodge of Four Seasons Rooms: from $125. Suites: from $375. Contact: 888-265-5500, 4seasonsresort.com.
Blue Heron, 573-365-4646. $$$$
HK’s, 573-365-8509. $$$
The Trophy Room, 573-317-3560. $$
Also of Interest
Lake of the Ozarks State Park 573-348-2694, mostateparks.com/lakeozark.htm