I’m going to tell you a story. But I’m going to warn you right up front: It’s a whopper. The first time you hear it, you’re probably not going to believe it. Not a word of it.
You’re going to shake your head and laugh and wave your hand and think, Doggone it, that boy’s just pulling my leg. But is sure was a good story.
But here’s the thing: It’s a true story. Every last word of it.
It’s a story about a man named Johnny Morris who grew up in the Ozarks fishing and hunting with his folks. He loved the outdoors so much that he set up a little stand, no bigger than a kitchen table, in the back of his daddy’s liquor store and started selling fishing tackle.
Now I know what you’re thinking: That boy ain’t going to amount to much. But you’d be mistaken.
Johnny would grow up to build some of the biggest stores you’ve ever seen – big enough to house par-3 courses.
Next thing you knew, Johnny was buying Big Cedar Lodge and nearly 5,000 acres and turning it into one of the country’s finest destinations for people who love the outdoors. But even that wasn’t enough for Johnny. Not hardly.
You see, a few years ago Johnny got this idea to turn southern Missouri into America’s next great golf destination. And you know what: He’s doing it.
In a year’s time, golfers, like a bunch of hungry trout at feeding time, will be fighting for the best tee times on courses designed by Gary Player, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, even Tiger Wood
But hold on, hold on. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning.
One thing you need to know right up front about Johnny is that he doesn’t much like to talk about himself. This can be a bit frustrating to some of his younger employees, who sometimes wish he weren’t so modest. But that’s just how Johnny is.
“He doesn’t have a need to be noticed,” says his old friend, Dr. Jerry C. Davis, president of College of the Ozarks. “Some people who are that successful, you’d see them in front of a camera every time there’s one around. He doesn’t seek the limelight. He hasn’t lost the common touch.”
You might know College of the Ozarks better by its nickname: Hard Work U. That’s because the students pay for their educations with their labor. Not surprisingly, it’s one of Johnny’s favorite institutions. Just a few weeks ago, during the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf, Johnny took a few friends – Player, Nicklaus, Watson and Andy North – over to the campus for dinner at the Keeter Center. They were at Big Cedar for the PGA Tour Champions tournament Johnny created five years ago. And you know who was in the kitchen cooking up some mushrooms for the group? Yep, that was Johnny.
Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. Back to the beginning.
You know that little stand in his daddy’s liquor store? Turns out, people liked Johnny so much, they’d take along his little catalog – nothing more than a few sheets of paper – and send him orders for more merchandise when they got back home.
Forty years ago, Johnny had what you might call your good old-fashioned big idea. He developed a “fish ready” boat called the Bass Tracker, with motor and trailer package already assembled, all sold at factory-direct pricing. Suddenly it became as easy as casting a reel for folks to buy a boat and go fishing. And that’s all Johnny really wanted – to get folks out on the water, having a good time with their friends and families, just like he used to do with his mom and dad.
As Johnny tells visitors to his newest attraction, Wonders of Wildlife in Springfield, Mo., “You gotta make time to do fun things in your life.”
Johnny spent 13 years in his dad’s store, but eventually he struck out on his own, reshaping the retail landscape with his Bass Pro Shops. Destination retail locations, that’s what people called them. His store in Springfield, an hour’s drive north of Big Cedar, has been the state’s biggest tourist attraction for years.
But that wasn’t enough for Johnny. As Greg McLaughlin, president of PGA Tour Champions, says, “He’s someone who does not settle for status quo and is always trying to improve every experience.”
A perfect example is Wonders of Wildlife, which is attached to the Springfield store. Like everything Johnny does, it’s a reflection of his conservation efforts and his love of the outdoors. But it’s also just plain great fun. WOW was a decade in development and has 350,000 square feet of exhibit space, more than the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. You’ll pass more than 800 species in the aquarium and wildlife galleries on a 1.5-mile walk that till leave you slack-jawed every step of the way.
WOW has been billed as America’s best new attraction, and I’m certainly not going to argue the point. It’s hard to imagine anyone passing through Springfield on their way to Big Cedar and skipping WOW.
Now we’re getting to the best part of the story. It was only within the past decade that Johnny decided to bring golf to Big Cedar Lodge. And by now, you probably know Johnny wasn’t going to settle for something ordinary.
“He was looking for something spectacular,” says Player, who designed Mountain Top, the 13- hole short course defined by striking limestone formations.
You have to understand something: Big Cedar Lodge would be one of America’s finest resorts even if it didn’t have any golf courses. I’m not sure there’s enough space on the internet to list all the fun stuff you can do at Big Cedar. How many places can you go shooting and fishing by day, and race go-karts at night? But Johnny saw golf as just another opportunity for folks to get outdoors and enjoy nature together.
“I think he’s using golf as a platform to create awareness of the beauty of southern Missouri and the Ozarks,” McLaughlin says.
A year ago, Johnny brought in Steve Friedlander, who had run golf operations for Herb Kohler at Whistling Straits and Donald Bren at Pelican Hill, to manage Big Cedar’s fast-growing golf business. Friedlander says he sees similarities between all of these entrepreneurs.
“They know what they want and they want you to do it,” Friedlander says. “Rarely does money enter into the equation…. And if they don’t like what they see after they tell you how to do it, they’ll change it.”
When Johnny brought the PGA Tour Champions to Top of the Rock in 2014, it seemed less a tournament than a curiosity to see the top seniors playing a par-3 course. But Johnny obviously had a plan. By that time, he had brought Branson Ridge, already one of the top courses in the state, summoned Fazio to redesign it and renamed it Buffalo Ridge Springs.
Next came Ozarks National, the latest Coore-Crenshaw collaboration, set to open Sept. 1. Meanwhile, Woods’ team is busy on Payne’s Valley, a tribute to native son Payne Stewart.
Over the next few months, some budget carriers will start service to Branson Airport, just two miles from four of Johnny’s courses. By fall, golfers will be on the first tee at Buffalo Ridge, Ozarks National or Mountain Top within 20 minutes of landing at the airport. (Payne’s Valley is expected to be open in 2019.) And Top of the Rock is just a few miles farther down the road.
“He is an incredible visionary, and that began when he was selling night crawlers out of his dad’s liquor store,” McLaughlin says. “You can’t just have a good idea, you have to be a great leader.”
Visionaries are famous for zigging when everyone is zagging. And that’s just what Johnny does. You’ll find no better example of that than an event that happened three years ago.
After heavy rains, a 70-foot sinkhole opened up next to the Top of the Rock clubhouse. Most people thought this was an unmitigated disaster. They told Johnny he should fill up that giant hole and try to salvage the portion of the golf course that was lost.
“John’s one-of-a-kind character,” says Jimmy Wolfinbarger, one his employees. “Most people, this would have been devastating to have this happen.”
Where others saw a problem, Johnny saw an opportunity. You know what Johnny did? He started digging out that big hole, removing tens of thousands of truckloads of dirt and rocks, hoping to find a connection to neighboring caverns he discovered two decades earlier. He called “Cathedral of Nature” and even trademarked the name. These days, playing Top of the Rock and not touring the Cathedral and the caverns would be like playing the Old Course and skipping the Road Hole.
In the next year or two, Johnny, now 70 years old, will welcome his golf guests to the new Top of the Rock Lodge, which will teeter spectacularly on the edge of the Cathedral. For Johnny, it’s just another great experience to give his guests.
Player, for one, has suggested that a U.S. president might one day hang a medal around Johnny’s neck in recognition of his conservation efforts. Wouldn’t that be the wildest story of all for a guy who got his start working out of the back of his dad’s store?
“This state is lucky to have a man like that,” Player says. “Where in the world do you have a golfing mecca like this by next year? Where do you have fishing? Where do you have hunting? Where do you have museums? You don’t have a place in the world with all of these amenities”
Article courtesy of Golfweek