Nature’s Finest … golf testing ground?

More than 30 years ago, Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris set his sights on restoring a prominent piece of land in Missouri’s rustic Ozark Mountains. 

At first, the devoted conservationist focused on redeveloping a large resort where families could reconnect with nature, known today as Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Missouri. Part of that vision recalibrated to include golf. Nature’s Finest became a trademarked term to describe the five courses it offers today. They’re not just any courses, considering Morris brought in Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods to lay out the designs and accompanying practice facilities.  

As time went by, each course grew into an award-winner, with Ozarks National and Buffalo Ridge consistently named as two of Missouri’s top two courses by Golf Digest, Golf and Golfweek

Big Cedar Lodge, Payne’s Valley Golf Course, Hollister, Missouri. :: Photo: Big Cedar Lodge

Such awareness to the land — coupled with its middle-America location — helped make Big Cedar Lodge an unexpected test center for new golf technology. The year 2021 may have been that watershed moment. 

In terms of “firsts,” Big Cedar courses were the first to be tested with automated green and heat slope readings. Part of that helped generate accurate Stimpmeter speeds and for hole cutters to be more strategic with locations, among a variety of reasons. Another first, as a TruPin (Pace Technology) test site, Big Cedar rolled out touchscreen GPS in its carts in 2021 that turned into a game-changer, according to head equipment manager Clint McKee. 

From a conservation and environmental standpoint, it has helped limit unnecessary damage. 

“With the GPS screens on them, it recognizes boundaries and will shut down if you cross a boundary; you have to back out of it, which is interesting but a good thing. That’s one of the three main benefits of the GPS system,” McKee says.

The other two directly impact golf. Course maintenance workers utilize the technology to cut new holes with a device. From there, the hole location data is transported to a golf operations team to be loaded into a system. 

“So the golfers see on their screens where the pin location is for that day on each hole,” McKee says. 

As a result, the hole locations complement the yardage readings golfers can see. It helps golfers with their tactical approach. 

Finally, starters and course workers benefit from GPS technology because it provides them the ability to track the pace of play and flow. 

“The great thing is we can log in on our phone and see if there are any gaps in golf maintenance. If maintenance needs to go water a green, they can hit a gap and go water that green because they can see on their phone where that is,” McKee says.

Later in 2021, Big Cedar Resort had a prestigious certification bestowed upon it. At that time it became the only global resort to have all five of its premier layouts designated as Audubon International Signature Sanctuary locations. The independent certification from Audubon International, a global not-for-profit conservation leader, ensured that all Big Cedar courses met the highest standard of conservation-minded course design and sustainable operation.  

“We hold conservation close to our hearts and feel an obligation to protect the land and surrounding wildlife for future generations to enjoy,” said Morris at the time.

Water runoff and water retention are just two of many priorities. When TGR Design (guided by Woods) developed the public-access Payne’s Valley course, it was architected where all the runoff water flows into irrigation ponds. An extravagant system also affects all water features to get recycled back into an irrigation pond. 

McKee is known as affectionately known as the television fictional character “MacGyver” at Big Cedar Lodge due to an innate ability to curiously tinker and perfect devices, or technology, which keeps Big Cedar at the conservation forefront.

Besides being a preferred test property for John Deere products, McKee and the team are constantly eyeing ways to work smarter. Look no further than self-guided weed sprayers that not only leverage drone technology but also save on worker hours. 

Surrounding rugged and undulating terrain can make it difficult to hit all spots, or even promote over-spraying in others. The drones serve as sprayers with additional capabilities as fertilizer granular spreaders, although the resort hasn’t implemented them fully yet. 

Big Cedar Lodge, Ozarks National Golf Course, Hollister, Missouri. :: Photo: Big Cedar Lodge

The plan is to fly a drone to identify arid areas and do “irrigation mapping, hot zones and having it all mapped out on all our courses,” McKee says. “Once again, the less spray you’re putting out, the better it is for the environment. And that coincides with conservation.”

The end goal, of course, is to get the data into the hands of the superintendent, thereby creating efficiencies. 

The offshoot of being a John Deere test property comes with being at the center of the spoils. Most, says McKee, are tailored toward expanding technology and savings. Autonomous mowers could be at the cusp of implementation. Dealers visited recently to showcase some of these mowers specifically for fescue, which populates the Big Cedar Lodge courses. Autonomous mowers could be an appreciable labor savings down the road. 

“And they’re very maintenance-free,” McKee says. “That would be incredible.” 

If Big Cedar Resort has its way, it will continue to move the needle in conservation endeavors while providing first-rate entertainment. Some of it, intended to remain in the background, contributes to the sum of its parts. It’s like looking at a sparkling car just freshly polished. Not much thought goes into how it became shiny; it’s instead accepted as aesthetically pleasing — much like the Big Cedar Lodge grounds, courses included. 

“Our main focus is conservation,” McKee says. “And that leads into a few different areas here with golf and the equipment I’m using to minimize the effect on the environment. It can get pretty extensive and it is constant. But in the end, it’s all worth it.”