The primary distinction of Johnny Morris is that he founded Bass Pro Shops. That could change with his golf enterprise in the Ozarks.
First, Johnny Morris established the multibillion-dollar Bass Pro Shops empire out of his passion for the great outdoors. The sport-fishing expert afterwards developed an interest in golf.
At a golf resort in the Missouri Ozarks, the ground beneath a putting green started to shake on a mid-May morning in 2015. A sinkhole quickly emerged once the ground gave way, engulfing the nearby grass and turf. A catastrophe would arise at the majority of golf facilities if a section of playable land collapsed. However, this occurred at Big Cedar Lodge, which is owned by sports fishing tycoon Johnny Morris. Morris felt happy.
He sent out work workers to excavate the sinkhole rather than immediately fill it, looking for a network of tunnels and waterways that he had a good suspicion would be underneath. The location, which Morris dubbed the “Cathedral of Nature,” gained notoriety overnight. It offers a glimpse into the past of the Earth’s geology at about 70 feet broad and 200 feet deep, with a belly bursting with limestone spires. It also provides an insight of Morris’ personality, his imaginative thinking, and his idea for Big Cedar to serve as a showcase for the Ozarks, where he was born.
Morris claims that this region of the earth is still mostly unexplored. “And getting people outside to appreciate the beauty of our rivers, lakes, and hills is truly what this is about,” the speaker continued.
Morris is admiring the expansive vistas of a rolling countryside from a pine-covered ridge in Big Cedar on a sunny afternoon. He still exudes a youthful vitality at the age of 74, and he has plenty of ways to channel it. Morris, who is not an avid golfer, has turned Big Cedar from a remote retreat into one of the sport’s most popular and rapidly expanding venues. The resort now boasts five renowned courses, including designs by Gary Player, Tom Fazio, Bill Coore, and Ben Crenshaw. The property’s golf portfolio began to take shape in 1995 with the inauguration of Top of the Rock, a par-3 Jack Nicklaus creation. The most recent being Payne’s Valley, Tiger Woods’ first public-access project in the United States, which debuted in late 2020.
Johnny Morris, the chief visionary of Big Cedar’s sprawling wonderland.
The additional 19th hole, a par-3 with a waterfall behind it that Morris imagined to heighten the splendour of the surroundings, is one of the course’s highlights. Golfers finish their rounds with a ride through the forest thanks to the course’s panoramic tee box and the trail that circles behind the falls on the way back to the clubhouse.
Morris, whose Mountain Top par-3 course at Big Cedar curves through layer-cake rock formations, has been dubbed “the Walt Disney of the Ozarks” for his earthy imaginative work. Player calls him a “creative visionary” with a talent for “inspiring a sense of wonder.” Because he is aware that he is not an expert in course design, Morris never tries to pressure the architects he hires. But he enjoys throwing forth concepts and making little adjustments.
Consider Ozarks National, the exhilarating Coore-Crenshaw layout from Big Cedar. The designers intended to construct a low-lying bridge over the currents on the 13th hole, a par-5 split by a creek-forged ravine. Morris insisted on a higher span in order to heighten the drama. The result is a dramatic, 75-foot-high, all-wood structure that pours through treetops and serves as both a crossing and a commanding viewpoint.
Coore explains, “Johnny would get so enthusiastic; he was like a kid out there. You could sense how much he enjoyed the concept of using golf to get people outside in an area that was so dear to him.
Morris quickly developed a love for nature. He had a free-range childhood as the second of four children in a family with deep ties to the Ozarks, pitching tents on gravel riverbeds and catching crawdads in the shallows. His upbringing was a mix of Horatio Alger and Huck Finn. When Morris was ten years old, a hydroelectric dam on the White River was built, resulting in Table Rock Lake, the brand-new hub of a massive nationwide bass-fishing boom. Morris began selling equipment out of the back of his father’s liquor store by the time he graduated from Drury University, where he reportedly “majored in fishing.” Demand was intense. By developing a mail-order catalogue, Morris fueled it. It was the beginning of the retail behemoth Bass Pro Shops, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.
On the ruins of a wilderness lodge that Morris bought in 1987, he erected Big Cedar. His initial target audience was anglers. Morris, though, purchased adjacent land when it was put up for sale because he wanted to keep it open space. Top of the Rock, the earliest steps in Big Cedar’s evolution, were created on the land.
Sam Snead once remarked that he only played golf enough to fund his fishing addiction. He wasn’t the only Tour professional who had that feeling. The Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf, a Champions Tour event that Big Cedar held from 2014 to 2019, was a perfect fit for the venue because of how easily the two disciplines could switch off. Morris has developed enduring relationships with several of golf’s biggest stars as a result of it.
“Johnny is the most charming, quiet man, but his accomplishments are over the top,” says two-time major champion Mark O’Meara, who names a fly-fishing trip to Canada they made to honour Morris’ 60th birthday as one of his greatest memories. “It’s simple to forget that you’re essentially playing with the Tiger Woods of his sport when you’re out on the lake with him. He now also has a significant influence on golf.
When the two were neighbours in Florida, O’Meara was the one who first introduced the genuine Tiger Woods to fishing. Woods became smitten. A short time after his epic Masters victory in 1997, Woods called Morris. He questioned whether Morris would help him out with a boat transaction.
“Well, that’s cool, I thought. Morris asserts, “This kid isn’t just throwing his money away. “He sought a fair price.”
Morris accepted but requested a favour in return: he and his son John Paul, who loved golf at the time and was 10 years old, would get to personally deliver the boat. A few weeks later, when the Morris family and a young John Paul friend arrived at a boat launch close to Tiger’s house in Windermere, a beaming Woods came out and recommended they try out his new toy. The remainder of the day was spent boating.
Morris claims that the man was “asking all kinds of questions” and “trying to absorb all the knowledge he could.”
Woods informed his guests he had something spectacular to show them when they returned to land.
He asks us to get into his car, a purple Ford Bronco that has been modified, according to Morris. The only items he has space for in the back, besides a sound system, are his clubs and his fishing poles. The children are enthralled by Tiger’s grin. I was impressed by how interesting he was to them.
Twenty years later, Woods took Charlie to Big Cedar on his own father-and-son excursion to the Ozarks. They went on a trip with Morris to one of his favourite places.
Tiger enjoys fishing, but Charlie loves it more than anyone, according to Morris. “I don’t believe he took a break all day,”
Contrary to Woods’ visit to Big Cedar in late 2020 to introduce Payne’s Valley in a televised exhibition match with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, and Justin Rose, those outings were low-key. The resort’s fishing and golf cultures have long coexisted, but now golf has the upper hand. You can see it in the logos displayed throughout the property and hear it in the anecdotes shared at the bar, which increasingly centre on large putts that were missed rather than the big one that escaped.
The game’s expanding influence continues to develop. Morris could always construct a another route. He owns the property. He even has a roughed-out routing that his deceased friend Payne Stewart prepared years ago. Even if he never adds another hole, he will have plenty to keep him busy on the golf front: upcoming plans and ongoing tasks.
Bass Pro Shops’ chief customer officer, John Paul, 33, compares the resort to my father’s sandbox. Every morning, he considers something else he wants to do.
The sunlight is fading as the day goes on. From his ridgetop observation, Morris has made his way to a recently graded plateau that is close to the Top of the Rock clubhouse and the Cathedral of Nature. Digs have continued at the location over the past seven years, revealing a maze of limestone tunnels and streams. Morris is standing above one of the channels, which is underground. Underfoot, the ground is level and all dirt, but perhaps not for long. Morris is debating whether or not to plant it. He envisions a practice green that is bigger than any on the property and with views of the clubhouse and the Ozark Mountains in the opposite direction. The horizon and the blue-amoeba shape of Table Rock Lake are separated by rugged green slopes.