8 things I learned watching Tiger Woods play his new Payne’s Valley course (then playing it myself)

payne's valley 4th green

HOLLISTER, Mo. — Payne’s Valley, the fifth course at Big Cedar Lodge, opened with great fanfare on Tuesday when Tiger Woods teamed up with Justin Thomas to play against Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose. (Decent four-ball, eh?) You can read all about the match here, but now it’s time to take a closer look at the course: Tiger Woods’ first public-access design, a wide-open layout with 85 acres of fairways that spill across the Ozark Mountains.

Here are eight observations from watching Tiger & Friends play Payne’s Valley, then playing it for myself on Wednesday morning.

1. The walk to the first tee is thrilling

Carved through walls of 300-million-year-old limestone rock formations, the walk from the practice green to the 1st tee, which felt like a quarter of a mile, is a dramatic start to the round. The daunting tone set by this this stroll (or cart ride) is at odds with the overall friendliness of the course itself, but it does add a thrill to an experience full of many memorable moments.

Your round opens with a dramatic walk. Ashley Mayo

2. The landscape is stunning

The course unspools across a sprawling piece of land, winding up and down and out — but mostly out. The routing never returns back to the clubhouse until the 18th (and 19th) holes. There are stunning vistas throughout, some created by manmade waterfalls but most created by the clean lines of the course itself.

Among the eye-candy at Payne’s Valley: manmade waterfalls. Ashley Mayo

3. The Tiger-Payne bond is real

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On Tuesday, minutes before Tiger hit the 1st tee shot to officially begin the Payne’s Valley Cup, he shared some heartfelt stories about Payne Stewart, an Ozarks native. Tiger talked about how much it meant to him that he got to spend so much time with Payne in the late 90s, and how Payne would “haze” him and make him laugh from one Tour stop to the next. It’s clear there was, and continues to be, a special bond between Tiger and Payne — so much so that Tiger named the course after the three-time major champion. Several members of Payne’s family heard those touching words at Payne’s Valley on Tuesday, including Payne’s son, Aaron, who hit ceremonial shots on both the first and 19th tees.

4. The design has strong Payne vibes

When I asked Tiger if Stewart inspired any of the course’s design, Tiger’s eyes lit up. He leaned in and said, “Payne had the most rhythmic golf swing, the flow and the way his hips moved and the way he putted. So this golf course has flow to it and it has movement. I played a lot of rounds with Payne and he always curved the ball. He loved moving the golf ball and this course definitely reflects that.”

Tiger Woods at his Payne’s Valley design on Tuesday. getty images

5. The course is surprisingly playable…

Even though the walk to the 1st tee winds through intimidatingly large rocks and sharp edges, the course itself is wholly welcoming. There are many of bail-out areas, mostly on the right side of the holes to accommodate the slicers among us. Generous fairways make you want to unleash off the tee, and large aprons around the greens and forgiving green complexes make approach shots pleasantly inviting.

6. …but also challenging

You can stretch this course out for a challenge (even though we wouldn’t recommend that), but even if you play from an appropriate set of tee boxes, and there are four to choose from that range from 4,957 yards to 7,370 yards, the movement in the greens are so subtle they can be tough to read. The subtleness is enough to keep golfers on their toes without punishing them unnecessarily.

Payne’s Valley is playable for all abilities but a stiff test from the back tees. Ashley Mayo

7. The 19th hole is wild

Set behind the 18th green and at the base of towering rock walls, the unforgettable 136-yard bonus hole presents not only a challenge for golfers but also a beautiful way to showcase the beauty of the Ozarks. It’s also the one hole for which Tiger can’t take credit: The design was conjured by Johnny Morris, founder of both Bass Pro Shops and Big Cedar Lodge, who has worked with slew of brand-name architects while developing the courses on his property: Jack Nicklaus (who designed the par-3 Top of the Rock); Tom Fazio (Buffalo Ridge); Gary Player (par-3 Mountain Top); Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (Ozarks National); and now Tiger. This time, it was Morris’ turn — you won’t find a more dramatic location at which to settle a bet.

Behold, Payne’s Valley’s dramatic 19th hole. getty images

8. Move over, Magnolia Lane

The vertiginous ride from the 19th green up to the clubhouse is like something out of an amusement park. Called the “Cliffhanger Trail,” it’s a one-mile nature trail that winds up the rock face. To some, it’ll feel too manufactured and over the top; to others, it’ll feel like the perfect exclamation point to an already-eye-popping experience. Either way, stay alert at the wheel! The passage winds around some unprotected cliffs and through streams and over rock surfaces, requiring slow, precise driving.

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