My favorite round of 2023? This par-3 course tucked in the Ozark Mountains

The Top of the Rock par-3 course at Big Cedar Lodge.

The finishing hole at the Top of the Rock Golf Course at Big Cedar Lodge.

Courtesy Photo

I’ve recently been consumed by an unhealthy obsession. No, not golf itself — that became unhealthy years ago — but improvement. Golf offers that opportunity every time you tee it up, and it’s addicting.

A part of that addiction has been my handicap. I’m your typical 14-point-something who thinks there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be a 12-point-something. I’ve become consumed by trying to get that little Handicap Index number to tick lower. Every time I tee it up is a chance to see what that handicap differential calculates to. Only problem is my golf hasn’t been great this summer. But the bigger issue is this mindset can zap the fun out of a round, and that has happened way too often.

So here’s where this story takes a turn, and to do so let’s rewind to August and a drive south to Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Mo. This was a family vacation so my rounds were limited, but I still got to check out Tiger Woods’ Payne Valley, which was terrific even though the weather wasn’t. We got rained out after about 10 holes, which was a bummer, but I still had one tee time remaining for later in the day when the rain cleared.

The 3rd hole at the Top of the Rock.
The 3rd hole at Top of the Rock at Big Cedar Lodge. Courtesy Photo

The spot? The Top of the Rock Golf Course, a gorgeous 9-hole par-3 designed by Jack Nicklaus that’s splashed with water and loaded with elevation changes. My playing partner? My 5-year-old daughter, who scoffed at traditional golf etiquette and wore gel sandals and a denim skirt, but countered it with a nifty Masters visor I bought at Augusta National a couple of years ago.

There are two reasons why this round was special: It was the first time, not counting a driving range or putting green, that I played golf with my daughter. And two, there was no score to enter for a handicap after. Or really no score to keep at all.

We had the tee to ourselves at 2:30 p.m. On that 1st tee box, under the shadow of the Chapel of the Ozarks, I went over the details. With it being her first time on a course, I explained she wasn’t hitting all the tee shots I would. Our game was simple: grab your favorite pink ball and your putter, put your ball wherever you want on the green and putt it until it’s in.

She. Was. Pumped.

She loved our putting game, although it took a few holes to get the speed right. She couldn’t remember the name “bunkers,” so she kept telling me “don’t hit it in the white.” She was devastated when I tugged one tee shot into the water and then wondered why golf balls don’t float (good question). On the next hole she told me if I hit it into the water again it would be OK, because she would just tell Mom it was an accident.

The Top of the Rock par-3 course at Big Cedar Lodge.
The 4th hole at the Top of the Rock. Courtesy Photo

What I loved about Top of the Rock — and essentially the golf offerings at Big Cedar Lodge — was that my daughter would never have been able to accompany me at Payne’s Valley or one of the other two championship courses. That’s tough for a kid of this age. (The 13-hole Mountain Top short course could be an option for an older kid, but it’s walking only.)

But Top of the Rock, with its spaced-out tee times (for a better visitor experience), worked out perfectly (plus, my daughter got to help drive the cart). It’s a par-3 but not all wedges — the back tees have shots from about 120-200 yards — and there’s a good variety of holes to make it fun for families or buddies. Or, in my case, for first-timers.

On the 4th hole I scooped up a 2-footer and had to go into great length to explain “a gimme,” and on the 6th hole we looked for trolls under the bridge to the green. After the 7th hole she finally admitted she was tired — I couldn’t believe we lasted that long — and asked, as only a 5-year-old could, “How many stations do we have left?” Walking off the 8th green she announced, “This was a great day because I’m golfing with you, Dad.” (She’s not always that sweet.)

The Top of the Rock par-3 course at Big Cedar Lodge.
The island green 6th hole at Top of the Rock. Courtesy Photo

When we finished, she requested a photo on the 9th green of her holding the flag, a picture that now sits in my office.

For the record, I didn’t write this to be all sappy, although I hope, like many dads do, that it’s the first of many rounds we can play together. I did, however, write this as a reminder, to others but also myself, that the 3s, 4s, 5s and, gulp, 6s, we put on our scorecards shouldn’t matter as much as the experience.

Thing is, when I actually stopped caring about what I shot, I played pretty well. Funny how that works, right?

Josh Berhow Editor

As’s managing editor, Berhow handles the day-to-day and long-term planning of one of the sport’s most-read news and service websites. He spends most of his days writing, editing, planning and wondering if he’ll ever break 80. Before joining in 2015, he worked at newspapers in Minnesota and Iowa. A graduate of Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn., he resides in the Twin Cities with his wife and two kids. You can reach him at