Five hundred forty-six million years ago, before there were Pro V1s or pitching wedges or Homo sapiens to hit them waywardly, all of this was a shallow seabed. More specifically, it was a mass of sand and silt with all manner of dead trilobites and marine carcasses scattered about. Over the years, those sediment deposits formed craggy layers like an inedible cake that slowly hardened into sandstone, shale, siltstone and limestone. At some point the whole damn thing began to buck and sway, part of a choreographed dance of tectonic plates forcing the seabed to lift upward until it emerged as a hulking mini-mountain. The land reached toward the heavens, the water turned on and young, enterprising rivers cut through the earth, eroding the sides of the bluff and exposing the sedimentary strata. Behold: the Ozark Plateau.
Fast-forward a few epochs and here I am, an upright product of evolution, on the hottest day of the year 2023, sweating through my shirt on an immaculate patch of zoysia grass somewhere near the bottom of this ancient seabed and staring right into one of those 400-foot limestone cliff faces. All along the stone outcropping, countless little rivers are pouring down off the rocks, creating a lush symphony as they trickle into a trout-pond basin. All those years and all that violent, miraculous geology are on display in front of me, presenting a question hundreds of millions of years in the making: Can I smooth a pitching wedge 140 yards onto this internet-famous postage-stamp green before I melt to death in the 115-degree Missouri sun?
We might as well start on the 19th hole at Payne’s Valley, a Tiger Woods–designed golf course that sits just outside Branson, Missouri, among the rolling hills of the Ozark Plateau. If you like golf and have ever been near TikTok’s powerful algorithm, you’ve probably watched an influencer giddily rocket a ball into this amphitheater before taking a mile-long cart ride along the cliff. It is, at least to my knowledge, the only golf course that requires players to wind their way through man-made waterfalls and caves before returning to the clubhouse. There is a tiki bar next to the tee box and a kind man who’ll take your group’s picture and gently try to upsell you a commemorative frame. It’s all proudly showy, slickly produced and bordering on shameless—less Alister MacKenzie and more Walt Disney, which is to say that it’s not an experience I’d traditionally consider my cup of tea.
Thankfully, none of my prior tastes or aesthetic preferences hold any sway out here. In fact, after three days in southern Missouri, I am convinced that Branson might not be a rural Midwest tourist trap, but instead the nexus of the universe—a multi-dimensional gateway with mini golf, dinner theater and breakfasts of tire-sized pancakes, where unexpected things happen and all of your preconceptions of regular life will be challenged hourly. It is now my steadfast belief that if you open your heart—if you really let the kitsch and Bass Pro Shop vibes wash over you—Branson’s space-time continuum might change something fundamental inside of you, and you may never see the world the same again.
I realize all of this might sound ridiculous to you, a person who hasn’t been asked to fly to Branson in the armpit days of August to try to figure out why famous architects are building some of the loudest and most memorable new golf courses in the country on the outskirts of a town Bart Simpson once called “Vegas, if it were run by Ned Flanders.” But from the moment I said yes to the assignment, amazing, inexplicable things started happening, the first being the urge to send a direct message to a man I’d only ever spoken to on social media. For reasons I cannot explain, I opened up my phone and pecked out the following sentences: “Hey, man. I am coming to you with a bit of a lunatic idea…”
The man was Ben Rector, a singer-songwriter from Nashville who—aside from having a powerful, soulful voice, legions of adoring fans and a preternatural ability to write lyrics that will live rent-free in your head until the heat death of the universe—is also a stick. The lunatic idea was that he come with me to Ned Flanders Vegas. “Dear Charlie,” he quickly wrote back, “I don’t think this is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. It sounds really fun.”
I still have trouble explaining why I asked Ben to join me. I wish I could tell you that I’d done my research and knew that he had grown up not far away in Oklahoma and gone to camp in the Ozarks, and that the oddities of Branson—the breakfast concerts, theme parks and horse-dancing shows—still loomed large in his mind from childhood. But the truth is that Ben was a golf-adjacent human I somewhat knew who was in show business, and Branson likes to call itself the “Live Entertainment Capital of the World.” The association was lazy, bordering on ridiculous. But that’s the thing about Branson: Once you say yes to it, all kinds of wild things start happening.
Branson, with its old-timey sensibilities and earnest love of breakfast and dinner theater, was an easily acquired taste for Ben Rector (above, left).
From a distance, Branson is an easy place to judge, especially if you, like me, didn’t grow up near the Bible Belt. The town—which boasts more theater seats than Broadway in New York City—is carefully marketed as a paragon of good, clean, Christian fun. There is a retro flavor to the entire thing. You can visit the 1950s-themed Hard Luck Diner, where the malts flow like lava and the servers sing in poodle skirts. Until recently, the famous Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Attraction held on to an unfortunate Civil War theme. (Today, the North and South sides of the auditorium compete via a series of honestly stunning acrobatic horse tricks.) Branson is perhaps the last place in the United States where the quaint idea of dinner theater and “Take my wife, please!” comedy still reign supreme. The portions are massive and proudly artery-hardening. There is not a grain bowl or whole food in sight, which is just fine for the renewable resource of coach buses filled with retirees who pull into amphitheater parking lots in plenty of time to catch the 10 o’clock “breakfast shows.” If you’re from the Northeast, imagine Branson as a sterilized version of the Jersey Shore boardwalk come to life—plus horses. If you’re not posing for an old-timey photo or getting a custom-airbrushed T-shirt, you are doing it wrong.
Ben and I approached our visit the way you might prep to gawk at the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. We traded texts joking about potential trips to Jigglin’ George to see the New Life Bed Exerciser (a machine that shakes your legs while you lie horizontally and, apparently, simulates physical activity) and visiting the Titanic museum, which is inexplicably located 3,000 miles from the actual boat’s wreckage. (Why, yes, the museum is shaped like the infamous ocean liner, thanks for asking!) Like good millennials, we were planning a mostly ironic pilgrimage, which we’d intersperse with the non-ironically exciting golf at Big Cedar Lodge, the sprawling resort designed by Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. High-concept golf and low-concept kitsch.
But irony is always harder on the ground. And when I met Ben in person for the first time, standing with his clubs by the Springfield airport baggage claim, reality set in. We were, essentially, two strangers. But we were two strangers on a golf trip, and there is a special alchemy about these missions that I’ve found is always some combination of an endurance event, a bachelor party, a road trip and group therapy. It’s not easy to go on an ironic golf trip. The sport demands that you buy in and commit. It requires enthusiasm, but it also presupposes that you’ll encounter setbacks. At some point the game is going to humble you, whether in front of friends or complete strangers. And so it was with an unexpected sense of earnestness that Ben and I got in our Chevy hatchback and set off onto the plateau. Clear eyes, full hearts and one tentative reservation for the 5 p.m. Stampede show (four-course chicken dinner included).
“I think we need to see Doug, man,” Ben said to me as we neared our exit. Doug is Doug Gabriel, Branson’s “most awarded male vocalist” and the titular figure of the Doug Gabriel Ultimate Variety Show.
A few days prior, I’d noticed that Ben’s ironic obsession with Doug—a tastefully mulleted multi-instrument showman who’d been entertaining Branson tourists in search of a morning crooner for more than 30 years—seemed to be shifting. Initially, we’d gawked and laughed at the promo video, which featured Doug resplendent in various Elvis Presley– and Johnny Cash–inspired outfits. He wailed on his garish guitar—big Pete Townshend strokes—while his wife and children provided musical backing and comic relief; the whole thing looked like it was filmed in an especially well-lit Guitar Center. Doug promised “High Energy!” and “Hilarious Comedy!” and “Incredible Music!” all well before lunch. I pictured a mid-tier wedding singer playing to sparse crowds—a bad American Idol audition. But Ben was fixated.
“I am drawn to things that are maybe kind of bad, but unabashedly trying hard and actually kind of awesome in their own strange way,” Ben told me over breakfast at Billy Gail’s, a roadside diner where a “side of pancakes” means a plate containing one 14-inch behemoth slathered in an ice cream scoop of butter. We debated paying Doug a visit, but were concerned: What if the whole spectacle wasn’t just bad, but utterly depressing? Fortunately, the weather—94-degree heat and a dew point somewhere near being gagged with a wet sock—and an ill-advised 12:30 tee time left a Doug Gabriel–sized hole in our itinerary.
There are moments in your life when you realize that despite your best efforts to acquaint yourself with different cultures and orient yourself to the world, you know nothing. To our relief, the crowd wouldn’t be a problem: The parking lot at Doug’s theater was jammed with tour buses packed with eager senior citizens positively raring for a show. We took our seats and quickly realized that the audience wasn’t full of captive retirees, but verified Dougheads—fans so dedicated that as soon as Doug took the stage, he began smiling and waving to familiar faces. In short: Doug slapped. His jokes landed and his original songs were cheesy but touching. An hour passed by in a blink. The ironic posture I’d adopted at breakfast felt like the musings of a jaded asshole. All around me, septuagenarians were standing, bobbing, weaving, clapping and cheering. They’d found their people, and the room was joyous. I turned to Ben to comment, but he was transfixed, staring down at his phone. On the screen was a decibel-level app—the kind he uses to measure levels at his own arena and amphitheater shows. “This is legit,” he whispered, pointing at the screen.
On the drive to our round at Ozarks National, we giddily swapped notes on the show. During an extended Elvis song medley, Ben had noticed that Doug’s microphone was using a technique known in the industry as a “slap delay”—the same used by the King himself. “He didn’t have to do that!” Ben exclaimed. “Nobody would’ve noticed if he’d just done it regularly. Yet the attention to detail was all right there. It was just so much better than it had any right to be.”
Before all that beautiful, undulating Ozark Plateau ridge-line acreage was carved up into high-society resort courses highlighted by designs from Coore & Crenshaw and Tiger Woods, the land that now hosts Payne’s Valley and Ozarks National belonged, at least in name, to John Daly. In 2007, he’d tried to put his stamp on the Branson golf experience, and the course—a penal parade of target golf ominously named Murder Rock—was a disaster from the start. According to the locals, not much about it is worth recounting, save for its media day, when a shirtless, chain-smoking Daly challenged a local news reporter to an impromptu bit of match play. In grainy footage that is, thankfully, still on YouTube, you can watch Daly pipe drivers across the property while heckling the poor mid-handicapper, who is too busy trying to keep a straight face to focus on his tempo. Daly’s course was never long for Branson; his Daytona Beach energy and his vindictive routing existed in opposition to what makes Branson Branson.
The best thing I can tell you about Ozarks National is that it feels as if it’s always been there. Loping, perfectly manicured fairways laze out over the landscape like an infinity pool. Coore & Crenshaw’s 18 holes bounce along the plateau’s high ridges, offering panoramic views of southern Missouri’s tree-lined rolling hills on almost every hole. The worst thing I can tell you is that, because of the architects’ dedication to creating courses that lean heavily on fewer trees and more options in the ground game, I found very little shade. If you’ve ever played golf on a day when the forecast offers bolded, bright-red warnings about venturing outdoors, then you might be familiar with the feeling of wandering around a beautiful piece of earth, doing the thing you love most, but also secretly wondering if your brain is frying inside your skull. Thankfully, Ozarks National’s comfort stations had formidable air conditioning and complimentary bison hot dogs.
My playing partners—Ben and Ozarks’ affable head pro, Landon—had a casual match going. Landon, bewilderingly clad in navy pants, hit 300-yard drives with an aw, shucks attitude; they were immediately countered by darts from Ben, leaving him casual 10-foot birdie putts. Both would flirt with even par and neither appeared to be visibly perspiring much. My body opted for a different aesthetic, instead reenacting Michael Jordan during his flu game. Hosel-rocketing balls around the property, I only vaguely recall the bunkering or how the sloping fairways trick your eye into aiming 40 yards left of your intended target. But I will always remember the tee boxes, like the short par-4 fifth hole and the longer par-4 14th, where we grinned ear to ear and fired drivers into the blue horizon while watching balls disappear and then land, kick and roll for days. Turns out not even a little heatstroke can ruin links-style golf.
Across the ridge the next morning—after a surreal evening sleeping under taxidermied geese and deer heads in one of Big Cedar’s course-side hunting cabins—was Payne’s Valley, home of the 19th hole and a halfway house roughly the size of Rockefeller Center. When we teed off, the air was so humid that you could chew it. The trip around Payne’s is a slow meander from the top of a massive bluff all the way down to the flat basin of a valley. Ben, ever the optimist, slung his fully compressed irons into friendly green complexes with ease, pausing only occasionally to note that, yeah, it was starting to heat up. Meanwhile, I topped an 8-iron into a greenside bunker and imagined the Cat staring at me disapprovingly in his Sunday red.
If you are hitting your driver well—as Ben and I just so happened to be—it’s hard to have a bad time at Payne’s Valley. You won’t find your ball in the rough, seeing as there’s very little and the first two-thirds of the holes cant gently, almost deceptively, downhill, making it easy to find yourself in possession of a 300-yard drive. There’s a certain video-game quality to walking back on a par 3 to the big, elevated TW Tiger Tees and picking up your ball in flight against the dense, forested hillsides. Perhaps it was the baking heat, but the whole course felt a bit like a desert mirage—an oasis of vibrant green built into a wall of stone.
Why is any of this here? Why would Tiger Woods come all the way out to Ned Flanders’ Home of Good, Clean Fun and keep coming back? It’s a long story that involves him winning the Masters in 1997 at 21 years old and wanting to treat himself to a bass boat, which, of course, Johnny Morris hand-delivered to him, which, of course, led to a fishing trip and, 23 years later, a lot of high-end golf courses out here on the Ozark Plateau. But here’s the thing about Branson: It’s better if you don’t think too hard about all this. Why is this here? Is this any good? Is this my style? All those questions sound like a lot of work, and frankly Branson would like you to shut your brain off for a moment and just enjoy your day.
Branson can lull you into this state of mind where you are, against the judgment you might have on a regular Tuesday at home, perpetually game. This is how, on our final evening of the trip, Ben and I found ourselves standing in a giant pit of sand, a few feet from some fresh horse poop, in the middle of a 35,000-square-foot arena that belongs to Dolly Parton.
“We think you two boys would be a perfect pair to help us win,” our perky server told us. Behind her, in the center of the action, a woman was riding two horses at once, leaping through a massive ring of fire. Ben and I looked at each other, bewildered and somehow only slightly concerned, our mouths slick with grease from the skin of a perfectly cooked Cornish game hen.
“Come on, it’ll be fun!” she urged. “It’s a bucket race. It’s easy. We’re all counting on you.”
It would have been easy, in almost any other scenario, to imagine digging our heels in. I am shy and a little anxious, and Ben is, well, famous—giving us both ample reason to swiftly decline the chance to stand in front of a thousand people and participate in an impromptu relay race as part of a scripted competition between the North and South sides of the arena. And yet before we knew it, we were in the pit, sprinting through the sand, smiling maniacally as we shuttled sloshing buckets of water back and forth. At one point a bell rang and everything stopped. There was applause and a lot of bright lights. A rodeo clown put his hand on the small of my back and kindly ushered me to the stairs. I looked at Ben, whose brow was visibly sweaty, unsure of where I was or what had transpired. We’d won, our waitress told us exuberantly. On my way back to my seat, a man in a 10-gallon hat, drinking nine gallons of sweet tea, gave me a solemn salute. Everyone was smiling. I allowed myself to briefly consider whether until this moment I’d ever actually felt alive.
Back at the cabin, our feet still caked in dried sand from the Stampede floor, Ben and I poured two stiff ranch waters and tried to put everything into perspective. What had happened? The golf, the willing participation in a public spectacle…Doug Gabriel? Ben leaned back in his chair and swilled his tumbler. For a moment, a silence hung in the air.
“Sheer enjoyment and fun are so hard to do,” he finally said. After all, that’s what it was, right? The feeling? We were having fun. Good, clean, Ned Flanders fun. And Ben is right: Fun is hard. For weeks every year, it’s Ben’s job to get thousands of excited people together and be the architect of their fun, to deliver them a memorable evening. To get that right, he said—to have people come away with that stupid grin—is its own art. “Coming here, I was a little nervous that it’d be kind of strange and earnest, but not that great,” he said. “But I didn’t expect all this. Maybe it’s not totally for me, but it’s still great.”
My mind flickered back to Ben telling me about the vocal reverb effect on Doug’s microphones: So much better than it had any right to be. That was the secret of Branson. The painstakingly constructed carnival of a 19th hole at Payne’s Valley. Doug’s on-point Elvis montage. The subtle slopes and endless vistas of Ozarks National. The perfectly succulent game hen at Dolly’s Stampede. All of it was lovingly crafted, without a shred of irony, and available for people to enjoy. All you had to do was buy in.
Our conversation turned to golf and how it can seduce a person into a posture of snobbery. Like first class on an airplane, exclusivity has a way of turning an average experience into something that feels a bit magical, even if, at the end of the day, it’s just a wider chair with more legroom. Will Ozarks National and Payne’s Valley and the Big Cedar courses ever occupy the rarefied space at the top of golf’s best-of-whatever rankings? Probably not. Would I choose to stay in an eight-person hunting cabin with 75 taxidermied animals staring me in the face while I sleep? Probably not. But that’s not the point. The point is that Branson, Big Cedar, all of it—it’s genuinely fun. It goes down easy and leaves you wanting another shot of it all. “Fun is not a weird, bad word,” Ben said. “It’s a feat.”
A few more hours and a little more tequila had us feeling something akin to genuine revelation. This place, it seems, had rubbed a magnet over our compasses. We’d managed to shed our preconceptions and pretensions and let Branson be Branson. It’s a gift to have your priors so thoroughly challenged, but also confounding: What else do you miss when you’re not engaging with the world on its own terms?
A few days after our trip, thoroughly ensconced in the reality of home life, I got a text from Ben. He’d written a song about Branson on the plane ride home. I figured he was joking until the file came through with a rough cut of the first two verses—just Ben and a guitar, singing about our adventure. I played it on speakerphone in my kitchen, chuckling at the first verse in the middle of doing chores. Then the chorus hit.
What if all the things I don’t like I just don’t understand What if all the reasons that I’m right need reexamining What if I’ve been wrong, all along, just being candid Because I’m halfway home and I’m wishing I was still in Branson
You don’t always expect to cry while unloading the dishwasher in the middle of the day, but nothing can really prepare you for a professionally written pop song describing a transformative golf trip. If I’m honest with myself—if I really interrogate what moved me while listening to Ben’s falsetto voice ring out by my sink—the feeling was pure, uncut, unironic gratitude.