Driving legendary

Features - Management

Golf is expanding at a scenic Ozarks resort. But more turf means the need to develop pipelines in a limited summer labor pool.

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September 6, 2019

© lee carr

During the Civil War, Alfred “Alf” Bolin and his band of outlaws hid in a cave below the old Springfield-Harrison Road, which was essential for commerce and travel for pioneers in southern Missouri. Many people were ambushed and killed on this thoroughfare and a section of it became known as Murder Rock.

The Murder Rock Trail is no longer dangerous but can be hiked and enjoyed and it’s not far from Buffalo Ridge Springs, one of the five stunning courses that Johnny Morris has developed as part of Big Cedar Golf (BCG). The Ozarks are – and always have been – a mix of natural beauty and spectacular legends, but it’s how people are working together on these courses in the Ozarks that deserves our attention.

Big Cedar Lodge (BCL), owned by Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, is a resort designed to purposefully bring people closer to nature, particularly families, and nature (real and created) is everywhere you look.

The resort offers a range of accommodations and nestles into Table Rock Lake, where you can kayak, canoe, swim and enjoy other water activities. Solidly in the Transition Zone, southwest Missouri might not be a superintendent’s ideal location for tending turf, but even so, the courses – Top of the Rock, Buffalo Ridge Springs, Ozarks National, Mountain Top and Payne’s Valley – a tribute to the late Payne Stewart, opening this year – are outstanding. Stewart, born and raised in Springfield, Mo., is another local legend, and he and his charitable family are dear to many, for more reasons than can be easily shared.

To work on Payne’s Valley, Morris enlisted Tiger Woods and his full-service golf course design firm, TGR Design. This will be his first U.S. public course. Steve Johnson, CGCS, was hired as superintendent for both Mountain Top and Payne’s Valley, and with more than 30 years of experience, he demonstrates a thoughtful, assuring confidence.

Curtis Keller, Todd Bohn and Steve Johnson are among the turf leaders at Big Cedar Golf in southwest Missouri.
© lee carr

Currently, holes 1-8 on Payne’s Valley are playable, 9-13 are being grassed and 17 and 18 are partially grassed. There is also a 19th hole. (Wait, a 19th hole? Yes! Because sometimes you need just one more hole — just one more chance! — to decide who the winner is before heading to the clubhouse.) On Payne’s Valley, Johnson shares that “the tees have Zeon Zoysia, the greens are T-1 bentgrass, the fairways are Meyer Zoysia and the rough has Turf Type Fescue.”

Johnson is complimentary about the corporate support at BCL and he acknowledges how helpful it is to have staff ready to handle questions about benefits and other human resources matters. BCG superintendents can get the workers required, even though, Johnson says, “the labor pool is shallow” in the area. Close to Branson, with its music shows and theme parks, plus the need for several hundred resort employees, the demand for seasonal help in the area is high. Johnson knows that “we can tell HR what we need or introduce candidates to them,” but either way, a lot of effort goes into finding the right people for employment vacancies.

BCL recruits internationally, through the J1 program, which allows foreign nationals to come to the U.S. for a variety of reasons for anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. BCL also recruits heavily in Puerto Rico. In addition to eight full-time employees who work with Johnson at Mountain Top and 11 full-time employees working with Johnson at Payne’s Valley, there are additional workers brought to BCL with H-2B visas, many from Mexico, as they meet the requirements for temporary work.

It’s a drive to do the job well, to the standards that are expected, that makes it necessary to put the time and effort into staffing every area of the resort, including maintaining the golf courses. It’s imperative to have enough skilled workers to take care of things and the management of BCG is resourceful and creating great opportunities. Communicating clearly is also important, and when necessary, Johnson and the team uses small amounts of Spanish, gestures, and whatever it takes to communicate in a way that the entire staff understands.

BCG advertises as “America’s Next Great Golf Destination” and Curtis Keller, superintendent for Buffalo Ridge Springs, knows the words are not just a tagline. Of Morris, Keller says, “we all understand what his vision and passion is … and in some ways it’s easier to achieve that high standard, simply because we know that’s the goal.”

Keller references how the daily newsletter, Huddle Up!, is published by the resort and is reviewed during his morning meeting. It includes birthdays and anniversaries – a personal touch – and it also includes information about resort events. There is a corporate Christmas party, reasonably priced lunches at the employee cafeteria and established “non-negotiables” that every BCL employee must exhibit, such as “holding the door for people, smiling, picking up trash.” The resort industry is competitive and there is a reasonable premium on staff interactions with guests.

Todd Bohn, director of agronomy at Big Cedar Lodge, has high expectations and wants to be considered one of the best at anything he and the team do. He meets with Morris near the end of most days, and Morris is grateful with and for his team, leading calmly. “It’s admirable,” Bohn says. There is a tangible joy for the work being done and ideas that it seems Morris wills into existence. Bohn says that Morris has “vision and dreams that make you want to run through the wall for him.” The inspirational leadership of Morris mixed with dedicated, talented BCG employees is an alchemy yielding undeniable results.

One of the most significant events every year at BCL is hosting the Legends of Golf tournament in April at Top of the Rock – the first nine-hole par-3 golf course to host a PGA Tour Champions tournament. It’s a week of great golf, celebrities and exquisite views, and this year Ozarks National – designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw – was played in addition to Top of the Rock. To be ready, Bohn says, we “put the courses to bed in November the way we want them to wake up in April.”

Clever signage and artwork help visitors navigate their way around Big Cedar Lodge.
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Bohn acknowledges that BCG has the advantage of investing in equipment that performs. The superintendents are considerate, diligent and trusted to make good decisions regarding budgets, equipment and staffing. Payne’s Valley and Mountain Top have a joint maintenance facility and the other courses each have their own. Though it’s possible to share equipment across all five courses, sharing equipment can hamper productivity and lead to budget issues, so it’s a practice best avoided. Even so, during tournament week, everyone pitches in to help out, regardless of course assignments, working together as seamlessly as possible.

In Morris, Bohn, Johnson and Keller, BCG has a team that is as present and solid as the rock formations in the Ozarks, and though good leadership starts at the top, developing people at every level is critical. “Training is constant,” Bohn says. In addition to the workers sourced through international recruiting and visas, an internship program is advertised through colleges and universities. Some outstanding employees have come from College of the Ozarks, another regional treasure.

College of the Ozarks is a work college with the vision to “develop citizens of Christ-like character who are well-educated, hardworking, and patriotic.” The values of the school reverberate through a campus decorated with “Hard Work U” signs, where Opportunity Avenue runs the length of the campus, right past the graceful swans living by Lake Honor.

Don Baker, a Missouri native, father of five, veteran, businessman, pilot and graduate of the school in 1950 (when it was a high school) has been on the board for College of the Ozarks for 20 years. The school is now a K-College model, and Baker, being so closely connected with the school, says the best thing about the College of the Ozarks is, and has always been, “the quality of the people.”

Upon completion of the school’s Work Education Program – with the opportunity to work at more than 100 campus work stations – the college will cover the cost of education so students can graduate debt-free. Students must work two 40-hour weeks during the school year, plus 15 hours per week while classes are in session. That means that every student is not only trained with a vocation, but as they gain experience, they also develop leadership qualities.

Big Cedar Golf continues to expand its offerings despite a slowdown in new course development in the U.S.
© lee carr

Working with Keller is Creyton Ledbetter, who completed an internship with BCG prior to his 2018 graduation from College of the Ozarks. Upon graduation, Ledbetter became a full-time associate and is now a second assistant superintendent. Keller says Ledbetter “brings a clear focus, a drive to succeed, and an unmatched work ethic that is a testament not only to his personal character, but something that is instilled in so many College of the Ozarks graduates.”

Bohn reinforces that the students from the College of the Ozarks are respectful, polite and hard-working, making them a great fit for BCG. Morris is generous toward and very supportive of College of the Ozarks, as the school is a charitable beneficiary of the Legends of Golf tournament. That relationship is another wonderful example of how people with similar values, who are striving to meet high standards, are creating something extraordinary through sheer will and effort.

Environmental conservation and family are priorities at BCL and Morris is a pioneer in his own right. Along the trail, he is including golfing icons, as he and his team are driving to create an experience that is beyond legendary.

Lee Carr is an Ohio-based writer. This is her first GCI contribution.