The reel deal: Johnny Morris to receive 2023 Old Tom Morris Award

One of GCSAA's highest honors goes to the founder of Bass Pro Shops, a fisherman at heart who created a company in the name of conservation, golf and humanity.


Johnny Morris (right) with his son John Paul and trusty sidekick Roscoe during the construction of Payne's Valley. Johnny also has three daughters — Megan, Julie and Jennifer. Photos courtesy of Bass Pro Shops

Whether it is his golf mecca or nature preserves, Johnny Morris is all-in.

“The thing about Johnny,” says golfer extraordinaire Tom Watson, “is he is a person who does things the right way. He does things in a big, thorough way.”

Sometimes he does things people never hear about. Youths who couldn’t afford fishing rods and reels were among his beneficiaries. Jerry C. Davis, Ph.D., then the president at College of the Ozarks, mentioned the issue to Morris. Nothing more was said about it, but Morris let his actions speak.

“I was going back to my office and went into the adjacent boardroom,” says Davis, now chancellor at the university in Point Lookout, Mo., “and behind the door I found several rods and reels. Johnny or someone who works for him must have sneaked them in. That’s Johnny. He doesn’t like a lot of fanfare. It’s nice to see somebody in his position, successful, shine a light on the good things in this country. A lot of people gain from having a Johnny Morris out there.”

Missouri Department of Conservation Director Sara Parker Pauley says there is nobody like him.

“He sees the world differently than any other person I met. He has environmentally creative ways to connect people with the outdoors. He has this pixie dust to create these wonderlands,” Pauley says.

Golf icon Gary Player gets Pauley’s stance. For him, the multicourse stable of facilities that Morris developed in the Ozark Mountains of southwest Missouri is genius. “Johnny is an amazing visionary, one of just a handful of people I have met throughout my lifetime. He executes to the highest quality and to the smallest details,” Player says.

His organization anchored by Bass Pro Shops escalated outdoor options to another level. His latest of numerous honors is next-level stuff and attached to a legendary golf greenkeeper who shares the same last name. Johnny Morris — who put the “ist” in conservationist and philanthropist — is GCSAA’s 2023 Old Tom Morris Award recipient.

“You’ve got Old Tom Morris, and you’re talking to Old John here. I was going to look up in to see if we were kin, but I didn’t get around to it,” Johnny Morris said with a chuckle during an interview with GCM. Yet he was serious about this award’s meaning.

“Humbling. I’m proud of it. I accept it on behalf of a lot of our team members. I consider it a real honor,” Morris said. “I feel my whole life has a lot to do with passion, and it seems like the members of this group (GCSAA) have a lot of passion and pride in what they do. I have a high regard for them and some of the other past recipients, people I look up to quite a bit.”

Past recipients include the first one in 1983, Arnold Palmer. He designed the practice facility at Morris’ first course at Top of the Rock in Ridgedale, Mo.

The Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf presented by Bass Pro Shops featured some familiar names and faces, including Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, pictured front row on the right.

Catch a rising star

He still wears blue jeans and was raised blue-collar.

Johnny Morris is the son of John A. and Genny Morris. John A. Morris — a World War II veteran who served at the famed Battle of the Bulge — was raised in humble beginnings but possessed a want-to and emerged as a successful merchant in Springfield, Mo.

The outdoors was young Johnny’s playground. “From my earliest days, I can remember running around in diapers and looking for crawdads and going with my dad and mom camping out at night, listening to the whippoorwills at sunset,” Morris says.

As a young boy, Johnny Morris met his match more than 60 years ago. He attended the opening of Table Rock Dam that soars above Table Rock Lake in the Branson, Mo., region. The dam significantly expanded the region’s fishing industry. “It created a lot of habitat. It led to one of the most famous bass fishing lakes in the country … and it was a lesson to me about the importance of habitat for critters, for fish, for wildlife,” Morris says.

He quickly caught on to this fishing thing. In his early 20s, Morris landed a real whopper. It was life-changing stuff.

After attending a national bass tournament at Table Rock Lake, known for its world-class fishing, he formulated an idea. “I met fishermen from all over,” he says, intrigued and impressed with the lures they used. “I talked my dad into supporting me to put in a tackle store in his liquor store (it was an 8-foot display in the store). We called it Bass Pro Shops because it’s very descriptive. We wanted to be the specialist for bass fishermen. Every nickel we could get we put in to expanding our assortment of bass gear. Every time we put lures on sale, my dad would sell some more booze, so it worked out well.”

The word got out. Morris launched a catalog of his wares, which extended his efforts to anglers beyond the region, and opened his first freestanding store in 1972. In 1978, he revolutionized the marine industry by releasing Bass Tracker, the first professionally rigged and nationally marketed boat, motor and trailer packages. Today, Bass Pro Shops (which also incorporates the Cabela’s brand) for hunting, fishing and outdoor gear has more than 170 locations in the U.S. and Canada and draws more than 200 million people annually. In 2021 and 2022, Forbes named Bass Pro Shops one of “America’s Best Employers.”

Those boats he sells have much to do with Morris’ entry to golf.

“I wanted to have a place where people that were coming to get a new boat could come and spend the night by the lake, and they could also take delivery of their boat and maybe try it on the water to make sure they were comfortable with everything and that everything’s working good before they headed back home and also have a little retreat,” says Morris, who was inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2002.

In 1987, Morris purchased and transformed Big Cedar property in the heart of the Ozark Mountains to become Big Cedar Lodge. “My wife (Jeanie) found a classified ad for a place called Oakmont, which had a few little old cabins on it and a couple original structures. But it was a beautiful setting on the lake with character and buildings built in the ’20s,” Morris says. “In developing Big Cedar Lodge, we spruced up the cabins, and they became immediately popular with people. I think escaping to nature, hiking trails, the lake was important. It has grown over the years and kind of become part of our company and an important division that helps get people connected with the outdoors.”

Spread across 4,600 acres overlooking Table Rock Lake, Big Cedar Lodge is a family destination inspired by a commitment to conservation that features marinas, restaurants, a spa, countless outdoor activities, etc.

Golf evolved into a centerpiece.

A panoramic view from The Top of the Rock.

A golf portfolio emerges

Morris never has played much golf. That hasn’t stopped him from taking a swing at it. Looks like he aced it.

“I used to play some golf in high school. I gave it up for fishing,” Morris says. “What really got us into golf here at Big Cedar, and one of my favorite places there, is a place called Top of the Rock. It’s the highest point of land in the county, overlooks Table Rock Lake. It’s a beautiful spot, and it’s just kind of a little postage stamp on top of this hill. To me, it cuts to my heart because it’s like the birthplace of our company.

“On this land, I thought, ‘Man, if there is a way we can get people connected and enjoy this land by walking around.’ … There was only room for a par-3 course up there. But if we could develop a golf course where people can walk around and enjoy nature, golf would be a pathway, a great way, to get connected to nature up there and see the beauty of the Ozarks and experience it that way.”

Morris retained heavy hitters to design his five golf courses (a sixth is in the works). Jack Nicklaus was the first. Top of the Rock debuted in 1996. It became the first par 3 to host a PGA Tour-sanctioned professional championship by holding the Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf presented by Bass Pro Shops in 2014. “I thought the Jack Nicklaus name would lend credibility,” Morris recalls. “We met Jack, and he came out and worked with us on the land. To me it was one of the most fun things. I don’t play golf much, but I love aggravating golf course architects. It’s been fascinating to work with some of these architects and get their views about what makes a good golf hole.”

In 2021, the five courses at Big Cedar Lodge — Top of the Rock (Jack Nicklaus design), Buffalo Ridge Springs (Tom Fazio design), Ozarks National (Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design), Mountain Top (Gary Player design) and Payne’s Valley (Tiger Woods design) — achieved an honor that makes Morris beam. Big Cedar Lodge became the only resort in the world to have all of its five courses receive the Audubon International Signature Sanctuary designation. Two years before, Morris and his family were presented with one of the most prestigious honors in conservation, the Audubon Medal.

“Getting people connected to nature is a big thing to me, and that can take different forms, so golf is just one of those ways,” Morris says. “Our son, John Paul, is an inspiration. He loves to golf, and it has been fun brainstorming with him on our golf projects.”

Missouri State University men’s golf coach Neal Stafford shows off Big Cedar Lodge to recruits. A long time ago, his dad showed him a Morris original. “My first memories with dad were going to Bass Pro Shops and taking a fly-fishing class and casting in the parking lot,” Stafford says. “His golf courses are breathtaking. You know the way he does things that every hole is a quality hole.”

More of them are coming. Morris is building a 21-hole par 3 called Cliffhangers. It is located near Payne’s Valley and originally was intended to be a practice range. In fact, work had been underway for over a year.

Then …

“I’m walking around out there, and I thought this is too dramatic and too beautiful of land just to have a practice range,” Morris says. “We kinda just blew everything up and started over. This par 3 will be championship-quality, with our most beautiful land that overlooks Payne’s Valley. We came up with the name Cliffhangers. They’re like cliffhanger greens. I think this is going to be totally over the top, amazing, very popular, fun for kids, and challenging for advanced golfers. Jackson Kahn Design and their lead shaper, Jose Vivo, are extremely creative, and it has been a blast working with them. We’re putting in golf cart trails (due to changes in elevation). Man, I’m all fired up about it. Maybe it’ll open toward end of next year. It’s gonna be a hoot.”

What Morris has done at Big Cedar Lodge is a mammoth hoot to Player, one of only five men to have completed the Career Grand Slam. “He has given the Midwest an incredible destination to the likes of Whistling Straits, Bandon Dunes and others,” Player says. “He has made his mark in the golf course industry to grow the game on so many levels, from the amateur to the professional.”

Workers at Arnie’s Barn, which honors Arnold Palmer. The barn was transported from his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., to its location at Top of the Rock and features a restaurant.

A superintendent supporter

What do David Hardesty, Todd Bohn and Jeff Steen, CGCS, all have in common?

Each one has been director of agronomy at Big Cedar Lodge at one time since 2010, with Steen currently in the post. Each one is more than a superintendent to Morris. To him, they’re more like superstars.

“I just love creative things and working with nature and see the pride these fellas have to maintain things,” Morris says. “It’s like their babies the way they maintain these courses to be exceptional. We just share a passion to do things in a quality way. I think they can get grass to grow on solid limestone rock.”

Each also know that Morris likes to tinker. When his day is done at Bass Pro, Morris often visits his courses to survey. “Like architects, I like driving them (agronomy directors) crazy,” Morris says.

Top of the Rock underwent a complete re-do beginning in 2009. An example of how Morris shaped his vision happened at Top of the Rock’s No. 2, which is perched atop the mountainside and has a 100-foot drop to the green and a spectacular view of the lake in the background.

“We built tiered tees — three different tees. There was a loose stone lying close to the tee which he stood on, and it made him about a foot taller. This allowed him to see the front of the green better, and he liked that view better,” says Hardesty, a 17-year GCSAA member who was at Big Cedar from 2010-2015 and now works at Capillary Bunkers. “The tee was built and seeded already, but we redid it, added another row of rock to it and raised the height of the tees 1 foot.

“He was involved in every detail, and he had such a great vision, and every adjustment we made always was for the better. He called it (golf course) his sand box. He is amazing. It’s his passion, positivity, energy. He was like in his 60s, me in my 20s, and I had a hard time keeping up with him. He’s a combination of vision and execution. He loves seeing sunrises, making memories and making them affordable for somebody that hasn’t had that opportunity.”

Bohn, who spent five years at Big Cedar Lodge and now oversees Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz., admires Morris’ ingenuity, noting that Morris didn’t rely on paper to map out plans, preferring to be in the field and move things around and not be afraid to do it. “Johnny is the best visionary in the world in my opinion. Everything you see is all because of him and his ability to make things world-class and create that once-in-a-lifetime experience for his customers,” says Bohn, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 23-year association member. “He taught me how to push for excellence and to never settle for average. He always wanted to push to be the best.”

After spending 16 years at the Pebble Beach Co., Steen is motivated to ensure he and his team deliver excellence for Morris. “I’ve never met anyone like him. We want to fulfill his vision to create something truly special,” says Steen, a 23-year GCSAA member. “It’s an honor to be part of the Big Cedar/Bass Pro Shop family.”

Morris spends time with daughter Megan and granddaughter Ellie.

Giving soul

Golf has served as a vehicle for Morris’ philanthropic side. So has basketball. Monty Johal testifies to it.

Johal set the Springfield Public School career scoring record at Glendale High. To him, another graduate of the school knows the score when it comes to bettering others. Morris graduated from the school long before Johal, whose team in 2018 was invited to play in the highly regarded Bass Pro Tournament of Champions at Missouri State University. The tournament that will hold its 38th annual event in 2023 has a history of drawing some of the nation’s top teams and players (past participants include Lonzo Ball, Malik Monk and Jayson Tatum). It was embraced by Morris for years when he funded trophies, banquets and teams’ travel.

“We got to meet him. It’s not every day you get to listen to a billionaire in front of you. That was cool,” says Johal, currently on the Carson-Newman University team in Jefferson City, Tenn. “He thanked us for making the tournament special. He’s the one that made it special. My dream was to play in it someday. It’s an experience I will never forget, something I will tell my kids about.”

Morris had kids on his mind three years ago this month. He brought the North Pole to the Bahamas by creating a fundraising campaign that benefited victims and their families in the Bahamas devastated by Hurricane Dorian. Children were treated to a visit by Santa, a Ferris wheel, games, food and entertainment. “Johnny Morris’ Anglers for the Bahamas” raised several million dollars to support relief efforts.

Bass Pro Shops is a staunch supporter of the armed forces and their families. Some of their initiatives are the “Helping a Hero 100 Homes Challenge” that pledges 25% of the cost of 100 specially adapted homes for wounded veterans.

It’s no secret Morris wears patriotism on his sleeve. He has donated to establish memorials at the College of the Ozarks to honor heroes from conflicts, including the Korean War.

The Legends of Golf tournament that he hosted earmarked some of the charity proceeds to College of the Ozarks, where students go to school for free and repay it by working there at the private college also known as “Hard Work U.” Golfer Jim Colbert, who teamed with Jim Thorpe to win the Legends Division that inaugural year in 2014, says, “He supports the whole area there. And how good is that for the youth of America?”

Morris has been a devoted supporter of the military, including veterans. The son of a World War II veteran, here Morris spoke at a Gold Star Families event, which honors families who are grieving from military loss. Photo courtesy of College of the Ozarks

Channeling his energy for good

What fuels Morris?

It starts in the morning with a drink called Espresso Mocha by Black Riffle Coffee Company, followed by a heaping plate of let’s-get-after-it. The energy drink isn’t all that gets him going, however.

“I get high on life, mainly,” he says. “I have more energy creating things. It’s fun. It’s not work.”

When Springfield’s Rob Ballowe plays golf at Big Cedar Lodge, he sees bison. He sees picturesque scenery. He sees Morris, whose start of something big decades ago soars across the Ozarks. “He’s all you think of when you are out there,” Ballowe says. “This place all around us wouldn’t be the same without him. We’re lucky to live here, to have a Johnny Morris here.”

The way he sees it, Morris simply is making the most of a life that has allowed so many others to have the time of their lives.

“We’ve been so blessed. For those who have received, the obligation is to give back,” Morris says. “Our people have big hearts. We support our community and beyond. My favorite passion, or hobby, turned into a career where you make a living. I’m so very lucky. So very darn lucky.”

Morris will be presented the Old Tom Morris Award at the 2023 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show, Feb. 6-9 in Orlando.

Tiger, Johnny and a boat

Shortly after Tiger Woods recorded his first Masters championship in 1997, his friend and golf major champ Mark O’Meara served as a conduit for the Woods-Johnny Morris relationship. The topic of a new boat for Woods was broached during a conversation between Morris and Woods.

“He probably could’ve just purchased any boat from us without any questions asked, but he called up about getting a deal on a boat. I kind of admired that,” Morris says. “Part of the deal we struck, I said, ‘OK, we’ll give you a good deal, but part of the deal is me and my son want to come and deliver your boat to you.’ So we (Morris; his son, John Paul; and another friend, Big Al) pulled the boat down to Florida. I thought, ‘Gosh, we’ll just probably shake Tiger’s hand, say hi to him and leave.’ When we got there, he says, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ So we launched the boat, spent pretty much the whole day fishing with Tiger. I will never forget how, as such a young person, he was so engaging, so very humble.”

More than two decades later, Morris and Woods reunited. This time Woods arrived in Morris’ backyard, so to speak. In September 2020, Payne’s Valley, Woods’ first U.S. public access course and named in honor of the late golf champion and Springfield, Mo., native Payne Stewart, debuted with a grand opening for a televised exhibition with Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose.

“Being able to design Payne’s Valley, my first public golf course, with Johnny was a dream come true for me and my TGR Design team,” Woods says. “Johnny’s passion for the Ozarks and connecting people with the outdoors is infectious. It was an honor to be part of helping Johnny make Big Cedar Lodge one of the next great golf destinations.”

As for that initial meeting with Morris 25 years ago, Woods says, “I was lucky enough to share a day fishing with Johnny and his son back in 1997. We had a great time. While building Payne’s Valley, my son and I were able to spend an afternoon fishing with Johnny. It’s a memory my son and I will never forget.”

Morris got a kick out of Woods’ son Charlie and his enthusiasm for fishing. “I love that kid. He loves, loves, loves bass fishing. On some of Tiger’s visits here we’d go fish. Charlie just couldn’t wait to leave the golf course and hit the lakes. He’d stand all day in the front of that boat and just keep casting like mad.”

Archive image of Johnny Morris and his boat
Johnny Morris spent a lot of time in his boat. He still is an avid fisherman who fell in love with it at an early age.

A natural with nature

Open (the eyes) wide and say “aaaah.”

The wonderland that Johnny Morris has created in the region of his stomping grounds as a youth is an eyes-wide-open experience. Feel free to gaze. What Morris has built is worth a look. Or two. Or 300. You get the picture. Speaking of, bring your camera.

What he has achieved led to Morris’ being touted as “the Walt Disney of the Ozarks.” Sara Parker Pauley, director for the Missouri Department of Conservation, has her own moniker for Morris. “I told Johnny this … ‘You are the Willy Wonka of conservation.’ He just laughed,” Pauley says.

Where do you start?

Those breathtaking creations center around Big Cedar Lodge. Its 4,600 acres along Table Rock Lake offer lodges, cottages, cabins, multiple restaurants, a spa, swimming pools, meeting spaces, bass fishing, water skiing, horseback riding … and, of course, golf.

The Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium is the largest immersive wildlife attraction in the world, and includes Wonders of Wildlife Galleries, which are state-of-the-art immersive dioramas to completely surround observers with sights, smells and sounds of the planet’s most extreme wildlife habitats. Yes, there are live fish, mammals, reptiles and birds.

Dogwood Canyon Nature Park (pictured above) in Lampe, Mo., is a 10,000-acre outdoor playground offering hiking, biking, wildlife tours, horseback riding and trout fishing among towering bluffs, waterfalls, creek beds, handcrafted bridges and wildlife. Also on offer are tram tours and Old West cattle drives.

In the future, another Morris-led project will open. Marble Falls Nature Park near the town of Lampe is on the 400-acre site of what was known as the Dogpatch USA theme park from 1968 to 1993. Morris purchased the land and its appealing limestone bluffs, trout hatchery and stupendous nature offerings.

No wonder President Ronald Reagan appointed Morris to the board of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 1988, including three years as chairman. During his tenure as chair, the organization greatly expanded its fisheries initiative and minority outreach to help provide fishing opportunities and education in underserved urban communities.

Recently, Morris expanded his Thunder Ridge Nature Arena in Ridgedale, Mo., from 10,000 to 50,000 seats. The nature-based multiuse amphitheater overlooks Table Rock Lake and the Boston Mountains of Arkansas. Concertgoers have gone there to hear the likes of Hank Williams Jr., Dierks Bentley and Garth Brooks. It also has hosted events such as pro bull riding, hot air balloon shows, national bass tournaments, 4-H youth gatherings and weddings.

This year, Morris threw a 50-year anniversary party for current and former employees at Thunder Ridge. The event that featured a Brooks concert typifies the style Morris portrays, Rick Emmitt says.

“He takes care of his employees who’ve been loyal to him and worked for him. He is constantly thinking of his employees because they got him where he is today,” says Emmitt, who worked 37 years for Morris. “His family is salt of the earth, and Johnny’s down-to-earth. Humble. You wouldn’t know he’s a billionaire just by hanging around him. He gets a kick out of people enjoying themselves, being amazed, and seeing the beauty of what he has done. You can tell by the joy on his face.”

Top of the Rock
Morris is the mastermind behind golf mecca Big Cedar Lodge, which includes the nine-hole gem Top of the Rock, a magnet for golf luminaries including Tom Fazio, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

A Course(s), of Course

Johnny Morris has multiple golf course properties in the Ozarks. And he’s not done. A sixth is on the way in 2023.

Top of the Rock

Designer: Jack Nicklaus

Top of the Rock is a true celebration of nature and Ozarks heritage, sitting at the highest elevation in Taney County, Mo., located in Ridgedale, overlooking the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake. … acknowledged Top of the Rock as one of the Best Par-3 Courses in America. … First par-3 course to be featured on a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, the 9-hole course offers an unrivaled golf experience with unparalleled panoramic views that highlight the work of Nicklaus.

Buffalo Ridge Springs

Designer: Tom Fazio

Buffalo Ridge is an 18-hole championship public golf course in Hollister, Mo., ranked by GOLF magazine as the No.1 Public Golf Course You Can Play in Missouri, 2019. … Fazio and owner Johnny Morris worked side-by-side to complete a major course renovation project. The new layout brings players in close contact with nature and features pristine playing conditions. Herds of roaming bison graze on the native prairie grasses that surround the golf course boundaries. The renovation revealed natural rock formations that have been incorporated into the routing of the course.

Mountain Top

Designer: Gary Player

The 13-hole Mountain Top course in Hollister was created to bring a more accessible experience to golfers of all skill levels. Acknowledged by as one of the Best Par-3 Courses in America, Mountain Top routes through unforgettable rock formations. Player teamed up with Morris to create an unparalleled experience for golfers that features some of the most breathtaking and unobstructed views in the region. Mountain Top also offers a Himalayan-style putting course designed by five-time Open champion Tom Watson.

Ozarks National

Designer: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw

Coore & Crenshaw shares Morris’ passion and appreciation for nature and conservation. Honored as the Best New Public Course of 2019 by Golf Digest, Ozarks National in Hollister is a striking display for the senses and a fitting tribute to the Ozarks region. It tests avid players and golf travelers from around the country. With breathtaking views, the course also includes interesting features such as a 400-foot wooden beam and plank bridge, which connects the tee box and fairway of the 13th hole that stands 60 feet above a flowing creek.

Payne’s Valley

Designer: Tiger Woods’ TGR Design

Named in honor of Ozarks native and major champion Payne Stewart, Payne’s Valley in Hollister is the first completed fully public-access course in the world designed by Woods’ firm. The 18-hole layout showcases the region’s natural beauty and features an extraordinarily dramatic 19th hole, “The Big Rock at Payne’s Valley,” designed by Morris. The spectacular finishing par-3 hole is set against a 200-foot limestone cliff and roaring waterfall.


Designer: Jackson Kahn

This course is designed by the remarkable architects at Jackson Kahn and their lead shaper, Jose Vivo. It is inspired by the par 3 course the “Bad Little Nine” at Scottsdale National Golf Club, which Kahn designed for Bob Parsons, a former marine and owner of PXG golf clubs. Originally, this was supposed to be a driving range, but Johnny Morris decided it was such a beautiful piece of land that he scrapped work that had begun on the range project and reversed course. The hope is to open Cliffhanger in 2023.

Howard Richman ( is GCM’s associate editor.