As a child growing up in southwestern Missouri, Johnny Morris was an avid outdoorsman as far back as he can remember. During most of his adult life, Morris made a name for himself as a huge advocate of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains and noted conservationist/environmentalist.
Along the way, the Springfield, Mo., native became a billionaire after turning his passion for fishing into the Bass Pro Shops empire. Last month, Morris added another distinctive title to his profile: Old Tom Morris Award honoree.
The Old Tom Morris Award is presented annually by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in honor of the namesake four-time British Open winner and legendary greenkeeper at St Andrews in Scotland. According to the GCSAA, the prestigious award is presented to an individual who, “through a continuing lifetime commitment to the game of golf, has helped to mold the welfare of the game in a manner and style exemplified by Old Tom Morris.”
Morris, who’s dedicated his life to the outdoors and now the golf course business, couldn’t have been a more befitting addition to the list of big-name honorees when he humbly accepted the 40th Old Tom Morris Award on the final day of last month’s GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in Orlando, Fla.
“Johnny Morris and Old Tom Morris share the same sense of ingenuity and love for the game of golf,” GCSAA chief executive officer Rhett Evans said. “His dedication to the environment, respect for superintendents and his contributions to the growth of the game make Johnny a perfect choice for the Old Tom Morris Award.”
To be sure, Morris might best be known as the brainchild behind privately-owned Bass Pro Shops, a business started 50 years ago when the avid fisherman talked his father into letting him use some of the family’s hometown liquor store to sell special tackle to talented anglers on their way to renowned Table Rock Lake.
“We called it Bass Pro Shop because it was real descriptive in what we want to do to be a specialist,” Morris recalled. “And every nickel we could get for inventory, we just got a bigger assortment, and kept pushing the beer over. We’d run a sale, we’d sell tackle, and (Dad would) sell some more beer. So it worked out real good.”
Indeed, with some 100 retail outlets now nationwide and nearly $7 billion in annual sales, not to mention White River Marine Group, the largest manufacturer of boats in the world, Morris is an outdoor leisure powerhouse.
But he’s quickly becoming synonymous as an equally successful golf course developer and owner by virtue of the booming Big Cedar Lodge and its five critically acclaimed courses. After purchasing the Big Cedar property in 1987, he had Jack Nicklaus design Top of the Rock in 1996, enticing more access to the beautiful area which overlooks Table Rock Lake.
After renovating Nicklaus’s nine-hole, par-three creation in 2014, Buffalo Ridge, another Big Cedar Lodge layout, just down the hill, was renovated by Tom Fazio. Three years later, Morris added 13-hole Gary Player-designed Mountain Top to the resort family, and in 2019, Big Cedar débuted the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-designed Ozarks National to more rave reviews.
The most recent addition to the property was 19-hole Payne’s Valley, the first fully public course designed by Tiger Woods and named in honor of the late Missouri golf icon Payne Stewart.
The 4,600-acre property also includes Arnie’s Barn, a 150-year-old barn relocated from Arnold Palmer’s backyard in Latrobe, Pa., and a Tom Watson-designed putting course at Mountain Top. Palmer (1983), Watson (1992), Fazio (1996), Crenshaw (1997), Nicklaus (2005) and Player (2020) are all previous Old Tom Morris Award recipients.
Morris, 75, and forever a person who appreciates his family as much as Mother Nature, will tell you Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Mo., was created merely as another means for families and friends to spend quality time together as well as enjoy the great outdoors.
During the packed-house presentation of his Old Tom Morris Award, Morris, in his always sincere and grateful demeanor, said his latest recognition is “pretty humbling.”
“Early on my son and I were looking at the trophy and reviewing the names,” Morris added, “and I was really scratching my head: How do I get recognized having a blast doing something I really love to do?
“And it does mean a great deal to past recipients. Also, just knowing where this came from, the (GCSAA) board, Rhett and (newly re-elected GCSAA President) Kevin (Breen) and then the members. To me everybody out here, it’s kind of like we’re all brothers and sisters of the great outdoors and I feel so blessed to spend my whole life around the outdoors. It's very special.”