Bubba Wright finds a “home away from home” following recent course move

By |  June 6, 2024 0 Comments

Bubba Wright is a born-and-raised Californian. You wouldn’t have guessed that from his name, which is actually Bubba … that isn’t a nickname.

Bubba Wright

Bubba Wright

Luckily for Wright, in his new home — southwestern Missouri — Bubba doesn’t stick out quite as much as it did before.

“There aren’t too many Bubbas in California,” he laughs. “So, I feel a little bit more at home here, that’s for sure.”

In late 2023 Wright left the scenic coastline at Pebble Beach, after 13 years there, for Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Mo. The move to the Ozarks has been a big shift for Wright, who spent most of his life on the West Coast, in California and Arizona, except for his college years at Rutgers.

“I joke around with everybody that I traded waves for waterfalls,” he says. “We’re in the heart of the Ozarks, so you get a great mix of flora, fauna and wildlife — we call it nature golf. You can see animals from bass to buffalo to bald eagles on our properties. It’s a pretty dramatic environment, sometimes people have a hard time focusing on golf when there’s so much nature around you.”

Missouri has a very moderate climate compared to the rest of the Midwest. So, Wright says it’s been challenging in that aspect as well as a great opportunity to learn. Wright points to Vice President of Golf, Jeff Steen, and all of his superintendents for helping him make a successful transition.

He also points toward his previous experience in a unique environment — the Pacific Coast — as something that prepared him for this new position.

Photo: Big Cedar Lodge

Photo: Big Cedar Lodge

“In a sense, it’s been a very smooth transition,” he says. “Pebble Beach is such a dynamic environment. You have the Pacific Coast right next to you and this beautiful piece of land that you’re a caretaker of and trying to assure its success for generations to come, and a seamless transition to the Midwest and these properties.”

A slice of heaven

Located near the Show-Me State’s southern border with Arkansas, Big Cedar Lodge features five courses — Payne’s Valley, Ozarks National, Buffalo Ridge, Top of the Rock and Mountain Top — designed by a murderer’s row of golf legends.

The resort was originally developed in the early 1920s as a country retreat for two Missouri-based entrepreneurs. Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris purchased the property and reinvented it as Big Cedar Lodge in 1988.

In the 36 years since the property became Big Cedar Lodge, Morris has added courses from Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and Tiger Woods.

Johnny Morris might be a familiar name for golf course superintendents as the 2022 Old Tom Morris Award recipient from the GCSAA. As a result of Johnny Morris’ history, at Big Cedar, sustainability is the name of the game, especially with its location in the heart of the Ozarks, Wright says.

“When you work for someone like Mr. Morris and Bass Pro Shops, (sustainability) is not just part of what you do, it’s everything that you do,” Wright adds.

Photo: Big Cedar Lodge

Tiger Woods’ first public course, Payne’s Valley at Big Cedar Lodge checks in at 7,370 yards. The course has several water hazards that also double as habitats for bass that superintendent Bubba Wright and his crew care for. (Photo: Big Cedar Lodge)

Keepin’ it simple

The 4,500-acre property is home to plenty of unique wildlife including bison, bald eagles, pheasants and more. That all plays into the resort’s Audubon Sanctuary status, which everyone from Wright up through Johnny Morris himself takes great pride in.

Wright doesn’t claim that his staff does anything too radical in their efforts to provide a sustainable environment in the Ozarks. He says his team’s practices start from the ground up, with soil tests and organic fertilizers.

“(It’s important) to be able to fully understand your soil tests,” he says. “It’s how you know what you’re putting out, and make sure that there is no waste. All of our fertilizers are organic, and they work in conjunction with our soil tests.”

One area where Wright’s team does go above and beyond is with its water testing, which takes place once a month by an outside vendor. Wright says this isn’t something required by Audubon to become a sanctuary, but with the varied usage of water on the course, it’s a necessary step.

“It’s something we do to make sure that all of our bodies of water and our courses are protected. It keeps our irrigation water free from bicarbonates and salts,” he says. “It also helps us know that we’re providing a healthy habitat for our vast ponds and bass populations.”

Photo: Big Cedar Lodge

Top of the Rock — a Jack Nicklaus design — was the first par-3 course to play host to a PGA Tour event — the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf tournament on the Champions Tour. (Photo: Big Cedar Lodge)

The right blend

Effective use of technology is a crucial part of Wright’s success in his eyes. While Big Cedar doesn’t employ widespread use of autonomous mowers or other forms of artificial intelligence, the resort does utilize GPS technology.

“We use soil sensors and moisture meters like many courses do. We have all John Deere equipment and GPS technology,” he says. “That really helps us to pinpoint all our applications, ensuring there is no waste and our product is going out as efficiently as possible.”

Big Cedar also recently dabbled in using human-piloted drones to scout for potential problem areas. Wright expects that to continue in the future as the resort’s agronomy team looks for areas to improve.

“Technology is moving at just a rampant pace right now, and not just on the golf course, but in all of our lives,” Wright says. “You look at AI and autonomous vehicles and wonder what that’s going to do to the process of maintaining a golf course — who knows? So, for us, trying to keep abreast of technology and utilizing drones, moisture meters and soil sensors is going to be big moving forward.”

Wildlife expedition

Photo: Big Cedar Lodge

“There are so many beautiful spots on this course. It’s unbelievable. There is a certain atmosphere about this place that we’ve never seen before,” said Ozarks National GC architect Ben Crenshaw. Crenshaw and Bill Coore designed the course for Big Cedar Lodge which opened in 2019. (Photo: Big Cedar Lodge)

Wright says his courses’ relationship with the wildlife that call the Ozarks and Big Cedar Lodge home is crucial.

“When we create a water feature for the course, we’re not just creating a pond. It’s a fully sustainable bass habitat where we will put in rocks and trees,” he says. “It’s an environment for them to thrive in, and, throughout the year, we’re checking on that population. Our greenskeepers feed the bass daily in summertime. We don’t just put them in there and let ‘em go. We also stock our ponds with bait fish and carp to provide a sustainable environment.”

With the wide array of wildlife on the property and the course, Wright expects to have to keep his eyes open to avoid any run-ins with his new neighbors.

“I haven’t had any crazy interactions yet. I’ve had the opportunity to catch a lot of fish and that’s probably the most exciting interaction with wildlife I’ve had so far, but I’m sure they’re coming,” he says. “I’m not looking forward to the snakes coming out in the summertime, I’m going to stay out of our native areas as much as I can.”

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About the Author: Rob DiFranco

Rob DiFranco is Golfdom's associate editor. A 2018 graduate of Kent State University, DiFranco holds a bachelor's degree in journalism. Prior to Golfdom, DiFranco was a reporter for The Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio

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