Brian Wright knew it couldn’t be good. Phone calls at 1:00 a.m. never are. But for the director of tournament operations for the Nationwide Tour’s Midwest Classic, this one was particularly distressing.
"A man said to me, ‘I hate to call you with this, but I’m standing in your laundry room in Branson (Missouri), and there’s no roof over my head," Wright said.
It was February 29, Leap Day, and one of the 15 tornados that ripped through the Midwest that night had tossed Wright's house aside like a loose impediment. He immediately drove from Kansas City to see what was left of his weekend lake house in a town known for spreading joy and relaxation.
According to Wright, "The house was destroyed, my stuff was in the woods and all over the place: it was a pretty emotional scene. Then my wife and I drove a few miles toward town to see what else had happened. We saw a couple in a lower-end neighborhood standing outside the pile of rubble that had been their home. They were just standing there with electricians and emergency workers pulling powers lines all around them. They were holding their little dog like it was the only thing they had left.
"Right then I told my wife, 'We’re going to be alright. We’ll rebuild. And we’ll help others rebuild to the extent that we can.' It could have been a lot worse. We just put our head down and kept going."
That sums up Branson, before and after the storm.
A recreation area that boomed after World War II because of its great fishing and wildlife, the residents of Branson began entertaining their guests with bluegrass music and outdoor plays. As the visitors expanded, so did the entertainment. Now, with 50 theaters, 25,000 lodging rooms (hotels and condos) and 7.8 million visitors a year, the name 'Branson' is recognized around the world for its family-friendly entertainment and outdoor activities.
A pesky tornado was not about to put a damper on their hospitality, even though the downtown Hilton (one of the largest hotels in the area) looked like it had been carpet bombed, and businesses and attractions from OzarkLand to the Branson Auto Museum were leveled.
"The people really came together and got it cleaned up and got the town moving again," said award-winning banjo aficionado Buck Trent, who has a show in Branson with Marty Stuart. "They just did what they had to do. You have all these people coming here to see you, so you have to be ready for them no matter what."
Within 72 hours of the tornado, 200 volunteers from the Missouri Assembly of God arrived to help with cleanup and reconstruction and Joplin sent addition police and emergency personnel to keep things moving.
A little more than two months later, the golf courses are green, the theaters are open, and the hearty Missourians who run things are welcoming tourists back.
Golf is one part of that effort.
"We understand that people have questions about the extent of what happened," said Ryan Lanzen, PGA professional and General Manager at Payne Stewart Golf Club. "(The tornado) damaged some of the theaters and hotels, but those folks got relocated pretty quickly, so there really hasn’t been much disruption. The golf courses in the area didn’t have any damage at all, so we’ve been telling everybody to come on out and play. Not only are we open, we’re doing better this year than ever."
Golf plays a role in a bigger Branson production. It is one entertainment option among many in a town built around making people smile. But it’s also part of a larger effort, one where the lessons of the game – tenacity, focus, character, and working hard until the end – can be seen with every repaired storefront and in every reopened theater.
"People come here for the first time because they’ve heard of (Branson) and they want to see what it’s all about," said Matt Dillman, head golf professional at Thousand Hills Resort. "They come back because they love it."
In the rest of the country, they call that Midwestern values. In Branson, they don’t call it anything. It’s just the way they live their lives, everyday, no matter what.