RIDGEDALE, Mo. -- It was half past 7 a.m. CT as I strutted into the clubhouse perched atop Payne's Valley looking for a bite to eat before playing 18. Three tables were already occupied -- all golf trips among buddies ranging in age from recently graduated from business school to those who have been schooling in business for decades. Despite the age gap and differing life experiences, all three conversations centered around one man: Tiger Woods.

The young crowd passed around a phone with recent videos of Woods swinging a golf club on a loop. Another discussed Woods' injury history that read like their bar tab from the night prior. The third and final group were talking about a previous trip they enjoyed together: the 2019 Masters.

When I got the nerve to interrupt and introduce myself, I asked them each one simple question: "Are you here because of Payne's Valley?" All three unanimously voiced, "yes."

Payne's Valley emerged onto the scene soon after Woods' 2019 Masters victory. Participating in a televised charity event with Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose, Woods gave the public a look at his first architectural endeavor into public golf in the United States and fans have responded with a hefty appetite. 

"The buildup to opening Payne's Valley was wild," said Matt McQueary, Director of Golf Sales & Marketing at Big Cedar Lodge. "We had the COVID golf boom happening, Tiger had just won the Masters the year before and the opening event was a mini-Ryder Cup style event with Woods, Thomas, McIlroy and Rose. It was a perfect storm to raise awareness of the course. The week the course opened, the phones and website had so much traffic that everything crashed.

"The initial excitement was certainly around the course being Tiger's first public design, but the 19th hole (a signature of the course) was designed by Johnny Morris himself. That hole has created a lot of buzz on its own. Tiger's name will always be a huge draw for the course, but the course speaks for itself with it's playability, wide fairways, scenic views and natural setting."

The boom hasn't worn off either. With tee times opening up 30 days in advance for resort guests and two weeks in advance for the public, the rush to beat the clock is as adrenaline-inducing as the tee shot on the island-green 19th hole. Seconds separate success and failure.

It's not just the public that has been drawn to Payne's Valley -- like a man who passed out not once but twice during his round and willed himself to the finish just so he could boast he played Tiger's course to completion -- but also notable professional athletes. Kansas City Chiefs superstars -- and known golf addicts -- Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, for example, are among those who have made their way to Payne's Valley.

At 47, Woods is still the straw that stirs the drink.

While the best of Woods' playing days are behind him, the best of his designs are still in front. Playing the Payne's Valley golf course for the first time, I came into the experience without any prior inclinations. I had watched the charity event and seen videos of various holes, but what Tiger brought to the table was still a mystery to me.

Wide fairways, dramatic elevation changes and pristine conditions were the theme on the front nine. Different grasses were laced throughout with one type of zoysia in the fairway to promote an easier path for the club face to reach the golf ball and another around the green to create nerve-racking tight lies. The only blade out of position all day was that of my iron.

The view looking back up the fairway from behind the fourth green at Payne's Valley Patrick McDonald

Midway through the round, I received a message from a good friend who is immersed in golf architecture. The COVID-19 boom not only brought more people to the golf course, but it also brought a greater appreciation for the courses themselves. Gil Hanse, Andrew Green, Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw -- these restoration masterminds are now household names, gods to someone as crazy as my pal.

The three iMessage bubbles persisted on my screen after his initial message searching for my thoughts, and without even replying, he unleashed his opinion: Payne's Valley wasn't his cup of tea, no matter the straw. It was nothing he had not digested before courtesy of his silver spoon.

At the time, my thoughts had begun materializing, and still are, but what is sometimes lost is the vast majority of golfers do not have to access to higher-end golf courses. They play their local golf courses or municipals, get the occasional invitation to a country club and that's enough for them.

Even non-golf course architecture aficionados would admit Woods isn't quite in the same league as these gentlemen when it comes to design (not yet at least). But, he's not trying to be either. For as much as Tiger was a scientist throughout his playing career he was also as much an artist, and those who get the opportunity to play at Payne's Valley -- literally the general public -- get a peek into this half of Woods' brain.

I think that's the point. There are plenty of great golf courses around the country that will test your skill and patience, that will beat you down around every corner and make you question why you even play the game, and there are plenty that will scold you for wearing a hat inside the clubhouse. There's no interview process, no initiation fee, no handicap requirement at Payne's Valley. It is not that type of golf course.

It's a course where you can say, "Hey, doesn't this remind you of No. 3 at Augusta National?" and point out the drastic right-to-left slope in the green on the short 12th. Or step foot onto the par-4 15th's green and think to yourself, "Tiger must have taken inspiration from the ninth at Augusta National" and then reminiscence about his lag putt in the final round of the 2019 Masters that may very well be the most underrated shot of his career.

It's spacious, it's forgiving and it's playable for any handicap (it is a resort-course after all). It will test some more than others, but it will give all a glimpse inside the mind of arguably the greatest golfer of all time. That is something no other architect can offer.

The vantage point from behind the 15th green at Payne's Valley Patrick McDonald