RIDGEDALE, Mo. (AP) — Instead of panicking, Johnny Morris saw an adventure worth digging into when a massive sinkhole swallowed tons of earth at his exquisite golf course deep in the Missouri Ozarks.
Experts urged the 68-year-old founder of outdoors megastore Bass Pro Shops to fill the hole at Top of the Rock Golf Course near Branson with clay and boulders and move on. But Morris has long been a cave enthusiast — even discovering one with spectacular formations two decades ago — and was intrigued by the possibility that an unknown cave system lay underneath.
To the self-made billionaire, unlocking a natural mystery by burrowing further underground is worth it, no matter the cost. Morris has long seen opportunity in unexpected places, and his instincts are seemingly good: Forbes lists him as the world's 397th wealthiest person with an estimated net worth of $4.4 billion.
"People say I'm crazy but I'm happy about every nickel we've spent down here," said Morris, who declined to say how much exactly.
Morris spent as much time fishing as studying in his college years. Eventually, he collected the best fishing tackle he could find from around the U.S. and sold it, along with homemade bait, from his dad's Brown Derby Liquor store in Springfield, Missouri. He quickly developed a following in the Ozarks region — its lakes and rich streams a haven for anglers — created the Bass Pro Shop Catalog in 1974 and opened the first of his now 98 stores in Springfield seven years later.
Over the years, he's developed a love for caves and discovered several himself, including one on property where the golf course now stands.
On a cold day in 1993, steam hung like smoke at the entrance of his new find as the warm cave air mixed with the January chill. He ventured inside with Jack Herschend, a fellow cave enthusiast whose family owns Silver Dollar City in Branson and other theme parks.
"Man, I was so excited to be potentially the first person ever in that cave," Morris said of the cave on a property about a half-mile away from where the sinkhole emerged.
Morris dubbed it "John L's Cave" — his middle initial is L — and a National Geographic photographer went inside and described it as "an underground chapel."
"It's a beautiful, pristine cave," Morris said. "Just magical in there."
Morris opened Top of the Rock Golf Course in 2014. A year later, after days of heavy rain, a sinkhole 40 feet deep and 70 feet wide opened along the large Tom Watson-designed putting green. No one was hurt, but golf course officials "were in a panic," Morris recalled.
Government experts suggested the best course of action was to fill the hole and go back about normal business. But soon, water from a pond drained into the hole, and a worker who happened to be near John L's Cave reported a torrent of water pouring through the cave.
"So I knew there was a connection," Morris said. "And that's when we started to dig."
The dig uncovered tall limestone formations that Morris believes are further clues of caverns. Every day, one backhoe at the bottom of what is now a 100-foot-deep hole painstakingly moves dirt to a ledge, where a second backhoe removes it one scoop at a time.
The same circulating groundwater that causes caves to form can also cause sinkholes, said Doug Gouzie, a Missouri State University cave and sinkhole expert. The U.S. Geological Survey says states like Missouri, Florida and Texas that have large areas of underlying water-soluble rock are most prone to sinkholes. Missouri has nearly 16,000 sinkholes, including one encompassing 700 acres in mid-Missouri.
Gouzi concurs that there is likely a cave system beneath the golf course, but what isn't known is how spectacular — or ordinary — that cave might be. For Morris, that's part of the intrigue.
"Whether it's just like a foxhole thing you have to crawl in or whether there's big caverns, that's the mystery," he said, "and that's the exciting part of all of this."