As we wind down the 2019 Wisconsin golf season it’s safe to say the most anticipated new course for 2020 is also one of the state’s oldest: The Club at Lac La Belle in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
With 123 years of championship tradition, new ownership including Matt and Tyler Morse of the Prestwick Golf Group is well in to the back nine of a massive renovation project that will be unveiled to the public via 9-hole preview play starting this Monday, September 9, 2019.
The original course, as Carnoustie historian David Mackesey presented at a recent night hosted at the property, was dreamed up in the late 1880’s to early 1890’s by Washington Park Club leaders and grain industry moguls Charles Schwartz and John Dupee, Jr.
Schwartz and Dupee, of Chicago, were part of a large magnate of wealthy Chicagoans who frequented the Oconomowoc area of Wisconsin, especially in Lac La Belle.
The wealth in the area at that time was staggering. From listening to stories from my aunt who grew up house- and baby-sitting in the area, leaders of industry like Frederick Miller (Miller Brewing), John Rockwell (the town’s founder and original leader), Gustav Pabst (Pabst Beer), Philip Armour (meatpacking, banking), Montgomery Ward (department stores) and many others made the lakes of Oconomowoc their homes away from home.
These folks built palatial estates on one of the Midwest’s nicest lakes, drove the best cars and boats, had the most money and the greatest opportunities and amenities for unmatched leisure.
One of these estates, for example, was this 15,000-plus square foot mansion that once belonged to Montgomery Ward and was recently purchased by Pittsburgh Steelers and former University of Wisconsin football star TJ Watt.
It was in that vein of having all the finest things that the original Country Club of Oconomowoc was borne, and its championship pedigree began with its first PGA Professional, Alex Smith.
Smith won the US Open in 1906 and 1910, and finished first runner-up in 1898 and 1901. Smith was part of a group of distinguished Carnoustie golfers and clubmakers (including three of his brothers) who traveled from Scotland to the Midwest to take up leadership roles at what is now The Club at Lac La Belle in Southeast Wisconsin’s Lake Country.
The second to do so was a champion golfer himself, Robert S. Simpson. Simpson won the Western Open Championship in 1907 and 1911, and finished third at the prestigious event in 1908.
Following Simpson to be the club’s third Head Pro was Willie Anderson. Anderson is still the only back-to-back-to-back champion of the US Open, having won first in 1901, then in 1903, 1904 and 1905 with top three places in 1897 and 1898.
Mackesey shared with us a history that is unparalleled in the Milwaukee area, and probably in the entire state. It’s one that members of the former club knew very little of, and that Mackesey and his team at Carnoustie (along with Morse and his team at La Belle) plan on showcasing at the new course with [heavily protected/secured] artifacts that will rotate between other Carnoustie sister clubs over time.
The tradition is rich at Lac La Belle, and it is not something new ownership takes lightly. According to Prestwick Golf Group Founder Matt Morse, “We’re more about preserving history than building a great golf course. We’re caretakers.”
Based on early returns, though, “great” is a bar set too low for La Belle. In fact, I have no qualms saying it will jump immediately in to the top echelon of courses (public or private) in the greater Milwaukee area and will serve as a perfect, nearby complement for golf travelers to Erin Hills.
At Lac La Belle, players will be able to get off their feet and use a golf cart, spend significantly less per round and enjoy a historically and architecturally significant track that will both challenge and stimulate them as lovers of the game.
9-Hole Preview Play (starting Monday, September 9, 2019):
Most of the property is still under construction, but nine holes will be open for walking only. It will be a par 32 setup with the goal of drumming up early buzz prior to its 2020 opening. The cost for preview play will be $25 per player.
The course is likely to be a little soft out of the gates because of all the new turf, but that will be nothing compared to the way it was in previous years. As the Country Club of Oconomowoc, then as the Lac La Belle Country Club, then eventually as [public course] Rolling Hills, the course was well-known to saturate and get unbearably swampy.
Golf Course Architect Craig Haltom, known best for his development and construction leadership efforts at Sand Valley Golf Resort and as President of the Oliphant Companies, leads a world-class team at The Club at Lac La Belle that has been faced with a multitude of unique challenges.
As a couple of examples, the team has had to raise the minimum ground level throughout the property, and has had to partner with the DNR to strengthen the water supply by fortifying and expanding streams and natural water sources.
Some of the improvements made are more visible than others, but a few I loved seeing with my own eyes were the beautiful Ohio Best Sand filling their 100-plus bunkers (the same top-of-the-line sand as at the renovated SentryWorld, The Classic at Madden’s Resort, etc.), a substantial expansion of the footprint that’s allowed for four new holes on land adjacent to the clubhouse, and a complete re-routing of a course that had become overgrown and claustrophobic over time.
Haltom’s routing for the updated course boasts new-age design while paying homage to the Golden Age architecture he studied during his educational years in the UK and Scotland.
Thinning the overgrowth of trees, trophy specimens have been kept to highlight the best of what’s grown over the past 120-plus years while still providing for the width and angles today’s golf enthusiast clamors for.
All 18 green complexes have been relocated and/or redone entirely. Gone are the small greens that protected championship courses in the 1900’s, and growing in now are large, strategically mapped complexes that will allow for a nearly limitless number of terrific pinnings.
Here’s one example of part of the new par three fourth green:
The most exciting hole location on the fourth isn’t even in that picture but is a true hole-in-one setup with a punch bowl Haltom built in toward the complex’s back-right… Here is a slightly less picturesque view of the entire putting surface, with a six-seater golf cart to the side to provide perspective:
Players head back across the private drive following the fourth hole to a new fifth that serves as La Belle’s “Road Hole.” This layout sets up beautifully from right-to-left, as seen below. Keep in mind the entire property is still growing in.
As dusk settled in, my quest for good light led me to the split-fairway par five sixteenth. With Lac La Belle lingering on the horizon, the sixteenth is a terrific example of how Haltom and his team selected landmark-like trees to highlight the new course’s design elements.
Opening in 2020, The Club at Lac La Belle is offering 35 limited lifetime membership for $60,000. These memberships will include golf with carts for immediate family for life, and will have no annual dues or food and beverage minimums.
The course will otherwise be open to the public and will charge $90-120 per round which, outside of private club guest fees, is a price point almost nonexistent in its current marketplace but that should help bolster La Belle as an “affordable” top-tier golfing experience.
While honoring its 123 year old history, the Club at Lac La Belle is embarking on a whole new chapter that will include great new names, new traditions and a wonderful new course.
And to think, there are still 13 more holes I haven’t even laid eyes on yet.