It was a familiar feeling, and one I’ve come to chase over the years while being blessed to play some of the country’s great golf courses. It was that feeling when, despite high expectations, you’re blown away by a golf course that’s unfolding in front of you.
My expectations were surpassed quickly and often at the new Club at Lac La Belle outside Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
Course Architect Craig Haltom has been a veritable Swiss Army knife of the golf industry throughout the years, having risen to the role of President at Oliphant Golf Management in his time with the company since 2001.
Still, many know his name for having found the land and introducing Mike Keiser to what has become Sand Valley Golf Resort in Rome, Wisconsin. Craig still serves as Construction Lead for new projects there, but until now hadn’t had the opportunity to both design and build a full golf course.
Having earned his Masters of Landscape Architecture from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, Craig spent years studying the great courses of Great Britain and Ireland, and while I have not been across the pond I can see from pictures there that his passion for European-style golf is on display at La Belle.
Rich in history dating back to 1896, Haltom was able to take something very old in Oconomowoc and not only make it new but completely unrecognizable from what it was… And unique compared to everything else in the area.
The new Club at Lac La Belle is bold and memorable. It meshes Mammoth Dunes-like green complexes with a beautiful, parkland-esque layout.
Thoughts like “Whoa, that’s so good,” and “This does not feel like Wisconsin,” and “This green is insane – I love what he did with [this] slope” popped in my head constantly. I had to apologize a number of times to my buddy Jeff for all the over-the-top commentary.
Simply put, I was in awe of what Craig Haltom and the Morse family have created at The Club at Lac La Belle.
They have successfully and simultaneously developed a golfing experience that is top-end and extremely unique to the area while paying homage to a rich heritage nearly 125 years in the making that originated with US Open champions Alex Smith and Willie Anderson, and fellow champion golfer Robert B. Simpson.
Those were the first three PGA Professionals at what was then the Country Club of Oconomowoc on the same piece of land that now inhabits the CLLL.
The club’s history and the Smith brothers who helped open the site for golf, specifically, intertwines with the history of Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland. New ownership is even working with Carnoustie and David Mackesey of Diablo CC to put the Smith brothers’ nostalgic equipment and other turn-of-the-20th century artifacts on display at La Belle.
But I’ve written about the history of The Club at Lac La Belle in the past (Course Preview: The Club at Lac La Belle), and I hope you dive down that rabbit’s hole as it’s as rich as any course’s in the Midwest. What I want to touch on now is what The Club at Lac La Belle has become.
There is nothing fully comparable in the state of Wisconsin, and honestly I think it will jump straight in to the top 10 public courses discussion behind the likes of the River course at Blackwolf Run and the Links at Lawsonia, but ahead of or among [mostly top 100 nationally ranked] courses like SentryWorld, the Irish at Whistling Straits, Meadow Valleys at Blackwolf Run, the Bull at Pinehurst Farms, University Ridge and Wild Rock.
Random thoughts during my round:
- The course design is unique and really fun
- The Club at Lac La Belle will feature prominently in the “Best Renovations” category
- Wide and forgiving fairways
- These greens are massive! Only in-state comps are Mammoth Dunes, Blue Mound, Lawsonia Links for some
- The bunkering stars – from the Ohio Best white sand to the natural fescue outcroppings, they’re really beautiful
- I can’t believe they created this out of Rolling Hills (and what the hell happened to all those trees!?)
- The Rivalry Pub, patio areas, short game practice area, events & wedding venues, and the pro shop are all really nicely appointed
- Merchandising akin to Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley
- Love the logo
- Incredibly friendly staff – everyone’s very helpful, especially Patrick
- So many wow moments on the course
- Green contouring favors players with course/local knowledge – eg: The par three 8th green, bank shots found on other short holes
- When these sand-based greens are sped up, false fronts could get really crazy
- Love the drivable par fours, risk/reward opportunities
- The par 3’s are masterful, and the 4th might be one of my all-time favorites
- The par 5’s are gettable, especially the course’s signature 16th hole
- The 18th green is incredible – I love a good punch bowl
- Don’t go in the left-most fairway bunker on 2
- I need to buy more batteries for my drone – 3 was not enough here
- The memorabilia they have on property from Carnoustie is very cool – I held the mashie of a 4-time US Open champion, for example
- This would be a fun course to chase the sun on, then spend time with cocktails betting over putts on the Himalayas / Punch Bowl-like putting course outside the Rivalry Pub
I could go on, and I’m sure I will in future posts about the Club at Lac La Belle, but the point I want to get across is that their opening week (this weekend, starting Saturday June 20) is a big day for golf in Southeastern Wisconsin.
With a price tag just under $100 including cart, the new Club at Lac La Belle is the best course in the area not named Erin Hills, and I think it is the perfect complement to Erin Hills for out-of-towners looking for a second round without breaking the bank.
A few of my favorite holes:
The par four second is a wonderful strategic golf hole on land new to the Club at Lac La Belle. The tee shot is between trees to an area littered with sand traps – the smart play is short of them to set up a short approach shot, but what fun would that be? This multi-tiered green will be diabolical when fully grown in.
The par three fourth features one of the most unique greens I’ve seen in a long time.
Course knowledge will be huge on the par three eighth, which plays downhill to a green that runs from front-to-back and left-to-right. A speed slot on the front-left will take shots short-left all the way to a back-right hole location.
Continuing the great par three holes, the mid-range eleventh carries water and plays to a green with a kicker slope high on the right side to allow players to carom shots toward left-side hole locations.
Right-side pins, on the other hand, might be really tough to hold.
The par four fifteenth has another of my favorite greens on the course – a colossal back-to-front putting surface with some funky little sand inlets.
Probably their signature hole, the par five sixteenth is all about choices and consequences.
This is another terrific, massive green complex, by the way.
Rounding out a series of excellent par three holes, the seventeenth is a short one-shotter with another wild green and massive slopes.
The par four eighteenth is a great closing hole, and features one of the best greens on the course: A punch bowl that connects with the competition putting range to create nearly 175 yards of continuous green.
This hole reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of the great golf courses in California, like Cal Club, Riviera and others. Something about the aesthetic.