On a brisk fall afternoon, my friend John and I trekked up to Green Lake to take on the iconic Links course at Lawsonia. What awaited us was a thrilling, majestic experience on the Langford/Moreau classic.
I had played Lawsonia Links many years ago, but a relatively recent restoration project that removed many trees from the property and an investment in improved conditioning provided a dramatically superior golf experience to those earlier rounds. The course revealed its full character and beauty in the Fall setting, with the sun breaking through the clouds on the open back nine.
Lawsonia’s tremendously bold, severely elevated green complexes were intimidating, but after playing them they were decidedly fair and strategic, and were a lot of fun to take on. This course is a feat of 1920’s engineering, and with the restoration it is now essentially the same golf course that Langford and Moreau originally envisioned.
Good courses have subtle beauty and charm, but great courses have one or more “wow” moments that leave one feeling lucky to be on an amazing property playing the game they love. I definitely had a few of those “wow” moments at Lawsonia Links, most notably as I walked up the 18th fairway with the stunning 18th, 10th, 13th, and 14th greens in sight side-by-side on a ridge with a forest and Green Lake in the background.
The Golf Courses of Lawsonia – Links Course
Green Lake, WI
Architects: William Langford and Theodore Moreau
Par 72; 6853/6481/5927/5078 Yards
In 1888, Chicago Baron Victor Lawson and his wife Jessie were on a boat ride on Green Lake with friends, and a powerful storm forced the boat to land on the shore. While taking refuge, Lawson decided that Green Lake was the place to escape the hustle and bustle of Chicago and settle into a more relaxing lifestyle. The Lawsons bought the surrounding land and added significantly to the property over the next couple decades.
In the 1920’s, a large resort was planned on the Lawson estate, and William Langford and Theodore Moreau were commissioned to create a world class golf course. Langford and Moreau are well-known for their mastery of the steam shovel and ability to manufacture stunning green complexes with bold sloping and appearance.
Lawsonia Links was the Golden Age version of Whistling Straits, a marvel of golf engineering where no expense was spared at a budget of $250,000 (a huge sum for the times) to manufacture what is now widely considered to be Langford/Moreau’s masterpiece.
The resort never fully realized its original vision due to the Great Depression, but the golf course remained as one of the top courses in Wisconsin. In the 80’s, the Woodlands course was added to the part of the property closer to the lake. Over the years, trees grew up throughout the Links property, concealing much of the original strategic and aesthetic vision of the course.
In 2010, new management took over and established a long term plan to restore the original Langford/Moreau vision for the course. Tree removal and significant investment in superior conditioning have re-established the original grandeur of the course.
Challenge/Playability – 8.5/10
Conditioning – 8/10
Strategy & Greens – 10/10
Routing – 9.5/10
Scenery/Aesthetics – 8/10
Overall Experience & Amenities – 7/10
Overall Score: 51/60
Brian’s Top Golf Courses Played: #7
The front nine at Lawsonia Links plays over the west side of the property, introducing golfers to the strategic style and unique green complexes they will face. While not as visually stunning as the back nine, the front nine certainly holds its own and features the signature par 3 “boxcar” 7th hole.
#1 – Par 4 – 418/407/348/348 Yards
The first hole is a sharp dogleg right. A fade down the right side of the fairway will cut off distance for the approach. The approach plays to a green perched on a dramatic slope to the left with a bunker to the right. Positioning off the tee is crucial as shots played from the left side of the fairway will be longer with a suboptimal angle. Case-in-point, I hit the left side of the fairway, but my hybrid approach found the bunker right which led to an opening double bogey. Meanwhile John striped his tee shot down the right side, hit a short iron to within 10 feet and sunk the birdie putt to get off to a great start.
#2 – Par 4 – 433/422/405/295 Yards
The second hole is another long dogleg right par four but varies dramatically in character from the first. Positioning will not only determine the angle of approach but also the visibility of the green. The tee shot is blind, playing over a steep hill past two cross bunkers that are not really in play but provide an aiming point. The approach plays slightly downhill to a green that is well-guarded by bunkers short left and long right.
Angles are crucial again on this hole, with drives down the right side setting up an ideal angle of approach. Fortunately, that was the route I took, but a mediocre approach left me short and right. Nonetheless, I was able to putt from off the green, and my long putt curled severely right-to-left and found the bottom of the cup for what would turn out to be my sole birdie of the day. It was a great way to offset the opening double!
#3 – Par 4 – 386/367/360/300 Yards
The third hole is yet another dogleg right par 4, but amazingly does not feel repetitive given the unique character of the hole. A deep bunker right should be avoided at all costs, and a fade around the bunker is the ideal route to set up a short iron in.
The green is extremely elevated (aren’t they all at Lawsonia!) and guarded by deep bunkers. This is a well-designed short par four with the challenge of the slopes and bunkers appropriately matching the shorter length of the hole. Only soundly-executed iron shots will find the green.
#4 – Par 3 – 203/175/165/158 Yards
The fourth hole is a challenging uphill par 3. Hit an extra club at all costs! The green is well-protected by a severe right-to-left slope with a bunker at its bottom, and bunkers long. Being downwind, I mistakenly chose not to hit extra club, and a flushed tee shot still found the slope short to set up a difficult chip shot.
The 5th through 7th holes form the highlight stretch of the front nine, with three very fun, dramatic holes that provide scoring opportunities but also present punishing features.
#5 – Par 5 – 487/475/439/439 Yards
The fifth hole is one of my favorites on the course, a thrilling par 5 playing downhill along the west border of the property.
I am in love with par fives that are reachable in two for long and short hitters alike with strategically-placed sloping that can provide extra roll to reward an accurate tee shot. For example, the 7th hole at Mammoth Dunes features a “speed slot” that can propel well-struck tee shots an extra 50 to 100 yards and give the short hitter a shot at reaching the green in two.
#5 at Lawsonia Links struck me as a very similar hole, with a “speed slot” down the right side. Drives headed down the right side must flirt with a stately oak tree as well as OB further right in order to find the extreme downhill slope. My drive whipped past the oak tree to find the speed slot and ran out to over 300 yards, setting up a mid-iron in!
The green is once again extremely elevated and well-protected by deep bunkers, sloping extremely from back-to-front. My second shot came up slightly short in the fringe from where I promptly three-putted for par.
#6 – Par 4 – 439/406/328/328 Yards
The sixth hole is a sharply downhill par 4. Tee shots that find the fairway will run out significantly and must avoid a sweeping pit of bunkers to the left. The approach must carry a steep slope short of the green that prevents rolling the ball onto the surface.
Hitting the fairway is crucial, as anything other than a short iron or wedge with some spin will struggle to hold the green. Unfortunately, I barely found the right rough off the tee, and a well-struck iron shot from a thick lie found the front fringe only to roll about 30 yards back down the fairway. The green features dramatic sloping with a distinct tier back and left.
#7 – Par 3 – 161/146/140/109 Yards
The most-photographed hole on the course, #7 is a shorter par 3 that plays to a famous plateau green framed by large pines in the background. It is rumored that a boxcar was buried under the green complex to give it its extreme shaping. Pressure is high to hit the green, as recovery shots will have to navigate a wildly undulating green.
#8 – Par 4 – 339/322/315/249 Yards
The eighth is a short uphill dogleg right par 4. Driver will likely run through the fairway, so lesser club off the tee is well-advised. The approach plays uphill to a very well-guarded green. Similar to most other holes at Lawsonia Links, hitting the fairway is at a premium as the green will only receive short irons with some spin. This hole is a birdie opportunity with a good tee shot.
#9 – Par 5 – 535/529/520/461 Yards
The ninth begins a six-hole stretch of alternating par 5’s and 3’s (very cool!). This is a long uphill dogleg right that tempts players to bite off more than they can chew with a deceptively long carry to the right to cut the dogleg. Most players are better off conservatively playing down the left side to set up a true three shot hole.
The second shot must navigate two massive fairway traps standing about 100 yards out. The ninth green is another wildly undulating one, placing a premium on hitting it close to the hole in regulation.
Making the turn, golfers will be well-familiarized with Lawsonia’s extreme green complexes, slopes, and strategic bunkering. While that will remain a constant on the back nine, the inner loop has a decidedly different feel, playing through an open field with sweeping views of the property. It seems like the entire back 9 is in view from most points of reference.
The recent tree removal project dramatically opened up views on the southern ridge of the course that houses the 10th, 13th, and 14th greens and gave the back nine a more cohesive character. The unusual sequence of 3-5-3-5-3 to start the nine is one of the most enjoyable stretches of holes I have played.
#10 – Par 3 – 239/217/162/162 Yards
The tenth hole is a long par 3 playing to a heavily-defended green. Drives missing left will face extremely difficult recovery shots, as both John and I found out the hard way. This hole is a beast of a par 3 to open the back nine, but it sure is beautiful.
#11 – Par 5 – 510/482/430/278 Yards
The eleventh is an uphill straightaway par 5 playing into the heart of the back nine property. The drive reminds me of #11 at Whistling Straits, and must navigate a deep bunker short and right.
A bunker cuts across the fairway less than 100 yards from the green, forcing the longer hitter to think twice about going for it in two. The green is large and inviting and sets up for a relatively easy wedge shot for those who play the hole soundly.
#12 – Par 3 – 183/171/165/141 Yards
The twelfth is a flat, mid-length par 3. The green is well guarded by deep bunkers left, right, and short, requiring an accurate and well-shaped iron shot. The green slopes toward the back left in Redan-like fashion.
#13 – Par 5 – 568/556/489/489 Yards
The thirteenth is the signature hole on the back nine, a demanding roller coaster ride. The fairway dives into a valley about 100 yards short of the green, before rolling back up the steep slope to a perched green.
The hole used to take a scenic dive into the woods for the approach, but the restoration removed most of the trees, laying bare the extreme elevation changes in a manner that’s more cohesive with the rest of the course and beautiful in its own right. The green is very undulating with several distinct sections; merely hitting the green in regulation is the start of the adventure.
#14 – Par 3 – 154/139/130/124 Yards
The fourteenth is a short downhill par 3, bordering the Woodlands course. The hole looks inviting from the tee, but disaster lurks long and right with extreme slopes (even by Lawsonia standards) awaiting a blocked or thinned short iron.
The green slopes right-to-left, making right pin positions less accessible. This is another hole that was completely transformed by the restoration from a heavily-wooded, claustrophobic par 3 to an open, majestic hole that fits in with the rest of the course.
#15 – Par 4 – 394/379/370/233 Yards
The 15th is a slight dogleg right, playing uphill to a green set against trees to the right. The tee shot must carry a deep fairway trap that extends over the right side of the fairway. From there the approach shot must avoid bunkers short right and left. From nice position off the tee, I hit a solid controlled fade onto the green about 10 feet away but could not capitalize on the birdie chance.
#16 – Par 4 – 443/435/293/293 Yards
The 16th hole is a long par 4 playing uphill with trees right. With this monster hole playing into the wind, any remaining hope I had of breaking 80 was dashed.
The tee shot plays over a deep bunker right and a grass bunker left. The approach shot must carry bunkers 30 to 40 yards short and and avoid a left bunker. It is a highly demanding long iron or fairway wood, if you’re fortunate enough to be in position to try. The green sits on one of the highest points on the property, with a dazzling view of the rest of the back nine.
#17 – Par 4 – 383/363/355/264 Yards
#17 is a slightly downhill par 4. The tee shot must thread the needle between two large fairway traps. From there the approach plays to yet another severely elevated green that is well-defended by two gaping bunkers front left and front right. Miss the fairway and it becomes incredibly difficult to hit and hold the green.
#18 – Par 5, 580/503/475/407 Yards
The closer is a fitting end to a fantastic ride. This straightaway, slightly downhill par 5 features more amazing views of the back nine. As I closed my round with a routine par, I marveled at a panoramic sight of four greens side-by-side in the distance. The moment made me thankful to be able to play such a great game in a state with such rich public golf experiences.
amenities and overall experience
Lawsonia Links is the BEST deal in the state, and one of the best in the country. Playing this beacon of Golden Age architecture will cost you less than $100 at peak rates while comparable top-notch public tracks in the state (think Kohler, Sand Valley, Erin Hills) cost well north of $200. Terrific off-season discounts are available, as well.
The clubhouse is modest with a municipal feel. The pro shop is well-stocked and the snack bar has everything you’ll need for your day on the links, but you won’t get blown away by the amenities. We did not stop for a beer at the Langford pub, but it appeared cozy and featured a view of the ninth green. The driving range was shut down for the season, while the sprawling practice green featured very interesting slopes resembling the Langford/Moreau beauties on the course. The Woodlands course, while not as renowned as the Links, is a solid course in its own right for those looking to play 36 or stay overnight.
Overall, Lawsonia Links is a unique throwback experience that every avid golfer should experience. While tree removal is not always the right move for an older course, it certainly was for Lawsonia as its dramatic sloping and bunkering are best highlighted in open areas. The green complexes are the signature at Lawsonia, and tree removal has showcased them as they may have looked back in the 1920’s.
After playing it for the first time since the restoration, Lawsonia Links vaulted up my personal course rankings from barely cracking the top 25 to solidly in the top 10, which is reflective of its terrific restoration and investment in conditioning.
Next time you are looking to play an epic public course in Wisconsin without killing the wallet, check out Lawsonia!
Note from the editor:
If you’re interested in seeing the dramatic changes made to the Links course during its 2014 ‘restovation’ by Craig Haltom and Oliphant, see this original 2011 review on WiscoGolfAddict.com. While it’s an incredibly outdated post, comparing the two should provide a great before-and-after look at the course and project.