Restorations and redesigns are all the rage in modern American golf architecture. Classic courses built in the golf boom of the early 20th century have started reaching their shelf lives. Over time, these properties have succumbed to numerous pressures, including crowding by trees, environmental changes and an inability of these mostly shorter tracks to remain challenging for elite players who have taken advantage of advances in modern technology. Fueled by increasing demand in the industry and growing interest in golf architecture, restoration projects and outright redesigns are sprouting up across the country, with acclaimed architects attempting to rekindle the magic of these historic American treasures.
The Club at Lac La Belle is a great example of a complete redesign project that has reimagined a historic club into a beautiful modern property that will challenge golfers of all levels.
The club has an extensive history, dating back to its founding in 1895. The surrounding area was a popular getaway spot for affluent Chicagoans, and the course was established in its current location in 1896, making it one of the oldest tracks in the nation.
Over time, the low-lying elevation of the course relative to the neighboring lake led to significant drainage problems, with several holes becoming unplayable over large stretches of the golf season. The situation reached the point where the course would either have to close or go under the knife to alleviate the drainage issues.
Thankfully, businessman Matt Morse, who was already a force in the golf industry as CEO and founder of the Prestwick Group, stepped in and made a significant investment to completely redesign Lac La Belle in 2018. The architect he tapped for the project, Craig Haltom, could not have been a better choice for the job. The overhauled track reopened to wide acclaim in 2020 as a semi-private facility.
Perhaps best known for discovering the Sand Valley property, Haltom has been a rising star in the industry. Wearing many hats at times, he has extensive experience in all aspects of golf course design and operation including architecture, construction and maintenance. Haltom’s recent contributions to the Wisconsin golf scene have been highly impressive. In addition to his significant role in building Sand Valley’s courses, notable projects include restorations of Lawsonia Links, Stevens Point Country Club and the Beloit Club, the re-imagination of the Glen Golf Park (formerly Glenway), and the Dance Floor putting course at Geneva National. He’s also done great work at my home club, Nakoma, including restoration of several holes as well as briefly serving as the club’s Superintendent. Lac La Belle was Haltom’s most ambitious project, a near-complete teardown of the existing course and creation of a new one on the same footprint.
One of the biggest challenges Morse and Haltom faced was to re-route the course to avoid the lowest-lying areas that were prone to constant flooding. To address this, additional land was purchased just west of the original property that would become holes 1 through 4. Also, massive amounts of dirt were moved from the higher portions of the course, including the location of the current driving range, to lower-lying areas to raise up the fairways to a height that would no longer succumb to flooding. The remaining low-lying areas were then avoided in the new routing, made possible by only needing to implant 14 holes on the original 18-hole footprint of the club.
On a beautiful morning to play, our group included myself, WiscoGolfAddict OG Paul Seifert, Craig Haltom himself, and Gregg Thompson, a golf architecture aficionado living the dream of having his own backyard par-3 track. It was a fun group, and an incredible opportunity to walk the course with its acclaimed architect and learn the backstory of how the holes were created and the decisions made along the way. Craig and Gregg both hit the ball very straight off the tee with consistency, so I was forced to step up my driver game to a higher level (in other words, hit it straight) to have the chance to chat with them more often as we walked the fairways.
The Club at Lac La Belle
Architect: Craig Haltom (2019)
Par 71; 6906/6321/5870/5250/4612 Yards
The opening four holes at Lac La Belle tour the newer land on the west side of the property. The holes are carved out of the woods and feel very secluded relative to the rest of the course. Some of Haltom’s boldest features and most innovative ideas come on this opening stretch.
Hole 1 – Par 4, 390/357/332/223 Yards
The opening hole is a mid-length par-4 playing over a gulley towards a large central fairway trap. The bunker may make longer hitters think carefully about strategy and club selection off the tee, as it will catch center-struck tee shots running out over 250 yards. Long hitters may be able to catch a downslope to the left of the trap and set up a short pitch into the green, but must avoid bunkers even further left. Shorter hitters will have no problem hitting driver down the middle, but this is still an intimidating opening tee shot with fescue on both sides and forest right. The deep green extends to the left and behind a deep bunker, creating many different potential pin positions of varying difficulty.
Hole 2 – Par 4, 369/344/323/290/221 Yards
The second hole is a short par 4 playing to the westernmost point on the property. The tee shot must steer clear of a tall tree guarding the left edge of the fairway and forest and fescue to the right. A series of bunkers less than 100 yards short of the green block a clear view of the hole from the left side, making a drive down the right side of the fairway ideal to open up a view of the green on the approach.
The green is two-tiered, with the upper tier in the front of the green and the lower tier in the back along with a chipping area. It’s easy to go long on the approach shot, as we found out, and face a challenging third shot coming back up a large slope to the front section.
Hole 3 – Par 4, 526/431/403/332/277 Yards
The third hole is a long, straightaway par-4. The tee shot is wide and generous, but a good drive is required to set up a manageable distance on the approach. The green is elevated, guarded by bunkers and fronted by a small ravine. Poorly played tee shots will face a potentially challenging carry over the ravine which may prompt a layup.
Hole 4 – Par 3, 192/169/151/138/110 Yards
The fourth hole is an uphill par 3 playing over a marsh to one of the coolest greens I’ve ever seen. The green complex is incredibly deep (at least 60 yards) with three massive, distinct sections that allow for dramatically different pin positions and yardages.
Amazingly, this is the two handicap hole, something virtually unheard of for a par 3. This caused some interesting discussion among our group on what should factor into handicapping holes, and why par 3’s aren’t usually considered tougher holes for that purpose. In the case of #4, once ascending to the green, one can easily tell why this hole is rated so difficult.
The front section is more of a false front, with a severe slope waiting to suck mishits well off the green. The middle section plays much smaller than it appears and will repel even slight misses into trouble. This is where the hole was cut when we played, and I thought I had hit a solid shot just left of the pin, only to find my ball in a sneaky bunker just long with a devilishly short sand shot back to the pin (a much different situation than the birdie putt I expected to have). The back section of the green is a dramatic punchbowl, with severe slopes around the perimeter that will direct the ball towards that hole location.
This hole can range from a long par 3 to a short one, and it can be set up as a precision-oriented short shot to a long approach into a gathering section of the green with the potential for holes-in-one. The tremendous day-to-day variety that is possible makes this one of my favorite par threes in the state.
After the fourth hole, the routing comes back across the road to the main, original section of the property. This part of the course features more of a traditional parkland setting, with marshes, ponds, streams and fescue continuing to provide plenty of challenge alongside Haltom’s brilliantly shaped fairways and greens.
Hole 5 – Par 5, 492/465/402/356 Yards
The fifth is a short par 5 hugging an out-of-bounds road to the right and bunkers and fescue to the left. The fairway is squeezed by sand traps about 280 yards off the tee, which may force longer hitters to take a more measured approach. Nonetheless, this hole is reachable in two as well-struck tee shots will run a ways downhill even for shorter hitters. The green is huge and undulating, curling around a small bunker short and left. The road and trees right make this a true risk-reward hole with plenty of penalty for mishit aggressive second shots, while conservative play to the left side will set up a difficult angle of approach.
Hole 6 – Par 4, 426/416/389/356 Yards
The sixth hole is a dogleg right bending around and over a creek. A large tree on the right side of the fairway provides a good aiming point off the tee as it can be easily carried. Tee shots played too conservatively will careen towards a fairway trap and lead to a long approach shot. The green is the nearest point on the course to the track’s namesake lake, and is guarded by bunkers short-right and left. This is a strategic hole as players can bite off as much as they can chew on the tee shot to try to set up a short approach and a birdie opportunity, or bail out left and try to make a tough par.
Hole 7 – Par 4, 385/335/312/280/235 Yards
The 7th hole is a short par 4 playing over and alongside a marsh, then up to an elevated green. The tee shot is narrow and favors a cut; simply finding the fairway will set up a manageable short iron or wedge in. A small pot bunker to the left of the fairway tightens the landing area to the point where longer hitters may opt to hit less than driver. The green is one of the smaller ones on the course, with a deep bunker guarding the front-right. The fairway joins up with that of the 6th hole, a theme that repeats itself several times and creates a sense of shared experience.
Hole 8 – Par 3, 156/142/122/109 Yards
This is a fantastic short par 3 playing downhill to a large, reverse Redan-like green. Similar to the fourth hole, its multi-sectioned green and dramatic undulations create potential for many possible pin positions that can significantly vary the day-to-day strategy of the hole. We played to a middle left pin, which set up perfectly to use a “kicker slope” by the left edge of the green to funnel the ball near the hole. Paul and I both used the slope adeptly (his shot looked like it was challenging the hole for an ace), but I still managed to miss my short birdie putt while Paul sunk his.
Hole 9 – Par 4, 357/308/268/234 Yards
The 9th is a short par 4 that was the only hole from the original course that was largely unaltered in the new routing. The green may be reachable for longer hitters, but is perched on a steep slope and closely guarded by deep, fescue-laden bunkers. Going for the green on the tee shot is fraught with danger, but laying up will still require a precise approach shot.
The back nine on Lac La Belle stays within the property’s original footprint in a parkland setting. There is tremendous variety in the hole designs, however, as the back nine will challenge every player’s skill set thoroughly. A par-36, this side has more scoring opportunities than the par-35 front nine, but there is plenty of challenge as well. Haltom’s design prowess remains on full display with his brilliant use of the topography to create nine very dramatic holes.
Hole 10 – Par 4, 425/402/371/327 Yards
The 10th hole is a long dogleg right par 4. While it may be tempting to cut the dogleg and shorten the approach, a large bunker and mature trees closely guard the right side of the fairway and can easily cut off a clear line of sight into the green. The approach plays to an elevated, well guarded green. This is a stiff test to open the back nine, and the challenge doesn’t let up for a few holes.
Hole 11 – Par 3, 198/181/170/87 Yards
The 11th hole is a long, demanding par 3. The tee shot must carry a marsh, but the carry isn’t as challenging as it looks from the tee as the green sits more than 30 yards beyond water’s edge. Another giant kicker slope lies on the right side, providing assistance to shots missed slightly right (or played there deliberately).
Hole 12 – Par 5, 605/534/515/462/398 Yards
The twelfth hole is a long, challenging par 5 that weaves through water hazards. Accuracy off the tee is essential, with marsh left and water right. I hit my tee shot right, hoping it missed or bounced over what appeared to be a small creek, but then discovered I had actually hit into a sizeable pond that wasn’t completely visible from the tee. The second shot must avoid another pond on the left, and the approach plays uphill to a large green. Three quality shots are essential for anyone hoping to make par or better.
Hole 13 – Par 4, 461/415/395/354/308 Yards
The 13th hole is the last of a very difficult four-hole stretch to open the back nine. The dogleg left par 4 features a creek that runs down the left side of the landing area, then crosses the fairway as the hole bends left, making a carry of the water off the tee virtually impossible. Those who wish to make the approach shot a more manageable distance must flirt with the creek on their drives. The approach shot plays uphill to a natural-looking elevated green. It’s amazing that the greens on the redesigned track seem to be in such natural, fitting locations, yet most of them did not exist in the previous routing.
Hole 14 – Par 4, 367/365/326/301/236 Yards
The 14th is a short par 4, a welcome respite from the tough stretch of holes 10-13. The tee shot plays over a pond that shouldn’t really be in play (my popped up 3-wood still easily carried it).
From there the hole bends gently to the left to a very deep green with bunkers left and water right. Hitting the green is easy, but it’s crucial to hit the correct section of the green to avoid a potential 3-putt.
Hole 15 – Par 4, 378/349/320/289 Yards
The fifteenth is another good scoring opportunity, but trouble must be avoided first. The tee shot plays to a wide fairway, but anything missed left will find a large marsh while trees will gobble up misses well right. Solid drives will be rewarded with a straightforward, uphill short iron or pitch into a two-tiered green. This was one of my best birdie opportunities of the day, which of course I missed yet again!
Hole 16 – Par 5, 524/500/453/424/393 Yards
The sixteenth is a unique and fun par 5. Off the tee, the fairway is split in two by a series of bunkers. A specimen tree used to sit in the median, as well, creating an even more distinct divide, but unfortunately was struck down by lightning this past spring.
Even without the tree directing traffic, golfers must decide between the left and right fairway off the tee. The hole can be shortened down the left side for those wishing to get home in two, but that’s also the narrower side. I hit a solid drive down the right side and was still almost able to reach the green in two.
The approach must navigate around two bunkers fronting the right side of the green, making positioning the second shot down the left side ideal.
Hole 17 – Par 3, 166/155/140/112 Yards
#17 is a relatively short, slightly downhill par 3 playing to a wide green. The large size of the green once again creates many possibilities for pin positions that could significantly change the strategy and difficulty of the tee shot.
Hole 18 – Par 4, 489/465/440/380/341
The finisher is a burly par 4 playing uphill to the clubhouse. Two very well struck shots are needed to reach the green in two, making this more of a par 4.5. The green is a fitting end to the round, as it’s very large and undulating. Also, in unique fashion, it joins up with the putting course located next to the clubhouse, creating the potential for crazy 200+ foot putts to settle ties!
Amenities and Overall Experience
The amenities at the Club at Lac La Belle are outstanding, and are in line with what you’d hope to find at an elite public track. The driving range is perfectly kept and stocked with fresh TP5x balls, and is everything a golfer needs to fully warm up for a round. The clubhouse is modern, charming and luxurious. Lunch at the Rivalry Pub hit the spot after walking 18 holes, and its menu featured an array of sandwiches, burgers, salads and appetizers. My grilled cheese was delicious and the chicken wing I sampled was very spicy but excellent.
The service at Lac La Belle was top-notch, as well. Our starter was very friendly, engaging and informative, and beverage cart service was thorough and timely. The course loops near the clubhouse on three occasions throughout the round, making pit stops easy, as well.
The putting course just off the clubhouse patio looks amazing, and I regret not being able to play it after our round. Craig Haltom has designed several putting courses in recent years, and his knack for routing “holes” over severe mounds and slopes in an architecturally appealing way is truly marvelous.
Last but not least, the conditioning at Lac La Belle was superb. The tees and fairways were in near-perfect condition and the greens rolled fast and true. The bunkers and fescue were also maintained very well and added to the aesthetic appeal of the track. It’s very impressive that in just two years, the course has matured this well from a conditioning perspective.
Two years after re-opening, The Club at Lac La Belle has clearly established itself as a top publicly accessible facility in the state. For a non-Wisconsinite, it would be the perfect spot to start a golf trip – an engaging, challenging parkland course that would be a great warmup round for Erin Hills, Kohler, Sand Valley and the other elite public tracks in the state. Craig Haltom’s star is rising as an architect, and he hit a home run in his first original design here.
After Matt Morse’s untimely passing earlier this year, his son Tyler has carried on with Matt’s dream of re-imagining the historical legacy of Lac La Belle. I met Tyler after the round in the clubhouse as he chatted with other customers, and his warm and welcoming personality made it clear why the club is thriving so well under his watch.
The Club at Lac La Belle has debuted at #19 in my course rankings, no small feat for a course that was literally underwater just a few years ago. I can’t wait to play it again, and highly recommend making the trip for any avid Wisconsin golfers.
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All original photography by Paul Seifert and Brian Murphy for WiscoGolfAddict.com