Lists and rankings are engaging avenues to express opinions about golf courses, but are notoriously controversial. Heated debates over course rankings in the golf social media scene are quite common, for example, over minor differences in opinion in many cases. Rankings are a means to identify what we value in a golf experience and to express some of the reasons why we love the game, so it comes as no surprise that they can stir such deep emotions.
However, I believe that course rankings are also subjective exercises in judging what is, after all, an art form: the golf course, one of the few non-standardized playing fields in the world of sports, is a human creation aimed at maximizing enjoyment, in many ways just like a painting or a sculpture. A golf property is an open template for an architect to implant whatever form of a layout they so choose and its merits are in the eye of the beholder – in other words, there are no rules.
That said, while I take course rankings lightly and not as a matter-of-fact, I am certainly not one to shun these lists, as evidenced by my own Top 50 Course Rankings page that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed updating over the past two seasons. Regardless of how seriously you take them, most agree that course rankings are fun and interesting, and they can be great mediums to elicit meaningful conversation about golf architecture.
Golf Digest, perhaps the industry’s foremost authority on the subject, recently released a new kind of list compiled by Ron Whitten, one that appeals to me greatly: the 13 most fun golf courses in America. While other Golf Digest course rankings tend to focus on areas like challenge, prestige and architectural purity, this newest list hits on the main reason why we all should play this game in the first place – the pursuit of enjoyment.
Wisconsin, one of America’s top destination golf states, landed one venue on this esteemed list. While that is unsurprising in and of itself, the property that made the cut will probably surprise many. It’s not David Kidd’s modern thrill ride, Mammoth Dunes. It’s not Langford/Moreau’s magnificent masterpiece, Lawsonia Links. Instead, it’s a newly-reinvigorated layout that flies a bit more under the radar: The Club at Lac La Belle. And I, for one, couldn’t agree more with this selection.
When I first played The Club at Lac La Belle in the summer of 2022, I instantly knew it was a place I’d try to revisit regularly.
A historical property that was reborn in 2020 as an upscale public venue, The Club at Lac La Belle is the result of a bold redesign effort envisioned by its owners, the Morse family, and carried out brilliantly by innovative architect/jack-of-all-golf-trades Craig Haltom.
At the time of my first visit to Lac La Belle last season, the rebuilt course had grown in nicely, but not to the point where I would say the turf was mature. Regardless, I was immediately taken by the property, its engaging layout and the attention to detail that was obvious the instant I set foot on site. My full course review goes deep into that experience, one that vaulted Lac La Belle well into my Top 50 Course Rankings right out of the gate.
The experience was so outstanding that I longed to return for another round this season. Just 45 minutes down I-94 from my hometown, a trip to Lac La Belle seems like an easy semi-regular trip to make. However, after a busy season visiting properties all over the state, as well as many rounds played at my home course in Madison, I realized in dismay that I hadn’t gotten out to Lac La Belle yet.
With the property set to close for the winter in mid-October, I knew I had to move quickly to secure a 2023 round on this gem. It just so happened that it came together on La Belle’s last day of the season – better late than never!
Normally, when you think of a course’s closing day, a dreary, brown, cold and windy setting comes to mind. Not so in this recent visit to Lac La Belle. The surfaces were in phenomenal shape, having fully matured since my last visit with smooth, quick greens. As the sun burst out of the clouds conveniently during morning drone photography, I was stunned at the beauty of the playing corridors set against erupting fall colors, as shown in our video on WiscoGolfAddict’s YouTube channel:
So what is the magic sauce that makes The Club at Lac La Belle fun? The property itself is not inherently gifted – it’s a rather flat, marshy tract lacking significant natural land movement. And while the views of the nearby lake, also named Lac La Belle, are stunning from the air, most of the course plays from a low elevation with trees blocking lake views from the ground.
In other words, The Club at Lac La Belle has become one of the nation’s most fun courses (according to Golf Digest) without oceanfront, without sandy soil and without dramatic topography. How in the world did Craig Haltom pull this off?
Dr. Alister MacKenzie, arguably golf architecture’s GOAT, shed some light on this subject in his writings nearly a century ago, providing insight into Lac La Belle’s resurgence.
In his book The Spirit of St. Andrews, MacKenzie stressed the importance for undulations and hazards on a golf course to be used to maximum strategic effect, presenting multiple options of play for all classes of golfers (not just the scratch players) and creating day-to-day variety. Without proper use of these features, golf courses, and the game itself, can easily become monotonous and not worthy of playing for a lifetime. Indeed, adhering to these principles is exactly how a course can be considered “fun.”
There is no doubt that Craig Haltom took MacKenzie’s sage advice to heart in his work at Lac La Belle, and nowhere is that more evident than in the design of its greens, where he brought a wealth of knowledge from another phenomenon shaking the industry: the putting course.
Over the past few years, Haltom has found a niche at crafting putting courses with wild contours, and has accumulated a design portfolio that includes installments at The Dance Floor at Geneva National, Journeyman Distillery in Michigan, The Glen Golf Park in Madison and even one at The Club at Lac La Belle itself.
Putting courses, fashioned from St. Andrews’ famous Himalayas putting ground, are exploding in popularity thanks to their accessibility to players of all calibers. They are fun in a way that the traditional game is not, featuring massive mounds and slopes that you won’t see in a regular round that reward creativity with the flatstick over pure technique.
At The Club at Lac La Belle, Haltom was able to implant similar concepts on its regulation greens that were built from scratch in the 2020 redesign. While they contain larger areas of pinnable locations than you’ll find on a putting course, Lac La Belle’s greens feature distinct sections connected and flanked by areas of severe contours the likes of which I have never seen on another full-length layout.
The design of La Belle’s greens allows for a wealth of day-to-day variety in setup, to the point where some holes can play completely differently from one day to the next.
The best example of this is their crown jewel, the fourth green. I have played thousands of golf holes in my lifetime, but I have never come across another green like this. At about 60 yards deep, not only is it one of the largest greens I’ve seen, it contains a symphony of distinct, extreme contours that you’d normally only find on a putting course.
The slopes and sections of the fourth green allow for several possible compelling pin positions, all of which can dramatically alter the challenge and strategy of this par 3. The signature pin position, however, is undeniably located in its back section. Here, a massive backstop slope forms a punchbowl-like area that will funnel well-struck shots towards the pin. Playing to this pin position in my October visit, two in my group were able to run their tee shots onto the back slope, and it was a pure thrill to watch them roll back at the hole.
The par threes at Lac La Belle house the wildest greens found on site, and the fun continues at the eighth. While this short one-shotter appears like a reverse-redan off the tee, there’s a lot more to this green than meets the eye. The left half of the surface features a kicker slope on its flank, but shots that end up left of the pin will face a blazing fast downhill putt. A deep swale separates the left and right sides of the green, creating a distinct section on the right side. Finding the correct section is crucial here, but even that won’t guarantee a par.
The 18th concludes the ride at Lac La Belle in spectacular fashion. This brutally tough, uphill par 4 finishes on a green with an extreme false front and is guarded closely by a deep bunker to the right. Shorter hitters like me are well advised to lay up to the left and play the hole as a par 4.5.
What makes 18 stand out, though, is that its green connects to the putting course up the hill towards the clubhouse. This officially makes the 18th the largest green I have ever seen, assuming you can count the massive area of the adjoined putting course. While this connected “section” will only come into play in the most extreme situations during regular play, we used it to settle a tie in our Wolf game, putting from the top of the hill some 200+ feet down to the regular part of the 18th green. It was fun on steroids!
Haltom’s roller coaster greens crucially open the door for strategic angles of attack, another principle of emphasis from Dr. MacKenzie to create interest on a golf course. After all, the magic of great greens can only be unlocked when the angles of approach make maximum use of their undulations. These angles of attack create compelling risk-reward decisions throughout the round and help level the playing field between different calibers of ball strikers. Indeed, on some holes you’re better off with a 7-iron and a clear, receptive angle to the pin than having a lob wedge in from a poor angle.
The second at The Club at Lac La Belle best illustrates how Haltom used strategic angles of attack to bring out the best in his otherworldly greens. The green on this short par 4 features three distinct sections separated by stark ridges, and the hole must be approached thoughtfully to secure a par.
I wisely hit a shorter drive up the right side here, and playing to a back-left pin I was able to use the green’s middle spine and backstop to maximum advantage from my angle in the fairway, funneling my approach near the pin to set up an easy par. Meanwhile two of my playing partners, after playing aggressive tee shots, faced daunting angles from the left side where the undulations of the green worked against them to repel their balls off the back of the green.
While a case could be made for several other Wisconsin venues to be on Golf Digest’s “most fun courses” list, The Club at Lac La Belle absolutely deserves recognition as one of America’s preeminent joyrides. This fall’s visit only further cemented my high opinion of the course, and with fully mature turf and a well-run operation it should have no problem continuing to appear in prestigious course rankings.
The look of the course is incredible considering the limited natural characteristics of its land. As I flew my drone over Lac La Belle’s perfectly maintained surfaces, I knew right away it was a photography session I would remember for a long time. Here are a few more highlights from that fabulous morning:
If you still haven’t played The Club at Lac La Belle, make it a point to visit in 2024. And don’t wait until closing day like I did! While I was lucky to beat the buzzer of the 2023 golf season and get my visit in at the last possible moment, I will definitely not cut it so close when I return next year.
Are there any other Wisconsin properties you think deserve to be considered among America’s most fun courses? If so, we’d love to hear your opinions in the Comments section!