Golf Course Preview: The Club at Lac La Belle

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.

Tee shot on the par four 2nd hole from the ground (construction golf)
Tee shot on the par four 2nd at the Club at Lac La Belle (construction golf)
Tee shot landing area on the par four 2nd
A close-up of the green on two – avoid that short-left trap off the tee, trust me
Continue reading

Golf Club Review: The University Club

I first visited The University Club (fka Tripoli) three years ago with Golf Course Architect Andy Staples (link to original article). Andy had been hired to put together a 10-year strategic plan for renovating the now 99-year-old course: Updates that will help usher the club in to and beyond it’s centennial anniversary.

The University Club has a rich history, having played host to the 1956-1960 Miller Opens (video below from the year Ken Venturi won in 1957) and the 1970-1971 Greater Milwaukee Opens, won by players like Venturi, Cary Middlecoff and Gene Littler.

Video highlights from the 1957 Miller Open

Recent Renovations:
Starting with a terrific competition golf course and outstanding facilities/amenities, Staples’ work and suggestions have been far from a total redo.

Heightened private club competition on the north side of Milwaukee, though, meant critical changes needed to be made to address a few quirks and especially upgrade the club’s practice facilities.

The previous practice facilities consisted of a tight chute of land between N 43rd Street and the first tee with a handful of hitting spaces. It’s a small area that allows players to work out some kinks before teeing off, but little else.

Enter Staples, who is highly regarded for his practice facility expertise (link to portfolio), and enter a strategic partnership between the University Club and the Marquette University Men’s Golf Team.

This joint venture worked with Staples to upgrade the U-Club’s practice facilities significantly, including designated short game areas, practice greens (one perfectly level to practice speed and line), a competition wedge range with cement targets (to sound when hit) and a 4-hole practice course.

Level and uneven lies, uphill and downhill shots, required lobs, awkward sand shots, approaches from fairways and long rough can all now be simulated on the 10-acre parcel of land.

Conceptual plan for the new short game practice area (2017)
The new practice facility’s competition wedge range (photo credit: Dylan Hills, University Club of MKE)
4th green on the new short course (photo credit: Dylan Hills, University Club of MKE)
Practice facility short course (photo credit: Dylan Hills, University Club of MKE)

To make room for this state-of-the-art practice facility, some physical changes needed to be made to the golf course.

The par three twelfth was moved from running north-south to east-west, was lengthened slightly and given a terrific green complex that’s modeled after the original twelfth.

Much simpler re-routing was achieved on the tee areas of the thirteenth and sixteenth holes, helping create more well-defined fairways and, in the case of the sixteenth, a safer golf experience.

Significant tree removal has been undertaken (and is still underway) across the property, some mowing lines have been adjusted and numerous forward tees have been added.

The Course:
The University Club is not an overpoweringly long course on the scorecard, tipping out at 6,588 yards and with blue tees at 6,269, but it plays significantly longer. The back nine, especially, features a tremendously challenging stretch of holes from twelve to sixteen.

None are more challenging than the par four sixteenth, which regained its bite and now fully earns its number one handicapped hole status.

The par threes are mostly on the shorter side, which I appreciate at a classic course with tough greens.

The new twelfth is the longest of the four and is unquestionably the hardest. It plays about 200 yards slightly uphill, regularly in to the wind and to a fairly narrow, well-protected green.

The new par three 12th at The University Club

The great green complexes at The U-Club start right out of the gate on the first hole. A downhill drive from the clubhouse to a tree-lined fairway, this raised Bendelow putting surface is nicely canted back-to-front:

Hole 1: Par 4 (386/373/364/364)

The second is where players start to see noticeable updates from the renovation. This area, running parallel to Good Hope Road, includes the second hole fairway and its green surrounds, the sixteenth tee area and the twelfth hole.

Continue reading

North Hills’ Eddie Terasa Earns WPGA Senior Player of the Decade Honors

It’s not often I re-post press releases on my site, but this one’s special to me as it pertains to the Head PGA Golf Professional at our home club, North Hills CC in Menomonee Falls, Eddie Terasa.

I’ve had the pleasure of playing a number of rounds with Eddie since I first joined North Hills in 2013. I’ve never seen a smoother, more consistent swing or approach to the game of golf.

Congratulations, Eddie, on being named the PGA Wisconsin Section’s Senior Player of the Decade!

WISCONSIN GOLF PROFESSIONALS HELMINEN AND TERASA EARN PLAYER OF THE DECADE HONORS

West Allis, WI (April 30, 2020) – The Wisconsin Professional Golfers’ Association (WPGA) announces Players of the Decade. Earning the prestigious honor for the decade spanning 2010-2019 are Ryan Helminen, PGA of Ridgeway Country Club (Neenah) in the member race and Eddie Terasa, PGA of North Hills Country Club (Menomonee Falls) in the senior race. 

“Helminen’s journey to the member honor featured ten years of consistently great play,” said Joe Stadler, Executive Director Wisconsin PGA / WPGA Junior Foundation. “Terasa’s senior resume during the ten years was just as impressive as Helminen’s on the member side with an impressive list of major tournament victories over the course of this 10-year stretch.” 

Photo courtesy of PGA of America

The process for determining these awards is based on a point system with players receiving points on how each individual finished in the Player of the Year standings annually from 2010-2019. On a yearly basis the system provides certain point values to each of the top twenty players in the member contest and the top ten players in the senior contest.

Player of the Decade – MEMBER
Ryan Helminen’s Journey

In the past decade, Appleton-native Helminen has won the WPGA Member Player of the Year award five times, finished second twice and finished third twice. These finishes helped him earn 213 points and win the award by an impressive 55-point margin. Highlights during Helminen’s run included the 2014 Wisconsin State Open Title, four WPGA Professional Championship victories and seven one-day WPGA Classic wins. Helminen has been a Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) member since 2007. He will be recognized at an upcoming WPGA Tournament. 

“Being a member of the WPGA is a great honor and I feel very privileged to be a part of it,” said Helminen, PGA Teaching Professional at Ridgeway Country Club. “The opportunity to have been able to compete on all our wonderful courses is very much appreciated. I look forward to the new decade and the challenge of continuing to have success in our great game, in our great state.”

Player of the Decade – SENIOR
Eddie Terasa’s Journey

Madison-native Terasa turned 50-years-old in June 2010 entering him into the senior standings for the upcoming decade. Just one year later Terasa started a run of four consecutive years of achieving the Senior Player of the Year Award. Terasa’s list of victories included the 2010 Wisconsin State Open, 2010 WPGA Match Play Championship, 2016 Wisconsin State Senior Open, two WPGA Professional Championships (2011 & 2013), and three WPGA Senior Professional Championships (2011, 2013 & 2014). Terasa has been a PGA member since 1987. The WPGA acknowledged Terasa as the Senior Player of the Decade at the WPGA Spring Membership Meeting Reception held on March 2, 2020 at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center in Green Bay. 

“It’s all about the journey,” said Terasa, Head PGA Professional of North Hills Country Club. “I enjoy competing with my fellow PGA friends. The awards and accolades are the cherry on top.”

Golf in the Time of Coronavirus

Last week, Governor Evers extended his “Safer at Home” order for the state of Wisconsin through May 26.

While frustration was nearly audible throughout closed down communities, there was at least one piece of positive news that came with it: Golf courses are permitted to open, with serious restrictions, on Friday, April 24.

The 24th is tomorrow, and while it won’t be golf as usual, at least it’s golf. Besides, players aren’t complaining as tee sheets across the Milwaukee area are filling up quickly.

Most courses are just about booked solid for tomorrow, and many through the weekend. Some courses, like Lawsonia, are spreading out tee times as much as 20 minutes, although the average is closer to 12-15. Long intervals between tee times should help with social distancing, and should also help keep play moving.

So what will be different about golf in the time of Coronavirus?

Alcohol and food / beverage sales will not be allowed, in general, and on-course amenities like scorecards and tees, ball washers, bottled water and in many cases even garbage cans will be noticeably gone.

There will be a foam insert in the cups that rises an inch over the hole or rests an inch below it and will not allow the flags to be removed. As many common touch points as possible will be eliminated.

Foam pool noodle cut off ~ 1″ below rim of cup

Most courses have included their adapted rules in pushed emails this week, but Oshkosh Country Club’s message about updated rules and regulations seemed to be the most succinct and universal:

Covid-19 Rules and Regulations:

  1. The use of golf carts is prohibited.
  2. Social Distancing Requirements must be observed at all times, unless the players reside in the same living unit or household.
  3. All tee times and payments must be made in advance online or by phone.
  4. Clubhouses and pro shops must remain closed.
  5. Tee times must be spaced to avoid multiple foursomes from clustering or gathering at any stage of the course.
  6. Driving ranges and miniature golf must remain closed.
  7. Sales of beer, liquor and food are prohibited.
  8. Water is NOT available on the course
  9. Flag sticks and Cups will be placed 1” above the ground.

A list of known rates for Milwaukee area courses that will be open tomorrow:

Blackstone Creek (Germantown): 18 holes-$40, 9 holes-$25
Broadlands (North Prairie): 18 holes-$38.50, 9 holes-$20
Edgewood (Big Bend): 18 holes-$24, 9 holes-$16
Fairways of Woodside (Sussex): 18 holes-$40, 9 holes-$25
Fire Ridge (Grafton): 18 holes-$45, 9 holes-$25
Ironwood (Lisbon): 18 holes-$36, 9 holes-$21
Kettle Hills (Richfield): 18 holes-$29
The Golf Courses at Lawsonia (Green Lake): 18 holes-$40, 9 holes-$25
MorningStar (Waukesha): 18 holes-$59, 9 holes-$34
The Oaks (Cottage Grove): 18 holes-$39, 9 holes-$25
Oshkosh Country Club (now semi-private): 18 holes-$45, 9 holes-$25
Pewaukee GC (Pewaukee): 18 holes-$40, 9 holes-$25
Scenic View (Slinger): 18 holes-$40, 9 holes-$25
Silver Spring (Menomonee Falls): 18 holes-$40, 9 holes-$25
Songbird Hills (Hartland): 18 holes: $19.50, 9 holes-$11.50
The Bog (Saukville): 18 holes-$65, 9 holes-$40
Western Lakes (Pewaukee): 18 holes-$23, 9 holes-$15
Wild Rock (Wisconsin Dells): 18 holes-$40, 9 holes-$25
Wild Rock, Woods Course (Wisconsin Dells): 9 holes-$15

Waukesha county courses:
Moor Downs (Waukesha): 18 holes-$16, 9 holes-$13
Wanaki (Menomonee Falls): 18 holes-$31, 9 holes-$19
Nagawaukee (Pewaukee): 18 holes-$34.50, 9 holes-$21.50

Milwaukee county courses:
Brown Deer (Milwaukee): 18 holes-$32, 9 holes-$20
Dretzka, Whitnall, Oakwood (Milwauee): 18 holes-$20, 9 holes-$11
Currie, Grant, Greenfield (Milwaukee): 18 holes-$18, 9 holes-$11
Lincoln (Milwaukee): 9 holes-$11

At the risk of sounding preachy…

As we embark on this new world of restricted golf, I want you all to understand that there are people in the community who think it’s unfair we’re allowed to play our favorite hobby while the rest of the state is quarantined in their homes.

I get it.

I’ve been at home with my wife and kids for a month and a half straight and we’re all getting stir crazy as we do our part to flatten the curve and change the narrative on COVID-19.

While I’m not the kind of person who’d report others for slipping up, I know there are people just waiting for it to happen so they can jump all over them.

That said, I implore you all to use common sense on the course. Practice social distancing and please do your part to avoid shining a negative light on the entire golfing community. There are a whole lot of people with a whole lot of nothing to do, and it can truly take one or two idiots to screw up everything for all of us.

Consider what happened in Illinois: The morning after courses were allowed to open, ~ 300 players showed up at the same Chicago course, at the same time, and practiced zero social distancing. As you’d guess, their golfing privileges are gone.

While it may not seem like it, getting to golf during a national quarantine is a privilege that just might help save some of our sanity and potentially course owners’ businesses. So, for both avid golfers’ sanity and for the great people whose livelihood rely on golf being able to be played, let’s not be like Illinois.

We’re going to get through this Coronavirus pandemic and, like you, I can’t wait to return to playing our great game again soon. More than anything, though, I can’t wait to get back to a somewhat normal life [and golf] sometime in 2020.

Wishing all of you and your families good health and safety during these scary times. Again, don’t be like Illinois 🙂

Product Review: Vessel Player 2.0 Stand Bag

The recently announced end to the ban on golfing breathed much needed hope in to Wisconsin golfers, who have otherwise been dealing with a generally cold, wet Spring and Governor Evers’ “Safer-at-Home” order while we all do our part to flatten the curve of the Coronavirus pandemic.

To say there hasn’t been much to look forward to would be an understatement. One thing I’ve been really looking forward to, though, is my new golf bag: The Vessel Player 2.0 stand bag.

My new Vessel Player 2.0 golf bag

While not yet a household name, regular watchers of the PGA and LPGA Tour have seen Vessel’s products… a lot.

The top luxury bag brand on Tour, customized Vessel bags are used by the likes of Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler, Bryson DeChambeau, Steve Stricker, Patrick Reed and about 30 others, not to mention Michelle Wie and 38 other LPGA players and another 100 male and female Tour pros who use Vessel’s stock models. Steph Curry, Michael Phelps and other celebs who value sleek looks combined with unmatched quality and customization also tote Vessel bags.

But probably their most high-profile commission was for the 2019 President’s Cup at Royal Melbourne (link: Vessel Goes to the 2019 President’s Cup in Australia). These bags were awesome!

Vessel’s custom US & International team bags for the 2019 President’s Cup

I was first introduced to Vessel at the 2018 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, where I spent at least 30 minutes gawking at their staff, cart and stand options.

From premium-quality microsuede-backed synthetic leather, to durable weatherproof zippers, premium leather handles and purpose-built functionality that’s “Filled with purpose,” Vessel bags have all the look and feel of a true premium brand.

It’s that purpose-built functionality that I love most about my new bag: Convenience, comfort, security and good looks all come together seamlessly.

The straps rest comfortably across my neck and shoulders. A magnetic tees / rangefinder pocket keeps on-course tools quickly accessible while not requiring constant zipping and unzipping, and a pocket-inside-pocket lockable valuables pouch makes almost too much sense.

“Filled with purpose” goes beyond golf bags, too. For every Vessel bag purchased, the company donates a school backpack to a child in need. My bag, labeled 56479, represents a whole lot of good deeds on the company’s behalf.

Vessel’s mission, likewise, is sewn in to each bag and is a breath of fresh air for the soul:

Inspired by love
Intentionally designed
Handcrafted to perfection
Made for a unique mission
One that only you can fulfill

Life is an adventure
Experience it to the utmost
Carry what you treasure
Reach out eagerly and without fear
Become who you were created to be

You are a Vessel
Filled with Purpose

Sign me up. I’m bought in and already have luggage and a duffel on order.

Vessel’s mission statement, stitched in to each bag

Because of the “Safer-at-Home” order and its coinciding ban on golf, I haven’t had a chance to put my new bag to the test on the course yet. So rather than fully reviewing it from experience, I’ll touch on my perceptions as they pertain to four key features of golf bags: Storage and features, durability, weight and carriage, and options and customization.

Storage and Features
The Player 2.0 has some really smart features that I’ve never seen on other bags. Two of these that I really like are the hidden lockable valuables pouch and the magnetic range finder / tees pocket.

Located above the central belly panel, the magnetic pouch holds strong while opening and closing with ease and is sizable enough for a range finder and other odds and ends. This is a really cool feature.

The valuables pocket is a waterproof pouch located inside the garment pocket, providing a secure space for wallets, rings and so on, and includes a hanging lock.

The Player 2.0 is available in a 6-way or 14-way configuration. I chose 6-way as when I’m practicing I like to bring an extra club or two (usually both woods and a 1-iron, for example, or sometimes an extra wedge).

The cooler pouch is another nice feature. Most bags these days have a cooler pocket, but Vessel’s feels more substantial and is perfect for holding a water bottle.

There is a nice video on the Player 2.0’s product page, linked here:

Link to product overview video for Vessel Player 2.0 stand bag

Durability
One of the problem areas with every golf bag I’ve used (other than my Seamus Fescue Project Sunday bag, which I use only during ideal weather conditions) is the zippers. Inevitably, standard zippers rust, snag and even crack.

While my Player 2.0 bag has not been exposed to any elements yet, there is a noticeable difference in the quality of the YKK waterproof zippers they use compared to anything else I’ve used, and I expect them to hold up well.

The Player 2.0 utilizes microsuede-backed synthetic leather (a very high-quality microfiber), which is an ideal material for long-lasting golf bags. Even colored white [and meant to be used outdoors], the fabric is known for its abrasion, fade and heat resistance, toughness and cleanability.

The Player 2.0 also now features carbon fiber legs. I’m guessing they probably won’t withstand my golf cart’s wheels (like my old Sun Mountain bag’s didn’t when I backed over it in the garage – not the bag’s fault, obviously!), but they should be as or more durable than anything else on the market.

Weight and Carriage
At 5.7 pounds, the Player 2.0 is about a pound and a half heavier than Vessel’s Lite Stand model, and within the acceptable range for a light-weight carry bag.

The two-way, interchangeable straps are soft and feature an eight-point pivot to provide an extraordinarily comfortable carry.

The Player 2.0’s 8-way pivot point for carrying straps

Options and Customization
If you don’t find exactly what you like in their stock bags, Vessel has a comprehensive custom bag process that I recommend playing around with online:

Link to Vessel’s custom bags process

Basically everything aesthetic is customizable (including 22 colors and 7 material types for 3 different sections of the Player 2.0, for example; logos and embroidery can also be added).

Even though he uses all black, Stephen Curry’s bag is a terrific example of what can be done through Vessel’s custom bag process (Golf Digest link: Stephen Curry’s Got a Brand New Golf Bag — and it’s Straight Fire):

Stephen Curry’s custom Vessel Player stand golf bag

Product Overview:
Brand: Vessel
Model: Player 2.0 stand bag
Base Price: $345
Website: https://vesselbags.com/collections/stand-bags/products/player-2-0-stand-bag