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
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My Top 50 Golf Courses in America

When my brother and his wife bought me a golf ball cabinet about ten years ago, I started collecting logo balls from all the different courses I played. I hadn’t started my foray in to golf writing at the time so its contents grew slowly but steadily, consisting primarily of muni tracks around Waukesha County.

I started WiscoGolfAddict in 2011, and during that year played 59 different courses including three of my first private clubs. With 2012 came my first out-of-state golf trips: Myrtle Beach with my cousins Frank and Jeff, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a group of friends. It was also the year I played my first Tour courses, including Erin Hills, Blackwolf Run’s River course, Chambers Bay, University Ridge and Cog Hill No. 4 Dubsdread. I played 126 rounds in 2012 at a total of 52 different courses.

While I’d consider 2012 to be the year that opened my eyes to world-class golf, I’d also consider it to be the year that opened my eyes to the way golf can drain my bank account. An audit of my post-season golf charges that year was just shy of $10,000.

My first media event invites started coming in 2013, first for a pre-event media day at the John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run, and soon after a weekend trip to Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minnesota. Exciting things with my golf writing were starting to snowball, and they have only continued to this day.

Through my writing I have experienced amazing public and private golf courses around the country, built out a wonderful network of industry experts and friends, and am continuously learning about all the things that make golf great – especially from the design and architectural side.

The experts (Doak, Fazio, Coore, Crenshaw, Jones, Staples, Trent Jones, Jr, …) may score 80-95 on a scale of 100 for their course design knowledge. I can’t claim to know more than 10-20, which is probably still generous, but the path to learning is filled with playing new styles of courses and constantly picking up on the both subtle and not-so-subtle nuances that architects institute in their designs. It’s an adventure I hope to enjoy for years to come.

While Golf Digest, GolfWeek and Golf.com release their best courses in the US lists on an annual or semi-annual basis, I have just one: This running list of the 50 tracks I consider to be the best in the country… out of the hundreds that I’ve played.

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1. Pacific Dunes (Bandon, OR)

Architect: Tom Doak (2001)
Yardages: Black-6633, Green-6142, Gold-5775
Slope/Rating: Black-142/73.0, Green-133/70.7, Gold-129/68.6

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The Top 50 Golf Courses in America (click here for the list)

Golf Course Review: Medinah Country Club, Course No. 3 (IL)

Medinah CC No. 3 Course Rankings:
Golf Digest: #48 US, #3 Illinois
GolfWeek: #85 Classic
Golf.com: #44 US
Architect: Tom Bendelow; Rees Jones

This past May, I had the good fortune of being invited to the unveiling of Rees Jones’ newly renovated Course Two at Medinah Country Club. Since the course was not yet ready to be played, we were treated to a round on a championship course that I’ve dreamed of playing for years: Medinah No. 3.

Most recently the site of the 2012 Ryder Cup, No. 3 has played host to a plethora of golf championships, including that Ryder Cup, three Western Opens (now the BMW Championship), the 1988 US Senior Open, three US Opens (1949, 1975, 1990) and two PGA Championships (1999, 2006).

Currently ranked the 48th best golf course in the country (public or private), No. 3 has a heritage that is unmatched in the Midwest.

The course starts out with a relatively straight-forward par four. Tee it high and let it fly – anything that flies the hill should get a good roll forward down the hill, leaving a short iron or wedge in.

From the first green on, players are introduced to some terrific Tom Bendelow designed greens. The back-right pin location we had moved a ton.

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Hole 1: Par 4 (433/383/357/357)

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Hole 1: Par 4 (433/383/357/357)

The first in a fabulous set of par threes, the second hole plays entirely over water. While all the tee boxes are adjacent to the lake, the required carry and especially the angle in changes dramatically depending on tees.

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Wisconsin’s 18 Toughest Par 3 Holes: The Long Holes

The Beasts (> 185 yards from the first tees in):

1. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys #15 (227/196/189/150/103):

Depending on the distance, this is the hardest par three maybe in the world! From the back three tees, this signature par three on the Meadow Valleys course at Blackwolf Run tees up from well over 180 yards usually straight in to the wind and over a massive prairie with one of the widest multi-sectioned greens outside of Lawsonia’s Links course!

From 227-plus yards from the tips, this is as hard of a par three as it gets.

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Hole 15: Par 3 (227/196/189/150/103)

To make the challenge of hitting 3-wood or more off the tee more palatable, the forward tees have probably the most breathtaking view of any hole in the state of Wisconsin to look back on:

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A look back from the forward tees on the 15th at the Meadow Valleys course at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, WI

2. Whistling Straits, Straits #17 (249/223/197/165/131):

This hole has decided the outcomes of PGA Championships!

At over 240 yards from the tips, and with Lake Michigan bordering the entire left side, there is nothing simple about this Alice Dye created hole – a large mound protects the right side of the green and one of the most ridiculous volcano bunkers outside of the Pete Dye Course at French Lick means absolutely anything errant is punished to the enth degree.

Dead zone lies between the tee and green, and anything other than hitting the green leads to bogey or worse.

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Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/137)

3. Blackwolf Run, River #13 (231/205/192/150/101):

Blackwolf Run’s River course boasts one of the most demanding tee shots in the entire state of Wisconsin: From over 200 yards, it’s all carry over the Sheboygan River with a draw, or else one hell of a high fade over the tall oak trees that front the green on the thirteenth hole.

To add to the difficulty level, fly fishermen regularly fish this stretch of the river and pay little to no attention to golfers, making players hopeful that if their tightly drawn shots are miss-hit that they’ll at least not hurt anybody.

Fortunately for us during the below round, there was only one fly fisherman in the river, and none of us hit him (see below photo).

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Hole 13: Par 3 (213/205/192/150/101)

4. University Ridge #17 (250/192/164/130):

The seventeenth at University Ridge tees up from 250 yards from the tips (one of the most popular tournament courses in the state, as well as the University of Wisconsin’s home course and site of the PGA Champion’s Tour American Family Championship), and plays directly over a pond that not only includes all-carry, but also has out-of-bounds directly left and right.

There is literally nowhere to miss on this hole, and even from the first tees in is a ridiculously challenging one-shotter.

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Hole 17: Par 3 (250/192/164/130)

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2015 Golf Season in Review

For the first couple of years I wrote my blog, I did a write-up at the end of each year to put the season in to words, and to commend the courses I felt were the best that year in multiple categories.

As my site has continued to grow, this has become less academic, especially since I joined a private club a few years back and am obviously playing a much smaller sample of different courses each season.

It doesn’t hurt to write a little review, though, especially for my own pleasure to look back at in the future at what was the golf season of 2015.

The winter of 2015 extended a little longer than normal, with most golf courses opening in early April. This was a couple weeks earlier than in 2014, but months behind some years. I am already praying that 2016 will see course openings back in the February timeline again… Fingers crossed.

With last night’s first snow of the Winter, I figure this is as good a time as any to wrap things up… Not that I won’t be out there if/when the weather warms up and the grounds are healthy enough to play!

Most of my rounds this year were played at my home course of North Hills Country Club, which under the tutelage of Randy DuPont was in exceptional shape again all year round. My season was a roller coaster of sorts, starting out with an index of 12.1 and getting down to 9.0, shooting consistently for a while in the low 80’s.

Then I became a bad nine, right around September first, shooting 87-89 and losing money in my Saturday games. In games where the total monetary payout ranges from $3-5, I actually lost $45 one day. Ouch.

That is enough about my game, though – what about the courses from 2015?

2015: Best Public Golf Course Played

1. Pacific Dunes (OR)

Rated the number two public course by Golf Digest, number two modern course by GolfWeek, and number one public course in the country by Golf.com, Pacific Dunes is coastal golf at its very best. Designed by Tom Doak and opened in 2001, Pacific Dunes blends perfectly rugged Bandon landscape with ingenious hole layouts and execution.

Pacific Dunes hole 4

Pacific Dunes hole 4

Pacific Dunes Website

2. Streamsong, Red Course (FL)

Just a few years old, the Red course at Streamsong has already amassed an incredible number of accolades, including the number 18 public course in the United States.

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