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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Course Preview: The Club at Lac La Belle

As we wind down the 2019 Wisconsin golf season it’s safe to say the most anticipated new course for 2020 is also one of the state’s oldest: The Club at Lac La Belle in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

With 123 years of championship tradition, new ownership including Matt and Tyler Morse of the Prestwick Golf Group is well in to the back nine of a massive renovation project that will be unveiled to the public via 9-hole preview play starting this Monday, September 9, 2019.

Aerial view of the Club at Lac La Belle’s clubhouse and “Carriage House”

The original course, as Carnoustie historian David Mackesey presented at a recent night hosted at the property, was dreamed up in the late 1880’s to early 1890’s by Washington Park Club leaders and grain industry moguls Charles Schwartz and John Dupee, Jr.

Carnoustie Historian and Diablo GC President David Mackesey presenting

Schwartz and Dupee, of Chicago, were part of a large magnate of wealthy Chicagoans who frequented the Oconomowoc area of Wisconsin, especially in Lac La Belle.

The wealth in the area at that time was staggering. From listening to stories from my aunt who grew up house- and baby-sitting in the area, leaders of industry like Frederick Miller (Miller Brewing), John Rockwell (the town’s founder and original leader), Gustav Pabst (Pabst Beer), Philip Armour (meatpacking, banking), Montgomery Ward (department stores) and many others made the lakes of Oconomowoc their homes away from home.

These folks built palatial estates on one of the Midwest’s nicest lakes, drove the best cars and boats, had the most money and the greatest opportunities and amenities for unmatched leisure.

One of these estates, for example, was this 15,000-plus square foot mansion that once belonged to Montgomery Ward and was recently purchased by Pittsburgh Steelers and former University of Wisconsin football star TJ Watt.

It was in that vein of having all the finest things that the original Country Club of Oconomowoc was borne, and its championship pedigree began with its first PGA Professional, Alex Smith.

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Lawsonia: One of Wisconsin’s Best 36-Hole Destinations

For my money, there’s probably no better spot in the state of Wisconsin for 36 holes than Lawsonia. An hour and fifteen minutes from Milwaukee, Lawsonia offers two distinct golfing experiences: The all-world Langford/Moreau classic Links course, and the tree-lined, scenic Woodlands course.

I made this year’s first pilgrimage to Lawsonia two weeks ago, and this time brought with me a new gadget.

My friend, Troy, had been telling me how easy it is to use the DJI Spark drone, and he let me borrow his to try out for a couple of weeks.

Like any golfer, I’ve always salivated over amazing drone footage of great golf holes. No one I’ve seen recently has done that better than Andy Johnson of The Fried Egg. For a terrific example, see his video from Lawsonia here:

“The Boldest Value in Golf: Lawsonia Links” – video credit: Andy Johnson, The Fried Egg

Despite having no drone or video editing skills, I fumbled around enough to take a couple nice shots I wanted to share. The first is one of my favorite par fours: The second hole on the Woodlands course.

Lawsonia Woodlands hole 2: Par 4 from the sky

A view from the sky shows the strategic value in playing off the tee to the fairway right of the quarry: A clear shot to the green.

Another great par four on the Woodlands course is the curvy, up-and-down fourteenth (click image for video):

Lawsonia Woodlands hole 14: Par 4 from the sky

Finally, a video of Phillip’s tee shot on the famous par three seventh on the Links course (click image for video):

As an aside, I didn’t realize until after this trip that I haven’t updated my review and photos of the Links course since it was deforested in 2014. I’ll aim to re-shoot the course and update photos sometime during the 2019 season.

And, finally, to all the dads out there… Happy Father’s Day!

Golf Course Review: Mistwood Golf Club (IL)

The journey of Mistwood Golf Club over the past 20 years has been well documented and for good reason: This is a fantastic public golf destination and an incredibly well run operation.

The first thing you’ll notice at Mistwood is its facilities. The bag drop is just outside the pro shop, downstairs from their Scottish-style restaurant, McWethy’s Tavern, and separated by a rustic courtyard from the grand hall.

A look up at the pro shop/restaurant, courtyard and grand hall from the performance center

String lighting supports the ambiance above the the courtyard, perched over the course, and an outdoor area highlighted by picturesque stone bridges crossing a man-made canal patrolled by massive carp.

The view from one bridge to the next at Mistwood

It takes no imagination to envision Mistwood’s potential as a wedding venue. The views from the grand hall, outdoor courtyard and restaurant are stunning, and its clear the entire property was designed with intent – the operations run out of Mistwood serve the Chicago area’s only true year-round golf experience as well as one of its premiere banquet and catering outfits.

Owner Jim McWethy has invested millions in to the Mistwood experience over the past handful of years, both at the flagship course and at its sister properties like the Mistwood Golf Dome and McWethy’s Sports Bar.

The golf dome, located in nearby Bolingbrook, features TopTracer technology on all 30 of its hitting bays, and employs four cameras per bay that allow every swing in its 60,000 square feet of heated range to be analyzed within several feet of reality.

The Mistwood property boasts every bit as good of practice facilities, highlighted by the Mistwood Performance Center. This state of the art 5,000 square foot prairie-style building features a world-class putting lab with TrackMan and Quintic ball roll technology, 11 heated hitting stations, a full-service bar, club repair room, and teaching stations set up with TrackMan and Foresight GC2.

Nothing’s done half-hearted at Mistwood – their teaching and fitting stations are competitive against the very best and they’ve been consistently named one of “America’s 100 Best Clubfitters” (Golf Digest) and a “Top 50 Public Facility” (Golf Range Magazine).

A look in to the teaching studio bays at Mistwood’s Performance Center

As the site of the Illinois Women’s Open for 25 consecutive years, I knew Mistwood’s golf course would be really good. It far exceeded my expectations, though, in regards to playability, challenge and aesthetics.

Course architect and USGCA member Ray Hearn of Raymond Hearn Golf Course Designs, Inc. originally designed Mistwood Golf Club leading up to its 1999 opening, and was later brought back by owner Jim McWethy for renovations.

This renovation work included the addition of 19 sod-walled bunkers, the deepening of three sizable internal lakes (especially the massive St. James Loch, which shapes the 14th thru 17th hole stretch nicknamed “Kelpie’s Korner”), a complete renovation of the third hole, major renovations and additions to the property’s facilities (eg: The MPC, pro shop, bar/restaurant, practice facilities, river and bridges), and general betterment of every hole on the course.

McWethy’s reinvestment in the property was very well received… So well received, in fact, that it earned Golf Magazine’s honor of being the country’s “Best Public Course Renovation” for 2014.

There are a lot of really good holes at Mistwood, but what you won’t find are any bad ones.

First on my list of the best holes on the course is the par five eighth. With St. James Loch lining the entire right side of the hole, a central fairway trap splits the fairway and provides the perfect line for a guy like me whose accuracy only guarantees my drive usually won’t go exactly where I’m aiming.

Hole 8: Par 5 (596/566/566/535/431)
Hole 8: Par 5 (596/566/566/535/431) showing the split fairways

The green here has been recently renovated, adding some shortly mowed collection areas toward the back. Our day’s back-right pin was diabolical and probably unplayable during peak season, but was a fantastic example of how a course this versatile can set things up as challenging as is needed.

The club’s signature hole is the par three 14th. The two back tees feature a carry of 175-plus, while the forward tees have the lake to the left.

The hole reminded me a lot of the par threes at another great Illinois course: No. 3 at Medinah Country Club. Elevated tees show only water and what appears to be a sliver of a green – it’s an intimidating tee shot, to say the least.

Hole 14: Par 3 (239/200/200/157/116) from the back tees
Hole 14: Par 3 (239/200/200/157/116) from the forward tees

Some of my other favorite holes included the par five 3rd, par three 7th, par three 9th, the drivable par four 10th, the short par four 13th, challenging par five 15th, and the “sporty” par four 16th.

Slideshow of additional Mistwood Golf Club photos:

Mistwood Golf Club website

Early Season Golf at Whistling Straits & Golf Kohler

There are a number of different ways to play Whistling Straits, and none of them are cheap. Playing it during the early Spring and late Fall, though, will save money.

Normal folks like myself have a hard time dishing out $600 for a round at the Straits, so one of the most common questions I get asked is how and when to play it.

The answer: Whenever you can afford it and have a good group to go with. The more economical answer, though, depends on the year. Kohler’s current promotion has early-season deals through Friday, May 9, which include:

  • Whistling Straits, Straits course: $190
  • Whistling Straits, Irish course: $80
  • Blackwolf Run: River course: $130
  • Blackwolf Run: Meadow Valleys course: $80

The next round of deals goes up significantly, making this week the perfect time to play it. Golf Kohler rates from May 10 to June 3:

  • Whistling Straits, Straits course: $300
  • Whistling Straits, Irish course: $130
  • Blackwolf Run, River course: $210
  • Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys course: $130

Now here’s where early-season rates get tricky…

There’s a fine line between taking advantage of early-season rates on one of the top five courses in the country and playing it on soupy, brown terrain. I won’t pretend to know everything about fescue grass, but a combination of the Straits course’s turf type and its proximity to the lake can mean a less than beautiful setting during some early Spring seasons.

The trick is to get as close to the final day of the early-season rates as possible, and to consult the course ahead of time if you’re concerned about how it’ll look and play.

For example, here is the second fairway on the Straits course during the final week of the initial early-season rates during two very different years:

The fairway on 2 at the Straits course on May 8, 2014 – soupy, soggy, brown, slow

In stark contrast, the course greened up very quickly this year, and in fact the conditions right now are legendarily good. In other words, if you can get a tee time on the Straits course this week (by May 9, 2019), book it. If you can’t and are on a budget, book it before June 3.

The fairway on 2 at the Straits course on May 5, 2019 – really good

As you can see, the big difference between what the course looks like right now versus what it looks like during peak season is in the fescue off the fairways – it just hasn’t grown in yet.

The fairway on 2 at the Straits course on August 10, 2014 – perfect

Additional photos from Sunday’s round on the Straits course:

It should be mentioned that the Blackwolf Run and Irish courses are much less volatile than the Straits, so if you’re looking for a world-class round of golf on one of them, feel confident in booking it that the conditions will be worth the investment.

Just like your game probably won’t be in mid-season form yet, though, don’t expect perfection quite yet – that’s why they’re offering early-season deals. The greens will probably still be a little choppy and on the slower side, the native grasses won’t be grown out yet, and tee shots probably won’t get as much run as they will in July… But chances are you’re still going to love the round.

WiscoGolfAddict review of Whistling Straits: Straits course (2014)

WiscoGolfAddict review of Whistling Straits, Irish course (2011)

WiscoGolfAddict review of Blackwolf Run, River course (2012)

WiscoGolfAddict review of Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys course (2014)