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.

Continue reading

Big Things in the Works at The University Club (FKA Tripoli)

I recently had the opportunity to check out a local private club I’d never played before: The University Club. You probably know it as Tripoli, and great efforts are being expended to change that.

Debuting in 1921, The University Club is part of the northwest side of Milwaukee’s “Murderer’s row” of classic tracks off Good Hope Road, alongside The Wisconsin Club (fka Bryn Mawr), Brown Deer Park Golf Course, and a mile or so from Milwaukee Country Club.

I was really impressed with The University Club. The conditions were terrific, I enjoyed the variety of hole layouts and was pleasantly surprised by the topography and scale of the property. I expected a smaller footprint and had no idea there’d be as significant of elevation changes. Plus, I thought their men’s locker room is awesome (full wraparound bar with TV’s and seating areas).

The University Club is one of the most intact Tom Bendelow courses in the country. In fact, sixteen of the course’s greens survived numerous renovations over the past 96 years and are absolutely stalwart Bendelow designs. Highlighting those are the putting surfaces on four and thirteen, both strategically as good as you’ll find in the Milwaukee area.

A  look at the 13th green, both undeveloped when Bendelow originally envisioned it and as a finished product nearly 100 years later:

Tripoli 13th green

The 13th green – now and as raw land when Bendelow originally designed it (photos courtesy The University Club)

In conjunction with their recent merger with The University Club’s downtown dining location, the FKA Tripoli Country Club is making huge updates to their golf facilities, bringing in nationally renowned course architect and a friend of mine, Andy Staples of Staples Golf Design.

While attention will be put toward improving the course’s play-ability and environmental sustainability (potentially including strategic tree removal, utility updates and some course design adjustments), one of the highlights for Staples’ renovation is the development of a world-class on-site practice facility.

The University Club short game area plan

Staples’ concept for a new short game practice area (links to SGD website)

Adding in the practice area will require adjusting the 12th green and making several other tweaks to the area it will occupy, as laid out above.

While modern architecture rains praise on Bendelow’s best designs – Medinah, East Lake, Mission Hills and Olympia Fields, to name a few – there are factions of the golf world who for a time were critical of his general body of work based on the volume of courses he designed between 1898 and 1933.

Coined the “Johnny Appleseed of Golf” by Golf Digest Senior Editor of Architecture Ron Whitten, Bendelow designed between 600 and 1,000 courses and also served as the initial Superintendent at the country’s first municipal course: New York’s Van Cortlandt Park, starting in 1899.


Tom Bendelow

As a salesman for Spalding sporting goods, Tom worked hand-in-hand with A.G. Spalding to bring the great game of golf to the masses. Scores of courses were developed, new players were introduced to the game, and you guessed it – Spalding sold a ton of golf equipment.

Tripoli was one of Bendelow’s first projects after leaving Spalding to work full-time for American Park Builders, the group responsible for arranging the construction of Tripoli, in 1922.

The original criticism against Bendelow was that he was the “18 stakes on a Sunday afternoon” architect during his time with Spalding. Basically, that he would show up and put stakes in the ground to denote where tees, fairways and greens should be – all in a single day – and move on to the next project. I’m not sure anyone could do more than that and be attributed with designing 1,000 golf courses, especially in the early 1900’s when travel was I’m sure at least a little less convenient.

“18 stakes on a Sunday afternoon” changed when Bendelow took over for William Langford at APB. Now having access to staff and other great resources, Bendelow was able to contribute the time and on-site TLC toward his projects that greatness requires. Tripoli was an original benefactor of that.

American Park Builders Brocure Rendering_cropped

Tom Bendelow’s design of Tripoli as shown in a 1922 APB brochure; this is the most detailed original color rendering of the course that includes fairways vs rough, greens and bunkers

One thing noticed on Bendelow-designed courses is the ease of walking from green to tee. While I could tell The University Club would normally be a great walking course, it was far from an easy hike on our dreadfully hot 95-degree September morn. Several of the uphill climbs actually left me a little dizzy toward the end – as I was saying earlier, there’s a lot more elevation than I expected.

While having the next tee nearby makes for easy transitions, advances in golf equipment technology have made shots that were heroic during Bendelow’s days not only realistic now, but to long-ish hitters almost standard.

At 440 yards from the tips, and 418 from the first tees in, for example, the 16th should be a challenging par four. The course institutes in-play out-of-bounds to discourage players from trying to cut the corner, but a 240-yard carry here leads to a really good reward… And it’s not like someone who can carry 240 ever mishits the ball, which is a great thing because directly along the line of that 240 is the 12th green.


The dogleg left par four 16th at The University Club

One potential solution to get players to play the 16th the way Bendelow meant for it to be played could be as simple as relocating the tee boxes further right. This would make the direct route toward the green much less possible and force players to aim down – or nearer to – the hole’s fairway.

Having to hit long- or mid-iron in over the creek to a heavily contoured green would bring back the bite on this pivotal par four.

Tripoli 16 & 2 & 12

The ideal tee shot on 16 is ~240 yards directly over the 12 green


The 16th hole green complex and Tripoli windmill

Playing The University Club with Andy, it was fun to visualize his thoughts on the redesign. His great respect for the architecture that’s made golf’s golden age courses thrive over the past century I think will lead to changes that are often subtle to the eye, but will help reinstate Bendelow’s strategic themes while promoting a more fun environment for championship golf. These “subtle changes” should make massive impacts for a course that already has a lot going for it.

As shown in Bendelow’s 1922 color rendering (earlier/above), a lot of his time and efforts were spent on design features that have since been covered by trees.

It’s easy for club members to freak out when “tree removal” is mentioned. We hear numbers in the hundreds, even thousands, and imagine a course we’ve come to know and love looking like scorched earth (picture Lawsonia’s Links course or the updated Blue Mound Country Club). The truth is that most courses can lose hundreds, if not thousands of trees and leave the course visually comparable but strategically and environmentally better off.

“We don’t have a total number of trees in mind at this point. What I would say is, many courses of this age have seen trees planted for a variety of reasons, and now that they are 50-60 years old their impact on the course in terms of playability and turf health is significant. We’re going to concentrate on providing sunlight and air movement for all of the greens, and do our best to open up angles of play and approaches to greens that are more in line with how the course was originally intended to play.  This isn’t to say we’re going to remove all the trees.  We’re going to highlight the architecture through thoughtful removals and in some cases replacement, thinking about how members actually play golf.”

-Andy Staples

A few examples of areas where Bendelow’s design strategy has been overrun by tree growth:


Mounding now in the trees on the right side of the fairway on 13

Right side of 15 in trees

Bendelow’s mounding on the right side of 15

Old Bunker Left of 16

Looking toward the location of Bendelow’s original bunkers on the left side of 16

A notable up-and-comer in the industry, GolfWeek recently email blasted their entire readership with a list of four keynote speakers headlining their 2017 Architecture Summit at Streamsong this December: Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Rich Mack of Mosaic (developers of Streamsong), and Andy Staples. That’s some good company to keep.

An expert in the field of sustainable golf design, his most famous work is probably the development of Sand Hollow in Hurricane, Utah. A famously tough critic, Even Tom Doak gave Sand Hollow one of the highest scores (an 8/10) in volume two of his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.

It’s Staples’ recent renovation of Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville, Michigan, though, that is probably most relevant to The University Club project.

Host of the 1955 PGA Championship, Meadowbrook celebrated their 100-year anniversary by hiring Staples and closing down for 18 months to make course updates. They entered that shut-down with 86 members on a waiting list to leave… And emerged with a full membership of 325 plus a waiting list to join¹.

Staples’ work in Northville has been hailed as a massive success, and Golf, Inc Magazine has named it one of five finalists for the world’s best course renovation project in 2017. It’s easy to see why from the pictures – it looks spectacular:

Meadowbrook CC hole 8

Meadowbrook CC renovation project: Hole 8 (par 3) – links to mlive article

Like at Meadowbrook, I’m sure it’ll be tough for the membership at The University Club to endure a season without golf, but I think they made the absolutely right choice in hiring Staples, and I’m excited to follow the renovation’s progress and see all the great things he and his team do when it reopens down the road.


¹ Source: Crain’s Detroit article: “Meadowbrook Country Club Golf Risk Pays Off With Membership Surge,” July 23, 2017

Golf Course Review: Fire Ridge

Fire Ridge is one of my favorite golf courses in the Milwaukee area, and is a must-play for anyone who is looking for a decent rate at a high-quality place without traveling more than 30 minutes from the city.
The first thing you will notice about Fire Ridge is that it is obviously much closer to Lake Michigan than you would first think. My round there a few weeks ago was actually the first time I’ve ever played the course with sustained winds under 15-20 miles per hour, and it is always at least five to ten degrees cooler than the area I left (usually Menomonee Falls).
The wind can play real havoc on the course, which plays pretty tough to start with. Unless you are a five or lower handicap, don’t even bother with the black tees. Some of them are so ridiculously more difficult that it’s laughable, but if I were a scratch golfer I think I would probably enjoy the challenge.
Formerly known as the Country Club of Wisconsin, some consider Fire Ridge in Grafton to be the original premium daily fee golf course in the Milwaukee area. With fields of beautiful fescue and a bevy of changes in the course environment, this is the kind of course that avid golfers will not get tired of playing.
Make sure to show up a little early for your round and enjoy a beer at their well-renowned bar and restaurant, Flannery’s. Flannery’s is consistently named the best golf course bar and restaurant in the Milwaukee area, and for good reason. Their fish fry is outstanding, they have a great beer selection, and I have yet to be disappointed by their service or quality of food.
The course itself is a lot of fun. Don’t be discouraged by the blind tee shot to start the round – this is the only real blind shot on the course. Just keep in mind that the fairway rolls downhill over the mid-way sand trap, and aim directly over it. Anything in the fairway will roll a long way.
Hole 1: Par 4 (444/410/390/354) – Early Season
The course recently acquired new green rollers, and the impact can be felt immediately. The greens here are quicker than they have ever been, and roll very well. They are not quite as quick as Hawk’s Landing, but are certainly fast and challenging. The most challenging of the greens at Fire Ridge is undoubtedly the par four fifth hole. With a restricting tee shot that plays between two ponds, the approach is far uphill and to a green that is no more than ten to 15 yards from front to back. It is wide enough, but anything long is dead, and most shots short will end up in the sand. If that’s not tough enough for you, the pin is typically on the cusp of a huge slant in the middle. This is one of those holes where bogey feels like par, or maybe even birdie.
Hole 5: Par 4 (397/360/350/317)
Hole 5: Par 4 (397/360/350/317)
To me, six has the most intimidating tee shot on the entire course. This is admittedly because my driver and three wood both seem to always “fade.” Okay, I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a slice. The fescue area right of the driving area is nearly impossible to find a ball in, and the landing area slants heavily toward it. If you stay safe, it’s a pretty elementary hole – simply find the fairway two times, and you’re home free.
Hole 6: Par 5 (538/495/483/442)
My favorite of the par threes at Fire Ridge is the eighth hole. From slightly elevated tee boxes, the tee shot plays over a bit of a valley and goes to a wide green that is surrounded by sand and woods. This is a fairly long par three, and plays very well to a fade. One of the highest spots on the front nine, I always enjoy getting to this hole.
Hole 8: Par 3 (197/190/169/137)
The ninth hole is one of the most intimidating tee shots on the course, but probably unjustifiably so. Anything slightly right will be fine, and you can wail away as far as you want. Even shots slightly left will usually end up okay, as long as they don’t catch the woods that frames the driving area. The hole finishes towards the clubhouse and practice greens, and always seems to play shorter than expected. I have ended up in the long sand traps the last couple of times I have played this hole, even though it is one of the largest greens on the front nine.
Hole 9: Par 4 (440/405/387/289)
The back nine at Fire Ridge is special, and the tenth hole is one of my favorites on the course. It is actually one of my favorite par fives I have played in the state, in fact. A tee shot that can go as far right as you can slice, the left side is completely out of play with woods. The second shot will always be laid up to the wide pond that fronts the green, which runs a long way from front to back, but leaves awful putts if you find yourself on the wrong side.
Hole 10: Par 5 (532/528/489/443)
Hole 10: Par 5 (532/528/489/443)
The eleventh is a tough par three. Highly elevated and long, the eleventh plays to 215 yards from the back tees, or 192 from the blues. It seems to play even longer, though, since the wind inevitably seems to blow toward the tee boxes.
Hole 11: Par 3 (215/192/173/142)
Another of my favorite holes on the course is the par four thirteenth. With a sharp dogleg left, the smart play always seems to be a long wood, but not driver. A well-placed tee shot will leave a short iron to the slightly elevated green, which is entirely surrounded by sand on all sides.
Hole 13: Par 4 (363/360/355/282)
Following the thirteenth is another great par five. The driving area looks forever away from the tee boxes, but is much closer than you think. The last four times I have played this course I have ended up behind the two trees that lie on the long side of the fairway, effectively locking me out from an effective second shot. The green area narrows considerably, and can make for a harrowing approach. Favor the right side of the approach area to run on, or risk the pond that lives left of the green area. This is a gorgeous hole, even though it always seems to be ten to 20 degrees colder than the rest of the course.
Hole 14: Par 5 (541/531/519/419)

Hole 14: Par 5 (541/531/519/419)
Seventeen is another beautiful par three that plays much tougher than it looks. With elevated tee boxes and a pond long, the wind always determines the right club. This becomes difficult when you consider that the entire tee box area is surrounded by trees. Take a good look at the tree tops for a decent suggestion on how to play this par three. Just don’t be long. Or well short.
Hole 17: Par 3 (182/175/153/119)
Some of my friends say that eighteen is one of the worst holes in the state, but I disagree. I think this is an absolutely gorgeous finishing hole, but wow is it tough. A mid-iron is required to hit the fairway, which you can hit as long as 200 yards without getting yourself in too much trouble. A huge mound is centered perfectly in the middle of the driving area, and makes for difficult shots if you find yourself left of it. Either way, the approach to this well-guarded green will be long, and fraught with trouble. Way, way uphill, the green is very difficult to hit in two, and anything hit short is liable to roll down the hill and in to hazards. From the top, this is a beautiful finishing hole. From everything else, this is a cardiac arrest waiting to happen. The good thing is that driver is taken out of play by the shortness of the tee shot, which to me takes out a lot of stress for a final hole drive. Just don’t expect to have a stress-free approach!
Hole 18: Par 4 (412/405/356/291)
Hole 18: Par 4 (412/405/356/291)
Altogether, Fire Ridge is an absolute must-play. At $75 for regular season rates, the best way I have found to play this course is to find the “deal of the day” on GolfNow, or else by using the CW18 golf card, which can be purchased for $110 prior to the season and includes nine “regular” area courses, along with Fire Ridge. As long as you take advantage of the free rounds, this is certainly a deal worth taking advantage of.
Make sure to arrive early for your round to take advantage of their huge practice green, which rolls exactly the same as the rest of the course. It is quick, and will give you just the right reads you will need to score on this difficult, but fun, golf course.
With a ton of phenomenal members-only country clubs, it is sad that the Milwaukee area does not have more true premium level courses for golf enthusiasts, but Fire Ridge is one of them. I put this course on the same plane as The Bog and Morningstar, but none of them are within fifteen minutes of downtown. I would love to see another premiere course or two come to the area, but have no idea where it would fit in on the map. I think we can all consider ourselves lucky that the Country Club of Wisconsin went public, and opened up a wonderful course and layout to be played for daily fees.
Course Wrap-up:
Location: Grafton, WI
Yardage: Black-7,084, Blue-6,669, White-6,333, Red-5,463
Slope/Rating: Black-136/74.5, Blue-128/71.5, White-122/69.0, Red-126/72.3
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: $75 (with cart)