8/19/20

History and Memory: The Club at Lac La Belle

Evoking the past without recreating it at a historic Wisconsin club

by

Twenty years ago, Blue Mound Golf and Country Club just was another example of a Golden Age great that had lost its luster. Like so many other classics, Seth Raynor’s Milwaukee design had gathered too much greenery—to the point where trees grew along the ridge backing the Redan 12th. Fortunately, the course caught the wave of resurgent interest in strategic golf architecture. George Bahto himself, the author of the landmark C.B. Macdonald biography Evangelist of Golf, reportedly contacted Blue Mound about the treasure they were sitting on, and the club hired Bruce Hepner to execute a note-for-note recreation of Raynor’s layout in 2001. The results, especially on the greens, are spectacular. It’s a testament to the virtues of accurate restoration.

But is it a call to arms that every old golf club can answer? Or even should answer?

Farther out in the Milwaukee metro area, Matt Morse and his son Tyler had an inkling of the historical significance of the Club at Lac La Belle, which they had just purchased. They knew it had been a well-regarded private club that had devolved into a frequently flooded public course. But they found out far more when Tyler happened to be idly watching the 2018 Open Championship.

A segment on the telecast recounted how Carnoustie, the host venue, had provided more golf professionals to early American courses than any other club. Tyler already knew that Carnoustie’s Alex Smith had been the first professional at Oconomowoc Golf Club, which was the original name of Lac La Belle. So he started digging deeper. Eventually he tracked down David MacKesey, Carnoustie’s “overseas historian” (yes, that’s an official title) and a Wisconsin native who, as it turned out, had already been working for six years on Oconomowoc’s history.

MacKesey had pieced together a lineage of Oconomowoc professionals, from Alex Smith to Robert S. Simpson to Willie Anderson. The trio won a combined six U.S. Opens, along with a pair of Western Opens. If one of those names rings a bell, it may be that you watched the 2019 U.S. Open, when analysts were legally required to remind you that Brooks Koepka could be the second golfer to win three straight U.S. Opens. The first was Willie Anderson, whose reign of terror lasted from 1903 to 1905.

So the early staff at Lac La Belle was arguably the most accomplished in American golf history. Ultimately, however, MacKesey’s research centered on the Oconomowoc Open, an event that may deserve recognition as one of the first majors in championship golf. The wealthy members at Oconomowoc—businessmen from Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis—enlisted Smith to spread the word about the tournament. They also dangled a unique incentive: they would foot all entry fees. This offer proved so attractive that the Western Open was canceled in 1900, as the game’s best players opted to head north to Wisconsin.

The 5th, 18th, 16th, and 9th holes at Lac La Belle. Photo credit: Jerry Rossi

The Oconomowoc lasted for only two years, but it boasted the largest purse and perhaps the most talented field in competitive golf. True, the PGA Tour uses the same dubious argument to promote the Players Championship today, but MacKesey’s general point stands: the Club at Lac La Belle has a proud heritage.

So what about the course itself? Owner Matt Morse gets giddy when he discusses Lac La Belle’s storied staff, and a mini-museum in the clubhouse testifies to his fascination with the club’s past. But would the course receive a restoration worthy of that history?

Craig Haltom has done work on historic courses before. Along with Ron Forse, he faithfully restored William Langford and Theodore Moreau’s Lawsonia Links. As for Lac La Belle…

“We wouldn’t have been in a position to do [a pure restoration],” Haltom says. “It just wasn’t gonna be that type of project.”

There were two major factors behind the decision not to recreate the Oconomowoc Open’s historic layout. The first was rain.

Lac La Belle sits near the titular lake, and it had become notorious for succumbing to rainfall by the time the Morses bought it. Matt Morse remembers that sections of the course would remain unplayable for days after a storm. So raising the course’s quality meant literally raising the course itself by several feet in problematic areas.

The lake-adjacent 2nd green at Lac La Belle. Photo credit: Jerry Rossi

The second factor was a design history almost as muddy as the club’s post-rainfall fairways. The original nine came from Chicago’s David Foulis in 1896, and the club’s collection of pros made tweaks. The expansion to 18 holes was led by architects unknown. Time wore on, water poured in.

So Matt Morse tasked Craig Haltom with inventing an original layout, something that evoked Lac La Belle’s original era rather than recovering its exact form. Specifically, Morse asked for “memorable golf holes.”

Haltom went searching for inspiration. He is an architect, of course, but he is also well known in golf architecture circles as a scout. In the early 2000s, he identified the sandy plot of land in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, that would eventually become Mike Keiser’s Sand Valley. Haltom, who serves as President of Golf Management at Oliphant Construction, worked on both of the resort’s existing 18s, under the design teams of Coore & Crenshaw and David McLay Kidd.

“Inherently, I think old golf courses have open approaches,” Haltom says. “And if you do that, then you’ve allowed all kinds of fun things to happen. We were trying to build a golf course that also would accept running shots in and recovery shots from all over. I think that’s a lot of fun, and that’s one of the main distinctions between these golf courses that are 80, 90 years old and some of the stuff that was built recently.”

A golf course that encourages running shots and spectacular recoveries… a golf course that’s a lot of fun… sounds familiar, but I can’t place it…

“We tried to build something that looked very natural,” Haltom continues. “Getting to work with all the great architects of Sand Valley, that was a great experience to lead into Lac La Belle, and give it a naturalized look that I think fits the site. It’s not Sand Valley, but it’s influenced by the people I worked for most immediately.”

Oh, right. Mammoth Dunes.

“Playability” has been a big theme in write-ups for Kidd’s Sand Valley sequel. Another has been the, ahem, elephantine greens. Haltom acknowledges that Lac La Belle can’t compete with Sand Valley’s soil base and physical features, but he sees no reason why playability and memorable putting surfaces can’t be on the menu. No doubt his recent experience on Kidd’s crew shaped his mindset going into the Lac La Belle project.

So it’s not a surprise that big greens are among Lac La Belle’s signature features. No. 4 is one of four holes built on a new piece of property that Morse. This par 3 has already gotten a lot of social media attention, thanks to its turbulent, 50-yard deep putting surface. On most days you need to stay below the pin here. There is, however, a back-corner “hole-in-one” location that sits in a bowl. Those on target from 210 have a chance at an 1896 British one-penny, the promised reward for an ace at the club.

No. 18 should also make for fun Google Maps viewing. The pinnable region of the half-pipe green stretches for more than 60 yards… and then connects up a hill to the club’s putting course.

The sleeper of the new Lac La Belle is No. 15, a shorter par 4. A leftward strip of fairway has little strategic appeal when the flag is dead center, but more when it’s in the upper-right corner. For the latter pin, a lay-up to the left provides the best angle around a problematic pot, which is stuck in the green’s skin like a misfired BB pellet.

The 15th hole at Lac La Belle. Photo credit: Paul Seifert

Haltom himself cites the par-5 16th as his favorite. The putting surface is peanut-shaped and consists of two bowls. The front bowl is elevated above the back, inviting eagle-seeking approaches. The back, where players in the fairway will rarely see the bottom of the pin, is a riskier proposition. Either way, those looking for a three will be tempted to launch their drives along the left-hand path of the split fairway, which calls for a long carry over a cluster of bunkers.

The more diminutive greens at Lac La Belle aren’t bad, either, but the big ones, and the day-to-day variety they provide, will likely appeal most to the club’s first round of members. (Weekday mornings will be members-only, with public play beginning in the afternoon.)

The Club at Lac La Belle isn’t the next Mammoth Dunes, and Haltom knows it. After all, he found the first one. But his debut original design has enough playability, variety, and large-scale features to hold its own with its cousins in Nekoosa. The only remaining question is how to measure the layout against Lac La Belle’s vaunted history.

When I was in Milwaukee, I also got to play Blue Mound Golf and Country Club. On No. 2, a Double Plateau, my host and I attempted some of the green’s most extreme putting possibilities. It was a blast, but I noticed one deviation from the template’s standard features. I asked for my host’s thoughts about the lack of a Principal’s Nose bunker in the approach. He simply noted that Bruce Hepner intended—and executed—a straightforward restoration of Raynor’s work. He also noted, somewhat wryly, that if they had hired Gil Hanse, they probably would have gotten a Principal’s Nose.

Adding a Principal’s Nose where there was originally none: sacrilege in some books, a tasteful contribution in others. I didn’t press my host on which he would have preferred.

Matt Morse had probably done enough research to seek a reasonably accurate restoration of Oconomowoc Golf Club. But he was thinking not only about the club’s history but also his own memory. His family had been members at Lac La Belle for just one year, 1975. If there had been more “memorable golf holes” back then, maybe Morse would have pushed for a restoration. But there weren’t. So he let the old Lac La Belle sink, and he brought a new one up.

With one exception.

“It was this short par 4 that always looked like you could drive it,” he explains, reliving eagle putts that never materialized 45 years ago at No. 9. “But it was up this hill, so if you didn’t get to the green, the ball would come rolling all the way back down.”

The 9th green at Lac La Belle. Photo credit: Jerry Rossi

Matt Morse may never reach the green at the now-restored No. 9, the one hole that remains from the classic Oconomowoc layout. But when he looks up that hill, he’ll always be reminded of his own past.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can imagine what it was like when the best players of an era gazed at the same elevated green.


Ryan Book writes mostly about golf and sometimes about music at his blog Bethpage Black Metal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Header photo credit: Jerry Rossi @putt4dough24