The Club at Lac La Belle once hosted a golf major, or so claims the museum feature within the clubhouse: During the early 20th Century, the Oconomowoc Open did indeed have the highest prize pool in championship golf. The club eventually aged out of its prominence before a local businessman brought it back, purchasing a new plot of land across the road to make the routing less crowded, and bringing in Craig Haltom (who worked on Lawsonia’s acclaimed renovation) to craft his first original design.
Players will be treated to lessons around the property, largely focused on the club’s original trio of pros, who won a combined six U.S. Opens between them. Of course, those who are more interested in golfing in the present can enjoy several of the massive putting surfaces Haltom installed around the property, including the closing green, which is almost 80 yards deep, and connects with the putting course near the clubhouse.
It's really astonishing to play the Club at Lac La Belle if you had ever played the old Lac La Belle Country Club (for a while called Rolling Hills). There is almost nothing left of the old course here, though I thought at least that I recognized a few elements of it here and there. In any case, this course has received some tremendous hype since the rebuild, so it is warranted? Mostly.
Visually, the course is beautiful and often downright stunning. The first four holes, built on a new piece of property across the street, are the best of the lot. The land that the other 14 are built on is where the old, stupidly tight and cramped old course used to be. It honestly still feels a little bit cramped at times, but the fairways are pretty generous throughout and the greens are massive (i.e. Mammoth Dunes sized).
I think this is really a course you need to play several times to get a feel for. I found it often to be very penal, with the very hard greens not able to hold anything thrown at them and extremely deep bunkers. Things that you would have assumed would be good or even great shots turn out to be in serious trouble, but, again, a lot of that probably came down to course knowledge. A lot of the holes are honestly hard to describe. I found them all really to be interesting, beautiful, and also quite intimidating.
It's still a young course in 2021. The fescue still is growing in, and the greens were relatively slow and in need of watering. On a few holes, the greens were even a little patchy in spots. The design of these greens is very interesting--some massive undulations and many multi-tiered greens. Very interesting, but also again something we found very hard to read. Fairways were in just about perfect shape. The rough (not the deep fescue) was lush and on the long side.
Now up to $150 with cart, I can't say I'd be rushing to go back. I'm glad I went, and it's absolutely worth doing once, but for that kind of price, I'd much rather go play any number of other places that are less penal, more fun, and better conditioned.
This course just did a major renovation and will be one of the best courses in the state once the grass grows.
The history at Lac La Belle is quite remarkable; a mini-museum in the clubhouse pays tribute to what it calls one of the original majors — the Oconomowoc Open — which at one time offered the highest prize pool in golf. Even if you don’t buy into that claim, the combined six U.S. Open victories of its golf professionals — Willie Anderson and Alex Smith — are notable history.
One thing not so remarkable about the Lac La Belle property is the land itself, which forced Craig Haltom to get creative when redesigning the course for its grand reopening during 2020. Ownership contributed by gathering property across the street, versus cramming all 18 on the existing parcel. Haltom, for his part, decided like many architects before him that the best way to bring good golf to a property of lackluster elevation change was to install superb putting surfaces. Part of the superb nature, in this case, is the sheer scope of these greens.
I am going to cop out on coming up with my own descriptions of these greens, and rely instead upon the words of the handsomest, if least talented at golf, contributor to The Fried Egg: (note: Please link "The Fried Egg" to https://thefriedegg.com/history-and-memory-renovating-the-club-at-lac-la-belle/)
“No. 4 is one of four holes built on a new piece of property that Morse purchased. 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.”
All fun holes...No. 16 deserves so credit as well, offering a split fairway off the tee, divided by a tree. The leftward route on this par five will require a shot up over some of the rare raised land at Lac La Belle, the front of which Haltom embedded bunkers within.
My rating for this course should be considered within the normal “growing-in” period for a golf course, as Lac La Belle has a few. One is the native area, which will of course fill out in the years to come. Management still seemed on the fence on some quicker fixes, however, such as the bunker lining. Some fairway hazards had old-fashioned bushy eyebrows, and others, even on the same hole, had been to a barber just the day before, apparently. It’s possible a style has been conformed to by now.
As of June 2020, this course measured at a 3.5 in my book, but it can become a 4 quite easily. I hope your future reviews, my dear reader, will indicate such progress.