Remaking History

Remarkable renovations at The Club at Lac La Belle bring a classic Midwestern course into the 21st century

Photography by Nile Young Jr.

If you’re a golf history buff, The Club at Lac La Belle in golf-rich Waukesha County, Wisconsin, is a must-play. Founded in 1896, Lac La Belle employed early U.S. Open champions Alex Smith and Willie Anderson as club pros and was the third course in the state to be approved as an allied member of the United States Golf Association.

If you’re a golf architecture buff, that’s another reason to play Lac La Belle, which reopened in 2020 after a top-to-bottom renovation by Craig Haltom, who left the bones of the 125-year-old course largely intact while improving the routing and drainage.

There’s a third reason to put The Club at Lac La Belle on your must-play list: it’s a blast.

“I think Craig did a great job of creating this classic-feeling golf architecture,” said Tyler Morse, the general manager and president of the semi-private club. “You’re playing a fast, firm golf course. The greens are unique. And from an architectural standpoint, we’re very different from any other course locally.”

Lac La Belle traces its lineage to the early days of golf in America. Smith, the first club pro, would go on to win the U.S. Open in 1906 and 1910. Anderson, the third club pro, was a four-time U.S. Open champion, winning three consecutive titles from 1903-’05. Between them, Robert S. Simpson, a two-time Western Open champion and fellow native Scot, served as the club pro.

Architect Craig Haltom’s 2018 renovation of the classic course improved it tee to green, restoring it to its past glory and earning it Top New Wisconsin Golf Course honors by Golf Digest in 2021.

If you study the Western Open trophy — a replica of which is located in Lac La Belle’s spectacular museum-like clubhouse — you’ll notice that the tournament was not played in 1900, its second year. That’s because the top pros of the day boycotted the Western over the small size of its purse and instead played in the Lac La Belle Championship.

That fascinating history, Morse said, is The Club at Lac La Belle’s calling card.

The Club at Lac La Belle’s Rivalry Pub is a good place for a post-round meal.

“I think most of the people who come to the course know about our history now,” he said. “Obviously, our logo is 1896 so people come knowing that, boy, this is an old golf course. Then when they show up, they see all the effort and time that we’ve put into shar- ing that history. People, I think, appreciate it even more.”

But without a good golf product, Lac La Belle would be a mere curiosity. The course, purchased by Morse’s late father, Matt Morse, in 2018, is every bit as strong as its pedigree would suggest. It gives the traveling golfer another option in a state that ranks second to none in public-access facilities, including 2017 U.S. Open venue Erin Hills just 15 miles away.

“I would say 60 percent of our play comes from the traveling golfer,” Morse said. “It’s significant. The Erin Hills sprinter van is at the course all the time. We’ve got a really good relationship with Erin Hills.”

Haltom did a terrific job solving persistent drainage problems and laying a fun, walkable and diverse routing over the bones of the original course. The renovation involved moving 150,000 cubic yards of dirt, taking down trees, rebuilding the irrigation system and raising fairways two to three feet and capping them with 15 inches of sand.

The key to the project was the purchase of land from the Village of Lac La Belle so that four new holes could be built on the west side of Pennsylvania Street, near the site of a one-time monastery. That allowed Haltom to route the rest of the course off chronically wet areas.

The fairways are firm and bouncy, in the manner of an inland links. But there are water hazards and creeks to avoid and cross and stands of trees and specimen oaks with which to contend. The greens are massive and rolling, which puts a premium on shot-making, short-game creativity and putting.

“You’ve got to think your way around the golf course,” Morse said. “You can’t just mindlessly get up to the tee and tee off.”

One neat touch is that the club gives away an 1896 coin in a handsome case to any golfer who makes a hole-in-one.

The 443-yard, par-4 third hole is a true test and the fourth-hardest hole on the course.

The Club at Lac La Belle reopened in the summer of 2020 and rounds played have increased each year. In 2022, the club hosted 223 events, mostly weddings, in a tastefully appointed Carriage House adjacent to the clubhouse.

“It’s definitely a significant part of our business,” Morse said. “We have quite an event team that we’ve established and it’s been fun to see it develop.”

New for 2023 is a partnership with the Inn at Pine Terrace, a bed and breakfast less than two miles from the course. The Club at Lac La Belle will have access to 11 rooms and will be able to book stay-and-play packages at the Inn, an 1879 Victorian home.
“We’re really excited about that,” Morse said. “We’re basically getting access to their system. We can book and reserve rooms and do everything that we would if we owned it. And they’re giving us special rates for golfers, which is really neat. We’re super pumped to be partnering with them.”

Morse also is the CEO of The Prestwick Group, founded by his father. Prestwick is made up of a family of companies and brands that specialize in manu- facturing indoor and outdoor fixtures, furniture and furnishings.

“I’m wearing a lot of hats right now,” Morse said, “but I’m having fun doing it.”

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