Tyler Morse is about to pull the trigger on the tight par-4 seventh at Lac La Belle when a memory hits him.
“I remember coming out here with my dad as a kid,” he says without looking up between waggles. “We’d always look around and go, ‘What should we do to this hole one day?”
They don’t have to imagine anymore. Three years ago, Morse and his father Matt bought a struggling and soggy Lac La Belle golf course with dreams of bringing it into the future. And as all 60 TGJ Members who gathered there for a recent event learned, they did it by first embracing the course’s impressive history.
It’s generally agreed that the story of Lac La Belle begins in 1896, thanks to a burgeoning social scene around the beautiful surrounding lakes of the Wisconsin countryside. Soon, a new railroad was shuttling high-society types from Chicago and back, solidifying Oconomowoc as a premier Midwest summer destination.
On August 4, 1900, seven men gathered on what’s now Lac La Belle’s ninth tee to decide the second annual Oconomowoc Open Championship—which at that point was rumored to offer the largest purse in professional golf. Four of the men—Willie Anderson, David Bell, Laurie Achterloine and Alex Smith—would go on to win the next seven U.S. Opens.
For Anderson, a four-time U.S. Open champion, the course was good enough to convince him to settle down and accept Lac La Belle’s head professional job. Fellow Scottish immigrants Alex Smith and Robert S. Simpson soon followed suit—resulting in an unlikely pipeline from Carnoustie, Scotland, straight to rural Wisconsin.
All of this rich history and more has been embraced by the Morse family and prominently displayed across the walls of Lac La Belle’s spiffy new clubhouse. But the course they’ve constructed is anything but stuck in time. With massive, tiered green complexes, newly-planted native grasses, double fairways, and Scottish bunkering, they’ve combined modern design elements found at nearby Sand Valley, Lawsonia Links and even further away at Tobacco Road. Only the ninth, the same hole where history collided over a century ago, remains untouched.
Their efforts have resulted in the rebirth of a golf playground, seamlessly blending what brought the masses to the original 1896 layout with new golf holes that pass the eye test of modern minimalists. The drainage issues have been patched up, and the new greens are quickly garnering the reputation of some of the state’s firmest and toughest. The course is attracting new high-caliber players like Piercen Hunt, a rising sophomore on the powerhouse University of Illinois team and the new course record holder after firing a 60 earlier this year. He recently won the Wisconsin State Am by six shots, finishing as the lone player under par. No doubt a testament to the shotmaking required at Lac La Belle.
Beyond the clubhouse and the routing, the Morses continue to innovate. The 18th green, a monstrous punchbowl, bleeds into a rollicking putting course that remains lit well into the night. They’ve rekindled the Scottish connection by offering their membership reciprocal play at Carnoustie, and they plan to take a member trip there as soon as scheduling allows. They’ve even brewed their own lager that many TGJ guests that day swore holds its own against Spotted Cow, the current king of Wisconsin beer.
Tyler Morse is walking me through all of this on a beautiful Wisconsin summer day. After roasting his drive through the fairway on the reachable par-5 16th, he quickly gives up his search in the thick fescue and drops one from 185 yards out. The pin is in the back right, barely visible behind the greenside bunker guarding it. Nobody saw it go in, but we didn’t need to—everyone heard it slam into the bottom of the cup.
One in. Two, drop. Three, dunk. Another Lac La Belle legend is born.
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