ERIN, WISCONSIN | In the past two decades, I have played dozens of rounds in Wisconsin. But until last summer, all but one of those had been at two places: Destination Kohler, home to four layouts at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits as well as the 10-hole Baths course, and Sand Valley, with its two 18-hole tracks (Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes) as well as the 17-hole Sand Box.
Some might consider that a bit myopic on my part, given all the good golf in the Badger State. But more than anything else, I think the oversight stemmed simply from a deep affection for those places as well as a familiarity that made it easy to keep going back.
As someone who has always relished seeing new things, however, I realized I needed to broaden my golf horizons when it came to Wisconsin. So last summer, I decided to check out some of its other courses.
One of those was Erin Hills, site of the 2017 U.S. Open and as brawny as it is beautiful. And the other was Lac La Belle, an historic club with a reimagined course that counted Carnoustie native and two-time U.S. Open winner Alex Smith as its first head professional – and that hosted at the turn of the 20th century a tournament that attracted many of the era’s best golfers, thanks to a winner’s purse then exceeding even that of the national championship.
The trip, to say the least, was an eye-opener.
Opened in 2006, Erin Hills is located 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Designed by Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, the longtime architecture editor for Golf Digest, it is routed on well-contoured and in some cases dramatic land shaped by the waters of melting glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. In writing about the property, Whitten said the architects agreed after seeing it for the first time that its “landforms would be king,” and that those would “dictate the routing of the course, the strategies of the holes and the aesthetics of the design.”
The basic idea, Whitten averred, was to “reveal rather than build the best holes they could find.”
Construction began in 2004, and the course opened two years later. In 2011, Erin Hills hosted the U.S. Amateur, which was captured by future PGA Tour player Kelly Kraft. Then came its Open, which Brooks Koepka won handily. All told, the resort has been the site of four USGA championships, with a fifth, the U.S. Women’s Open, coming in 2025.
The first thing that struck me about the layout, which features seven sets of tees measuring from 5,082 yards to 7,731, was the vastness of the 652-acre property and the sweeping vistas. I also marveled at the swathes of brown-blond field grass shimmying in the wind and the hills and hollows that had been fashioned centuries ago by the receding ice sheets. Together, they made the course look and feel in sections like a classic links, with blind shots off some of the tees and approaches, fescue fairways that occasionally sent drives careening in all directions off of its humps and closely cropped green surrounds that required real wizardry with one’s wedges.
Even more uplifting was the Fescue Rescue – a mix of Jameson whiskey, ginger beer and lemonade - that I downed in the Irish pub immediately after my round. The signature drink at Erin Hills, it was the perfect salve.
A good mix of holes playing long, short and in between contributed to that same sense as well. So did the resort’s robust caddie program and the fact the course is walking-only.
Erin Hills opens with a rather gentle 5-par that doglegs to the left and leads players to a green bordered on three sides by wetlands. But things toughen up considerably after that, with the next three holes playing uphill – and on this day into a 20-mph-plus wind. The only respites came on the third and fourth tees, when I paused to admire the Holy Hill Basilica in the distance. A dual-steepled, neo-Romanesque church built in 1926, it is an imposing yet inspiring sight. And I am sure I was not the only one who at that point in his round asked the golf gods for a little help.
If I had to pick a favorite hole on the front, it would be No. 8, a par-4 of modest length but with a towering hill covered with field grass that golfers must clear with their drives. Then, they have to hit a sliver of an uphill green with their approaches. The tee shot is so blind the resort stations a forecaddie on top of the rise, so it is easier to find your ball once it lands and rolls out. I made good contact on my drive and laughed as the forecaddie performed a cartwheel after seeing it settle on the right side of the fairway.
I thought of making a similar move when I parred the hole. But then I considered the consequences if I attempted such a thing, and limited my celebration to a more restrained fist pump.
Equally as impressive from a design standpoint was the ninth, a downhill par-3 with a well-contoured green surrounded by seven bunkers. But there was nothing to like about the double bogey I ended up recording there after dumping my 8-iron into one of the sandy hazards.
Alas, I amassed a few more doubles on the back nine. “This is one tough course,” I muttered to myself occasionally. But the visuals continued to enthrall me, as did the overall routing. And I savored the encounters I had with wildlife along the way, such as the gangly sandhill crane standing on the 12th green as I stepped onto the putting surface, and the box turtles creeping across the 15th fairway, like slow-moving works of art with their intricately designed shells.
I was a bit of a broken man when I arrived at the par-5 18th. But I liked the strategy of that finisher, especially the way the fairway zigged a bit to the right before zagging harder to the left. That forced me to hit fades on my drive and second shot and then a bit of a draw on my approach.
The par I carded there made me feel better about my game. Even more uplifting was the Fescue Rescue – a mix of Jameson whiskey, ginger beer and lemonade - that I downed in the Irish pub immediately after my round. The signature drink at Erin Hills, it was the perfect salve.
So was dinner on the outdoor porch behind the clubhouse, starting with the view across the course from my table at sunset, the bands of red, orange and yellow stretching across the horizon of the darkening sky. The Caesar salad and bone-in ribeye I ordered for my repast was on a par with the setting. So was the glass of cabernet that accompanied it, and I lingered at my table for a spell, watching a couple of foursomes play the Drumlin, a 63,000-square-foot putting course just below the porch, under the lights and listening to players at nearby tables gush about their games.
Lac La Belle’s big championship moment came more than a century before Erin Hills had its U.S. Open. But in many ways, the tournament still defines the retreat on Lake Oconomowoc. Founded in 1896, Lac La Belle initially served as a summer retreat for big-monied business magnates from Chicago and Milwaukee, with Montgomery Ward and members of the Armour and Pabst families among them. After two years of operation, the club, which is also open to the public and located 16 miles southwest of Erin Hills, induced Alex Smith to become its first head professional. As was the case with many immigrant pros back then, his primary job was to improve what was a rudimentary course and teach members how to play a game just starting to take hold in America.
It was Smith and one of the Lac La Belle’s founding members, Walter Dupee of Schwartz, Dupee & Co., a Chicago stock and grain brokerage firm, who organized the Oconomowoc Open. There was no entry fee, but the winner’s prize of $200 was the largest ever offered in American golf at the time. And it served to attract such a formidable field the second and last time it was staged, in the summer of 1900, that the Western Golf Association decided to cancel its Western Open that year. In addition to Smith, five former and future U.S. Open champions competed at that Lac La Belle event, including four-time winner Willie Anderson, James Foulis and Laurie Auchterlonie. And it was Auchterlonie who came out on top.
Lac La Belle still has its rich history. But what has changed is the course, which has been owned by the Morse family since 2018. Truth be told, the layout they bought did not possess a particularly significant design pedigree. It also flooded in parts during heavy rains. That prompted Matt Morse, the family patriarch, to engage Wisconsin-based architect Craig Haltom to oversee a redesign.
A wiry fellow and the one who led Mike Keiser to the massive stretch of sandy land in central Wisconsin that has since become Sand Valley, Haltom also has plenty of props as a designer, having worked on the construction of both Sand Valley layouts with architects Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw and David McLay Kidd and assisted Ron Forse with a restoration of the acclaimed Lawsonia Links in nearby Green Lake. Quite understandably, Haltom jumped at the chance to re-create Lac La Belle.
“Matt didn’t want me to restore the old course,” Haltom said. “Rather, he asked me to build memorable holes, which is what I tried to do.”
In many ways, Lac La Belle could not be more different from Erin Hills. But there are similarities. In the stretches of field grass. The fairway contours in places. The variety of the holes and how they play. Long and short. Uphill and downhill. Left and right.
Lac La Belle also features seven sets of tees, though the ones there run from 4,612 yards to 6,906 from the tips.
I liked how the Redan at No. 11 evoked the Old World original. Same with the par-5 fifth, which has a devilish Road Hole bunker guarding the green. Another beauty is Grace, the uphill par-4 15th with a multi-tiered green that makes par a very tall order. But the best of the bunch may be La Belle, the par-3 fourth with a green that runs some 50 yards front-to-back and is ringed by six bunkers.
I also appreciated how Haltom gave golfers the chance to run up approaches on many holes and be creative with their recovery shots around the greens.
Then, there is the sense of history, and walking in the footsteps of those great immigrant professionals, and in those folks from Chicago and Milwaukee who more than a century ago were introducing a new game to America.
I have got to get out more. Especially in Wisconsin.