La Belle Golf Course steeped in U.S. Open history

Four local golf course owners had no idea they were buying a significant piece of U.S. Open Championship history when they purchased the Rolling Hills golf course, north of Oconomowoc, nearly two years ago.

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Four local golf course owners had no idea they were buying a significant piece of U.S. Open Championship history when they purchased the Rolling Hills golf course, north of Oconomowoc, nearly two years ago.

The golf course near the shores of Lake Lac La Belle is one of the oldest in the state, built more than 120 years ago as the Country Club of Oconomowoc. The new owners have renamed it La Belle Golf Club.

It may be the only course in the world that had two teaching professionals who won multiple U.S. Open Championships, according to general manager and co-owner John Meunier.

Willie Anderson and Alexander Smith served brief tenures as club pros in the early 1900s.

In addition, six golfers who won U.S. Open Championships from 1896 to 1910 played in tournaments on the course.

The 117th US Open Championship will be played June 12-18 at the Erin Hills golf course in the town of Erin in Washington County,

Anderson’s name is likely to be mentioned by writers and broadcasters reporting the championship because he is the only golfer to win three consecutive US Opens

He is among an elite group of golf icons -- Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, and Bobby Jones -- who have won the championship four times (1901,1903, 1904, 1905).

Smith lost the 1901 championship to Anderson in a playoff before winning the championship in 1906 and 1910.

The men have also won multiple Western Open Championships. The Western Open was considered a major event on the tour until the late 1930s when it was surpassed in prestige by the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia.

Meunier, a native of Oconomowoc, said he and his business partners did not know about Anderson and Smith.

“We have members who have been here 30 or 40 years who did not know,” Meunier added.

Meunier bought the course out of receivership in July of 2015, along with his business partners Frank Romano of Menomonee Falls, who owns three other golf courses, PGA Professional Troy Schmidt of Germantown and Dr. Bill Krakow, a kidney specialist from Waukesha,

About a week after the purchase, one of Meunier’s friends, whose father had been a member of the club since 1950, told Meunier about Anderson.

“He said to me it must be pretty cool to own a place where a four-time U.S. Open Champion was the pro,” Meunier said. “I asked him what he was talking about. He said Willie Anderson. I asked him, 'Who is Willie Anderson?'”

History revealed

Meunier recruited Mike Kopacz, a retired buddy, to research the history of the course and the two pros. Kopacz gained some valuable assistance from Ernie Lawrence, a local historian, author, and longtime member of the club.

“It has been like peeling an onion. When you peel off one layer, you find another. When you peel off that layer, there is another layer. You just keeping peeling and peeling,” Meunier explained.

Digging through old newspaper clippings, Kopacz found a June 1, 1900 story in the Oconomowoc Republican announcing the country club “has secured as golf instructor Mr. W.L. Anderson who has a national reputation and is considered one of the best players in the United States.”

Lawrence, who has written a 17-page history of the course,  found Alexander Smith’s named mentioned in the 1899 Official Golf Guide.

According to the Guide, Smith was the County Club of Oconomowoc teaching professional in 1897 and 1898, helped design the 9-hole course, and held the course record of 32 strokes.

However, the 1900 and 1991 editions of the guide disputed the 1899 guide by raising questions about what role – if any – Smith played in laying out the course.

An Oconomowoc Enterprise newspaper story about the 1901 US Open playoff between Anderson and Smith reported, “Anderson was the instructor at the Country Club of Oconomowoc last year, and Smith laid out the original golf course on the club grounds.”

The Country Club of Oconomowoc was organized in 1896 by Chicago millionaires who owned summer mansions along the shores of Lake Lac La Belle, according to Lawrence.

Following the Chicago Fire of 1871, the serene and scenic Lake Country earned a reputation as an ideal summer colony for some of the rich and famous of Chicago.

The newly chartered county club membership included retail magnet Montgomery Ward, meat packing mogul Philip Armour, and German-American brewer Frederick Pabst.

Chicago was a hot bed of golf in the early 1900s, and Kopacz believes that Smith and Anderson may have followed their wealthy Chicago clients to Oconomowoc.

Anderson and Smith were among a cadre of young Scottish professional golfers who immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s and traveled across the country, staging competitive exhibitions and teaching golf to the rich, according to Anderson biographer Douglas Seaton.

In the United States, they become close friends and traveling companions despite their classic head to head duals in US Open and Western Open championships.

They won six US Open Championships between 1901 and 1910 and have recently been dubbed “The La Belle Legends.”

Anderson was the teaching professional in 1900 when the club hosted a 36-hole professional tournament that included six past or future US Open Champions.

Anderson and Smith tied for second, five strokes behind Laurie Auchterlonie of the Glenview Club, 17 miles northwest of Chicago, who won the first prize of $150.

Smith and Anderson shared second and third place money for $87.50 each.

On display

Meunier and Kopacz have created a mini museum inside “Willie’s Pub,” the bar in the clubhouse and banquet center.

Neatly arranged on the walls are documents and photos tracing Anderson’s career including a large mural of a 1900s-period photo of Anderson and Smith, with Horace Rawlins, who won the first U.S. Open in 1895.

Meunier named the pub in honor of Anderson because of the reputation he earned on the pro golf circuit.

According to the plaque honoring him in the World Golf Hall of Fame, Anderson lead an “an over indulgent lifestyle” and died at age of 31 of hardening of the arteries.

However, Anderson’s Scottish biographer Seaton reports City of Philadelphia records described the cause of death on Oct. 25, 1910, to be epilepsy, and Seaton has spent much of his career rebutting the rumors about Anderson’s lifestyle.

Anderson was born in North Berwick, in East Lothian, Scotland and in 1896 at the age of 16, immigrated to the United States aboard the S.S. Pomeranian along with his father and brother Tom, another golf protégé.

According to Seaton, Anderson was a professional at 10 United States golf clubs within a 14-year period. He was considered one of the best professionals on the circuit and was the first pro to endorse brand name golf equipment. He was inducted in the PGA Hall fame in 1975.

Smith was born into a golfing family in Carnoustie, Scotland in 1874.

He and his brother, Willie, came to America in the early 1890s. Willie won the U.S. Open championship in 1899. Among Smith’s eight tour championships is the 1903 Western Open at the Milwaukee Country Club.

The Western Open, now the BMW Championship, was the third-oldest championship after the British Open and US Open until its demise in 2006.

Smith was an accomplished golf writer who wrote a book and numerous articles about how recreational golfers could improve their game.

In “Advice To Incurables,” written in 1907, Smith prophetically wrote about the frustrations that weekend golfers have endured for centuries.

“There are golfers – plenty of them – who the more they play, the worse they play.”

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