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Gary Van Sickle: La Belle CC in Oconomowoc comes to find its connection to U.S. Open lore through two former club pros

OCONOMOWOC — You wouldn’t believe what La Belle GC discovered in its lost-and-found drawer.

Four-time United States Open champion Willie Anderson.

Believe it, even though it took 115 years for the club to find elusive ol’ Willie.

Actually, La Belle landed a two-for-one deal because it learned that Anderson and fellow Scottish immigrant, Alex Smith, worked as pros at La Belle, which was known as Oconomowoc CC from 1896 until 1925, when it became Lac la Belle CC. Anderson is the only golfer to win three straight U.S. Opens, from 1903 through 1905, and the first to win four. Smith won a pair of Opens, in 1906 and 1910, and lost one in playoff to Anderson in 1901.

Anderson and Smith, like Lac La Belle itself, were hot stuff at the turn of the century, the one when the smoky 1800s yielded to the spiffier, worldlier 1900s.

Their connection to Wisconsin golf might have been lost forever if not for an economic downturn in another century — the 21st — that led to a startling history lesson.

This story begins with baby boomer John Meunier, born and raised in the Oconomowoc area. He grew up playing golf on the tight, tree-lined Lac La Belle CC track where his parents were long-time members. When golf slipped into a recession, Meunier and three business partners — Frank Romano,  Bill Kraklow and Troy Schmidt — bought the club in 2015 from an operator who went bust trying to run the struggling former private club as a public course.

They reopened it as a semi-private course and rechristened it La Belle Golf Club. Imagine being co-owner and general manager of the club where you grew up. That’s dream-come-true stuff you can’t make up. “It is pretty neat,” Meunier admitted when I visited the new La Belle last fall.

Two weeks after he took ownership, a friend stopped by to offer congratulations. “It must be pretty cool to own a place where a four-time U.S. Open champion was the pro,” the buddy told him.

Meunier was startled. “What the hell are you talking about?” he asked.

“I’m talking about Willie Anderson,” the buddy said.

Meunier remained puzzled. “Willie who?” he asked.

That’s the same question anyone but a serious golf historian would ask. Anderson’s three-peat U.S. Open legacy was largely forgotten until 1990 when Curtis Strange tried to duplicate the feat at Medinah CC near Chicago. Strange came up short and never got to say, “Move over, Willie,” but his chase briefly sparked a handful of national stories on Anderson.

Twenty-five years later, few at La Belle recognized the Anderson name. Meunier called elderly club members who had been friends of his father. “They were all like, Willie Anderson — what are you talking about?” Meunier said. “They never knew.”

A peek at the club’s 100th anniversary yearbook in 1996 revealed no mention of Anderson or Smith. Their history had evaporated.

So Meunier contacted his buddy’s 80-year-old dad. “Yes, I knew about Willie, but hardly anybody else did,” the old gentleman confirmed.

Imagine what Lac La Belle was like in 1900. The serene lakes and the shade trees that dappled the rolling terrain in this quiet area some 40 miles west of Milwaukee were where business barons from St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee came to escape the summer heat. (This is before central air-conditioning, kiddies — yes, the true Dark Ages.)

There were lakeside mansions, shore-to-shore ferries and swank resorts and, oh yes, a nine-hole golf course that rested on Lac La Belle’s shoreline. (The club later traded that prime shoreline real estate for adjacent farmland in order to expand to an 18-hole course, by the way.)

The Anderson mystery intrigued Mike Kopacz, one of Meunier’s retired pals. Kopacz started sifting through old newspaper files, a slow process.

“It was like peeling layers off an onion,” Mike said. “You’d only get a little bit of information at a time. It made me want more. It made me keep digging.”

Kopacz eventually found a definitive clipping from June 1, 1900, in the Oconomowoc Republican, announcing that the club was opening for the summer. The last sentence said: “The 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.”

Willie Anderson boarded with a family in a home adjacent to the course during his year-long stay in paradise, Kopacz later learned.

Meanwhile, Ernie Lawrence, another Meunier friend-turned-researcher, discovered news of Smith. He found the 1899 Official Golf Guide, which listed Alex Smith as Oconomowoc CC’s pro for 1897-’98, said he laid out the original course and shot the course record, 32. That discovery rivaled the Anderson connection for surprise.

“Nobody in this area knew about Alex Smith,” Kopacz said. “Nobody.”

And here’s how history changes. The 1900 Official Golf Guide credited William Marshal as the course designer instead and curiously listed the course record as Robert Simpson’s 35 instead of Smith’s previously reported 32. The 1901 Golfer’s Green Book compromised, probably aware of the discrepancy, and named both Marshall and Smith as course architects. Who really laid out the holes? Who really shot the course record? Who erased Smith from that 1900 guide and why? That answer may never be found.

What is known about Anderson is that he was always on the move during his golfing years. He was affiliated with ten clubs in 14 years, including two years at Baltusrol.

“All the pros in that era were vagabonds,” Kopacz said. “They made their money by teaching and making clubs.”

Willie and his brother, Tom Anderson Jr., and their father, Tom Sr., competed in the 1903 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, believed to be the only time a father and multiple sons played in the same major championship.

Anderson may be the only golfer to win U.S. Opens using two different kinds of golf balls. He won the 1901 Open with the gutta percha ball. He played the Haskell wound ball, approved in 1902, in his 1903 victory.

Smith was the Open champion in 1906 and 1910 and in 1901, he finished runner-up, losing a playoff to Anderson by one stroke.

Anderson was apparently aware of his Open legacy. He took a job in 1910 at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, presumably to pick up course knowledge and gain an edge for the 1910 U.S. Open hosted by the Cricket Club. He wasn’t feeling well at that Open, it was reported, and finished 11th. Alex Smith won it.

A few months later, Anderson was dead at 31 at his Philadelphia home. It was reported that he died of arteriosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries from alcoholism. A Scottish golf historian contacted by Kopacz swore that Anderson wasn’t an alcoholic and did not die from alcoholism. Was that true or was the historian simply defending Scottish pride? Again, we may never know but officially, Anderson’s death certificate listed epilepsy as the cause of death.

Anyway, the odds that two legendary names in U.S. Open history would pass through the same sleepy Wisconsin resort town before they went on to make golf history are as stupefying long as the odds of their Wisconsin connection being lost to time.

“People can’t believe it,” Meunier said. “Members who have been here 30 or 40 years are saying, 'How did we not know about this?'”

That won’t be a problem in the future. Meunier loaded up on history when the club reopened as La Belle GC. The grill room has been renamed Willie’s Pub and turned into what might as well be the Willie Anderson and Alex Smith Memorial Museum. The walls are covered in artifacts, photos, flags and clippings.

One of murals in Willie’s Pub is of Anderson and friends standing near a large, thick tree. Could it be the same silver maple dubbed Willie’s Tree, located near the 15th tee, that is six feet in diameter and estimated to be 225 years old? Maybe, maybe not. But I made sure to stop there and pose for a few pictures with my playing partner when I had the chance. A plaque honoring Willie rests near the sprawling base of that sentinel. It made me wonder if Anderson had ever caught some shade and a cooling lake breeze in that same spot 116 summers earlier. Surely, he must have.

“There’s a good chance that picture was taken here but we don’t know for sure,” Kopacz said, “They used to hold invitational tournaments here and pros would come out and play for a first prize of $300. A lot of top pros played here.”

The photos and memorabilia in Willie’s Pub are worth the visit. Also framed and hanging on the walls are the flags from the three courses where Anderson won Opens — Myopia Hunt Club (he won twice there), Baltusrol and Glenview.

Kopacz found a visitor inspecting artifacts in the hallway on the morning when I arrived to play La Belle.

“He said he played here 60 years ago, grew up here and now lives in Texas,” Kopazc said. “He was here to play golf but he heard about Willie and wanted to see the pub. A lot of first-time customers check in at the pro shop, then come down here to look around before they go to the first tee.”

Among other items on display is a replica of Anderson’s plaque at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., and old club photos that show Anderson giving a lesson and ladies golfing in front of the stunning original clubhouse.

“A lot of clubs would pay good money to have history like this,” Meunier told me. “This is pretty amazing.”

Willie Anderson and Alex Smith were a missing piece of Wisconsin’s golfing lore for more than a century. Now, thanks to La Belle GC, they’re history.