By Dan Moore
The 1920s were roaring when William Langford and his partner Theodore Moreau were tapped in 1927 to design what is now universally regarded as their best course, the Lawsonia Links Course in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Built on the 1,100 acre estate of deceased Chicago Daily News publisher Victor Lawson, the “Lawsonia Country Club” course would be a centerpiece of “America’s Finest Country Club Colony.” The H.O. Stone Company of Chicago envisioned a property that would feature lakefront mansions, a Benjamin Marshall-designed luxury hotel and clubhouse, horseback riding, tennis, yachting, and more.
However, by the time the course officially opened on Memorial Day in 1930, the Great Depression had set in and the Stone Company’s plans for a world-class resort had crashed along with the economy. Seven Stone Company executives were convicted of fraud in 1932.
Through the 1930s the fate of Lawsonia was uncertain with rumors circulating that Al Capone wanted to buy the property. This prompted Judge Roy Reed of Ripon, who was presiding over foreclosure proceedings, to declare such stories “mere bunk.”
The travails of the Stone Company proved to be a boon for the public golfer as the Links Course and the hotel were opened to the public in 1931. Green fees were just $1.00.
The reputation of the Links Course grew as it played host to the Wisconsin Open and Lawsonia Open throughout the 1930s. Johnny Revolta, professional at Tripoli Country Club from 1932-1934, prevailed at Lawsonia several times including in 1935 when he finished 4 under par for 36 holes in the Lawsonia Open. In 1935, Revolta led the PGA Tour in earnings, finished 13th in the Masters and won the Western Open and PGA Championship. He considered Lawsonia “one of the finest courses I’ve ever played.”
Lawsonia struggled as a public resort through the 1930s and at the onset of WWII the fate of Langford Moreau’s masterpiece hung in the balance.
Finally, in December 1943, the tumultuous years of the 1,100 acre Lawson estate came to a resolution when the property was purchased by the American Baptist Assembly for use as a religious retreat.
Built for a reported $250,000, an enormous construction budget in the 1920s, the Lawsonia Links Course is unquestionably the best course in Langford /Moreau’s portfolio. Still owned by the Baptist Assembly, the Links Course has benefited from their benign intervention which saved Langford’s original design and allowed it to be maintained almost entirely without alteration.
William Langford was among the very first home-grown American golf architects. Born in Chicago in 1887, he took up golf to counter the effects of polio and was taught to play at Westward Ho Golf Club on Chicago’s West side by David McIntosh, a Scottish pro who hailed from St. Andrews.
Langford attended Yale University where he was a member of several NCAA Championship golf teams. He then attended Columbia University in New York where he earned a Masters Degree in Engineering. Langford was among the best amateurs of his generation and he competed on a national level in USGA and WGA tournaments, once progressing to the semi-finals of the US Amateur.
Langford was not a long driver. Rather, his game relied on accurate approaching and a strong short game, characteristics that would be rewarded in his strategic approach to golf course design that emphasized variety and skill in all aspects of the game.
Langford began his career as a golf architect in 1914. He combined the latest innovations in design and construction techniques with a profound appreciation of strategic golf, resulting in an artistic melding of natural and constructed golf course features. Langford’s use of modern equipment like the steam shovel yielded his signature style, as seen in Lawsonia’s large, flat-bottomed bunkers with steep grass-faced slopes and huge plateau greens with severe undulations that tested players’ short game and putting stroke.
The Links Course
At Lawsonia, Langford crafted an exceptionally strategic course with massive bunkers on a scale that complement the surrounding countryside. An excellent example is the 6th hole which features a large cross bunker hiding the landing zone, a beautiful principal’s nose bunker and a green with a testing diagonal tier.
Among Langford Moreau’s advanced construction techniques is the “Box Car” par 3 7th hole. Here Langford and Moreau buried a railroad car, which they covered with sand to create the course’s shortest par 3 surrounded by steep drop-offs.
A unique aspect of the Links Course routing is the stretch from holes 9 to 14 where a series of holes goes par 5-3-5-3-5-3. Given the variety of these holes, ranging from the world-class 235 yard par-3 10th to the reachable par-5 11th hole, golfers often don’t realize they have played six consecutive holes without a par-4.
In 2014, Oliphant Haltom Golf Management took over the management of Lawsonia. Craig Haltom, who lived in Scotland for three years studying the great courses of Great Britain and Ireland, is well versed in the traditions of links golf course architecture. Haltom continued a restoration of Lawsonia to its Scottish roots that started in the early 2000s.
By 2000, trees that had been added between fairways in the 1960s altered the treeless seaside links style of the Langford design with fairways that were reduced to narrow ribbons. This greatly limited angles of play. Many greens had shrunk by 10-15 yards. Haltom continued restoration work started by Architect Ron Forse who recommended removal of dozens of trees, recapturing green sizes and widening fairways to reconnect them to Langford’s strategically placed bunkers. Natural fescue grasses planted when the course was built were allowed to grow long adding visual appeal and dimension. In 2014 and 2015, trees surrounding the 13th and 14th greens were removed to improve airflow and allow the sun to reach those greens. Overall, the emphasis on improved conditioning implemented under Haltom has greatly benefited the course.
Lawsonia evolved over time, first in 1983 when a new 9-hole course was built. Then in 1991 the Woodlands course was extended to 18 holes. The Woodlands was designed by Joe Lee and Rocky Roquemore, disciples of Florida architect Dick Wilson who is known for Doral’s Blue Monster and Cog Hill’s Dubsdread championship courses.
A refreshing contrast to the open, wind-blown Links Course, the Woodlands weaves its way through the mature forests of the Lawson Estate to the shore of Green Lake. Featuring a quarry hole, several water holes, and significant elevation changes, the Woodlands is a picturesque and popular addition to the Golf Courses of Lawsonia.
In recent years, housing options at Lawsonia under Oliphant Management have been expanded and updated. The Moreau House, named after Langford’s partner Theodore Moreau, features one and two-bedroom suites sleeping 2-4 golfers. The larger Dawson and Birches Houses can each accommodate up to three foursomes. Rates run from $110 per night for a one bedroom suite to $450 a night for the houses. Langford’s Pub, located in the Clubhouse, offers some of the best food in the area including a hugely popular Friday Night Fish Fry.
With the Links Course restored to its timeless Golden Age glory, a modern tree-lined classic in the Woodlands Course, affordable on-site housing options, excellent food, and a convenient Central Wisconsin location en route between the Sand Valley and Kohler Golf Resorts, Lawsonia is a must stop on any tour of Wisconsin golf courses.
Dan Moore is an avid golfer who lives in Chicago. He is a founding member at the Sand Valley Golf Resort and a member of the USGA Architecture Archive Committee. Through his company Dan Moore Golf he works with architects and clubs to provide a variety of photography, golf history and golf course architecture consulting services. His clients have included Old Elm Club, Riverside Golf Club, Flossmoor CC, Shoreacres, Chicago Golf Club, Briarwood Golf Club, Stevens Point CC, Golf Courses of Lawsonia, and Oliphant Haltom Golf Management. www.danmooregolf.com