Like any good Baptist, the Lawsonia Links golf course at Green Lake, Wisconsin, is at first reluctant to reveal its essential character–but only at first. Hole number one is a rather ordinary dogleg right; a high, bunkerish ridge on the right-hand side of the fairway is the sole unusual feature, but once over this the fairway rolls directly up into the green. If the golfer plays left and up, he might putt out and go on to the next hole without noticing that hidden in the back of the green is a steep drop to either sand or rough. The second hole requires a blind drive hit uphill over two bunkerish mounds. The rough here is normally sparse and dry, because of the hill. Yet once the golfer gets to the top of the hill and passes between the two bunkers, Lawsonia pours forth its emotions in the tradition of the old-time, Friday-night revival meeting. In the distance is the rolling Wisconsin countryside–brief areas of forest, patched in with farmland and hedgerows–and just beyond the course is a beautiful, big barn that used to house an organ in its loft (perhaps it still does). The course itself swings right, then left, and back in a fertile green crescent, and everywhere–everywhere–along its path are high, brown bunkers. Each green is elevated–as high as 15 feet above the surrounding land–with a moat of sand placed around it. Here, in central Wisconsin, on the grounds of the American Baptist Assembly, is a beautiful, challenging golf course.
Although Lawsonia is set on the hills above Green Lake, the deepest water reservoir in Wisconsin, it is not a traditional links course. The soil isn’t sandy enough to sustain the tough, high grass typical of Scottish seaside courses, and in its design and its present condition it is too well tended to allow the games of ill chance and good luck that reflect not only Scottish golf courses but that race’s attitude toward the game. For instance, there are no pot bunkers on the course, only tall, high fairway bunkers, strategically placed along the way, and almost every green is elevated. If a golfer gets in trouble on Lawsonia, he or she deserves it. Yet Lawsonia is Scottish enough to uphold the name “links”; in conception and character, it is of one mind, and that mind is of a crafty, challenging, traditional, but fair and rewarding bent.
Lawsonia is, of course, an old layout, first opened in 1930; it brings to mind pictures of men in knickers and wing-tipped cleats, with one foot set on the ground and the other braced against a bunker, which they peer over before making a particularly difficult shot. Back in the days of wood-shafted clubs, Lawsonia was a regular stop for the pros passing through the midwest to the Western Open and other regional tourneys, but eventually it fell out of the current and into the Wisconsin backwaters. That’s a rare occurrence in these days of superhighways and easy travel, but it happened for two reasons: golf got organized, so that the small, regional tournaments fell away, and the clubs–the actual hitting sticks–got metallic and outgrew the course. The fairway bunkers once so strategically placed now stand firm as even high-handicap golfers of moderate ability (read “the writer”) drive well beyond their reach. Likewise, even playing from the blue tees, the golfer faces only one 500-yard-plus hole on what used to be the front nine, and only two on the back. The total yardage from the blue tees comes in well under 7,000 yards. Yet, while short, Lawsonia remains a fair and challenging test of golf; it rewards good shots and punishes the bad. And the elevated greens guarded by their pools of sand require a series of fine shots from any golfer; they can quickly humble someone who has falsely elevated his or her own talents. By the way, the United States Golf Association rating for what I’m sure will eventually be called the Old Course at Lawsonia remains a very respectable 72.8 from the blues, and Golf Digest ranks it among the top 25 public-fee courses in the nation.
I refer to it as the Old Course because nine new holes have been added during this decade, carved out of the wooded grounds of the ABA, which picked up the land–with the golf course thrown in–during the Depression. In fact, the diminishing power the Baptists are exercising over the place is reflected by the growing size of the golf course–nine more holes are planned, for a total of 36–by the upcoming addition of fairway-side condos, and by a change in name from the “American Baptist Assembly” to “Green Lake Conference Center,” home of the former.
The new nine has not attempted to remain true to the character of the Old Course. Sand abounds, the hilly bunkers are gone, and the greens are, for the most part, at the level of the fairway. That’s a good thing too; the addition of any of the more challenging aspects of the Old Course would make the new nine downright unfair. Curling back and forth through deep woods, it is tight and almost claustrophobic, as twisted and tricky as a televangelist’s spiel. The second hole, a short par four of 329 yards from the white tees, includes a tee-side board with advice for the golfer: “215 yards to quarry.” And, in fact, 215 yards down the center of the fairway, the grass falls away into a huge ravine. The sign, however, was there, and a word to the wise from a Baptist should be sufficient. There are also long, grinding marches from one green to the next tee–a test, again, of our desire and faith. Yet the course is, despite these criticisms, a challenging and fair test–different from the Old Course, not necessarily better or worse–and it is in fine shape. The young greens are softening, and the fairways are impeccable. The New Course, I’m sure, will eventually serve to accommodate the modern golfer who finds the Old Course and the old ways a bit antiquated. As for me, I’ll take the Old Course every day of the week.
We journeyed up to Green Lake for a day of golfing and a day of fishing during the early part of last week–myself and the one friend I have who shares both enthusiasms. Unlike previous trips, we did not leave in the middle of the night in order to begin bright and early on arriving in the morning, but waited until morning to leave and then dallied here and there with the usual delays (had to stop on North Elston to get new license plates, crisscrossed back and forth under the Edens trying to find an entrance ramp for the northbound lanes). It was the time of year, however, that does not lend itself to crowded golf courses, and when we called from just north of Milwaukee to push our tee time back we were told we could get on at any time. So we strolled up at about 1:30, got on the course as a twosome, and proceeded to go around in well under five hours.
It was my third time out this year and my first for 18 holes (my last round, in which I was partially devoured by flies at the Waveland course, put me off golf for a bit), but having read the summarizing chapter of Ben Hogan’s Modern Fundamentals of Golf (my mantra) on the way up, I was composed if not confident, and went round the new nine in 47 despite two lost balls. Familiar with the first nine of the Old Course, which we played as our back nine that day, I picked up some strokes on bogey and made few costly mistakes, and came to the last two holes needing fives to break 90. The first I got on a par four, the second I missed on a par five when my blind approach from behind a fairway bunker went long, as did my following chip, and I finished with a 91, with the day finishing up with a very similar score against a scale of 100 as the sun set.
When the glaciers fell back from Wisconsin, they left Green Lake the deepest body of water in the state; alongside it, just to the south, they left a little 28-foot-deep puddle known as Little Green Lake. While Big Green is 95 percent spring-fed, Little Green, to my knowledge, has always had a thick algae growth on its surface; one could almost write one’s name in it with a fishing line while retrieving a lure. It is the sort of lake horror-movie creatures appear out of, and in real life it’s true that nasty, toothy things do thrive in it, but they are fish, not monsters. Little Green is known as one of Wisconsin’s better muskie lakes, and I know for a fact that this reputation is true because I’ve seen them taken out of the lake and I’ve left at least one in there.
When I called out to Radtke’s Landing the week before to arrange a boat, I heard what I thought was the purring, sputtering breaking of waves along shore, which put me in the mood for fishing right away. When we arrived I found that the noise was not waves but willow trees, which hang over the tackle shop, but Gale Radtke remained–as he had been on the phone, and as he was five and ten years ago on my last trips to the area–a cheerful, patient, accepting man. He makes his own wire leaders (necessary in many instances when hunting the dangerously toothy muskie) and his own lure, the Radtke Pike Minnow, and he set us up with a boat and sent us off, wishing us well.
The muskellunge is known as the fish of 10,000 casts, and the ratio is up from that this year on Little Green. After a good spring, fishing fell off with the hot weather and is yet to rebound. Radtke keeps a signboard in his tackle shop charting the muskies taken from the lake, and, while I’ve seen it running onto three charts, this year it remains on one, with the last muskie taken a week before we arrived. We were not discouraged but confident; the lake was due.
About ten years ago, I caught a muskie at Little Green–or hooked it, rather. We were out on a family fishing trip–my teenage self, a friend, my younger brother, and my father–and we were beating the lake into a froth from the earliest hours of the day, with lures as long as an old woman’s forearm. Finally, I got tired of this, put a little Mr. Twister on the line, without a leader, and threw it toward deep water looking for bass. I hooked one, or so I thought, and was bringing it toward the boat when a beautiful, yard-long tiger muskie (a pike-muskie hybrid) jumped ten feet in front of the boat in a perfect long arc. “Get the fish, I’ve got a net,” I said, a line that retains its place in family dinner conversations even today, and while the fish stayed calm I panicked. It went directly under the boat, as muskies are often said to do, and when I pulled up its sharp teeth parted the line and I’d lost him.
I can’t say that incident gave me an incurable case of muskie fever–this was my second muskie-fishing trip in the ten years since–but it remains an ambition to reclaim the muskie I left in Little Green so long ago. It’s still there today, however. We fished Little Green well and we fished it hard, but we caught nothing, which is just as well. Fish can sometimes be a bother when they come up into the boat. The weather was good. The sunshine allowed us to take off our shirts and get a last little bit of summer tan. Mid-Wisconsin is about a week ahead of Chicago in the turning of the leaves, and a number of trees along the shoreline were moving toward full color. In the distance, geese practiced early-season Vs in the sky, but in the manner of a high-school band preparing for the first football game: their letters were half-formed, one-legged, and they flew overhead in check-mark patterns.
At midday, we put away the muskie lures and went deep-water worming for walleye. Motor trolling is prohibited, and so we ran across the lake, set up the worm rigs, and drifted back across with a couple of Point beers for company. All was quiet; the waves lapped at the hull of the boat as they gently pushed us across. Yet at the other side of the lake we reeled in with our worms still intact. We’d dragged them across the bottom of the lake without a nibble. It was that kind of day. Peaceful.
So peaceful, in fact, that I forgot to call back into Green Lake to arrange a place to stay. Radtke had no public phone, and the corner grocery had closed up early, so we stopped at a roadhouse with a parking-lot telephone along the way. As I stepped up to the booth, a huge, black dog came around the corner of the car, and I thought, “First mistake, getting out of car. Second mistake, closing door.” He was a big dog, fully shoulder-height when standing on his hind legs, something I discovered right away as he strolled up, gave me a sniff, and then greeted me like an old friend. A good omen, I thought, and to be sure we were welcomed at the place I had hoped to get a room, and we got back into the car and left the dog behind in the parking lot–where had he come from?–and drove on back into Green Lake proper.
For more information on Green Lake, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.