By Tom Lang
What an incredible one-two punch – one that just might knock you off your feet.
French Lick Resort’s Pete Dye Course and Donald Ross Course – nestled upon and into the rolling hills of southern Indiana – are rated the No. 1 and No. 2 best public golf courses in the state of Indiana by GolfWeek Magazine, and have been every year since 2011. Add to that more than two dozen national rankings and awards – including No. 2 Casino course in the country by LINKS Magazine – makes French Lick Resort a great option for planning a head start on the spring golf season with its nearly-in-Kentucky location.
The fantastic modern-day Dye creation is blessed with incredible views of the surrounding countryside where it’s delicately balanced atop the second tallest point in Indiana, while the Donald Ross Course offers a contrasting classic feel and style.
Pete Dye Course:
What stands out the most about the Dye Course is the illusion that many holes are suspended in air as they appear to “hang” onto the side of a long mountainous ridge. That would not be most people’s first thoughts of an Indiana landscape, but it reflects the reality that the Hoosier National Forest area is essentially foothills leading to the mountainous Kentucky region.
Dye moved huge amounts of earth to create relatively level fairways on top of and on the sides of the rolling hills. The end result is many extreme drop-offs, hill climbs and cavernous valleys lining the fairways. These features play into the need for very thoughtful club selection, but when the ball is kept in the fairway it’s a very playable layout. That said, pick the right set of tees to enjoy this course. There are six tee selections ranging from the tips of more than 8,100 yards to the forward tees at 5,121 yards.
Dye is quoted as saying it was the best piece of inland property he’s ever worked. The challenges of his fairway drop offs and risk-reward shots are balanced by greens that generally don’t have severe sloping on the putting surface. But that doesn’t mean subtle breaks won’t fool you – they will. And some greens are surprisingly small, especially at the end of the long par 4 sixth hole with a significant drop off on the back side overlooking the valley.
Holes 3, 7 and 18 are stout, sweeping left doglegs with major valleys on each that require careful consideration of the correct club for the layup or “go for it” strategy.
The tee boxes at holes 8 and 11 are especially great lookout points for the surrounding forest and the two small towns below (French Lick and West Baden), but there are so many wonderful views from virtually every green and tee that no one location can be singled out as best. Each golf hole is gorgeous and very entertaining in its own right but the overall wow factor is what will bring in the masses for many years to come.
As a golfer first, I’m not a huge fan of calling out amenities like clubhouses, but the centerpiece at the Dye Course is spectacular in historic grandeur. The subtle V-shaped two-story mansion was built on the site at the absolute peak of the property in 1928 and for a time was the home to Indianapolis Mayor and former owner of the French Lick Springs Hotel, Thomas Taggart. For people who love early-century architecture with a modern touch, having lunch and looking around inside is inspiring.
Donald Ross Course:
Stately, elegant, classic and natural – a typical Donald Ross design.
The good thing is – when would typical Ross ever be considered a bad thing?
The Ross Course balances the resort’s modern Dye design with its historical ties to the area, which was inhabited by people looking for the speculative ‘healing and relaxation” in the many mineral springs. In recent years the resort spent almost $5 million to restore the course back to Ross’ original plans.
Now heading into its 101st golf season, the Ross Course was the site of Walter Hagen’s 1924 PGA Championship.
Ross’ design gently flows across the dramatic, natural rolling terrain. I suspect Ross just needed to figure out good routing because the only earth moving needed would have been to shape tee and green complexes.
Also like “typical” Ross, par is protected by uneven lies in the fairways and undulating greens. There is enough severity – with spines, swales, dips and plateaus on many greens – that Indiana native Fuzzy Zoeller was said to be a regular visitor in his younger playing days to practice putting in preparation of going to Augusta National.
Distance control is also important as to not leave approach shots on downhill slopes in the fairway because many greens are well above the fairway – not a good combination for successful approach shots. Many green complexes are elevated to the point of frequently needing an extra club, sometimes two, to reach the putting surface.
French Lick Resort has also strongly embraced the women’s game. It built and maintains the Legends Golf Hall of Fame, in recognition of the players who are alumni and founders of the LPGA Tour. Michigan’s Elaine Crosby was inducted in 2016.
The resort also hosted the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship in July 2017 – a 54-hole tournament with a $600,000 purse that aired live on the Golf Channel – and will host it again this coming Oct. 15-17. Initial planning of the tournament helped spur interest for the first-ever USGA Women’s Senior Open, coming this year.
Another first in 2017 was the Symetra Tour playing the inaugural Donald Ross Centennial Classic the week preceding the Senior LPGA Championship – another one-two punch that shows the support French Lick gives to women’s golf.
As historical settings go, the resort’s two main hotels are classic and very unique – each in their own right – and compliment the cozy downtown of French Lick. The circular West Baden Springs Hotel, with its huge skylight dome reaching 100 feet into the air and measuring 200 feet across the radius between interior-view hotel room balconies, is so elaborate that at the time it reached 8th wonder of the world status in 1902 by media. Jaw-dropping describes the feeling of walking through the front door and into the massive, indoor open-space atrium.
Although built several generations ago when many local mineral springs were the main attraction, today’s resort is finely appointed with all the modern features of indoor and outdoor pools, spa amenities, several restaurants, a casino, convention center and outdoor gardens. There are many family activities in the area with an indoor water park, plus trails, carriage rides and the French Lick Scenic Railway. My wife is not a golfer but enjoyed the best horseback ride of her life at the resort on Hank, the blue-eyed Pinto. (https://www.frenchlick.com/activities/outdoor/stables)
The complimentarily-paired French Lick Springs Hotel was voted in 2015 by readers of USA Today as the top historic hotel in the country. Grab one of the dozens of rocking chairs on the massive front porch and unwind.
More information can be found at: www.frenchlick.com.