French Lick: Donald Ross and Pete Dye at their finest

By Mike Lednovich, Editor & Publisher

If the golf courses at French Lick Resort aren’t on your must-play list, adjust it. The Indiana boyhood home of NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird also has two layouts that are turning the hoops hotbed into a golf playground as well.

The first is the Donald Ross Course, built in 1917 and restored 10 years ago by Scottsdale architect Lee Schmidt. The resort added the Pete Dye Course in 2009, and the track was well received by players at the 2015 Senior PGA Championship. The spectacular view from the clubhouse terrace, situated on Mount Airie, offers a sweeping view of the tree-dotted hills of Hoosier National Forest.

“We’ve received a lot of accolades in a very short period of time. That says volumes about the quality of golf at French Lick,” said Dave Harner, the resort’s director of golf. “We have a very unique golf experience with a classic layout by old school architect Donald Ross and a modern design by legendary architect Pete Dye. That’s the best one-two combination in the U.S.”

The magic of the Donald Ross layout is the Scotland-styled greens that are often elevated, crowned, tiered and sloping. The caddies will tell you to “never hit the ball past the pin,” meaning that a deft short game is crucial to good scoring. Consider the benign looking 133-yard, par-3 16th. I hit an 8-iron 15 feet left of the pin, but only a slight tap of the ball with my putter sent it 40 feet past the hole. Oh my.

Slick greens and yawning bunkers are staples of a Donald Ross design

Accuracy is also an asset because most holes are guarded with thick swatches of heather on either side of the fairway. There are four par-3s, but three are longer than 200 yards from the tips. The 13th, at 228 yards, plays uphill to a multi-tiered green, forcing everyone in my group to hit driver, a club that also will come in handy – twice, perhaps – at No. 15, a 665-yard, par-5 from the back tees.

The Pete Dye Course offers five sets of tees, from a staggering 8,100 yards from the tips to a milder 5,100 yards from the forward markers. Mid-handicappers will want to try the middle offerings from 6,100 to 6,700 yards.

The Pete Dye Course offers wonderful hilltop vistas

“It’s a handful from any set of tees,” said Dyan Duncan, public relations manager for the French Lick Resort. “The feedback we get from golfers is, yes, it’s difficult, but also that it’s a unique layout and visually stunning golf course.”

A highlight of the Dye layout is the fifth hole, a par-5 that features a split fairway. A couple holes later is another par-5 with one of Dye’s signature features – volcano bunkers by the green. The best hole is No. 18, a downhill 580-yard, par-5 with a fairway that bends to the left. Aim to the right because the fairway is severely sloped the other way and those side-hill lies out of deep rough can be tough.

There’s plenty to see when you’re done, as well, because French Lick Resort also has spas, a casino, an elephant retreat and a winery. The town originally honed its tourist chops starting in 1845, as visitors flocked to the gateway destination to experience the healing powers of the numerous sulfur springs.

The hamlet of 2,000 people experienced a downturn when the resort was purchased in 1934, but a tourism revival was launched when the Cook Group acquired the land and poured $600 million into resort upgrades.

Some $100 million also was spent to put new life into the town’s West Baden Springs Hotel, once nicknamed the Eighth Wonder of the World because of its majestic lobby that was under the largest free-spanning dome in the U.S. until 1955. Modeled after the German spa town of Baden-Baden, the hotel once hosted the likes of Al Capone, Gen. John Pershing and boxer John L. Sullivan. Following its restoration, West Baden reopened in 2006 with 243 rooms and suites.

Another option is the French Lick Springs Hotel and Casino that, like the West Baden, has treatment rooms with mineral spring baths. You can also pose for photos holding Bird’s NBA MVP trophy at 33 Brick Street Restaurant.

All in all, French Lick is a surprising discovery for visitors not familiar with what the heartland has to offer regarding scenery, golf and hospitality.

“We treat all of our guests like VIPs, whether they’re staying at the resort or they’re from the area,” Harner said. “We understand how important it is that every need of our visiting golfers are met and exceeded. It’s that VIP treatment that makes us a top-rated golf destination.”

ALSO IN PLAY

The Valley Links Course at French Lick Resort doesn’t get the accolades of its two siblings, but the nine-hole layout that can stretch to 3,500 yards is great for people who want to play a stylish course with rolling fairways, Scottish-style fescue grasses and strategically placed bunkers.

Designed specifically for children and beginners, French Lick Resort partnered with U.S. Kids Golf to develop the family friendly course. The second of its kind in Indiana, there are two sets of tee markers – 1,100 and 1,900 yards – that set up perfectly for youngsters or adults just getting started. Best yet, there are no green fees for children 12 and younger.

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