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Dual Courses Make the Trip to French Lick Seem Easy
I am used to "remote." Born, raised and a resident of Texas, I've traveled all over the back roads and through the tiny towns of the largest state in the Contiguous 48. I know all about getting away and have been to my fair share of crossroads in burgs with single blinking lights as the only traffic control.
Vistas are Amazing at the Dye Course
But I've never felt as isolated as when I drove from Indianapolis to French Lick in the far southern part of the Hoosier State. A map will show that French Lick is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Indy and an hour less than that from Louisville, Ky., to the east. But the journey - though a series of increasingly smaller roads and through rolling fields and dales - is almost a step back in time as well as a trek to remoteness.
It's at the fabulous French Lick Resort where the well-heeled have come in droves since the mid-1850s to escape the city, to enjoy the healing waters of the area's mineral springs, to revel in the opulence of the West Baden Springs Hotel and to play golf at, initially anyway, a course designed by the legendary Donald Ross that opened in 1917.
In 2009, with the approval of casino gambling in French Lick attracting visitors and their money not seen since before the Great Depression, a second course was built - this one by Indiana's own Pete Dye, arguably the most important golf architect of the 20th century's last 25 years.
The two courses, both notable in their own right for their individual challenge and beauty, have combined to make a trip to French Lick a must for golfers. The fact that the other amenities in the tiny town are also top-drawer just adds to the appeal.
The Ross Course at French Lick.
Ross Course Stands the Test of Time
Even though the Ross course may take second billing to Dye's creation, it's certainly good enough for a starring role. Opened for play as the United States was making its entry into the First World War, the Hill Course (as it was originally known) featured Ross's trademark flat-bottomed bunkers and his square, rectangular-shaped and undulating putting surfaces.
Many of those attributes were restored in 2006 by Lee Schmidt as part of a $5 million project, done in collaboration with the Donald Ross Society. Once completed, the layout was re-branded as the Donald Ross Course at French Lick Resort.
The Ross course plays as a par 70 and extends 7,030 yards from its back set of four tees, where it warrants a rating of 72.3 and a 135 Slope. With elevated tees and rolling, bunker-strewn fairways that offer few level lies, the layout plays much harder than it's carded. The greatest thing about Ross's work here is that there are no "filler" holes; the entire 18-hole round demands the players' best.
The 240-yard par-3 Fourth at the
Ross Course at French Lick
The course has a foursome of par-3s that many Ross aficionados believe are his best anywhere, and that's saying a lot. Three of them stretch 240 yards or more (highlighted by the 252-yard, uphill 13th), with only the 150-yard 16th - which is a test in its own right as it's surrounded by sand - offering a reprieve.
Beginning with the 420-yard, down-then-up par-4 opener, and ending with the par-4 18th - played over a slope and past greenside bunkers to a putting surface that has a "skyline" contoured green, the Ross course asks for every shot in the bag and precision throughout.
It's quite a ride, especially if one considers just how difficult the course must have been when it opened almost a century ago. Back then it was good enough to host the 1924 PGA Championship, won by Walter Hagen, and in the years since it's been the site of both LPGA and Senior PGA Tour events.
The Ross course has garnered its share of awards over the years, including Renovation of the Year by Golf magazine in 2007. Golfweek listed it as one of the "Best Courses You Can Play" in 2008 and has ranked it the No. 2 public course in Indiana.
The Dye Course at French Lick
Dye Course is Otherworldly
As good as the Ross course is, these days all the talk about French Lick golf is the course designed by Dye.
If there was ever a venue that looks like it would fit right in on the moon, it would be the Dye course, with its raised fairways pocked by volcano and pot bunkers. It's all about the angles and prowess with the driver here, with nary a flat lie to be found and with putting surfaces that look as if they're waves rolling toward you as you stand on the shore.
The story behind the building of the Dye course is nearly as good as the result itself. Flush with money from casino revenues and looking to add another attraction to the resort to make French Lick a "real" golf destination, the Cook Group, owners of the resort since 2005, brought in the imminent designer.
Mounding Highlights the Dye Course at French Lick
Dye walked the proposed building site on Mt. Airie - the highest ground in Indiana - and concluded that the slopes were too severe and the terrain too rugged to house a golf course. But he soon returned to French Lick with a topographical map of the area and a preliminary routing written on a napkin, saying he intended to "build the course whether they want me to or not."
Dye shifted more than 2.5 million cubic yards of dirt to create the fingers of land that roll down from the top of the mountain and comprise the par-72 course. There's over 200 feet of pitch to the site, but no real dramatic drops from tee to green, making the layout, even at its monstrous 8,102 yards from the tips, a venue that be walked without too much difficulty.
Those back tees carry at rating of 80.0 and a Slope of 148, but two blocks up at the blue tees (which, at 6,701 yards, are the most played set here) the numbers are 73.3 and 135, respectively.
The course officially opened in the spring of 2009 and held its first major PGA event the following summer.
The 'Volcano' Bunkers on No. 2
at the Dye Course at French Lick
Dye's creation has narrow fairways that tilt toward native grasses; bunkers of varied design, shape and size; three man-made lakes; and extreme terrain highlighted by endless views of the surrounding countryside. A golfer almost feels like he's playing on top of the clouds - as would a mythological god - when at the course's highest points.
"A lot of southern Indiana is natural forest, a lot of it is state-owned, so you can see for miles," Dye said. "As I built the golf course I tried to get the tees, the fairways and the greens in position that they have these long views over the valleys and hills. The ambiance of the course is its look."
There are plenty of holes to be highlighted here. The 413-yard par-4 second contains the course's volcano bunkers (bunkers placed high atop mounds), and the 251-yard par-3 fourth features a cape green with sand - including a pot-shaped enclosure - on the port side underneath the ridge.
The par-5 third measures 641 yards from the tips, and the seventh is carded at 611. Those two, along with three par-4s of 513 yards or more, help make the front side extend 4,084 yards.
The home half features the 529-yard par-4 12th and the 301-yard (!) par-3 16th. The 657-yard 18th is a great downhill, right-to-left closer, which ends in the shadow of the course's clubhouse.
The 10th Hole at the Ross Course at French Lick
The clubhouse, originally built by Thomas Taggart - a former owner of French Lick Springs Hotel, mayor of Indianapolis and one-time chairman of the National Democratic Party - has been impeccably restored and decorated in painstaking detail. The turn of-the-last-century mansion sits at 1,000 feet above sea level.
There's nothing subtle about playing golf at the Dye course. That said, a round calls for a modicum of course management and exacting shots to reach its wavy putting surfaces, and a great short game the compensate for errors all golfers are likely to commit when tackling this beast.
The Pete Dye Course Golf Course at French Lick was named 2009's "Best New Course in America" by Golf Digest. It debuted at No. 93 on Golf Digest's 2013-2014 ranking of "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses," and is listed as the No. 1 public course you can play in Indiana by Golfweek.
The Dye course is also one of the offerings on the Pete Dye Golf Trail, the state of Indiana's collection of facilities crafted by the master of modern golf design.
West Baden Springs Hotel
French Lick Resort is Something Special
Golf was an important part of the history of both the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels, the two lodging options that make up the French Lick Resort. The luxury destination, which originates in the early 1800s, recently underwent a $500 million restoration and it's an amazing place.
You must stay at either the French Lick Springs Hotel or the West Baden Springs Hotel in order to play the Dye Course.
West Baden Springs' domed lobby was once known as the Eighth Wonder of the World and French Lick Springs is best known for the miracle waters of its nearby sulfur springs. With an on-site casino, spas, entertainment and dining, French Lick is an indulgent stop that, though remote, is very much worth the trouble of getting to.
For more information, go to www.frenchlick.com.
Steve Habel is a freelance writer contributing Cybergolf news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He also works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports, and is a contributing writer for Golfers' Guide and Golf Oklahoma magazine, Texas Links magazines and Golfers Guide. Habel's main blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com) features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) chronicles his many travels, including playing more than 600 golf courses since 2008. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.