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French Lick Resort Back in National Spotlight as Host of 43rd PGA Professional National Championship


This weekend the southern Indiana community of French Lick, population 1,900, will be receiving national attention. The 43rd PGA Professional National Championship, to be played June 27-30, is the first PGA of America-sanctioned national event to be hosted at French Lick Resort since legendary Walter Hagen captured the 1924 PGA Championship.

A field of 312 PGA professionals representing 43 states and 41 PGA Sections will compete on courses designed by two of the game's legendary golf architects - Donald Ross and Pete Dye. The hilly 6,885-yard Donald Ross Course and the demanding, majestic 7,174-yard Pete Dye Course mark the first visit by the PGA Professional National Championship to Indiana.

The event will offer a $550,000 purse and most importantly to its competitors - a crystal Walter Hagen Cup. "It's our major, the event that we look forward to each year," said defending national champion Mike Small of Champaign, Ill., who will bid to grab a third title after a spring in which he guided the University of Illinois to a second consecutive Big Ten Conference championship.

"It's an honor and a privilege to be a PGA professional and to have been able to win this championship. We all know what this association means and represents to many of us. It is the fabric of our family. It's a big part of our lives."

To capture a championship, the nation's finest club pros must manage their games over the Donald Ross Course, formerly the Hill Course, which served as the 1924 PGA Championship venue. Unlike that championship, which was contested in September, the field will duel under hot, humid conditions that are typical for early summer in Indiana.

The Donald Ross Course, the creation of famed Scottish architect Donald Ross, also hosted the 1959 and '60 LPGA Championship and was the home of the Midwest Amateur from the 1930s through the '50s. Coincidentally, Dye captured the 1957 Midwest Amateur on the course.

The Donald Ross Course completed a $6 million renovation in 2006, conducted by architect Lee Schmidt of Scottsdale, Ariz., which restored the original Ross design.

"The Donald Ross [Course] is the unknown, and I believe that unless players are ready to handle the greens, the tournament could be won or lost here," said PGA professional Dave Harner, director of golf operations at French Lick Resort. "Donald Ross could be the wild card."

Golf Channel will broadcast the event live to an international audience, with the field trimmed to the low 70 scorers and ties following Monday's second round. The final two rounds contested at Twin Warriors Golf Club. The low 20 scorers on Wednesday evening earn a berth in the 92nd PGA Championship, August 9-15, at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.

Small Rallied for Victory a Year Ago

"The PGA promotes the game of golf and for us to be able to do the same and also go out and compete in a championship like this is very special," said Small, who said his preparation time while coaching throughout the spring and fall is limited to hitting practice balls with one club he takes along on the road. "I think winning last year validated the one I won in 2005."

Small will be joined in the talented field by 11 past champions: John Traub of Bloomfield Township, Mich. (1980); Bill Schumaker of Columbia City, Ind., (1984), the only Indiana PGA member to win the title and who will make a record 29th appearance; Brett Upper of Phoenix, Ariz. (1990); Steve Schneiter of Sandy, Utah (1995); Jeff Freeman of Windermere, Fla., (1999); Tim Thelen of College Station, Texas (2000, '03); Wayne DeFrancesco of Columbia, Md. (2001); Barry Evans of Charleston, W.Va. (2002); Ron Philo Jr. of Amelia Island, Fla. (2006); Chip Sullivan of Troutville, Va. (2007); and Scott Hebert of Traverse City, Mich. (2008).

French Lick Resort, one of 554 golf facilities in Indiana, will team with the community in a 750-member volunteer force to host the event. "I think we're ready," said Harner. "The community has embraced this championship, and the comments of those top players who have played the courses already have overwhelmingly been good. Now, it's up the weather to support us. You might say that we've built our church for Easter Sunday. We're ready for a crowd."

Dye, who was the 2004 PGA Distinguished Service Award winner, designed courses that hosted previous PGA Professional National Championships: 1989-90 at PGA West-Stadium Course in La Quinta, Calif.; in 1999 at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., and in 2005 at The Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, S.C.

The Pete Dye Course, which opened in 2009, is set among the rolling hills of French Lick, and nearly 1,000 feet above sea level.

There are six Indiana resident professionals in the Championship: Schumaker, the PGA head professional at Crooke Lake Golf Course in Columbia City; reigning Indiana PGA champion Todd M. Smith of Rock Hollow Golf Club in Peru, who captured his 2009 crown on the Pete Dye Course in a playoff with Brett Melton of The Country Club of Old Vincennes. Also among the home state group are Brad Fellers of Wood Wind Golf Academy in Westfield; Blair Shadday of Purgatory Golf Club in Noblesville; Jim Ousley of Tippecanoe Country Club in Monticello. Smith won last year's Indiana PGA Championship, with two of his three rounds at the Pete Dye Course. He captured a playoff with Melton after both tied at a humbling 9-over-par for 54 holes. Smith said that he would not choose to play anywhere else.

"This place is really special," said Smith, 47, a nine-time Indiana PGA Player of the Year. "Mr. Dye gives you a chance to play a hole with ample room in a fairway, but when it comes to making a score on a hole, you have to be precision. I love to play his courses, and I can't think of playing anyone else's courses."

Established in 1968, the PGA Professional National Championship roster of champions includes past and present Tour professionals: Sam Snead, Bob Rosburg, Don Massengale, Ed Dougherty, Larry Gilbert and Bruce Fleisher. The 41 Section Championships and the National Championship offer a combined purse of $1.5 million.