Legends, Donald Ross and Pete Dye were the leading architects of two completely different areas. They are artists whose courses could not be more different in design. Now nestled among the hills of the Hoosier National Forest they are together creating an interesting contrast of eras and 36 holes of spectacular golf at one of America’s most iconic resorts.
Before it became famous for golf French Lick was famous for its’ sulfur hot springs and a casino visited by celebrities like boxer Joe Lewis, composer Ervin Berlin, and gangster Al Capone. It’s also well known as the hometown of basketball legend Larry Bird.
Live Like A Robber Barron For the Golden Age
The French Lick Springs Hotel was founded by local doctor William Bowles in 1845. Five years later another doctor John Lane built a second hotel a mile away called the Mile Lick Inn. He later changed the name of the hotel, and the town, to West Baden Springs after the famous mineral springs in Wiesbaden, Germany.
In 1901 outgoing mayor of Indianapolis, Tom Taggart, and a small group of investors, bought the property and started a large expansion. Meanwhile, up the road, Lee W. Sinclair transformed West Baden into an opulent world-class resort. While the new rail connection brought a steady stream of guests from Chicago and other Midwest cities.
In the early 1900s golf had captured the public’s attention and in 1907 Tom Bendelow was hired to design the resorts Spring Valley course, now reimagined as a nine-hole par 3. A decade later they hired Donald Ross to design the Hills course. The course won instant acclaim and The PGA Championship was held there in September of 1924. Walter Hagen defeated former champion, Jim Barnes, in the final round.
The stock market crash of 1929 saw the West Baden Hotel fail and it was sold a few years later to the Society of Jesus for one dollar. While The French Lick Hotel remained in business through a series of corporate owners its glory days were long behind it.
Abandoned and in a state of ruin Indiana Landmarks, the largest nonprofit preservation group in the nation, partnered with philanthropists Bill and Gayle Cook to make a positive impact on the hotel and the depressed region around it. Their investment not only saved West Baden Springs Hotel, but also restored French Lick Springs Hotel to its former glory.
The refurbished French Lick Springs Hotel and its new casino officially opened in November 2006, and the large part of the restoration of West Baden Springs Hotel started the next day and was completed $600 million later. Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World” by journalists when it opened the 200-foot span of its dome is as impressive as that of any of the wonder in Europe.
The Dye Course
I’d seen that Pete Dye course sitting high on a hill above the surrounding valley on television during the 2015 senior PGA championship. I thought to myself that looks tough, so tough in fact as to be unplayable. With panoramic 40 mile views from several tees, “volcano bunkers” tight fairways, and rugged terrain it’s certainly no pushover from the 8,100-yard championship tees. Yet while Pete’s diabolical nature can certainly be seen on some holes what I found as I made my way into the fog for my morning round from around 6,700 yards was a fun and challenging golf course in pristine condition. The best I have seen anywhere in the world this year!
Like many people, there are Dye courses I love and Dye course I hate. This falls into the first category for the superior views and conditioning as much for the design. The course starts strong with a downhill dogleg followed by a challenging tee shot on the second with bunkers everywhere. It doesn’t let up, disaster lurks on every hole, in the form of deep bunkers, heavy rough or steep drop-offs if you miss the clearly defined landing areas. Likewise, around the greens, a narrow miss of the generous greens will result in the ball kicking away sharply leaving a very difficult up and down. On the front, I also loved the par 3. 8th hole with its eight pot bunkers guarding the right side of the green and the lovely curves or the gentle dogleg right on the par 4, 9th hole.
On the back nine, I call out the 11th (go to the back tee) for spectacular views across the valley on this sharply downhill and drivable par 4. The 18th a long, dogleg rolling left and banked like a racetrack with more bunkers than some entire courses was a great finishing photo op.
The Donald Ross Course
The Donald Ross course was restored to the architects’ original vision in 2007 with a five-million-dollar makeover. It features all
the traits you’d expect of a Ross classic. Little earth was moved it its construction as Ross always preferring to use the natural contours of the land. Distance between greens and tees is minimal. Over 80 of Ross’s trademark flat bunkers with gnarly faces were returned to the layout. There are also flat greens, two-tiered greens, bowl greens, square greens, and turtleback greens all signatures of a Ross design.
The Ross course is very easy on the eye with its gentle contours and far more forgiving than the Dye, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. The par 70 can be stretched to 7,000 yards but as with all Ross courses it is understanding the subtlety of design that will yield results not mere strength.
Playing both the Dye and the Ross in one day will surely lead to some interesting conversations over dinner about the finer points of golf architecture and the way in which each of these legends approached their craft. Just don’t expect too much agreement among friends!
At a Glance:
- 36 holes of championship golf from Dye and Ross
- 9-hole, walking par three course
- Great tee gifts
- Excellent range @ The Dye
- Two classic AAA Four-Diamond nationally historic hotels,
- Vegas-style casino (rated No. 4 Best Casino outside of Las Vegas by Yahoo Travel, 2016)
- Multiple bars and dining options
- Scenic train rides
- Learn More At https://www.frenchlick.com/
About Andrew Wood
Andrew Wood is a golf writer, magazine publisher, and CEO of Legendary Marketing a Tampa area ad agency. Author of over 40 books including; The Golf Marketing Bible, The Hotel and Resort Marketing Bible, Fame – How to Build an Iconic Personal Brand and Life Well Lived.
He is considered the world’s leading expert in golf, resort and real estate marketing and has spoken to thousands of audiences worldwide. You can contact him at directly at 352-266-2099 https://legendarymarketing.com/ or [email protected]