INDIANA’S FRENCH LICK RESORT — THE GOLF IS GREAT
By Mike May
If you are seeking a getaway to a resort that combines memories of yesteryear with the amenities of today, choose the French Lick Resort in the adjacent towns of French Lick and West Baden, Indiana. It’s fair to say that the French Lick Resort, which includes the French Lick Springs Hotel (443 rooms) and the West Baden Springs Hotel (243 rooms), truly rivals what is offered at, say, the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, which proclaims itself as ‘America’s Resort.’ When you enter the French Lick Springs Hotel or the West Baden Springs Hotel, both lobbies exude ‘old world charm’ from the Roarin’ ‘20s. The West Baden Springs Hotel, featuring its massive free-span dome that was once the largest in the world, is so magnificent that it once earned this hotel the designation as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’
The French Lick Resort was built in the early 1900s and quickly established itself as one of America’s premier destinations. In its early days, French Lick and West Baden were a destination playground for the rich and famous.
THE FRENCH LICK COMEBACK: A FACELIFT
Like many business ventures, the French Lick Resort was unable to keep up with the changing times and business suffered in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The French Lick Resort had lost its luster and the ‘bloom was off the rose,’ so to speak. But, that just meant the French Lick Resort was poised for a comeback. Enter successful medical professional and entrepreneur Bill Cook from nearby Bloomington. His Cook Group oversaw the infusion of enough funds to resuscitate this resort that had fallen on hard times. The property was literally falling apart. The West Baden Springs Hotel was in such bad shape that it once appeared on the National Trust’s list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Properties in the United States. But not for long.
Restoration efforts on both hotels started in 1996. After a decade of work and nearly $600 million, the French Lick Resort opened its doors to visiting tourists and businesses from around the world. Business has been brisk ever since.
The total restoration of this destination has been dubbed the “Save of the Century.” That may be an understatement!
The main floor of the West Baden Springs Resort in French Lick, Indiana.
The recreational appeal of the French Lick Springs Resort is now on par with resort competition around the country. It includes an indoor and outdoor pool, a six-lane bowling alley, bicycle rentals, horseback riding, and a 27,000-square foot spa. The area also boasts 5.5 miles of hiking trails and a 9-mile mountain biking trail.
FORE! — A FRENCH LICK TRADITION
Today, golfers are spoiled at the French Lick Resort, as there are two world-class 18-hole championship golf courses in this small southern Indiana town — The Donald Ross Course (originally named the Hill Course, opened in 1917) and The Pete Dye Course (opened in 2009). There’s also a nine-hole course – the Valley Links Course, designed by Tom Bendelow. As the names on the 18-hole layout suggest, both courses are named after their respective architects. It’s worth noting that the French Lick Resort is the only resort in the world which boats a classic Donald Ross design and a more modern Pete Dye layout. And, it’s only resort with two golf courses designed by two hall of fame architects.
The Donald Ross Course is one of two public golf courses in Indiana which were designed by Ross. In recent years, the Ross Course in French Lick has been renovated, courtesy of a $4.6 million investment. It has now been restored to Ross’s original plans, which are brilliant. Many of the greens have false fronts, which are accentuated by the back-to-front slope of the greens. When you play this course, check out the configuration of the 8th green. It’s in the shape of a
square, as many greens were, back in the day. After playing this course, you can understand why the 1924 PGA Championship was held here. It’s a true test of anybody’s ability to play golf. By the way, Walter Hagen won that year’s event, defeating England’s Jim Barnes, 2 up, in the final.
The approach to the 14th hole at the Donald Ross Course in French Lick, Indiana.
It’s worth noting what took place during the 1924 PGA. When the official photo was taken of that year’s field of contestants, both Barnes and Hagen appeared in the group photo twice – on both the left and right side of the picture. And, this was not accomplished with Photo Shop! Truth be told, Barnes and Hagen were able to run from one side of the group photo to the other as they were able to outrace the slow-moving camera used to capture the image of the 1924 field.
That picture hangs on the wall of the clubhouse at the Donald Ross Course. By the way, the restaurant at the Ross Course is now called Hagen’s Club House Restaurant. Would that restaurant, which serves delicious breaded tenderloin sandwiches, now be called Barnes’ if the tall Englishman had prevailed back in 1924?
The bar at Hagen’s has an interesting story. According to Brendan Sweeney, the director of golf media relations for the French Lick Resort, the bar is actually from the Chicago stockyards and was shipped down when the bar area at Hagen’s was built. On that bar, you will see a message that was carved into the wood by former gangster Al Capone.
Besides that 1924 PGA, the Ross Course has hosted many high-profile golf events such as the 1922 Indiana Open, 1958 French Lick Open (LPGA), 1959 and 1960 LPGA Championship, 1983 Senior Open Championship, 2012 and 2013 Women’s Big Ten Championship, among others.
The Dye Course, which includes three man-made lakes, was built on top of the surrounding hills. Many powerful adjectives have been used to describe the Dye Course — breathtaking, dramatic, exciting, and spectacular, to name a few. The clubhouse on the Dye course is the old Taggart mansion. This hilltop peak is Mt. Airie — 972 feet high and roughly 450 feet above the town of French Lick.
When you arrive at the clubhouse, it’s Indiana’s second highest elevation point, but it probably has the best view of any vantage point in the Midwest. It’s Indiana’s own ‘Rocky Mountain High’ – a 360-degree view of southern Indiana and the surrounding Hoosier National Forest. From many parts of this golf course, you can see 30-40 miles in every direction. When Dye built this course, he wanted to give golfers a panoramic view of southern Indiana. He succeeded.
After playing golf at the Dye Course, don’t rush away. Instead, have a bite to eat at The Mansion at the Pete Dye Course, where you can continue to enjoy the hill-top and birds-eye views of southern Indiana.
A beautiful fall day along the back nine at the Dye Course in French Lick, Indiana.
“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,” stated Dye. “A lot of southern Indiana is natural forest, a lot of it is state owned, so you can see for miles. The ambience of the course is the look, the vistas from all the different tees, greens and fairways.”
The 10th green at the Dye Course in French Lick, Indiana.
The most dramatic stretch of holes is the early part of the back nine – 11, 12, 13, and 14. On 11, steer clear of the volcano bunkers which hug the fairway along the right. The 12th is a true three-shot par five with a massive green. The views of the area as you play the par-three 13th are memory makers. The 14th is the Signature hole. It’s a lengthy par five with a split fairway, divided by a massive green hollow. Pars are celebrated at 14.
Another 18-hole course in the area that’s worth playing is Sultan’s Run — located in nearby Jasper, a 30-minute drive from French Lick. Sultan’s Run was designed by Tim Liddy, a Dye protégé. Sultan’s Run features rolling hills, wonderful bunkering, and a scenic waterfall behind the 18th green. The 18th hole is the signature hole at Sultan’s Run and is named Supreme Sultan. Sultan’s Run is a brilliant creation.
You would be hard-pressed to discover a better 36-hole golf experience than French Lick’s dynamic duo of the Donald Ross Course and the Dye Course. And, if you include Sultan’s Run, that’s a terrific trifecta.
It’s worth noting that the Pete Dye Course hosted the 2015 Senior PGA Championship (presented by Kitchen Aid), which was won by Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie and it also hosted
the Big Ten golf championships for men and women in 2015. The Dye Course is also the current host of the Senior LPGA Championship (presented by Old National Bank), which was first held there in 2017 and 2018 and is slated to continue on The Dye Course through 2021. It’s the first-ever senior major on the LPGA Tour, another historical moment at French Lick.
DINING @ FRENCH LICK: AN EXPERIENCE
Believe it or not, but the kitchen of the French Lick Springs Hotel is where tomato juice was created for the first time. It was 1917 and the chef needed a breakfast juice for his guests and he didn’t have any oranges left, only tomatoes. Hence, tomato juice. But, tomato juice is not the only great item that emerges from those kitchens.
Dining options abound in French Lick. They range from fine dining to casual dining to grab-and-go. If you like steak, there’s no better choice than 1875: The Steakhouse, which is located in the French Lick Springs Hotel. Why 1875? It’s named after the date of the inaugural Kentucky Derby — May 17, 1875.
Another fun, fine dining option is Table One, the private chef’s table (for ten) in the kitchen at the West Baden Springs Hotel. From your table, you can watch the chef prepare your meal as you look through glass walls. Then, with the flip of a switch, the walls can become frosted which provides you with privacy and seclusion.
If you want another combination of food and history, enjoy the breakfast buffet in the Grand Colonnade Family Restaurant in the French Lick Springs Hotel. This is where Franklin Delano Roosevelt received the nomination to run for President back in the early 1930s.
In 2019, a sports bar is being opened.
FRENCH LICK’S HIGH HONORS
Since the restoration of the French Lick Resort by the Cook family, a number of awards, honors, and accolades have been bestowed upon this property’s meeting space, spa, casino, hotels, and golf courses by publications and organizations such as Golf Digest, Golfweek, GOLF Magazine, LINKS Magazine, Southern Gaming, Reader’s Choice Awards, Conde Nast Traveler, and U.S. News & World Report. The national recognition has been steady and strong since 2008.
Historians have also taken note as both the French Lick Springs Hotel and the West Baden Resort Hotel are designated on the National Register of Historic Places.
Suffice it to say, it won’t be easy leaving The French Lick Resort and its world-class golfing and dining opportunities – and its gaming and entertainment options — but it will be easy making plans for a return trip to this getaway in the Hoosier National Forest.