A golf trip to the French Lick Resort in Indiana offers a strong sample from two of the greatest golf course designers who ever lived – Donald Ross and Pete Dye. But, as you might expect, the two courses are as different as Tiger and Phil, each one excellent in their own way and each one a perfect representation of their designer.
And the two courses are the centerpiece of a wonderful resort in the heartland of Indiana. French Lick, best known as the hometown of NBA great Larry Bird, is a great place for a buddy trip or a couple’s escape, and there’s enough to keep the kids busy and make it a popular stop for families.
The two golf courses are fabulous. Each course has drawn national acclaim and has hosted national championships. The Donald Ross Course at French Lick, originally known at the “Hills Course,” hosted the 1924 PGA Championship, the NCAA Division III championship, and has been the venue for many others, like the Indiana Open. The Pete Dye Course at French Lick has hosted the PGA Professional National Championship, the LPGA Legends and Senior LPGA Championship, the women’s developmental Epson Tour, the Indiana Amateur and in 2024 will begin a five-year contract to host the Korn Ferry Tour Championships.
Each has its distinct personality. And to compare them is to compare apples and oranges.
The Pete Dye Course
The Dye Course is a sensory overload for your eyes. From the moment you drive onto the property and spot the huge American flag flying over the Pete Dye mansion and clubhouse to the minute you step onto the first tee, the proper response is one of awe.
The course almost didn’t get off the ground. The story goes that when Dye made his first visit to Mt. Airie, he said the terrain was too rough and the slopes were too severe. Visitors can see what he was talking about after spending a few hours there. Dye returned and brought some preliminary drawings with him that were drawn on a napkin – they’re on display in the clubhouse — and made a commitment to build the course. It opened in the spring of 2009 and held the PGA’s Professional National Championship in 2010.
Everything about the Dye Course is first-rate, from the pristine practice range and putting green to the course itself. You will approve of the perfection that begins on the No. 1 tee and finishes on the 18th green.
The Dye Course requires players to use a forecaddie. Don’t balk at paying the $40 (plus tip) charge. Your forecaddie will save you time, keep your round moving, find your errant shots (too many of those) and read your putts. The caddie will point out your line and do things to keep you safe and your scores low – or as low as possible. Our caddie, Kyle, was a native of nearby Louisville, and has worked (and played) the Dye Course since it opened. He was invaluable.
There is letup anywhere along the line, no stretch of holes that allow you to take a breath. These holes come at your fast – and hard. But the course is so aesthetically pleasing that you can’t really curse the flogging you may receive. And when you climb to the elevated tee at the 11th hole – the highest place you can hit a ball in Indiana – stop to soak it all in for just a minute.
As you wind your way through the layout, take a minute to peek at the back tees. (Don’t play them! Just look back at them, if your vision is good enough.) The tips play 8,102 yards – there are hats available in the pro shot that have 8,102 embroidered on them – and includes a 300-yard par-3. The slope from the tips is 148.
Of course, the Dye-abolical layout has some unique feature just for French Lick visitors. They’re called volcano bunkers. These are tall cylindrical bunkers around many of the greens that are shaped like volcanoes. There’s even a little patch for sand in the top. Stay away at all cost.
“People have expectations of what they think a Pete Dye course is,” said Rob Koontz, the PGA director of golf. “It’s visually intimidating and I don’t think they expect that.”
There are “coffin bunkers” within the waste areas on the ninth hole and the 18th hole is banked like a NASCAR raceway, earning the nickname “Talladega fairways.” Hang on, Ricky Bobby.
“The design is intimidating,” Koontz said. “But the views aren’t intimidating. They take you out of your game because there’s so much to see on this golf course. It’s pretty spectacular.”
The Donald Ross Course
The original course, built in 1917, was designed by Donald Ross. Originally known as the “Hill Course,” it grew in stature very quickly. By 1924 it had hosted the PGA Championship, which was won by Walter Hagen.
Lori Atsedes, the LPGA head professional at the Ross Course, said the key to success comes from understanding the greens. The Ross Course demands proper placement on the greens, which have all the slope and undulation that have come to be expected from one of the game’s master designers.
“Ross is known for the greens,” Atsedes said. “It’s very fair off the tee and very fair as far as the size of the greens. But putting the greens are very difficult. It’s a true test of golf because you’ve got to be a really good putter and a really good iron player.”
Lori Atsedes played the LPGA Tour for 30 years and had been coming to French Lick for nine years when she got a chance to join the staff. Having been raised in the small town of Ithaca, N.Y., Atsedes loved the vibe at French Lick. “I asked them, ‘When do you need me,’” she said. “It’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
The Ross Course plays 7,030 from the back tees to a 135 slope, but Atsedes feels it is actually more difficult than the Dye Course.
The Ross Course really shows its teeth on the par-3 holes, which are among the toughest group on the course. No. 4 is a beautiful hole that plays uphill and requires the proper club selection. No. 6 is a 200-yarder that requires a carry over a ravine. No. 13 is another 200-plus hole that must carry a hazard and a wide-mouthed bunker in front that eats anything short. No. 16 is a short hole but has a postage-stamp sized green that is surrounded by bunkers on each side.
The finishing hole is a testy par-4 that finishes on a green set atop a hill that’s often buffeted by the wind.
Ah, the wind. You’ll likely find it present at both courses. If it really gets going – we had gusts of 25-plus mph on our round at the Ross Course – it can really be difficult to find the proper side of the hole.
There are three hotels at the resort – the French Lick Springs Hotel and the West Baden Springs Hotel. Both offer unique, memorable experiences for all visitors. A smaller boutique hotel is available at the Casino.
French Lick Springs was established in 1845, with the current spa wing built in 1901. There are 443 guest rooms in the non-smoking facility. You have access to a 24-hour fitness center, riding stables and historic tours. There’s even a bowling alley.
The rooms are spacious with all the amenities you’d expect from a world-class hotel. My suite came with an upstairs area, complete with a sofa and chair and a second television set, perfect for relaxing after a round of golf.
The West Baden Hotel has 243 rooms and suites and features the same amenities. The focal point is an awe-inspiring atrium that spans 200 yards. The atrium alone makes the hotel unforgettable and creates a vibe that you’ll find now where else. The rooms that look out over the atrium are special, particularly the ones with balconies.
The smoke-free casino at French Lick Resort is open 24/7. In addition to hundreds of video games, there are dealers standing by for craps, blackjack and roulette. There’s also a sports book in case you want to put a couple of bucks on your favorite college or professional team.
If you’re going
There are numerous flights each day from Atlanta to Indianapolis and Louisville. Both cities are less than two hours from French Link.
It’s not a bad drive, either. You can reach the resort with a comfortable seven-hour drive – and see part of the Indiana heartland in the process.
For information visit frenchlick.com