FRENCH LICK, Ind. — “The ardent golfer would play Mount Everest if somebody would put a flagstick on top. Golf is not a fair game so why build a fair golf course.” — Pete Dye
To somewhat rip off a line from the terrific baseball movie Field of Dreams; if Pete Dye builds it I will come.
Over the years, I’ve gone all over the United States — twice to course openings in Simi Valley, Calif., to Hilton Head, to Palm Springs, Calif., to Kiawah Island, to Kohler, Wis., to Edmond, Okla., to Tempe, Ariz., to San Antonio and to numerous points in between for the express purpose of playing one of Dye’s creations. Overall, I’d estimate taking a beating on 25 of Pete’s exercises in pleasure and pain.
PGA Tour pros used to reference “Dye as in Diabolical,” a thought born in the early days of TPC Sawgrass and nurtured with the opening of PGA West. Somewhere along the line, Pete figured out that most amateurs have a masochistic streak. It led him to railroad ties, hard edges, deep bunkers and seriously contoured greens.
If you are wondering where this is headed, it’s to basketball great Larry Bird’s hometown and what is arguably Dye’s greatest inland creation — The Pete Dye Course at French Lick. Never, well at least not until I read he was weaving his magic in a small community in southern Indiana, did I imagine planning a golf trip to this part of the country.
Now that I’ve been there, seen it and experienced it, I absolutely can’t wait for a chance to go back. Not just because of Pete’s latest masterpiece, either. I’d return just to play the wonderful course Scottish architect Donald Ross built in 1917 — aptly named the Donald Ross Course at French Lick — and to stay in one of the most remarkable edifices — The West Baden Springs Hotel — that I’ve ever encountered.
Oh, yeah, and what is known as the French Lick Resort also offers another fabulous hotel, a huge casino and 63 total holes of golf. All that in the back-to-back tiny towns of French Lick and West Baden.
Best way to get there is to fly into Louisville and rent a car for a 90-minute drive. If you are driving from St. Louis, which Ron Ashworth and I were, it’s four hours.
I went for Pete Dye golf and came away with a history lesson about French settlers, mineral springs and what was once a rip-roaring resort that hosted the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, part of the Kennedy clan, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Al Capone. Long before the Houston Astrodome, the domed West Baden Springs Hotel was known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
French Lick and West Baden were such sizzling places, in fact, the PGA Championship was played on the Ross Course in 1924, with Walter Hagen winning. There was even a flirtation with major league baseball, as the Chicago Cubs rolled in for spring training in 1943.
Fast forward some 72 years to when legalized gambling arrived in 2005 and things began to rock again. Self-made Indiana billionaire Bill Cook jumped in with both feet in what became a $561 billion restoration project. When Dye, who had won the 1957 Midwest Amateur on Donald Ross’ gem, heard a golf course was part of the master plan he campaigned hard to be the architect.
The end result is a beast of a golfing test that sits on high and offers stunning vistas estimated at 30 to 40 miles on all directions. In a state that’s mostly flat, Dye was blessed with rolling, almost mountainous terrain that in some places is close to 1,000 feat above sea level. By the time Pete finished massaging the sprawling property with bulldozers, he had another classic layout to add to his remarkable resume.
In year one, which was 2009, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine proclaimed the Dye Course at French Lick, America’s Best New Public Course and Best New Course, respectively. Since then, the accolades have continued to flow and people who stage tournaments have taken notice.
First came the 2010 PGA Professional National Championship. Then came the Big Ten Conference men’s and women’s championships. As this is written, the LPGA Legends Tour, featuring the likes of Nancy Lopez, Jan Stephenson, Pat Bradley and Beth Daniel, among 66 LPGA legends, is playing a 54-hole tourney there to benefit the American Heart Association.
Upcoming in 2015 is the Senior PGA Championship. If that goes well, you have to think a push will be made at some point for the PGA Championship. It could take a while on that one, however, since the 2019 PGA is scheduled for another Dye beauty in Indiana — Crooked Stick.
Anyone who gets the opportunity to play the French Lick monster needs to keep one thing in mind. Don’t be macho and stupid about which set of tees you play. The Gold tees, for instance, stretch to 8,102 yards and play to a slope of 148. There are four other sets of tees, with the yardage ranging from 7,254 to senior tees at 5,151.
Dye, as is normally the case for him, intimidates with what you see when standing on the tee, including a new feature called “volcano bunkers” on the second hole. And he punishes those who don’t keep the ball in the fairways. Bunkering is harsh. You can expect bad bounces around the edges. Missing certain greens by too much can send your ball tumbling into an abyss that may require a rope to climb back from your search.
The course conditioning, as you would expect, is superb. There are no bad lies, but there are numerous uphill, downhill and sidehill lies. It is almost an act of mercy that a forecaddie is sent out with each group, not only to help find balls but to read greens an average player has no chance to figure out. Expect a fair share of three-putts.
Dye, in his fascinating book, “Bury Me In A Pot Bunker”, goes into great detail about the French Lick project and what it meant to him. Southeast Texas’ most successful touring pro Bruce Lietzke can offer personal testimony to how wrapped up in the project that Pete really was. Bruce had the opportunity to work with Dye on the TPC San Antonio Canyons Course that opened in 2010.
“It was obvious that course was really special to him,” said Lietzke, whose closest call to winning a PGA Tour major championship came when he finished second to John Daly on Dye’s Crooked Stick in 1991. “He talked about French Lick more than any other course. I wanted to pick his brain on his great courses, and he kept coming back to that one and how spectacular he thought it was, and how often he would go back to do little tweaks on it.
“For some reason, that was in the forefront of his mind. We’d be out walking and I’d ask him about Kiawah and TPC Sawgrass and some of his courses I really liked. He wanted to talk about French Lick, about the golf course and about this amazing domed structure (West Baden Hotel). I remembering thinking it must have been a really great piece of land and that I needed to check it out some day.”
About that hotel. Its atrium was the largest free-span dome until the Astrodome opened in 1965. There are 246 rooms, including 40 that overlook a massive atrium area. There’s also a two-level natatorium, with a 12,000 square-foot indoor pool and an 8,000 square-foot spa with 12 treatment rooms.
From the moment you pull up to the hotel, there’s a sense a unique experience awaits. By the time you depart, there is no doubt another chapter has been added to your book of special memories. The bottom line is good food, great golf, glamorous lodging, gambling and one more lesson in how nobody does course design quite like Pete Dye.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com