I flew into Louisville, Ky. for the first time in my life, looking to check two states I hadn’t yet seen off my list.
I got my belongings and tried, futilely, to rent a car. So, I did the next-best thing and hopped in an Uber bound for southern Indiana. I’m not sure why the Uber driver took my ride; he was almost certainly not going to get a ride coming back from my destination, and the relentless rows of cornfields made that all too apparent.
But as we beat through mid-afternoon Kentucky-Indiana border traffic and right into the heart of the American Midwest, Richard kicked up some familiar country songs and it felt like the proper mood-setter for the days ahead at French Lick Resort.
In the Civil War era, the Indiana towns of French Lick and West Baden were engaged in a Hatfield-and-McCoy kind of conflict, dueling for the money and attention of guests who originally flocked to the area for their mineral springs. Adjoining towns, their world-class resorts were in competition with each other amid the hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland — most of it dedicated these days to corn — for the resort dollars of the nation’s elite, particularly in the Midwest. When the mineral springs weren’t the same draw they once were, the area was a haven for Prohibition-era hooch and debauchery. However, by the time the mid-1990s rolled along, both namesake resorts had fallen on hard times, and the paired towns felt like they were in disrepair. It took an emergency act of $200,000 just to keep the West Baden Springs Hotel from literally collapsing in on itself.
It’s at that point the Cook family, owners of the largest private medical-device maker in the United States, stepped in. They hatched a plan to restore these two resort towns to their former glory and then some. In the next decade, they sank $600 million into renovating and expanding the resorts (West Baden Springs had been vacant since 1984 when it was a local college), snagged the final available casino license in the state, built out a small downtown as a branching-off of the resorts and acquired a massive plot of land to construct a world-class golf course designed, of course, by the state’s most famous golf architect, Pete Dye. That’s the Cliff’s Notes version of a winding journey for the Cooks, not knowing what would become of all their efforts.
However, a decade later, French Lick, hometown of Larry Bird, and West Baden are now as healthy as they’ve ever been. The resorts jointly employee most of the residents, and the towns have doubled the number of traffic lights (from one to two), while some familiar national business chains have set up shop. Convention business is booming, while the casino is lively at night. It’s hard to get a room on the weekend, even at $300 per night. Meanwhile, French Lick has become a golf beacon in the Midwest.
In recent memory, the golf courses at French Lick have hosted the Senior PGA Championship, the first edition of the Senior LPGA Championship, several Big Ten college golf championships, a PGA professional championship and, for the last two years running, the LPGA’s Symetra Tour. The Symetra Tour was a key component in this trip, with the lure of playing in a pro-am on Wednesday before the tournament began on Thursday.
My Uber driver pulled into the roundabout in front of the stately, huge French Lick Resort hotel, and he wished me a great trip. When I made my way to the main lobby, I realized what made French Lick a venerable resort of grandeur — much like The Greenbrier is in West Virginia — meant to blow you away from the start. The detailed artwork all around, including on the ceilings, and the ornate finishing touches, resembled a holy place. I should know; I’ve stared up at a lot of churches over the years, waiting for a wedding to become a reception (except my own).
The French Lick Springs hotel has three wings, and all the rooms are well-apportioned, boasting a modern decor. The beds are comfortable, and there’s plenty of space to breath. I’m also a huge fan of the brushed copper look on the bathroom fixtures, but that’s the HGTV watcher in me speaking. Taking a short drive under the arched entrance to West Baden Springs Hotel, I got a chance to see the fancier of the two properties. A six-story atrium dome covers the common area, which has 26 echo points. Its turn-of-the-20th-century architecture has been restored to be more luxurious than its down-the-street neighbor, but they’re equally impressive home bases.
But you’re reading this for the golf.
I mentioned the Dye course before, which sits on a sprawling, massive plot of land once belonging to a previous generation of resort owners. The former mansion is a four-bedroom stunner which guests can rent out in full for $10,000 per night. That architecture alone had me longing for a much more positive cash flow.
Pete Dye’s architecture, however, is a little more brash. If you’ve played a Dye course, you know what I mean. Dye loves to bother golfers with visual deception and distraction. However, with his French Lick course, he also had the space to add as much length as any golfer could conceivably handle. From the furthest-back tees, which you shouldn’t play under any circumstance, the course is 8,102 yards on the scorecard. That’s a hard pass for me, dawg. A couple more boxes up was where I played with my golf-writing companions on this trip, at right about 6,300 yards. The caddies say the course plays more than that yardage because of the rolling nature of the terrain and the variety of uphill shots through the round. So, call it 6,500 yards. Perfectly fine for a fun round on an unknown golf course.
It’s here I should head off architecture aficionados who have turned against Dye’s work over the years, particularly as golf-course design has found a wider, more minimalist grounding. While I’ve come to love and cherish opportunities to play modern courses by the likes of Coore and Crenshaw, Mike DeVries, David McLay Kidd, Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Riley Johns and more, there’s still room for the “maximalist” point of view offered by Dye. Dye believes in creating the unfair bounces and looks found on the links courses of the game’s heritage, but he does it with tricks and gimmicks that might offput some.
For example, the volcano bunkers, most visible with eight on No. 2, are meant to be a distraction and framing technique for the hole; they’re not genuinely in play. The blind landing areas, coupled with hole after hole of tighter fairways, is designed to build a sense of apprehension about taking risks despite knowing full well it’s probably not as hard in reality as your mind will try to convince. Don’t believe what you don’t see.
Dye makes his courses difficult, and fairness isn’t a word he likes. But the Dye course isn’t unfair. It just asks a lot to yield a good score. A player has to put the ball in play, within reason, to hit these smaller putting surfaces, which get bigger as the round progresses. By taking on more risk with longer clubs, players are rewarded with shorter irons which they can control more easily. Several approach shots are semi-blind, forcing the golfers to trust their number and their chosen swing. The Dye course uses the natural terrain well, and the volcano bunkers aside, it’s light on gimmicks. Hit a good shot, get a good opportunity. There’s a mix of shorter par 4s which demand precise second shots, longer holes with bigger targets (though you don’t realize it until you get there) and par 3s all inviting some kind of potential penalty for playing it too safe.
My favorite hole on the course is probably the par-4 15th. When we played it, it wasn’t more than 350 yards, all uphill. It’s a Cape hole without explicitly being one, as I learned the best angle to the green was taking on the bunker running up the left side and biting off as much as possible without finding the sand. The green feels like a postage-stamp size, but two good shots yields, by the hole’s nature, a great birdie look.
Playing the Dye course twice — with the pro-am sandwiched in — was a jarring experience compared to my recent travels. Width and angles was replaced by risk and angles. And I really enjoyed it. That’s probably why I liked the casino, too. Subtlety is great in golf architecture, but sometimes you just need a frying pan across the face.
After the first Dye round on Tuesday, I came back to the resort to head to the pro-am pairings party. I hadn’t played in a pro-am in seven years, since I had an absolute blast with Mark Wiebe at the PGA Tour Champions event in Biloxi, Miss. Scrambles are my jam. I love hitting driver as much as I can (though I scored best on the Dye when I was more disciplined, and that was fun, too), and a scramble lets me do that and then hit putts. And pros are the honesty enforcers usually missing from a scramble.
We found ourselves grouped with Elizabeth Szokol, who came into the week ranked third on the Symetra Tour money list. She’d won early in the season, and she had been dealing for months now with the expectation of finishing the season in the top 10 to earn an LPGA Tour card. This round would be played on the resort’s Donald Ross course. It hosted the 1924 PGA Championship, among many other events, and it’s completely different than the Dye. It’s understated. It’s shorter — we played it as under 6,000 yards and it maxes out around 7,000 with some stout par 3s. It’s wider and more subtle, and the greens are confounding. A random guest told me he didn’t like all the uphill approach shots, and I can get that for an older player, but it didn’t cross my mind while on the course.
A few minutes before showtime, Elizabeth came to her cart with her bag and introduced herself. When we got to the 18th tee for our shotgun start, I cracked open the first of several 16-ounce Yuengling lagers and took the headcover off the driver. The Ross is a course without a flat lie pretty much anywhere except the collection areas for some longer drives. Fortunately, we found a number of those spots on a 95-degree day where the ball was flying. We talked with Elizabeth about her season, her plans for the finish of the year, and we went through all the standard getting-to-know-you stuff you talk about in a situation like this. I typically don’t ask uncomfortable questions or broach too many personal subjects until maybe Round 5 with someone. Just a policy.
We shot 59 as a team, and we lost by two. On consecutive holes, I set up and then converted a par-5 eagle, then I nearly jarred an approach for a par-4 eagle. I had a great cheeseburger at the turn, talked tournament strategy with an up-and-coming golf star, and I got to have a lot of laughs with friends new and old. That it was a Symetra Tour pro-am was a really nice bonus, but the Ross course delivered a fantastic day.
The Symetra Tour experience was great, and they do it right for the pro-am players. These women are putting themselves through an endurance test most people couldn’t handle, all in the hope of being in the select company of 10 who can get a shot at the LPGA Tour. Despite that constant stress and pressure, every Symetra Tour player I talked to while at the Ross course or on resort property was appreciative of the opportunity they have. I had a ton of fun getting to spend some time with them, and hopefully I’ll find my way to another event before the season ends.
The capper was when a guy who owns a a bar in downtown French Lick won a multi-year lease on a truck by making a hole-in-one on his first swing of the day, and then he gave away free shots at his bar at night. So, I had a Larry Bird shot.
French Lick is exactly what a stately resort should be. For a golfer, the two courses are a nice change-up from one day to the next, and their challenges are radically different in terms of presentation and execution. At the resort, the pools are nice, and there’s plenty to do, including some hiking, mini-golf, bowling, tennis, a nearby water park, a spa and, of course, the casino for the adults. The high-limit room has relatively low stakes compared to other places I’ve played, but the space was about as nice as any I’ve experienced. The food choices range from a solid buffet to a sports bar environment to a super steakhouse. The milkshakes are divine. The customer service is the Midwest stereotype of being polite and helpful.
The out-of-the-way places have a nack for feeling more special than the ones well within reach. Maybe it’s the extra effort it takes to get to them, or it’s the feeling that you’re among a certain few who knows that respite exists. Now you’re in on the secret, and you can experience it for yourself.