French Lick: Funny Name, Fabulous Golf

By David R. Holland

FRENCH LICK, Ind. – History, well, there’s nothing more fun than discovering something you knew little about.

Take French Lick in Indiana – all I knew was Larry Bird, the NBA Hall of Famer, grew up here.  And that it was home to two famous golf courses — The Donald Ross and The Pete Dye Courses.

I had no clue the French Lick Resort has been famous for more than 150 years, hosting Hollywood celebrities, major league baseball training, U.S. Presidents and experienced some shady illegal gambling back in the day.

One famous day in particular happened on Kentucky Derby weekend in 1949. While hotel guests went by train to the famous horse race, Indiana State Police raided the gambling houses of French Lick. When guests returned the doors to the hotel were chained and gaming establishments throughout downtown were shuttered.

I had no clue that it was the birthplace of tomato juice in 1917 – a world class chef ran out of oranges to juice so he tried the tomato.

World heavyweight champ Joe Louis trained at the next door West Baden Springs Hotel from 1935 to 1950. But he wasn’t allowed to spend the night – he had to sleep in an African-American hotel.

Franklin Roosevelt used a Governors’ Conference in the hotel to politick for the 1932 Presidential nomination.  The rest is history.

During World War I the Chicago Cubs held spring training here.  It was 1907 and they went on to win the World Series and repeated in 1908.

Today’s bottled water would have been an afterthought when it was discovered French Lick’s natural springs water had 22 different minerals and was hailed to cure various ailments, alcoholism, infertility and arthritis. Pluto Water was bottled also as a natural laxative and shipped to pharmacies around the world. That enterprise lasted in the USA from the early 1900s to 1971 when the business was shut down.

Where did the name French Lick come from? Originally a French trading post was built near a spring and salt lick. A fortified ranger post was established near the springs in 1811 and in 1837 a map of Indiana listed the community as Salt Spring. The town was founded in 1857 and today’s population is 1,808.

The Golf

Almost forgot about the awesome golf history at French Lick Resort. The 1924 PGA Championship was held on the Donald Ross Course and Walter Hagen defeated former champ Jim Barnes. It was the beginning of a four-year PGA winning streak for the legendary Hagen.

And to this day professional golf is an important part of the resort. I was lucky enough to play in July’s Symetra Tour’s Donald Ross Classic Pro-Am with pro Elizabeth Szokol, who ranks fourth in earnings for 2018.  The Senior LPGA Championship was played on the Pete Dye Course in October.

The Pete Dye Course

Stunning is the word to describe this beautiful and difficult par 72 that can stretch out to 8,102 yards from the Gold Tees. I’d rename Gold to Inhuman. The hilltop layout is surrounded by the Hoosier National Forest and is ranked No. 1 in Indiana by Golfweek’s Best You Can Play ever since it opened.

Mount Airie, Thomas Taggart’s 1928 Colonial-style home, was purchased and transformed into a clubhouse and pro shop that overlooks much of the course. The Mansion at Pete Dye boasts all of the latest enhancements of the era, plus a widow’s walk, an underground tunnel and secret passageways. If you visit, be sure to slip upstairs for a peek at the grand living suites, which still capture the essence of the Roaring Twenties.

This site hosted the Senior PGA Championship in 2015 won by Colin Montgomerie.

Some say the view from the back of the elevated green at No. 6 spans 40 miles and you will marvel at the “volcano bunkers” of the second and third holes. As difficult as these bunkers look no one in my group came close to landing in one.

Everywhere you look are beautiful stretches of perched fairways and greens that will penalize you if you roll off into massive swales. If you missed the 18th green you might just be 100 feet below the putting surface.

The Donald Ross Course

When Donald Ross arrived 100 years ago to build a golf course it was referred to as The Hill Course. The terrain was wooded and rolling and Ross put most tees and greens on high spots. Believe me if you are above the hole on your approach shots you will pay a price.

This classic has had a $5 million restoration and 80 of his traditional bunkers with gnarly faces and flat bottoms were put back in place along with square-like, difficult greens.

The Donald Ross course has been rated No. 2 public in Indiana 2008-2016 by Golfweek and was among the 100 greatest through 2015. The course is a par 70 and plays to 7,030 yards. The season goes from March 1 to November 1.

Hagen’s Club House Restaurant is the original clubhouse. When weather permits the best seat in the house is on the veranda. Inside or out this authentic turn-of-the-last-century structure includes a pro shop and a relaxing atmosphere — perfect for après golf or anytime.

French Lick Resort Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel

Old-time luxury doesn’t come much better than this. When I entered my corner room in the French Lick Resort Hotel and looked at my view of town I thought surely this was turning the clock back to another century. I loved the feel of going back in time.

These historic hotels are AAA Four-Diamond nationally historic hotels with impressive meeting venues, spa services, and a Vegas-style casino that was ranked No. 4 Best Casino outside Las Vegas in 2016 by Yahoo Travel.

The casino opened for business in 2006, after a gaming license originally intended for Patoka Lake was transferred to French Lick. Honoring state law allowing only water-based gaming, it was originally designed as a riverboat and surrounded by a small pond (commonly nicknamed the Boat in the Moat). In 2008, the moat was filled in and the casino boat was converted into the state’s first land-based casino.

All this Midwestern hospitality is located an easy drive from Louisville, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The Indianapolis Airport is two hours away and Louisville Airport is an hour away.

Don’t dare miss this classic resort.

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