FRENCH LICK, Ind. -- The confluence of antiquity and the new world is separated by a ride up the hill on a refurbished wooden trolley.
It picks up passengers outside the historic West Baden Springs Hotel, whose guests promenade beneath the domed atrium -- 135 feet high, 195 feet in diameter -- to the staging area.
And when the trolley doors open atop Mount Airie, it reveals the site of one of modern golf's most extreme creations.
Celebrating the past while pushing the envelope of the present day continues at French Lick. In 1924, the Donald Ross Course hosted the PGA Championship (won by Walter Hagen). It also hosted the 1959 and 1960 LPGA Championship. A major wouldn't return until 2015 when the Senior PGA Championship was held on the Pete Dye Course. This year, the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship will take place (July 5-12). The lady legends will be joined that week with aspiring future stars of the Symetra Tour who will compete in their own tournament.
French Lick has been a legendary -- if sometimes scandalous -- getaway in this out-of-the-way neck of hilly southern Indiana since the 19th century. First, visitors were drawn to the rejuvenating power of the mineral springs. Later, illegal gambling, political and/or crime-family maneuvering met a boiling point in a 1949 gambling raid of the town on Kentucky Derby weekend.
There wouldn't be much to speak of around this little village in the decades following that infamous day, with the exception of a local boy named Larry Bird honing his craft on local basketball courts en route to the Hall of Fame.
It's not until our present decade where the area is back to the point it can be put in the same class as the Midwest's top bucket-list trips, golf or otherwise. Owners since the early 2000s, the COOK Group Inc.'s continued stewardship, to the tune of $500 million-plus, restored not only the two National Historic Landmark hotels but also brought (legal) gambling back to town. An extensive restoration of the Ross Course, plus the brand-new spare-no-expense Dye Course, has returned it to a go-to destination for those ardent golfers Dye is wont to speak of.
That is, as long as you don't mind a little sweat on the brow during a round. There may be no tougher one-two punch in North American resort golf from the tips as French Lick's 36 holes.
The starting hole on the Ross Course
The Ross and Dye courses, separated by about two miles and nearly a century, nevertheless share many commonalities. Both are expansive but walkable rolling routings with little in the form of water and trees in play. The site for the Ross is a severe one for its era and was commonly referred to as "The Hill Course." To cope with the terrain, Ross placed most tees and greens on high ground. The greens really steal the show: all sorts of shapes and slopes -- certainly a collection of some of his finest in resort golf outside Pinehurst. From the fairway, golfers grapple with a recurring riddle: Club up to account for elevation? Or club down to avoid a ticklish putt above the hole? Celebrating its centennial in 2017, deep bunkers, thick fescue grass and awkward stances collectively deliver a thorough examination, even to the modern-day golfer equipped with 21st century space-metal tools.
It would be over 90 years before French Lick would add a course of comparable caliber. But even Ross would have likely been perplexed as to how to find a golf course on the severe, hilltop terrain that would become the Pete Dye course, which opened in 2009.
The Dye Course, No. 7
Dye wore down his share of bulldozers shaping this epic. It unabashedly basks in the notoriety as a sure bet in any toughest, longest or most expensive ranking. Slivers of narrow fairways guarded by high fescue, big mounds, steep slopes and bunkers (resembling mini-volcanos at times) make every tee shot, albeit a marvelous view, one that requires some soul searching.
Whereas the Ross course greens steal the attention, at the Dye, it's more so what's beyond the putting surfaces that can pull your eyes away from the task at hand. Many have infinity backdrops with dazzling views of the surrounding Hoosier National Forest. It's fitting for the Indiana-born giant of modern-day architecture to assume the pinnacle of golfing ground in his home state. From the historic mansion atop the hill that doubles as the clubhouse, the morning mist that creeps at the tree line on a sunny morning below the course is a site as thrilling of a stage setter as it gets in golf.
Stay and play at French Lick
The Dye Course carries a green fee among the top ten in U.S. golf. Unlike some of the other courses in this price range, you're going to get more of a "whole place to myself" feel here. Only 7,000 or so rounds are played annually and that's by design. The Hall of fame golf package is a great way to diffuse the cost a bit. The $559 package includes one night in the West Baden Springs, plus a day of unlimited golf on both the Ross and Dye.
The properties that make up today's French Lick are interwoven along the valley, not terribly unlike the Village of Pinehurst. The resort shuttle will take you anywhere in town you need to go, but there are also walking and cycling paths connecting all the attractions. The original French Lick Springs Hotel, also entirely restored, has a 24-hour casino, plus a variety of restaurants from a buffet to a steakhouse. (Click here for more about the unique off-course offerings at French Lick.)
Lastly, there is a third golf option at French Lick: The Valley Course is an old, short nine holes. It also offers FootGolf, should you grow tired of Dye and Ross doing all the you-know-what kicking.