On June 17-19, architecture expert Bradley S. Klein will be taking folks on a guided tour of one of the country’s most compelling golf resorts, French Lick in Indiana. Here’s what’s in store:
French Lick Resort in south-central Indiana is rightly famous for its golf, thanks to two layouts that span the last century of the game. The resort’s Donald Ross Course dates from 1917 and was home to the 1924 PGA Championship, won by Walter Hagen. In 2009, longtime Indiana resident Pete Dye plied one of the most intense, even exaggerated versions of his trademark earth sculpting skills. The result is a rollicking layout that forever memorializes his craft.
To visit French Lick is not only to commemorate great golf course design. It’s also to see how history renews itself to create an enchanting contemporary experience. The resort sprang up in 1845 as a restorative spa. But the “Road to Wellville” needed more than the curative powers of sulfur water, which is why they added a golf course in 1907 by Tom Bendelow, nine holes of which remain today, named Valley Links, in low-lying ground adjoining the hotel. An adjoining resort, the West Baden Springs Hotel, sported the world’s largest domed roof – surpassed only by the Houston Astrodome in 1965.
A direct train line from Chicago brought guests right to the doors of the resort. The postwar World War I era saw the property in its heyday, with a regular trade boosted by “businessmen” from the Chicago Prohibition underworld and the leadership of the Democratic Party, which met regularly at French Lick because the owner, Tom Taggart, was not only mayor of Indianapolis but chairman of the national party.
The Depression era saw the resort slide into a serious decline, where it remained for many decades until being rescued by new ownership, the Cook group LLC. A $600 million renovation plan lifted the entire resort from years of neglect. The work included a complete, meticulous restoration of the Ross course and building the brand new Dye Course.
Guests today lounge in the comfort of a living museum that features Italianate loggia and flooring in the 443-room French Lick Springs Hotel. A gloriously expansive main rotunda at the 243-room West Baden Springs Hotel next door embodies the sensibility of a modernist Grand Hotel. It’s not easy making the inside of a glass spaceship feel like home, but they manage it here. Along with a contemporary spa and a 51,000 square foot casino, there are riding stables and extensive trails, swimming pools, bowling, fine dining, and extensive conference space. The old train depot that brought Chicagoans has been converted into a train museum.
Dave Harner, who has been at the resort for 40 years, the last 31 as director of golf operations, says guests appreciate “the difference in styles of golf architecture.” While both are up in the surrounding hill country, the Ross Course sits at about 550 feet above sea level and forms a broad meadow while the Dye Course, with a clubhouse at 950-feet above sea level (the second highest point in the state) comprises a far more rugged setting.
“You can tell with Ross,” says Harner, “that they fitted the land to the terrain. Dye, by contrast, didn’t hesitate to shape the land to the golf – moving about 3 million cubic yards. That makes for very different character.”
Small wonder the place is booming again. It helps that French Link Resort is readily accessible, triangulated as it is among Cincinnati, (150 miles) Indianapolis (100 miles) and Louisville (65 miles).