FRENCH LICK, Ind. -- Basketball fans, of course, know that French Lick, Indiana, is where the great Larry Bird grew up, but the area doesn't exactly come to mind when thinking of golf.
It should, because of French Lick Resort.
My last trip out here was my third, and I've come to appreciate some things I might not have fully understood before. Among them was the perception that the historic Donald Ross Course is that much easier than the Pete Dye Course, the latter of which has a reputation as being one of the world's most difficult.
I also didn't realize how much else there is to do in the French Lick/West Baden area.
Which leads me to this conclusion: if you're an avid golfer, French Lick should be on your radar of bucket-list golf destinations. Here are 10 reasons why:
1. Variety of golf
It's French Lick Resort's Dye Course that gets all the ink. After all, it was the host course of 2015 Senior PGA Championship, where we saw the world's best 50-and-over players struggle to break 80. It's also one of the most picturesque courses in the United States, and costs $350 (rack rate) to play. But it's hardly the only offering. French Lick's Donald Ross Course, which was in excellent condition when I played it in June, is no slouch either. In fact, the greens are very difficult, but the course -- which originally opened in 1917 and perfectly restored in 1996 -- is very enjoyable and also easy on the eyes. Add to that the very playable Tom Bendelow-designed Valley Links Course (which will seem super easy compared to these other two), and you've got three great options located right at the resort. A fourth course, Sultan's Run -- designed by Tim Liddy, a Pete Dye protege -- is also an option, but it's located about 25 minutes away in Jasper, Ind.
2. Dye Course is difficult, to be sure, but brilliant
Having played this course a few times, I'm starting to finally understand what Dye was thinking. I played a combo set of tees that made it around 6,500 yards from me, which means I had a lot of short clubs into the par 4s, which makes all the difference in the world, even if you miss fairways. It's not about what you can reach; it's about what you can comfortably reach. In fact, we had a 22-handicap woman in our group who shot 97, which means the course is more playable than I thought. But what I discovered is that if you hit fairways, despite the uneven lies, you have a chance. And don't go pin seeking unless you have a wedge in your hand (and maybe not even then). Playing this course really is about taking what it gives you, and picking your spots to try to make birdie. It really is one of Dye's best works. And if you're worried about the $350 green fee, check into packages. The resort's Hall of Fame package, for example, starts at $559 per person (double occupancy) and includes a night at either hotel, and all the golf you can get in at both the Ross and Dye Courses.
3. West Baden Springs and French Lick Springs hotels
The West Baden Springs Hotel, not the Astrodome, was the eighth wonder of the world. After all, when it opened in 1901, it was the largest free standing structure in the world, and after remarkable renovations, it's still amazing. This domed hotel, as well as the resort's French Lick Springs Hotel, was recently named Best Historic Resort by Historic Hotels of America for good reasons. Both are magnificently, comfortable, feature good restaurants and are connected by shuttle.
4. Besides golf there's a casino
In the daytime, it's golf at any one of four golf courses, and at night, well, there's a 51,000-square-foot casino, with blackjack, roulette, craps, slot machines and live entertainment. Additionally, the casino reserves 9,500 square feet as nonsmoking.
5. French Lick Winery
You might be surprised to learn that there's a winery in French Lick. Made from grapes grown at the Our Heaven's View Vineyard overlooking the White River Valley in Martin County, French Lick wines range from Pinot Gris to Moscato to Merlot and Pinot Noir. Located in a spacious section of the Kimball Piano factory in French Lick, the winery has a tasting room, cafe, and large gift shop.
6. Plenty of unique things to do
Besides the winery, there's plenty of other things to do in the French Lick/West Baden area. For example, there are zip lines and horseback riding at Wilstem Ranch, Patoka Lake (where you can take fall foliage cruises), the French Lick Scenic Railway and the French Lick West Baden Museum. Wilstem Ranch also offers something else very unique -- an elephant experience, where visitors can interact with three African elephants in a tranquil environment.
7. Dining at French Lick Resort and beyond
No surprise here, but there are lots of places to dine both at the French Lick Resort and surrounding towns. Formal dining can be found at the resort's 1875: The Steakhouse, named in honor of the first Kentucky Derby (May 17, 1875), located at the French Lick Springs Hotel; the romantic Sinclair's at the West Baden Springs Hotel, or Table One, a private culinary experience where the chef prepares for groups of up to 10, also located at West Baden Springs Hotel. One of the most unique spots at the resort, though, is the Power Plant Bar & Grill, which focuses around the large electrical switchboard that once powered the French Lick Springs Hotel. On Fridays and Saturdays, there's live entertainment. Outside the resort are a couple of more causal offerings, including the German Cafe and Porky's BBQ, home of the double-decker Fat Boy Burger.
8. Spa experience at French Lick Resort
Taking on the Ross Course and Dye Course at French Lick are not only mentally taxing but physically demanding, too, considering the hilly nature of both courses, whether you're taking a powered cart or not. Fortunately, the resort offers two spas (one at each hotel), both of which have been named to Conde Nast Travelers' list of top spas.
9. 33 Brick Street sports bar and grill
While Larry Bird doesn't make many appearances in his hometown, the 33 Brick Street sports bar and grill, located in downtown French Lick, is all about the Basketball Hall of Famer. Besides offering a comprehensive menu of local and craft beer, appetizers, salads and main courses, there are dozens of display cases full of Bird memorabilia, trophies and awards as well as other items from other local sports stars, including Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning.
10. Southern Indiana hospitality
Not that there's anything wrong with the Northern states, but southern Indiana seems more like the South than the Midwest with its close proximity to Kentucky a few miles to the south. The Southern hospitality is everywhere, from the resort to the local restaurants and attractions, even the gas stations. Everyone everywhere, it seems, will strike up a conversation with you.