2001: Raters get pointed look at French Lick Springs

French Lick, Ind.

Bring 50 course raters together for four days, expose them to highly stylized examples of classic and modern course design, and you’re bound to end up with heated opinions.

That’s precisely what happened Sept. 20-23 during Raters Cup 2001, the fourth annual gathering of some of the members of Golfweek’s America’s Best course rating team. The first two days involved on-site research at the Donald Ross-designed French Lick Springs Resort (Hill Course), a layout that hosted the 1924 PGA Championship (won by Walter Hagen). The last two days were held 85 miles to the southwest at a course whose owner has big hopes for a major in its own right – the Tom Fazio-designed Victoria National Golf Club in Newburgh, Ind., No. 20 on the Golfweek list of Modern (post-1960) courses.

French Lick Springs Resort is one of those faded Grand Hotels looking to recapture its storied past. The place was founded in 1902 as a health spa because of its mineral springs – a volatile, purgative potion known as Pluto water that quite literally acts to put folks on a vacation. Apparently, the road to Wellville has many rest stops.

The resort sports two 18-hole layouts, including a simple little thing called the Valley Course and a more ambitious and demanding venue called the Hill Course. Ross’ 1917 routing, not built until 1920, perfectly adheres to the native contour, which in this case is the large dome of a hilltop. The site, which looks like an old farm, is basically open and windswept, with dense woods framing the entire ground and not much more than a few stands of oak and isolated arbor vitae and cedars on the interior. The playing character of this layout remains intact – easily discernible, warts and all.

The par-70 layout, 6,610 yards, plays much harder than its 119 slope would indicate – though in the eyes of some raters, the degree of difficulty was a function of goofiness, not intrigue. Among the more egregious examples is the 17th green, 120 feet wide, with the right third of it sitting atop a ledge that tumbled 3 feet to a lower shelf on the left. At an evening discussion devoted to the layout, rater Ned Babbitt told the resort’s director of golf, Dave Harner, and superintendent, John Parker, that “the only thing the green needed was a windmill.”

Much attention also was focused on the eighth green, where the putting surface falls 7 feet along the 108-foot axis from front to back. The general consensus was that the sharply sloped greens were the defining characteristic of this classical course and should remain largely that way. Not that anybody would build greens this way today. Indeed, such slopes were unusual even in Ross’ time. It would be one thing if the fairways were at least level, but here, too, the sloped fairways follow native contours and rarely allow for a level lie or stance.

With one exception – involving a new 14th green to make way for an irrigation pond 33 years ago – the holes Ross designed are intact. Certain aspects of the bunkering have been tinkered with, but most remain, including some lovely, steep-sloped fescue-faced cross bunkers that help define shots. Interestingly, the only tees that look out of place are the ones that have been added over the years to create more length. For better or worse, here is a living laboratory from the past.

The point of our attendance was to propose a restoration plan for French Lick – bearing in mind budget limitations that prevent major structural upheaval. Architect Tim Liddy, a native of Indiana, provided a helpful overview. The key question, he said, “was how pure do you make the golf course?” Whatever was done to the course in terms of bunker renovation, making the greens marginally more receptive and softening the look of cart paths had to make sense in terms of a return on investment. Rare is the student of architecture who has to fit criticism into a business plan. But that was precisely the value of this exercise. For all the attention on surface forms, it turns out the biggest problem with the course is that the maintenance crew wrestles with bad irrigation water – the same high-sodium liquid stuff that gave the resort its start nearly a century ago.

No such limitations hamper Victoria National. The ground is a relatively low-lying site and receptive, and the budget is for all intents and purposes unlimited. Owner/founder Terry Friedman gave Fazio carte blanche. The place has 101⁄2 miles of cart paths, but none are visible from the central playing areas because Fazio hid it all behind mounds and curves. And yet the course is easily walkable. Also, it is stunningly beautiful, thanks to vast wildflower areas and a virtual moat of a waterway that ambles through the ground.

What better example of modern perfection than the L-93 bentgrass here? Southern Indiana is a notoriously tough area for growing grass, thanks to a regional combination of cold, humidity and heat. These bentgrass greens are flawless – in no small part owing to the installation of automated air vents in each putting surface that allow for better drainage and ventilation. But Victoria National doesn’t just have impeccable L-93 greens. It also has managed to use the same high-quality turfgrass for its fairways to produce the tightest lies any of these raters have ever seen.

If there’s a drawback to Victoria National, it’s the severity of the demands it places upon golfers. When 162 players met there recently for a U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier, 14 made the cut – with 76 or better. The average score was 84 and several players didn’t break 100. And that was from 6,861 yards (73.5 rating/139 slope). There’s another set of tees at 7,239 yards (75.4/143). Whereas French Lick has “only” three sets of markers, Victoria National has six – a necessity to negotiate the water hazards, forced carries and strategic options. Even from the middle tees, however, one gets the impression that Victoria National is a course designed for good golfers only, and that optional routes of play away from the main line are unduly constricted. The consensus among the raters was that some of these areas could be opened up slightly to make the course more playable without sacrificing its championship quality.

Fazio spoke on the last night of the Raters Cup. He was supposed to be there in person but was grounded by a faulty jet engine. He graciously phoned-in instead. Throughout his talk, he focused on how closely he worked with his clients in trying to create – sometimes on a blank slate – a modern masterpiece. When a questioner asked Fazio if he would ever do a classically inspired course, Fazio said he didn’t really know what a classic course was. But the audience did, in part thanks to its time spent looking at places like French Lick.

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