French Lick, Ind. – Decades before Larry Bird brought national attention to this oddly named farming community, the rich and famous used to arrive here by train and stay for weeks. Railcars would stop in front of French Lick Springs Hotel, or a mile away at West Baden Springs Hotel, and deposit the likes of John Barrymore, Clark Gable and Abbott & Costello.
Then the trains stopped arriving and the hotels were passed from one owner to the next, falling steadily into disrepair.
But Fitzgerald was wrong: There are second acts in America. A century ago, French Lick was a spa town, with the two hotels peddling lithium-laced Pluto and Sprudel water. Fast forward to 2009, and the bookend hotels on State Road 56 are home to one of America’s most lavish, and most unlikely, golf resorts. Together, they give the adjoining towns of French Lick and West Baden a rare distinction: They have more four-diamond hotels (two) than stoplights (one).
Bloomington, Ind., billionaire Bill Cook has overseen the renaissance, at a reported price tag of more than $500 million. That includes the addition of a casino and roughly $25 million for the new Pete Dye Course at French Lick, set on a severe hilltop site with long views of the Springs Valley and miles beyond. The Dye Course complements the Donald Ross Course, which underwent a winning makeover three years ago. The courses will host the 2010 PGA Professional National Championship. (The Tom Bendelow Course, a 3,478-yard nine-holer, sits adjacent to French Lick Springs.)
Dye’s effort is a course for the modern era. It tips out at a brawny 8,102 yards, initially suggesting it’s a bomber’s course, but its thimble-sized greens demand an unusual level of precision.
Because of the elevated topography along the Hoosier National Forest, virtually every hole seems to sit on a ridge; miss on the wrong side and you’ll be playing back to the fairway, happy just to save bogey. Similarly, you have to miss greens – and you will miss greens – on the proper side, or you might find yourself chipping from a spot where the flag is barely visible.
If the course is at times humbling, guests (you must stay at the resort to play the course) can soothe their egos post-round with Kentucky bourbon and cigars handsomely provided in a cedar box. It’s the least they could do given the course’s $350 rack rate.
Dye’s layout is the flagship, thanks to its distinctiveness and creator’s reputation. But it shouldn’t overshadow the Ross Course, which I suspect will attract ratings comparable to its more ballyhooed sister course.
The Ross Course has only two drawbacks: no practice range and three of its par 3s are too similar – be prepared to whale on your hybrid or 3-wood. But the rest of the course is pure Ross-ian joy, thanks to the renovation done by architect Lee Schmidt. You’ll see many of the elements typical of a Ross design; and if you doubt that, you can compare Schmidt’s handiwork against Ross’ original designs and notes, which are framed and hung in the clubhouse.
The golf architecture, however, is overshadowed by the restoration of West Baden Springs Hotel, which would draw attention anywhere, but particularly in a rural area where utilitarian architecture reigns. The hotel’s domed atrium was a marvel when built in 1902, and it remains an astounding sight.
Guests, who arrive these days by car rather than train, wander the hotel taking photos and occasionally even lay supine in the middle of the atrium, the better to capture the spectacular dome on film. Their palpable excitement at being here likely is comparable to that of the celebrities who arrived in droves a century ago.
Spotlight: French Lick
• French Lick Resort: frenchlick.com; 888-936-9360