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Beyond The Course: Golf and a giant dome are leading the comeback of Indiana's French Lick Resort

Larry OlmstedBy Larry Olmsted,
Special Contributor
West Baden Springs Hotel
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The largest freespanning dome on earth when built, the West Baden Springs Hotel's lobby was the "Eighth Wonder of the World." (Courtesy of French Lick Resort)

Once known as the birthplace of Larry Bird, French Lick, is getting a new image thanks to the refurbished West Baden Springs Hotel and Donald Ross Golf Course at French Lick Resort.

The Hoosiers have an interesting geographic saying about their home state: "In Indiana, South Bend is in the north, North Bend is south of that and French Lick is not nearly as exotic as it sounds."

Well, my guess is they are not about to move or rename the Bend cities to correct this curious map typo, but the saying may still become obsolete, because French Lick is getting more exotic by the moment.

For most of our lifetimes, French Lick has been best known as the sleepy birthplace of basketball great Larry Bird, which is not exactly worth a whole lot of headlines. The last time this hot springs resort town was hot was during Prohibition (1919-1933) when several casino resorts here basically ignored the law and, thanks to a direct rail line to Chicago, entertained the likes of Al Capone and Diamond Jim Brady.

Sort of a pre-Vegas Vegas, French Lick enjoyed this mini-boom, and between its gambling and curative medicinal hot springs, it was able to support a number of grand hotels, including the West Baden Springs Hotel, built in 1902 and humbly nicknamed "The Eighth Wonder of the World." After all, it was the largest free-spanning dome in the world and held that title in the U.S. for over 60 years.

The hotel lobby is a stunning, marble-encrusted atrium spanning more than 200 feet, and the bottom of the dome begins over six stories off the ground, with every guest room looking in for a coveted "lobby view," truly the engineering marvel of its time.

It was during this heyday that Donald Ross came to town and built a golf course that would host the 1924 PGA Championship, won by Walter Hagen. That was such a big event in the history of French Lick that many locals disregard the official title, the Donald Ross Golf Course at French Lick, and simply call it "The Hagen course."

Unfortunately, that was the height of good living in French Lick. Five years later, the stock market crashed, emptying the hotels overnight and for good, and most shut down. In 1932 the broke owners sold the Eighth Wonder of the World to a group of Jesuits for $1, and it became first a seminary and later a college. By 1983, the work of art was literally crumbling, and the college left.

French Lick comeback

Until just a few years ago, French Lick found itself the merest shadow of its former Roaring Twenties glory. The Ross course was in disrepair. The hotels were mostly gone, and the crown jewel, the incredible dome, once kin to the Greenbrier and Homestead and Broadmoor, was literally condemned, falling down, with trees growing inside its atrium.

Gambling, legal or otherwise, had long left town, and even the hot springs had become obsolete. Larry Bird retired, and French Lick was just another small, rural town slowly disappearing into fields of corn and soy beans. In short, the train from Chicago didn't stop here anymore.

Then Bill Cook arrived. Cook is a self-made medical-device billionaire and Indiana native, and after the West Baden Springs Hotel was declared one of the nation's most endangered places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he began donating millions to fix it.

A decade later, he was in so deep he bought the place, eventually spending half a billion dollars on the hotel and the rest of his new resort. That is a lot of cabbage in Indiana, and the results are pretty impressive.

Two years ago, the West Baden reopened, its incredible dome and interior restored meticulously, and despite being one of the most historic hotels in the nation, virtually no one had ever seen it. A night here is worth the trip and worth going Beyond The Course.

But there are many other reasons to visit "the new" French Lick. For the golfer, there is the Ross course, fully renovated and ready for action. The overall feel is not the Ross you will expect if you think Pinehurst No. 2, as this is severely hilly and rolling terrain, but the greens are trademark Ross, hard to hold and hard to read, with three putts (or worse) lurking everywhere despite modest speeds.

History comes cheap in French Lick

The golf course's biggest asset is its history and affordability: There are only an even dozen Major venues you can play in the U.S., public courses that have held either the U.S. Open or PGA Championship (or Masters or British Open, though you won't find too many public venues for either of those on these shores), and that tally generously counts two upcoming layouts, Chambers Bay and Kiawah Island Resort's Ocean Course, that haven't actually held their Majors yet.

Of these 12, one, Texas' Pecan Valley Golf Club, is so ordinary even its history does little to recommend it, and of the other 11, including such high-dollar tracts as Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pinehurst No. 2 and the Champion Course at PGA National, the Ross Course at French Lick is - by far - the best Major value in the nation (full price is $85, often discounted, and packages with hotel room for night and a round on arrival and a second round the next day start at $249).

You can't say that about its new sibling, the Pete Dye course, where the greens fees weigh in at over $300 and a hotel stay is mandatory, making it sort of the Shadow Creek Golf Course of Indiana, complete with caddies.

The Dye course is a brute that may well represent the future of golf course design, at least at the professional level, a blatant attempt by Pete Dye to stop the ever longer pros and their technology. Bear in mind that nobody - including course pros and an unnamed visiting player from the PGA Tour - has come close to breaking 80 from the tips.

If money is no object and golf fascinates you, by all means, play it, as the gorgeous mountaintop layout has a lot of unique features and redeeming qualities, but for the majority of visitors, the Ross course will be the main attraction. Oh, there is also a ready-for-prime-time nine-holer Tom Bendelow course, carved out of French Lick's very first golf course, once a full 18 by Bendelow, still well worth a round and home to the resort's learning center.

Even with two and a half layouts by top designers, the appeal of French Lick goes well beyond the course and into its history, mystique and returned glory. The West Baden Springs Hotel is so spectacular a structure that non-guests routinely come in to take pictures, even lying on the lobby floor - daily - to shoot the domed roof.

It is no exaggeration to describe it as America's Pantheon, and it gets exactly the same stunned looks and camera clicks the ancient Roman wonder does. Cook's $500 million investment in the resort includes not just West Baden but the restoration of the Ross course, the new Dye course, a new casino and a sister property, the equally historic and nearly as resplendent French Lick Springs Hotel.

This baby is more of the traditional grand U.S. hotel design, the image you conjure up when thinking of the Broadmoor or Breakers, the 4-star to West Baden's 5-star ambitions.

Between the two, there are enough restaurants, bars, spas, stables, shops, activities and gaming to keep the visitor occupied and make you look around and realize that maybe French Lick, Ind., is just as exotic as it sounds.

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Dye Course at French Lick ResortFrench Lick Springs HotelRoss Course at French Lick Resort

Larry Olmsted has written more than 1,000 articles on golf and golf travel, for the likes of Golf Magazine, T&L Golf, LINKS, Golf & Travel, Men's Health, Men's Journal, USA Today, and many others. He broke the Guinness World Record for golf travel and wrote Getting into Guinness, as well as Golf Travel by Design. He was the founding editor of The Golf Insider, and the golf columnist for both USA Today.com and US Airways Magazine. Follow Larry on Twitter at @TravelFoodGuy.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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