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|French Lick Resort's picturesque West Baden Springs Hotel sit atop natural springs. (Courtesy of West Baden Springs Hotel)|
FRENCH LICK, Ind. -- Golf resorts in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions are often overlooked in favor of southern or coastal golf getaways. But some of the best family golf vacation spots in the nation -- and some of the best deals -- can be found in America's heartland.
If one were to pick the top five Midwest golf resorts, the list would certainly include places like The American Club in Kohler, Wis., Treetops Resort in Gaylord, Mich., Grand Traverse Resort in Traverse City, Mich., and Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Minn.
One Midwest golf resort that arguably has more history and pedigree than any of these is French Lick Resort in French Lick, Ind.
French Lick Resort, which includes the historic French Lick Springs Hotel and the West Baden Springs Hotel, boasts past major winners like Mickey Wright and Walter Hagen and guests ranging from Al Capone to FDR.
There's a wealth of activities at French Lick Resort whether you're a golfer, a gambler, a rider or a relaxer.
Why, you might ask, is there such a long and opulent resort history in French Lick?
For once the answer, "There must be something in the water" is actually correct.
Both the French Lick Springs Hotel and the West Baden Springs Hotel sit atop natural springs whose water bubbles forth to this very day in all their restorative glory. The Pluto Water of French Lick and the spring water of West Baden were strongly laxative and believed to cure whatever ailed you (and given the lithium content of some of the spring water in the area, it probably did make people feel pretty great).
Author Chris Bundy likened French Lick to the Disney World of the late 1800s, saying that if Europeans could afford to visit the U.S., "it was assumed that they'd come to French Lick."
From 1902-13, the West Baden Hotel was the largest freestanding domed structure in the world -- truly a modern marvel -- and today it's still one of the top 10 historic hotels in America, according to Zagat.
Today, both hotels have world-class spas, featuring treatments with the famous, magical water. But if you don't require a stranger's kneading hands to relax, pull up a rocking chair on the grandiose front porch of the French Lick Springs Hotel and simply rock yourself to Nirvana.
Both hotels, and the area in general, sloped into decline during the Great Depression, when gaming and alcohol fell afoul. In 2006, gaming returned to French Lick with the opening of the French Lick Resort Casino, which would soon become the state's first land-based casino. The influx of revenue from the casino funded a $500 million expansion project, which included the addition of a major convention center, renovation of the French Lick Springs Hotel and the West Baden Springs Hotel, and the expansion of golf operations on the sprawling 3,000-acre property.
When I first visited the French Lick Springs Hotel, there were two courses, the Valley Course and the Hill Course.
The Valley Course was a Tom Bendelow design that has since been remade as a 9-hole family, learner and instructional course. The teaching and practice facilities at the Valley Links and Learning Center, directly adjacent to the hotel, are now first-rate.
The Hill Course, now known as the Donald Ross Course, is a 1917 Ross classic on which Walter Hagen won the 1924 PGA Championship. Measuring 7,030 yards from the tips (par 70), the Ross Course benefited from the resort-wide renovation, including a $1 million upgrade of the clubhouse alone. The original Ross design was restored, including 30 previously filled-in bunkers, squared off greens and completely rebuilt tee boxes. The black tees (6,517 yards) are the original tees, and aside from a pond on holes 11 and 14, the present-day design is as close to the Ross original as ever.
The hallmark of the Ross design is the elevation change from fairway to green on just about every hole. This old-school defense is extremely effective -- at least against golf writers who can't figure out to add one to two clubs on every approach shot until, oh, the 17th hole or so. If you’re as dense as me, you'll come up short time and time again. Add this to the one- to two-club penalty from the thick rough, and you've got some serious issues with choosing the right stick. And if you don't take enough club, balls can roll 40 yards from the front fringes back into the fairways.
Besides deceiving distances, the Ross Course features devilish greens with some radical slopes and mounds and wonderful vistas across the valley. While French Lick's Pete Dye Course may mesmerize visitors, don't overlook the Ross Course, which has lower rates and can play just as hard -- especially off the tee.
As for the spectacular and new Dye Course, the 8,104-yard (par 72) behemoth will be hosting the Big Ten Men's and Women's Championship over the next three years, as well as the 2012 Indiana Open. Although the green fees are $350, and caddies are mandatory (an extra $30, plus gratuity), there are numerous stay-and-play packages, including an outstanding Ultimate Fall Golf Escape, when the autumn colors are truly spectacular.
The caddies are invaluable on the rollicking Dye greens. Only one green on the whole course breaks toward water, and keeping conscious of the overall land contours is more important than looking at the actual humps and bumps on the greens.
Although long, the Dye Course is arguably easier off the tee than the Ross Course, but the second shots are absolutely critical. Lots of greens fall off into bunkers or are steeply downhill, closely mown run-off areas that can be two-shot (or more) penalties. One of the best pieces of advice I got from my caddie, Cody, was to practice putting from off the practice green before my round. Once you get the feel, putting from 20 or more yards off the green can save several strokes. Another tip: Take a hike up the steep steps to the new tee boxes on the 213-yard par-3 eighth. You won't be sorry (even if you end up missing the postage-stamp green 100 feet below).
The Dye Course at French Lick is now anchoring the new seven-course Dye Golf Trail, which stretches from Purdue's Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind., in the north down to French Lick. Golfers not familiar with the fine courses in the Hoosier State will be gob-smacked by the variety, depth and quality of Midwestern golf.
After your rounds, you and non-golfers can enjoy horseback riding at the resort's stables, bowling in the basement alleys, kids' activities in the Just for Kids hangout, and any number of concerts and shows hosted by the casino. French Lick Springs and West Baden also house boutique shopping and several options for dining and drinking.
As you drive into the still rather isolated valley that holds West Baden and French Lick, you can almost feel the hands of time turning back. Strolling through the historic grounds of the hotels, taking a treatment at the spas or rocking on the front porch with an icy beverage transports you fully back in the early years of the past century. You almost expect Al Capone or Diamond Jim Brady to wander past. No other Midwestern golf resort feels quite like this, and no other resort anywhere pairs Donald Ross with Pete Dye.
October 27, 2011
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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