French Lick’s Third Century

The Donald Ross Course at French Lick


New owners of the French Lick Springs Resort & Spa recently announced plans to renovate the Donald Ross-designed Hill Course there. It was hard to hear the news and not feel anxiety. Followed by trepidation. Angst, even. The Hill is an 85-year-old heirloom, one of the last virtually untouched Ross designs anywhere. To play it is to enter a 140-acre time capsule, where you will find yourself on the most intimate possible terms with Ross and his design principles.

An overreaction? Gross exaggeration? Only if you’ve never seen French Lick’s Hill Course or heard about its thoroughbred origins. Ross himself scouted the area and hand-selected this hilltop site, which is two miles south-west of the town center and the renowned resort and hotel. It looks quite as it did in its infancy, a framed photo in the clubhouse confirms as much. Stand on the first tee just a few steps from the clubhouse and let your eyes sweep the panorama. With few interior trees on the property, nearly half the holes are visible, their features vibrant and palpable.

Of course, there was plenty of history here before Ross arrived bearing golf. Built on the site of a fort that had long protected this Midwestern outpost from Indian hostilities, French Lick achieved prominence due to its natural springs, which were rich in minerals. The property’s first hotel was erected in the 1830s and was an instant success, attracting travelers from hundreds of miles away to partake of the miracle waters.

Today, visitors can opt for a revivifying $25 soak in these same sulphur-laced waters at the resort spa, whereas back in the 19th century the stuff was taken internally for its, ahem, ‘purifying’ powers.

It was even dubbed “Pluto Water” and bottled for mass distribution. Business was brisk, because the slogan on each bottle, “When nature won’t, Pluto will,” proved to be far more than mere marketing speak. (Today the slogan can be seen on a gazebo behind the hotel where spring waters continue to bubble forth.)

Around the turn of the century, fire destroyed French Lick’s original, somewhat ramshackle accommodations and a much more elegant hotel took its place. Soon the resort rocketed to international prominence. Stepping into a guest room today, one notices quaint decor overshadowed by modern conveniences such as high-speed Internet access. Antiques fill the sprawling lobby. The resort sits on 2,600 acres in the Hoosier National Forest. Lush gardens abound on the property, and its walkways„shaded by century-old trees„are perfect for an early evening stroll.

Other amenities include four restaurants and two pubs, an ice cream parlor, bowling alley, equestrian and bike trails, and outdoor and indoor pools (the latter housed in one of the nation’s first retractable domes). There’s also the famous spa, which offers the aforementioned Pluto Bath, plus more modern and extravagant niceties like full-body massages, reflexology, seaweed wraps and aromatherapy treatments.

In French Lick’s heyday, movie stars, gangsters, politicians and other celebrities frequented the 600-room resort, including Bing Crosby, Lana Turner, John Barrymore, Al Capone, Douglas MacArthur and Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Its luster began to fade in the late 1940s with the demise of a popular (not to mention illegal) casino. Today, much of its charm has been restored, and a larger-scale, multimillion-dollar renovation is planned to fully resurrect the resortÍs splendor. Ironically, the project will include the return of casino gambling, legal, this time.

Throughout the decades the Hill Course has remained virtually unchanged, although its original par of 71 has been reduced by one with the shortening of the three-shot 14th to a par-4.

Designed in 1917 and opened three years later, the Ross creation received almost immediate acclaim when it hosted the 1924 PGA Championship. (It also hosted the 1959 and ’60 LPGA Championships.) Walter Hagen won the second of his record five PGA titles here with a 2-up triumph over Jim Barnes, who was confounded by the perilous green slopes.

Those dramatic putting surfaces remain the predominant characteristic of the layout, which covers 6,625 rolling, windswept yards. “They’re the heart of the course, really,” says director of golf and French Lick native Dave Harner, who can tell you that the greens were a particular source of pride for the architect. Ross found himself at loggerheads on the topic with the first greenkeeper, Oral Carnes. True to his given name, Carnes was vociferous in his objection to the strong contours during construction, but Ross prevailed.

Ross built only one dogleg here, but the left-bending, 377-yard eighth is the Hill’s signature hole. The approach must clear a sizable swale to reach a green that falls more than nine feet from back to front.

Evidence of the design’s enduring authenticity can be found on the clubhouse walls. Framed reproductions of the original Ross drawings (discovered in the resort’s vault) are on display. The golf architect and engineer, the Scotsman’s self-appointed title, drew each hole on a grid and noted in the right margin specific instructions regarding tee sizes, tree trimming, bunker grades and green slopes. Coming into the clubhouse after playing 18, Hill Course golfers are routinely amazed at how the layout, so many decades later, still displays an exacting adherence to these specifications.

Indianapolis billionaire William Cook recently purchased the resort and the two golf courses (the nondescript Valley Links Course was opened in 1907) for $25 million. In addition to the overall resort renovation mentioned above, what they’re calling a “restoration” of the Hill Course is planned for as early as next year, and the addition of a third course is being considered. According to Harner, there is no shortage of architects expressing interest in the restoration project. No matter who oversees it, the first mandate will be to remain true to Ross’s vision.

“We’re not interested in someone’s interpretation of Ross,”Harner says flatly. “This is not just a place to play golf. It’s an historical asset to the game.”

A black-and-white photo on the clubhouse wall is testament to Harner’s words. It shows the contestants from that PGA Championship in ’24. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the enigmatic Hagen appears twice. Because the wide photo was snapped in sequence, Hagen was able to hustle from the far left over to the far right just in time, and on the right he sports a huge, knowing grin.

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