FRENCH LICK/WEST BADEN SPRINGS, Ind. – West Baden Springs Hotel was dubbed "The Eighth Wonder of the World" when it was opened in 1902. Looking like a magnificently fantastical setting for a Jules Verne novel, the hotel had been built on a budget of $414,000 in just 277 days, and it was the largest free-span dome on earth right up until 1969, when the Houston Astrodome opened.
Along with the French Lick Springs Resort and its acclaimed Donald Ross golf course, West Baden Springs Hotel was literally one of America's most popular vacation retreats from the mid 1800s to the 1950s.
Then the bottom fell out. Gaming became illegal, and the casino closed up. Railway lines, which carried five trains full of visitors per day to French Lick from Chicago, were usurped by interstate highways, none of which came near the fading hot-spot. No longer would major golf tournaments be played on the classic Ross course, nor would Hollywood moguls and U.S. presidents any longer escape to southern Indiana to shape the world as we knew it.
At one point, the once-grand West Baden Springs Hotel was sold for just $1, and then allowed to slide for decades into a dangerous state of disrepair.
Enter in 2005 the Indiana-based Cook Group, which owns the company that is the largest supplier of medical devices and supplies in the nation. And enter a relaxation of the gaming laws, which allowed Cook Group to open a casino again in the French Lick Springs Hotel. And enter over $500 million in capital for renovation of French Lick Springs, West Baden Springs, their lavish spas, and the Donald Ross Course.
Finally, for golfers of today and golf historians of the future, enter 84-year-old Pete Dye, who gladly accepted the task of turning a hilly, forested swath of land on the hilltop overlooking French Lick Springs Hotel into the one -- and only -- course bearing his name: The Pete Dye Course at French Lick.
According to pretty much every American golf publication, the Dye Course at French Lick Resort was the best new course of 2009. Over 2 million cubic yards of earth were moved in the creation of the course, which hurtles and dips across a landscape that, according to Dye, "was as severe as I've ever worked."
The result is an 8,102-yard brute with a rating and slope of 80.0/148 from the tips. Golfers who find themselves in the newly resurgent French Lick area will need to pony up some serious cash for the pleasure of being thrashed around by the course that is arguably Dye's most difficult track (greens fees run as high as $275), but the design, challenge, and views are so marvelous, that the splurge is recommended for all devoted golf fans. And the parting gift presented to every foursome -- a small bottle of small-batch bourbon, four shot glasses, four cigars, a cigar-cutter, and a cedar gift box -- helps you forget about the financial shock.
Dye's eponymous masterpiece has not only drawn attention from the media, but also the USGA and PGA of America. The 43rd PGA Professional National Championship was just played on the course, and more national events are being planned. The one stumbling block to perhaps even hosting a major is the location, which is still nowhere near a major highway. And despite the 243 guest rooms in the West Baden Springs Hotel and 443 at the French Lick Springs Hotel, there wouldn't be enough room to host a major (or even a regular PGA Tour stop).
So you think even speculation about a major in French Lick is laughable? Well, maybe, given the above logistical concerns. But judging solely on the merits of the course, it would be a distinct possibility.
At the press conference for the PGA Professional Championship, Dye was asked whether this course or Dye's Straits Course at Whistling Straits, site of the 2010 PGA Championship, is the better design.
"Since Mr. Kohler isn't here," said Dye in his inimical deadpan, "this is a much better course than Whistling Straits."
What makes the course so special? First of all, according to Dye, there's a "new kind of rough here -- fairway fescue." This rough is "meant to be kept short and played out of, so the fairways can be made much more narrow if necessary."
Second, there is literally every sort of bunker I've ever seen on any other course in the world: pill box, pot, flashfaced, waste -- you name it.
Third, taking full advantage of the hilly landscape, Dye has created all sorts of elevation changes from tee to green, including many elevated greens that, from the fairway, appear to simply fall away into nothingness, making the approach shot on nearly every hole nerve-wracking.
In Dye's own words, "It is an entirely different kind of course than anything I've ever done."
For the first-time visitor, it is a course that grabs you by the collar on the very first hole and doesn't let go. The 519-yard, par-4 1st hole features a 50+ foot drop from the tees to the fairway, which curls right to left around a pond.
You're thrown directly into the fire on the first, and the challenge doesn't end until you've successfully navigated the 657-yard, par-5 18th, whose ribbon-like fairway snakes along a ridge to a massive elevated green.
The town of French Lick has just 1,900 residents, and the French Lick Hotel, West Baden Hotel, Dye and Ross Courses, spas, restaurants, shops, and casino that comprise this entirely unexpected golf and vacation destination employs 1,300. In short, the entire town is all about golf and gaming and good times.
You will never stay at another hotel quite like the West Baden Springs Hotel, whose enormous atrium could practically host a Major League Baseball game, and you will never play another course quite like the Dye Course at French Lick Resort, which from day one could host a professional Tour event. It is certainly worth the trip.
"The Eighth Wonder of the World" might be hyperbole these days, but it is no exaggeration to call French Lick the most unique golf destination you've never heard of.
For more information, see www.frenchlick.com.
July 21, 2010