FRENCH LICK, Ind. - French Lick Springs Resort & Spa recently was chosen by LINKS Magazine as the second best historic golf resort in America, right behind The Broadmore but ahead of such renowned resorts and courses as The Greenbrier, The Lodge at Pebble Beach, and Pinehurst.
If this surprises you, consider that French Lick is home to two 18-hole courses, one of which is a classic Donald Ross design on which Walter Hagen won the 1924 PGA Championship. Consider also the following brief history of the resort, and then we'll return to the golf.
Chances are, if you've heard of French Lick, Indiana, at all, you know it only as the hometown of basketball great Larry Bird. Throughout the last quarter of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th, however, everyone who was anyone in the worlds of sports, entertainment, politics, and organized crime had at least heard of the sleepy southern Indiana town, and a great many had visited. Believe it or not, for nearly 50 years, French Lick was the playground of the rich and famous.
The secret was in the water. Rich in mineral deposits, the area known today as French Lick was originally a rest stop for settlers and their cattle heading west. In 1812, a U.S. fort was built on the present-day site of the French Lick Springs Resort. In 1832, a Dr. William Bowles bought up the land and opened a swanky spa resort ten years later. The natural spring water, which stank of sulphur but promised eternal regularity, was dubbed "Pluto Water", after the god of the underworld (who apparently has some connection to certain bodily functions). The water soon was bottled for shipment around the world and carried the slogan: "When nature won't, Pluto will."
In 1897, the original hotel burned down, and the grounds were bought by the mayor of Indianapolis, Thomas Taggert. Shortly thereafter, the present-day resort was erected, along with illegal casinos (eventually numbering 22 in all), and French Lick became the gambling (and laxative) Mecca of America.
In the basement of the resort, pictures are displayed of some of the celebrities who frequented the resort, including Lana Turner, Bing Crosby, Abbott & Costello, Nelson Rockefeller, Steve Allen and Al Capone. The resort was even the unofficial national Democratic Party headquarters for a time. In fact, FDR gathered together enough support at a governors' convention here in 1931 to assure him the presidential nomination in his first run for the Oval Office.
When the last casino was shut down in 1949, French Lick faded from the national and international scene a bit, but the 600-room resort remains one of the premier old-school spa resorts in the nation. Amenities on the 2,000 acre grounds include a bowling alley, four restaurants, archery, horseback riding, outdoor and indoor pools (the latter of which is housed in one of the nation's first retractable domes), and of course, Pluto's lair-the spa, with services such as facial, full body massage, aromatherapy massage, lymphatic drainage massage, herbal/mud/seaweed wraps, manicure, and pedicure. Of course, you can still bathe in the mineral springs (a "Pluto Bath,"), as well.
And most importantly, the resort offers golf for all skill and income levels. The premier course is The Hill Course (also known as the Country Club, located two miles west of town), and was built by Donald Ross in 1920. The other, easier course directly on the resort grounds is The Valley Course.
Designed by Donald Ross and opened in 1920, the Hill Course is aptly named. Nearly every tee is elevated, as is nearly every bentgrass green. The bentgrass and rye grass fairways resemble roller-coasters, undulating so dramatically that one wonders at the stamina and strength that caddies must have possessed in pre-cart days.
Director of Golf, Dave Harner, is deservedly proud when he points out that not one of the holes has been touched up, much less redesigned, since 1920.
From tee to green, everything is original and everything (aside from perhaps a bunker here or there, which are scheduled for repair) is in wonderful condition. One can easily picture Walter Hagen playing the same holes in 1924 to win the PGA title, or Mickey Wright winning the 1959 LPGA Championship here, or Bing Crosby and Bob Hope clowning around on the greens.
At $55 weekdays and $66 weekends (cart included), the 6,625-yard, par-70 course is both a good deal and a great test of skill. In general, the course is forgiving off the tee (although certain holes are lined with thick woods), but every single approach shot presents players with a challenge. The remarkably hilly fairways mean uphill, downhill, and sidehill lies on nearly every shot. And the elevated greens require precision-anything right, left, or long in many cases will result in at least a stroke or two loss. In the summer, the fronts of the greens are watered extensively, so anything short will stay short.
Some of the best examples of the hallmark Ross design are holes number 5, 8, 13, and 15. Beginning with No. 5, a 461-yard par 4, you'll find a deep bunker in the middle of the fairway, which is a definite hazard to a good drive from the white tees. The second shot is very long and the green falls away on both sides.
No. 8 is perhaps the most talked-about hole on the course. It is a 377-yard par 4 that doglegs sharply from right to left over a deep swale and around a thick stand of trees. If you happen to be a long drive champ, you might want to try to cut a bit off the dogleg, but the perfect drive otherwise is a long draw around the trees. A safer, straight drive to where the fairway snaps to the left will leave a long downhill second over a monstrous valley to the green.
The 222-yard, par-3 13th is intimidating to say the least. All the par 3s here play longer than they measure, and this is no exception, with a tee shot over a ravine to an elevated green. The green here is also one of the most challenging-multi-tiered and tilted from back to front. Donald Ross could make some truly great greens, and The Hill Course boasts a collection of some of his best, all of which roll true to this day.
Finally, the 15th is one of only two par 5s, but it gives you your money's worth at 619 yards. The tee shot is blind over water and a hill that slopes from left to right. The fairway is like some mythic beast that just stretches on and on, with OB all along the right side. There is no shame in laying up here (maybe more than once!).
The Valley Course, located just outside the main entrance to the French Lick Springs Resort, is a much easier course than The Hill, and much shorter, at just over 6,000 yards from the tips (par 70). Nevertheless, it can still be an enjoyable lark for the accomplished golfer, and it is nicely suited for the junior, senior, or novice player at only $35 (cart included).
Built in 1907 and designed by Thomas Bendelow, The Valley Course was originally intended as a diversion for spa guests who may not have had much previous experience with golf (just as the archery facilities catered to guests who were not so accomplished with a bow). The course is thus characterized by short, straight fairways, generally unelevated tees, and tiny, postage-stamp greens. Another nice feature is that it snakes around the valley in a counter-clockwise direction, so the hillsides and woods stay on your left most of the time, so slicers are fairly safe throughout.
Some trouble does exist, however, mainly in the form of a stream that threads its way through the course. And if you get greedy and hit big woods, massive slices, all hooks, and most long shots will leave tricky recovery shots. An accomplished player could hit irons all day, however, and likely score very low.
At almost the same time that the French Lick Springs Spa Resort was going up, in the adjacent town of West Baden the West Baden Springs Resort was also built. It was called the Eighth Wonder of the World when it was completed in 1902, as it was the widest free-standing domed structure in the world and housed 700 guest rooms, several indoor pools, gardens, bowling alley, casino, and opera house. The West Baden resort was owned by Charles Ed Ballard, who also owned, among many other hotels, casinos, and circuses, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
Whereas French Lick had Pluto as its scatalogical mascot, West Baden had Sprudel, a pot-bellied, red-nosed, bearded gnome who drank from a horn and had the motto: "Always active!" (The preoccupation of past generations with all things excretory is, in retrospect, truly astounding and not just a little weird.)
So, while the rich and famous traveled from near and far to clean out their systems, folks like Ballard and Taggert (the owner of the French Lick Resort), cleaned up, so to speak. Ballard built a huge mansion in French Lick where he entertained the likes of Al Capone, Irving Berlin, and world heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis. In 1997, the Audran family restored the mansion to its past glory and opened it as a fabulous bed and breakfast, the Beechwood Country Inn.
The inn is highly recommended as a cozy, kingly alternative to the French Lick Resort. All of the rooms are furnished with (mostly original) antiques. You can even play the same piano in the lobby that Irving Berlin played at Ballard's posh social events.
The Beechwood Inn restaurant boasts a gourmet menu that no one should miss. The house specialty, the golden halibut, is a poached halibut filet with shallots and mushrooms in a cream sauce. It is simply one of the best pieces of fish you will find in the Midwest. Chocolate lovers will definitely need to try the chocolate crepes or the chocolate suicide cake for dessert.
Also housed in the mansion is the French Lick Winery and Coffee Company, where all of the wine is fermented and aged in bottles and casks down in the mansion's cavernous cellar. The 1995 DeChaunac (red) and the 1995 Vignoles (white) are highly recommended, although there are over 20 varieties available, including an intriguing blueberry wine.
Sadly, a good bit of the luster of French Lick's and West Baden's past glory has worn off in recent years. The West Baden resort became a monastery and eventually slid into a state of serious disrepair. Today, however, it is undergoing extensive renovation and can be toured, with proceeds going toward its ongoing renovation.
As for French Lick, the resort and golf facilities, as already mentioned, are still quite opulent. The impressive dome over the indoor pool at the resort even still opens and closes, and resembles something out of a Jules Verne novel. The area also offers natural beauty such as Marengo Caves, Patoka Lake (where lovely cabins can be rented), Paoli Peaks ski slopes, and charming little towns like Paoli and Jasper.
Still, the town of French Lick itself is in need of a major economic shot in the arm. The juxtaposition of the resort's luxury and the town's poverty is rather stunning. Tourism will help, especially with new additions like the Beechwood Country Inn, the French Lick Springs Villas (modern rental townhouses perched on the hills overlooking the resort), the restoration of the West Baden Resort, and some quaint antique shops. And there is a strong local and state-wide push to re-introduce casino gambling to the area as well. If this were accomplished, and direct rail service from Louisville and Indianapolis were re-established, French Lick could quite easily become a big-time hot-spot once again, along the lines of Branson, Mo.
So if you want to beat the rush, take your next family golfing vacation at French Lick to receive royal treatment at a top-notch spa and play a fantastic Donald Ross course. Then, when the area does return to its full glory (as it almost certainly will in the current heady economic climate), you can claim a small piece of its extensive history as your own.
December 19, 2002