Appeared in July/August 2005 LINKS
To play the French Licks Parings Resort & Spa’s Donald Ross-designed Hill course 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.
Ross himself scouted the area and hand-selected this hilltop site, two miles southwest 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 1st tee and sweep the panorama. With few interior trees on the property, nearly half the holes are visible.
Built on the site of a fort, 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.”
Around the turn of the century, fire destroyed French Lick’s original, somewhat ramshackle accommodations and a much more elegant hotel took its place. 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.
In French Lick’s heyday, guests included Bing Crosby, Lana Turner, Al Capone, Douglas MacArthur and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry 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 resort’s 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. Opened in 1920, the Ross creation received almost immediate acclaim when it hosted the 1924 PGA Championship. A photo in the clubhouse shows the contestants and if you look closely, you’ll notice that the mischievous 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.
In between pranks, 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. Ross found himself at loggerheads on the topic with the first greenkeeper, Oral Carnes. True to his given name, Carnes was vociferous during construction in his objection to the strong contours, but Ross prevailed.
Ross built only one dogleg, but the left-bending, 377-yard 8th 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, 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 courses (the nondescript Valley Links Course was opened in 1907) for $25 million. In addition to the overall resort renovation mentioned above, a restoration of the Hill is planned for as early as next year—and the addition of a third course is being considered.