FRENCH LICK, Ind. – Don’t blink when entering French Lick or you may miss it.
On the surface, the 1.6-mile stretch of State Road 56 is underwhelming but if you take some time to tour the strangely-named farm town made famous by Larry Bird you’ll find it charming.
There is much to be overwhelmed by where golf is concerned. For starters, the brand spanking new Pete Dye Course at French Lick stretches 8,102 yards from the gold tees and boasts a par-3 16th hole that is a beast at 301 yards; An old governor’s mansion serves as a clubhouse and can be rented for a smooth $10,000 a night that includes as much golf as you can play; The Donald Ross Course, built in 1917, hosted the 1924 PGA Championship won by Walter Hagen and wreaks of history; The nine-hole Tom Bendelow Course sits adjacent to the French Lick Springs and is a neat track if you’re looking to kill some time late in the afternoon before dinner.
Add two vintage hotels – the domed West Baden Springs and the massive French Lick Springs – with a new 42,000 square foot Las Vegas-style gaming casino and the elements of the French Lick Resort combine to amass 3,000 acres of entertainment that rival anything in the Midwest.
For the past five years Bloomington businessman Bill Cook has overseen the revival of the community that was once known as a getaway for the hoity-toity who would arrive by train. Al Capone was known to make the trip from Chicago to do “dirty business,” Clark Gable frequented the town, the Chicago Cubs once called French Lick its spring training home and in 1931 Franklin Roosevelt announced that he’d run for President of the United States at a Governors’ Convention.
But now, a reported $500 million later, French Lick is known as a golf destination.
“This place is about stories and the series of them that have happened over the past 10-15 years that have led us to this point,” said Dave Harner, director of golf at French Lick since 1987. “It’s been exciting to be able to be a part of growing it all back.”
Below is a list of likes and dislikes from spending several days in Southern Indiana.
1. The ambiance. The best view in the area is at the clubhouse of the Pete Dye Course, which Dye himself says sits at 900 feet elevation, well above the entire golf course. “The ambiance is what I remember most,” Dye said. “The continuous views you get, I’ve never seen anything like it. Some days you see 10 miles, some times it’s 20 miles. Some days you can only see a mile and a half.”
2. The history. A lot of the elements are either new or renovated but you still feel a strong sense of the past. Along with the aforementioned names, the Reagans and the Kennedys are some other of the nation’s elite that have spent time here for a little R&R. And it’s where Larry Bird learned how to play basketball. Enough said.
3. The Donald Ross Course. The Pete Dye Course is billed as the gem but the Donald Ross Course should not be overlooked. There isn’t a practice range and the four par 3s are similar in length – which will likely irk the traditionalist – but it is pure Ross from beginning to end.
4. Paoli is considered the closest big town. Population of French Lick is nearly 2,000 but neighboring Paoli – which is 12 miles away – is double with a population of 3,933. Big City folk find it comical.
5. Dealers at the casino. They’re all delightful, something that can’t always be said of Sin City dealers. Those tossing cards around at French Lick were helpful, told jokes and made you feel like you weren’t losing any money. Perhaps some would consider that a lethal combination. I call it memorable and pleasant.
1. Difficulty of the Pete Dye Course. “You have to play it two or three times to appreciate it,” Dye said. I did, and I agree. The course is beautiful and is a handful. Playing it twice or thrice is recommended but with a $350 rack rate (and you can only play if you stay at the resort) it’s not a likely option.
2. Very few non-golf related activities. Paoli has all the shops and restaurants that you’ve come to know and love, French Lick has nothing. There is one Dairy Queen, a Subway and a JayC grocery store. That’s it. The WalMart and McDonald’s are in Paoli. Although, 33 Brick Street, a restaurant with neat Larry Bird memorabilia, sits just behind the French Lick police station. Not bad.
3. The $10,000 a night fare to stay in the Governor’s mansion. The bill is a little more than this editor’s budget could afford but I was able to get a detailed tour of the digs. It is an ideal spot for high-rollers to buzz into town, play some good golf with great accommodations, and get out. The place will see some action during the week of the Kentucky Derby.
4. Losing several bucks to those friendly dealers. Seriously, they really wanted me to win and I feel like I let them down.
5. Location. It’s not near a big city like many other great golf resorts but it is within a 5 hour drive of six major cities – Louisville (70 miles), Indianapolis (110), St. Louis (210), Nashville (240) and Chicago (275).