When most people consider their bucket list destinations for golf travel, the ones that come to mind are often the heavy hitters: Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Bandon Dunes and others. However, a recent trip to Indiana has me thinking there is a new candidate for a must-see golf destination.
French Lick, Indiana is probably best known as the hometown of basketball legend Larry Bird, but the town’s rich history goes much deeper than Larry “Legend”. French Lick was originally founded as a French trading outpost near a natural spring rich with salt deposits that attracted local wildlife, but the springs would be the catalyst for the town’s eventual growth and notoriety.
The springs in the area, rich with minerals, became a digestive aid and the water they produce was eventually marketed and sold as “Pluto Water”. The natural properties of the water, which also contained lithium, helped put the tiny town of French Lick on the map long before Bird ever took the hardwood or golfers flocked to the area to tee it up among the locals.
During the Roaring Twenties, at least a dozen train loads of people made the trip to French Lick daily to frequent the casinos, speakeasies and clubs. Notable visitors included celebrities, athletes and politicians. The Marx Brothers, boxer Joe Louis, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby all spent time galivanting around the area in the 20’s and 30’s. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman were also known to visit frequently, long before either was President of the United States.
For Texas travelers, French Lick requires a flight and a drive, likely to Louisville, which is about an hour southeast of the destination, or you could also choose to fly into Indianapolis, which adds about an hour onto the ground commute. I went the Indy route, which wound through small Amish towns and places like Orleans and Paoli.
As the trek nears French Lick, the abundant beauty of the area begins to present itself. Working your way into town is almost like traveling back in time. Although the creature comforts we’ve come to appreciate in the modern era are clearly visible, a chain pizza restaurant, several convenience stores and some other things you might see in a modern town, a slight right turn onto the resort property immediately transports visitors to a simpler time, where life was slower and the way we viewed architecture was elegant and straightforward.
A pair of hotels adorn the resort, the French Lick Springs sits at the southern part of town, across from the historic downtown district and the West Baden Springs hotel just a couple of miles north.
As you pull into the roundabout in front of the French Lick Springs, the Stars and Stripes are abundant. No less than 25 American flags welcome guests to the property which sends a wave of patriotic warmth down your spine as you arrive. The flag is prevalent throughout town, as it’s hard to go two blocks without seeing one.
Both hotels are as unique as they are historic, with the French Lick having been established in 1845 and the West Baden in 1855. Originally called the Mile Lick Inn, the property was destroyed by fire in June of 1901. Architect Harrison Albright was commissioned to design a new hotel, complete with a 200-foot diameter atrium. The current structure opened for business in June of 1902, just one year after the fire ravaged the previous structure.
Billed as the 8th wonder of the world, the West Baden was the largest domed structure in the United States until Houston’s Astrodome opened in 1965. Atop the atrium, which is retrofitted with lights that change colors to add to the overall ambiance, is what locals call the “Angel Room”. Atop the pinnacle of the dome, mysterious angels and cherubs were hand painted in a small enclosed space. Although not open to the public, there are photos of the room on the walls in one of the hallways on the bottom floor of the hotel. Nobody knows who the artist(s) were, but speculation ranges from Italian tile artisans that were working on property to local Amish painters who fancied renaissance artistry. What is known is that the artwork is well over a century old. In all honesty, it’s almost best it remains a mystery, as the peculiar genius of the artwork adds to its allure.
As impressive as the West Baden Hotel is, the foyer of the French Lick Springs is also a sight to behold. Classic chandeliers hang prominently, and majestic artwork adorn the ceilings above like a midwestern Sistine Chapel. The original tile floors were recovered and restored during the last major renovation and the walls have gold flake trim at every subtle twist and turn. As you await check-in, it’s worth your time to take she short elevator ride to the second floor to get a closer look at the incredible work that was done to create one of the most picturesque lobbies in the country.
Fast forward to 1994, when the hotel was sold to Minnesota Investment Partners (MIP) for $500,000. Grand Casinos Inc., an investor in the purchase, optioned the hotel from MIP. The Cook Group Inc., a global medical device manufacturing company headquartered nearby in Bloomington, stepped in to preserve both the French Lick and West Baden Springs Hotels. Bill and Gayle Cook, along with their son Carl, began a multi-million-dollar renovation. In 2006, the $600 million renovation, including the new French Lick Casino, officially opened for business and with the completion of the West Baden restoration a year later, the French Lick Resort was complete.
Along with the renovation, the Ross Course also underwent an extensive revamp, breathing life into a spectacular layout.
If you’re a golf history or architecture buff, then you’ve undoubtedly heard of Donald Ross, who is the mind behind Pinehurst No. 2, Seminole, Oak Hill, and hundreds of other courses in the United States and abroad. In addition, Ross is also known for designing green complexes that have been known to give players P.T.S.D. Ross was commissioned in 1917 to take a tree inundated, undulating plot of land just southwest of town a work his magic. Ross slowly carved out a design with many of the signatures he’s known for today, but unlike Pinehurst, for example, this course added some vast elevation changes to the Ross signature diabolical greens. The Ross Course is a special place, not only for who designed it, but for its history as well. Originally called The Hill Course, this hallowed ground played host to the 1924 PGA Championship – a tournament won by Walter Hagen – which was the first of four-consecutive won by the “Haig” (the last of which he won at Cedar Crest in Dallas).
The Ross course continues to amaze, as the greens are every bit as interesting as they were the day the course first saw a peg in the ground. The routing is carnal and inviting, with generous fairways that benefit well struck tee shots. But as with any Ross course, the greens are the great equalizer. No’s 8 and 17 are particularly carnivorous, as a misplaced iron shot will likely leave you standing over at least three putts. And if one of those is poorly struck, the dreaded four-putt can leave players headed to the cart with a confused look on their faces and a big number on the scorecard.
The Ross Course now plays host to a Symetra Tour event, one that I was able to participate in the Pro-Am for, and the course has a perfect setup for these young women chasing their LPGA dreams. In addition, the Symetra Tour event has given some wonderful publicity to this great little town and some notoriety to a great classic layout.
About four miles away, the Pete Dye Course proves to be yet another test for those who wish to play some golf while they’re in town. Built in 2009, this championship course routinely finds its way onto lists of the best courses in the United States. Sitting at the second highest point in Indiana, some 875-feet above sea level, the spectacular views of the surrounding valleys enhance the experience of teeing it up at one of Dye’s most intense designs. Drastic elevation changes, volcano bunkers and narrow speed slotted fairways make this one of the most jaw dropping public designs in the country. From the back tees, the Dye plays a staggering 8,100 yards and includes four 500-plus yard par-4’s, a 301-yard par-3 16th hole and the par-5 18th, which plays a ludicrous 657 yards. If that’s not suitable for your game, the Dye has a multitude of other tee options, including the black tees, which are a more manageable 7,200, or the blue tees, which softens the course even further at just around 6,700.
The mansion that sits atop the property also has a tremendous history. When former Indianapolis mayor, Thomas Taggart purchased French Lick Springs Hotel in 1901, Mount Airie, the property the Dye currently sits upon, was part of the purchase. In 1928, Taggart decided to build a replica of the family’s Hyannis Port home for his son, Tom Taggart Jr. The mansion was completed in 1929 shortly after the elder Taggart’s passing. When the Dye Course was constructed a decade ago, the idea of demolishing the home was considered, but after careful consideration, it was determined that the home would be renovated and used as part of the property. Today, it still has the original arched wooden doorways, crown molding, and bathroom fixtures in both upstairs suites. The back patio of the manor is a wonderful place to take in a post round lunch, dinner or if you have the time, the widow’s walk, which boasts views that can stretch upwards of 50 miles, is a glorious place to soak up a southern Indiana sunset.
If an afternoon at a spa is something that interests you or a member or your traveling party, both hotels feature luxury accommodations to relax your mind, body and soul. The Spa at French Lick has 28 rooms with a cornucopia of treatments from a “Pluto Water” Mineral Bath to a Sacred Stone Massage. The Spa at West Baden boasts a dozen rooms with an array of treatments, as well as a natatorium with indoor lap pool and a full-service health club.
The dining at French Lick resort is one more reason to check out this magical place. At the Springs hotel, one of the first things you see as you scale the steps to the lobby doors is a large sign to your left that simply reads “Ice Cream”. A window connects the small parlor and coffee shop to the patio outside and a single scoop cone while sitting on one of the rocking chairs is a fantastic way to beat the afternoon heat or enjoy something sweet after a nice meal elsewhere on the property.
The Springs also features a large breakfast buffet with waffle and omelet stations, as well as a smorgasbord of other options from bacon and sausage to biscuits and gravy, fruit and other standard breakfast fare. It’s a quick and easy way to fuel up before you head out to the course.
The Power Plant Bar on the lower level of the French Lick Springs is a spot to grab a quick beer or lunch pre or post round. With a full menu of upscale bar food, including standard wings and onion rings for starters, to pizza and burgers. If something more rib sticking is in your wheelhouse, the bacon wrapped meat loaf is a great choice.
If you’re wanting something late night, Pluto’s Pizzeria, which sits right next to the in-house bowling alley, is open until midnight and offers a variety of pizza-by-the-slice, homemade calzones or Stromboli’s.
If it’s fine dining you seek, there are several options to consider. At the French Lick Springs, the 1875 Steakhouse will satisfy even the most grizzled carnivore, and the walls are covered with photos of every Kentucky Derby winner in history, so if you want to know who won the run for the roses the year you were born, just take a stroll around and check it out.
Across the resort at the West Baden, another fine dining option awaits at Sinclair’s Restaurant. Serving all the fine steakhouse staples, Sinclair’s is perfect for a celebration or a romantic evening with someone special. The steaks are the finest cuts and come served with all the accoutrement you’d expect from a fine dining experience.
If you’re looking to take your dining to the next level and experience a meal you won’t soon forget, look into booking “Table One” at Sinclair’s. This exclusive chef’s table comes with a price tag, but the experience will be something you’ll remember for a lifetime. Crystal wine glasses and one of a kind Versace place settings make this meal one to remember. But the real fun of this private room lies within the walls. Facing the kitchen, a large glass wall appears frosted as you take your seats, but a quick flip of a switch and the glass immediately changes to transparent allowing diners to watch the action in the kitchen as meals are prepared. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen during a meal.
Although French Lick can be a bit sleepy after midnight, if it’s some late-night action you’re after, then a short walk from the French Lick Springs hotel lies the casino. Completed in 2006, this addition to the property was originally designed as a riverboat to adhere to state gaming laws requiring water-based gaming was surrounded by a small pond. In 2008, the water was filled in and the casino boat was converted into the state’s first land-based gaming institution. The 51,000-square foot gaming floor features over 1,000 slot machines, video poker, Keno, and 37 live dealer table games including blackjack, craps and several variations of poker style games.
If you’re looking to venture off-property to explore a bit, just a short walk across Indiana Avenue leads you to the downtown area, where several local restaurants and bars are open for your enjoyment. Legendz Bar and Grill and 33 Brick Street are two spots to have some great food and some cocktails. 33 Brick Street is chock full of Larry Bird memorabilia, most of which came directly from his own collection. So, if you want to check out Bird’s 1992 Olympic Dream Team jersey or his 1985-86 NBA MVP trophy, take a walk through 33 Brick Street and take a look at some of the hardware they have on-hand.
Although Indiana might not be at the top of mind when it comes to spectacular vacation spots, French Lick is a quaint and mesmerizing look back at a much simpler time. Whether it’s a weekend getaway with the family or a golf trip with friends, with two spectacular hotels, a pair of world class golf courses, dining galore and a town that is straight from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, French Lick Resort checks all the boxes for your next adventure.