French Lick: A Golfing Resort Like No Other

Andy Reistetter@GolfWriter59Analyst IDecember 23, 2012

No. 9 on the Pete Dye Course at the French Lick Resort in Indiana. (Photograph courtesy of Dave Harner).
No. 9 on the Pete Dye Course at the French Lick Resort in Indiana. (Photograph courtesy of Dave Harner).

Golf Writer Andy Reistetter and Merri Daniel, golf's foremost woman advocate, accepted an invitation to play the Pete Dye Course at the French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana, stopping by on the way to the Ryder Cup at Medinah in Chicago. Two resorts which are now one—the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Resort initially confused them but actually made the visit all the more exciting and fun. With so much golf to be played and history to be experienced they, came back for three more nights after the Ryder Cup. Join Reistetter as he shares their historic discoveries and golfing experiences in the beautiful hills of Southern Indiana and enjoy Merri's Magnificent Moments.

An invitation to visit and stay at a historical landmark, what was known as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1902, immediately intrigued me. Throw in an opportunity to play, not only a Pete Dye designed golf course, but the Pete Dye Course, his latest and greatest creation debuted in 2009 and my calendar is opened trying to comprehend the dates and geography. Work out it did as a sojourn in French Lick would fit in nicely on the way during my northern odyssey to Medinah for the Ryder Cup.

Can you imagine an open area beneath a dome that is round and stretches across what seems to be as wide as a football field is long? So vast, it makes a fireplace that can accommodate 14-foot logs look like some small miniature version in a doll house?

There you are standing in the domed atrium of the West Baden Springs Hotel. Standing there in awe you wonder at first about nothing in particular. It seems magical, make-believe, and almost fairy tale-like. This is history and now you are a living part of it. Truly amazing.

Originally there were two nine-hole courses adjacent to the hotel—"The Lower" one in a meadow with a flattish terrain, the other "The Upper" on top of the hill with mountainous contours. Neither course exists today though the imprint of the lower's layout can easily be seen and the land of the upper one is now incorporated into the Pete Dye Course.

The way to the golf courses remain designated above the exits in the domed atrium with "Golf Covrse" etched in marble reflecting the use of the Latin alphabet at the time.


The history of French Lick goes back to the late 1700s with the discovery of salt licks and mineral springs.

Both hotels suffered devastating fires with French Lick being rebuilt by Thomas Taggart in 1901 and West Baden by Lee Sinclair in 1902. Their historic rivalry and their resorts were separated by less than two miles. Sinclair's "Eighth Wonder" out did Taggart at the time when it came to hotels. But when it came to golf courses, Taggart out did Sinclair like Tiger Woods lapped the field when he won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes.

Taggart hired the top name in golf course architect of the day in 1907, the "Johnny Appleseed of American Golf, Tom Bendelow to design his golf course. Having started laying out courses in 1898 and doing over 600 in his career, Bendelow's French Lick design was completed in the sweet spot of his artistry. Three years later he would do East Lake in Atlanta, upon which Bobby Jones grew up and become golf's ultimate hero. The golf course was so good that it attracted new golfers to the game, to Taggart's resort versus Sinclair's.

Today, called the Valley Links Course, it is a modern full-length competitive 9-hole course that preserves Bendelow's original design genius. With a Scottish flavor, it is an enjoyable walk in a park-like setting.

Once a U.S. Senator and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Taggart went one better golf-wise, hiring Donald Ross to design a Hill Course in 1917. This was the course on which Walter Hagen won the 1924 PGA Championship. It is also a course with LPGA history, starting with Louise Suggs winning there in 1957 as well as Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright capturing LPGA Championships.

The French Lick Resort will be hosting an event in September, 2013 for the LPGA Legends, which is the official senior tour of the LPGA on a newly restored and newly named Donald Ross Course.


French Lick's modern day Taggart is Bill Cook.

Cook went out and hired Pete Dye to design a legacy course on a mountaintop that encircles Mount Aire, Thomas Taggart's 1928 Colonial-style mansion. The Dye Course hosting of the PGA Professional National Championship in 2010, shortly after opening, is usually a precursor to obtaining a PGA Championship. The next PGA yet to be announced is 2019 and my guess is it will be played in 2020 on Dye's "long view" golf course for the entire world to see.


Sadly, the Indianan billionaire of medical device ingenuity passed on in April, 2011, but not before he invested over $500 million to restore the two resorts.

A century after the resorts were rebuilt separately after fires, in 2006 the French Lick Resort and in 2007 the West Baden Springs Hotel, opened for business together in a united community.

"Bill Cook's life was an inspiration and those who knew him will miss him dearly," said Steve Ferguson, a longtime friend and chairman of the board of Cook Group, Inc. "Few men have ever touched as many lives, saved as many lives, as Bill Cook and the company he created."

From an "Eighth Wonder of the World," to three historic golf courses, to the people of French Lick, it is no wonder that a vacation spent here is a relaxing, meaningful and an inspirational time for the whole family. I would go back for another visit in a heartbeat!


Merri's Magnificent Moments

1. Take the guided historical tour offered daily at the French Lick and West Baden Springs Hotels. Your ticket awaits you in the Landmarks Emporium. The history, restoration and beautiful insights will enhance your visit tenfold.

2. Lie down in the center of the floor of the atrium and look directly up at the cone. Say something quietly and hear the loud echo all around. It's a different feeling, a unique feeling in a one and only place.

3. Take a lap swim in the natatorium at West Baden Springs Hotel. After a good workout it is almost as if you are in a bath with mystical gods of the ancient world or Hollywood celebrities of the 1920s. Either way it is exercise and fun!

4. Have lunch or dinner at the Pete Dye Mansion (Taggart's restored Mount Aire Mansion) and meet Carissa the waitress. Ask her what she and others did for work while the resorts were shutdown and being renovated and you will know Bill Cook.

5. Play golf with your guy using hickory-shafted golf clubs on the Valley Links Course. It might take some planning, finding a member of the Golf Collector Society of America but the experience will take you right back to the 1920s and give you a whole new perspective of the game of golf. Actually, trust me; it will improve your modern game.

6. Sit on the veranda of French Lick Resort with that special someone and rock in a rocking chair for 30 minutes.

7. Visit the clubhouse at the Donald Ross Course. See the museum-like collection of Donald Ross and French Lick golf memorabilia. Say hello to French Lick's Director of Golf Dave Harner if you can and you will learn something new about the history of French Lick.

8. After visiting the Donald Ross clubhouse stop in Hagen's for lunch or dinner, say hello to Marilyn the bartender and sit near the carved arrow designating Al Capone's place. Then have the cheesecake stuffed strawberries for dessert.

9. At West Baden, stand by the west entrance to the atrium, the one with "Golf Covrse" (no 'u' back then) etched in marble above it and take yourself back to the early 1900s. Imagine going to play golf on the "Upper Course," coming back to a relaxing hot mineral spring bath and then having dinner in Sinclair's Restaurant. Think about how good that would have felt.

10. Do the modern version of the above No. 9. There are golf courses and spa treatments available today and the original Sinclair's Restaurant is still there and open for your dining pleasure. Enjoy!



Andy Reistetter is a freelance golf writer as well as a Spotter, Research and Broadcast Assistant for The Golf Channel, NBC and CBS Sports. A lifetime golfer, Andy enjoys volunteering at the World Golf Hall of Fame and THE PLAYERS while pursuing his passion for the game of golf and everything associated with it.

Residing within two miles of the PGA TOUR headquarters and the home of The PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, this golfing couple is focused on a number of entrepreneurial golf pursuits within the realm of "Outside the Ropes Entertainment."

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