Golf resorts in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions are often overlooked in favor of southern or coastal golf getaways. But some of the best family golf vacation spots in the nation – and some of the best deals – can be found in America’s heartland.
One Midwest golf resort that arguably more history and pedigree than any other is French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana. French Lick Resort (which includes the historic French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel) is the only golf resort in the world at which masterpiece courses by both Donald Ross and Pete Dye co-exist. And it has a history like no other.
West Baden Springs Hotel was dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World” when it was opened in 1902. Looking like a fantastical drawing from a Jules Verne novel, the hotel had been built on a budget of $414,000 in just 277 days, and it was the largest free-span dome on earth until the Houston Astrodome opened in 1969.
From the outside, West Baden Springs Hotel looks like a cross between a circus tent and The Taj Mahal. From the inside, it looks like a grand Venetian Palazzo.
Along with the French Lick Springs Resort and its acclaimed Donald Ross golf course, West Baden Springs Hotel was literally one of America’s most popular vacation retreats from the mid-1800s to the 1930s. What happened in the 1930s? There was a little dip in the economy called The Great Depression. The resultant privation triggered a morality shift as well. Gaming was outlawed, and the casino at French Lick closed up. Railway lines, which carried five trains full of visitors per day to French Lick from Chicago, were usurped first by state highways and then by interstate freeways, none of which came near the area. No longer would major golf tournaments be played on the classic Ross course, and the once-steady parade of Hollywood stars and U.S. presidents escaping to southern Indiana ended with little fanfare. At one point, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” West Baden Springs Hotel was sold for one dollar, and then allowed to slouch for decades into a dangerous state of disrepair.
2005 was a turning point for French Lick, though. The Indiana-based Cook Group purchased both hotels and facilities (including the Ross Course). Gaming laws changed, allowing the Cook Group to open a casino again in the French Lick Springs Hotel. Gaming revenue funded a $500 million renovation of French Lick Springs, West Baden Springs, their lavish spas, and the Donald Ross Course.
The pièce de résistance of the renovation—as far as golfers are concerned, anyway—was the contacting of Pete Dye, who gladly accepted the task of turning a hilly, forested swath of land on the hilltop overlooking French Lick Springs Hotel into the one—and only—course bearing his name: The Pete Dye Course at French Lick.
Whether you’re a golfer, a gambler, a rider, or a relaxer, there’s a wealth of activities available in at this surprising luxury resort.
When I first visited the French Lick Springs Hotel (around 1999), there were two courses, the Valley Course and the Hill Course. The Valley Course was a Tom Bendalow design that has since been remade as a 9-hole family, learner’s, and instructional course. The teaching and practice facilities at the Valley Links and Learning Center, directly adjacent to the hotel, are now first-rate.
The Hill Course, renamed The Donald Ross Course, is a 1917 Ross classic on which Walter Hagen won the 1924 PGA Championship. Measuring 7,030 yards from the tips (par 70), the Ross Course benefited from the resort-wide renovation, including a $1 million-dollar upgrade of the clubhouse alone. The original Ross design was restored, including 30 previously filled-in bunkers, squared off greens, and completely rebuilt tee boxes. The black tees (6,517 yards) are the original tees, and aside from a pond on holes 11 and 14, the present-day design is as close to the Ross original as ever.
The sinusoidal landscape upon which The Donald Ross Course is situated makes for some wonderful vistas (here, on the 10th tee) and difficult club selections.
After your round, take time for a cool drink on the Ross Clubhouse veranda.
The hallmark of the Ross design is the elevation change from fairway to green on just about every hole. This old-school defense is extremely effective – at least against golf writers who can’t figure out to add one to two clubs on every approach shot until, oh, the 17th hole or so. If you’re as dense as me, you’ll come up short time and time again. Add this to the one- to two-club penalty from the thick rough, and you’ve got some serious issues with choosing the right stick. And if you don’t take enough club, balls can roll 40 yards from the front fringes back into the fairways.
Besides deceiving distances, the Ross Course features devilish greens with some radical slopes and mounds and wonderful vistas across the valley. Visitors to French Lick may be mesmerized by the Pete Dye Course, but they shouldn’t overlook the Ross Course, which holds its own against the modern masterpiece in terms of shot value. The collection of par-3s is especially beastly; three of the four require at least a hybrid from most players, even from the regular men’s tees.
The 8th green on The Ross Course has three levels. Putts from above the hole to a front pin can easily roll off the front and down into the valley.
The 10th hole on The Ross Course (left) plays down from the tee and then back up to the green. The 14th (right) plays uphill off the tee, over a hill, and then steeply down to the green.
As for the Pete Dye Course, according to pretty much every American golf publication, Dye’s eponymous gem was the best new course of 2009. Over 2 million cubic yards of earth were moved in the creation of the course, which hurtles and dips across a landscape that, according to Dye, “was as severe as I’ve ever worked.”
The view from the Dye Course clubhouse really brings home the severity, and serenity, of the course setting.
The result is an 8,102-yard brute with a rating and slope of 80.0/148 from the tips. Golfers who want to experience the best course in Indiana, and arguably one of the best in the nation, will need to pony up some serious cash for the pleasure of being thrashed about by a design that is arguably Dye’s most difficult track. But the challenge and views are so marvelous, that the splurge is recommended for all devoted players. There are also a number of stay-and-play packages that allow for play at one or both Ross and Dye courses, and even the nearby Sultan’s Run in Jasper, Indiana, at rates that may not be cheap, but also won’t break the bank.
The Dye Course is not only a darling of the media, but also of the USGA and PGA. The 43rd PGA Professional National Championship was played on the course, and the U.S. Women’s Senior Open has been played here the past three years (ever since the long-awaited championship was first sanctioned). The one barrier to hosting a larger tournament is the location, which is still nowhere near a major highway. And despite the 243 guest rooms in the West Baden Springs Hotel and 443 at the French Lick Springs Hotel, and 71 new rooms in the just-opened Valley Tower (see below), there wouldn’t be sufficient accommodations to host a regular PGA Tour stop, much less a major…yet.
Based solely on the merits of the Dye course, though, the various tours are still figuring how to work out logistical concerns. At the press conference for the 43rd PGA Professional Championship, Dye was asked whether this course or Dye’s Straits Course at Whistling Straits—site of three PGA Championships and the 2020 Ryder Cup—is the better design.
“Since Mr. Kohler isn’t here,” said Dye in his inimical deadpan, “this is a much better course than Whistling Straits.”
What makes the course so special? First of all, according to Dye, there’s a “new kind of rough here—fairway fescue.” This rough is “meant to be kept short and played out of, so the fairways can be made much more narrow if necessary.”
Second, there is literally every sort of bunker I’ve ever seen on any other course in the world: pill box, pot, coffin, flashfaced, waste—you name it.
Dye Course, 4th Hole — you do NOT want to be in the bunker to the left (and well below) the green.
Third, taking full advantage of the hilly landscape, Dye has dabbled with elevation changes from tee to green like a wizard dabbles in the Black Arts. Many of the elevated greens appear from the fairway to simply disappear into nothingness, making the approach shot on nearly every hole nerve-wracking.
Holes 2, 6, and 12 (left to right) are some of the best examples of the many “infinity greens” on The Dye Course.
In Dye’s own words, “It is an entirely different kind of course than anything I’ve ever done.”
For the first-time visitor, it is a course that grabs you by the collar on the opening hole and doesn’t let go. The 519-yard, par-4 1st features a 50+ foot drop from the tees to the fairway, which curls right to left around a pond.
On the tee of 1st Hole on The Dye Course, you feel like you’re perched on the edge of an abyss, and there is nothing to do but swing.
You’re thrown directly into the fire on the first tee, and the challenge doesn’t end until you’ve successfully navigated the 657-yard, par-5 18th, whose ribbon-like fairway snakes along a ridge to a massive elevated green.
The 18th on The Dye Course is a long par 5. Don’t try to carry the ravine to reach in two. Just. Don’t.
The Pete Dye Course at French Lick anchors a seven-course Dye Golf Trail, which stretches from the Purdue Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind., in the north down to French Lick. Golfers not familiar with the fine courses in the Hoosier State will be bedazzled by the variety, depth, and quality of “Midwestern” golf.
Should you be one of those weirdos who needs more than golf to make you happy, French Lick Resort and West Baden Springs can satiate any craving for non-golf entertainment that may possess you.
The spa culture in French Lick has its roots at the very founding of the resort. “There must be something in the water” is literally the explanation for why the resorts even exist. Both the French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel sit atop natural springs, as the names suggest. The Pluto Water of French Lick and the spring water of West Baden were strongly laxative and believed to cure whatever ailed you. Eventually, the Pluto Water was also outlawed, however, when it was discovered that it contained such high levels of lithium so as to be beyond “restorative” (to put it mildly). But man, was that water popular back in the day. Author Chris Bundy likened French Lick to the Disney World of the late 1800s, saying that if Europeans could afford to visit the U.S., “it was assumed that they’d come to French Lick.”
Today, both hotels have world-class spas, featuring treatments with the famous, magical water (lithium removed, for your safety and sanity).
One mania that not even lithium could cure is gambling. The casino at French Lick was Indiana’s first land-based casino, and just about any game of chance you can imagine can be found on the 51,000-square-foot single-level gaming floor. My biggest slot-machine win ever happened here ($75!). I cashed out and had an excellent dinner in the Power Plant Bar & Grill (one of my favorite pubs in all Indiana). The casino now also offers a sportsbook along with an adjacent sports-viewing lounge. All of these new features complement the new Valley Tower, which houses 71 palatially appointed rooms and suites, and a new bar, within easy reach of the casino and aforementioned sportsbook.
Other activities include horse-back riding at the resort’s stables, bowling in the basement alleys, kids’ activities in the Just for Kids hangout, bike rentals, swimming pools (the original mechanical retracting glass dome is sadly gone, however), golf academies, and any number of concerts and shows hosted by the casino. French Lick Springs and West Baden also house boutique shopping, wineries, and many options for dining and drinking.
The verdict on French Lick Resort and West Baden Hotel
As you drive into the still rather isolated valley that holds West Baden and French Lick, you can almost feel the hands of time turning back. Strolling through the historic grounds of the hotels, taking a treatment at the spas, or rocking on the front porch with an icy beverage transports you fully back in the early years of the past century. You almost expect Al Capone or Diamond Jim Brady to wander past. If the ghosts of Gilded Age Past start rattling at your heels, though, the new Valley Tower surrounds you with modern comforts. And the immaculate, unique golf links are literally timeless. No other Midwestern golf resort feels quite like this, and no other resort anywhere pairs Donald Ross with Pete Dye.