Standing on a small platform adjacent to the breathtaking West Baden Springs Hotel, Brittany and I watched as what appeared to be an early-1900s trolley car turned the nearby corner and slowly chugged toward us.
“Wow, how cool is this?” I said to her, as the conductor slowed the train and welcomed us aboard.
A few whistles of the horn and we were off, taking the one-mile trip along the tree-lined tracks to the French Lick Springs Hotel — our destination for our inaugural night’s dinner at the signature 1875 Steakhouse . We’d only been at French Lick Resort for a few hours — and had yet to hit a single shot on the highly touted golf courses — but already we were feeling right at home.
History at Every Turn
As it turned out, that trolley car ride (a replica of the original 1903 trolley) was a mere taste of the history brought to life at today’s French Lick Resort. Horse drawn carriage rides, cobblestone streets, and thousands of old images line the halls of both resort hotels. The entire property oozes old-world charm, and though accommodations and amenities leverage modern-day luxuries, careful attention was given to preserve a historic feel.
French Lick Springs is the original hotel and has played host to quite a few famous celebrities, athletes and politicians over the years. It’s located a stones throw from downtown French Lick and houses the ever popular casino.
For our stay, we enjoyed the incredible West Baden Springs Hotel. It’s hard to believe, but this incredible free-standing dome (once dubbed the “8th wonder of the world”) was actually abandoned and beginning to crumble to the ground a mere 20-years ago.
As part of a $500+ million project in the early 2000’s, West Baden was restored to it’s current brilliance. Now on the registered list of National Historic Landmarks, it houses amenities like two pools, a spa, and the incredible Sinclair’s Restaurant. The rooms are great, but to me nothing beats unwinding at day’s end in the atrium’s uber comfortable chairs, glass of wine in hand.
Let’s Talk Golf
As much as I enjoy great resort accommodations and activities, for me it’s always about the golf. And at French Lick, the golf is second to none. Like many golf destinations, French Lick has multiple courses on property (45 holes in total). However, few resorts can compete with the contrasting styles of play.
The 9-hole Valley Links Course is a super friendly layout, ideal for a quick warm-up round upon arrival at the resort. Though it doesn’t stack up to the other two courses in terms of their championship quality, it’s great for taking the family out or simply shaking off some rust.
The real fireworks come on The Pete Dye Course and The Donald Ross Course at French Lick Resort. Each are incredibly fun layouts and routinely rank in the top 100 public courses in America, but their similarities end there. Built nearly 100-years apart, the courses represent the best of the modern and classic golf eras.
The Pete Dye Course
Built on one of the highest points in Indiana, The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort is nothing short of mesmerizing. The rugged terrain was originally thought to be too severe to build a golf course, but as the old saying goes — where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Astute vision by the master of creation (Pete Dye) along with countless hours of manpower (read: bulldozing) and the result was one of the best public golf courses in America. To say the property is expansive would be a gross understatement.
Sprawling across nearly 400 acres of land, the Dye Course is routed around an old Mansion situated atop the highest-point of the property (it now serves as the course clubhouse and offers one of the best lunch menu’s on the resort). The course’s location yields incredible views of the Hoosier National Forest and Indiana countryside at every turn.
The course itself is larger-than-life too, and for the daring soul it can be stretched to a mind boggling 8,100 yards. Not to fear though, there are plenty of friendlier sets of tees, with the forward most measuring closer to 5,100 yards.
My biggest takeaway from the Dye Course was just how interesting each and every hole was from one another. Elevation changes, varying hole shapes, and of course Pete Dye’s fascination with a bit of intimidation makes for a visually stimulating — and never boring — round of golf.
Expect to hit just about every club in the bag, ranging from flip wedges to long-irons (or woods) into stout par 4s. And if you do decide to back it all the way up, prepare yourself for the daunting 303 yard par 3 — yes, par 3 — 16th (pictured below).
Of the many great Pete Dye Course’s I’ve been fortunate enough to play, the bunkering on this French Lick design may be the most interesting of them all. There’s little repetition in the bunkers, with a wide variety in all shapes and sizes in play throughout the course.
Big and small bunkers; shallow and tall bunkers; pot bunkers; volcano bunkers; church-pew bunkers and even bunkers inside bunkers. They’re plentiful, strategically placed, and add a unique element that really sets the course apart.
I loved this modern layout so much, I spent nearly a full sunup-to-sundown day enjoying the pristine conditions, endless views and intriguing golf holes of The Dye Course.
Book a morning round, get there early to watch the sunrise (and loosen up on the amazing practice facilities), and grab lunch at The Mansion after. Trust you won’t find many better ways to spend a day!
The Donald Ross Course
Just west of the resort sits the century-old Donald Ross Course at French Lick Resort. In contrast to the modern-style Dye Course, it’s an old-school layout with plenty of charm.
The Ross Course sits on a compact piece of land, strategically routed across a ~150 acre property. Rather than moving loads of dirt to make a course, Donald Ross did what he does best — design a golf course across the natural landscape he was given. After all, there weren’t many bulldozers around in 1912! Nor carts, meaning the walks from greens to tees are quite friendly.
During design, Ross walked the property, choosing the many high-points on the hilly terrain that would translate to tee and green sites for the golf course. Being blessed with a landscape of rolling hills meant the creation of a course with lots of natural elevation change, making for a scenic and interesting design — one that remains today.
Originally known as the “Hills Course,” today’s Ross Course remains a favorite for architectural savvy golfers and fans of classic courses alike. The fairways are quite generous, though long-fescue frames each hole and will penalize errant shots. No tricks or gimmicks out here, just good quality golf holes at every turn.
The real challenge — and intrigue — is presented on approach shots to the often elusive, crowned greens. Many approaches must be executed off downhill lies to elevated greens, where closely mown edges can send slightly misfired balls careening into low-lying collection areas.
Once on the putting surface, the real work begins as heavily contoured greens present plenty of challenge for even the best. Though restoration work was done in the early 2000’s (lengthening holes and restoring the bunkering), the green surfaces remain largely untouched from Ross’ original designs. Thanks to these undulating greens, many find that The Ross Course actually plays a few strokes harder than The Dye!
Be sure to leave some time after the round to tour the Ross clubhouse, where you’ll find incredible images from the past and original course design sketches. Wander the halls and finish things off with lunch at Hagen’s Restaurant overlooking the course.
Beyond the Golf
If you’re looking for a few non-golf activities, the greater French Lick area has a ton to do. Horseback riding, hiking trails, multiple pools, wineries, and casino are a few notables. We enjoyed a boat tour on Lake Patoka (~25 minutes from the resort) one morning, and made a few trips to the quaint nearby downtown for dinner and spirits.
I should also mention that both hotels at French Lick Resort offer pet friendly rooms, too! So if you’re like us and love traveling with pets, you can bring your furry friend along for the fun.
Final Thoughts on French Lick Resort
On the ever growing list of must-see golf destinations, French Lick Resort certainly ranks among my best. The combination of the modern and classic golf designs of The Dye and Ross courses make for an unforgettable golf experience, and there’s no doubt you’ll enjoy all that the historic charm of French Lick Resort has to offer.
The Pete Dye Course: $350
The Donald Ross Course: $125 ($75 twilight + offseason rate)
Valley Links Course: $30 – 9 holes // $45 – 18 holes
Stay & play packages available here.
*As of July 1, 2018