The Tom Bendelow-designed Valley Links was the first golf course to appear at the French Lick resort in 1907 and this 9-hole layout was joined a decade later by the “Hill Course” as it was originally called, an 18-hole course which was laid out by Donald Ross.
Seven years after this course was unveiled, the 1924 PGA Championship event was held on it, won by Walter Hagen.
When the Cook Group became the new owners of the resort in 2005, they decided to revamp the old Valley track and commission a new $24 million 18-hole course on top of nearby Mt. Arie, which was then named after its designer, Pete Dye.
Around the same time, architect Lee Schmidt and Michael Fay from the Donald Ross Society were called in to restore the Hill Course. When it re-opened in 2007, it was retitled the Donald Ross course in honour of its original designer.
Ten years later, it hosted the first Donald Ross Centennial Classic event on the Symetra Tour, the official development tour of the LPGA. The same week, as part of a week-long celebration of women’s golf, the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship was held on the Pete Dye course.
I've played here three times now and I enjoy it more and more each time. It is in my top 10 golf courses that I've ever played. I love it. If you like a classic course that takes you back in time, this is the play. While it has been restored it was done so with great care. The integrity of the course remains and is an absolute gem in my opinion. Perfect routing with some scoreable par 4's and 5's that are protected by fantastic green complexes and some very long par 3's that take you back in time. This course is crazy underrated in my opinion. Set up a trip. You won't regret it.
Played last week, this course takes you back in time. Beautifully restored and maintained. Greens are firm and fast, rough high enough to punish but still playable. Do your self a favor and take the time to travel here and play.
The biggest issue that impacts the sensational Donald Ross Course at French Lick boils down to one word -- visibility. Or, the lack thereof. For many who come to this top tier resort the rush will be to head to the big brother layout designed by Pete Dye. That's truly unfortunate because the Dye Course is a testament to man's penchant to over shape, over concoct in the sad belief that excessive additions will win the day. The Dye Course is about how brutal a layout can be. The Ross is the quintessential counterpoint. While the Dye bangs the drum -- the Ross is the elegant violin. The Ross is a design that spotlights how to create a scintillating flow of holes that when merged together make for golf music at the orchestra level. You find the quintessential Ross -- the maestro designer at his peak. The land is ideally suited for golf -- moving up and down but never in a harsh manner as to preclude walking or distort shotmaking to the point where end results are tied more to luck than skill.
The PGA Championship was held here in 1924 and how appropriate it was that master shotmaking extraordinaire Walter Hagen claimed the title.
Much is made of other Ross layouts with such headliners with the likes of Pinehurst #2, Seminole, Oakland Hills / South and Oak Hill / East, to name the four most cited. The Ross effort at French Lick is clearly in that conversation because the pure form of Ross has not been bastardized through inane renovations robbing future generations in seeing what the man was truly capable in achieving.
I find it striking Ross made it a point to include two long par-3's in the mixture -- with the 6th at 249 and the 13th at 252 yards respectively. Both are well done and were likely seen as true terrors when clubs and balls were at a far different level than today's tools. The long par-3 clearly has a role in golf and it's good to see how creative an architect of his caliber was in bringing forward such design elements. There's also a 665-yard par-5 that fits perfectly in its placement in the routing - a true three shot hole.
The Hoosier State is vastly underrated by many who may not be aware of the rich diversity of courses located within its borders. The Ross Course at French Lick is a most special place and when combined with the sheer majesty of the overall resort itself is one true die hard golfer had best schedule at some point and see firsthand.
by M. James Ward