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 played the Donald Ross course at French Lick on May 7, 2019 after playing two rounds in the morning on the Pete Dye course. I wished I could have played the Ross course twice as I really enjoy courses designed by Mr. Ross. My caddie on the Pete Dye course informed me that the Donald Ross course was three shots harder than the Pete Dye course despite it having a lower rating from 200 less yards. This is due to the uphill nature of many of the holes on the Ross which makes it play about 300 yards longer than the listed yardage. He also stated the greens are also significantly more difficult. For the Dye course I played at 6701 (73.3/136 par 72) and for the Ross I played 6517 (72.3/132 but par 70). My caddie was correct as I shot four shots higher on the Ross. I do not blame my score on it being the third round of the day and walking the Ross course after riding at the Dye. The Ross course is more difficult for the two reasons he said.
One big difference in the courses is that the Pete Dye course is a visual feast due to the endless views while the Donald Ross course is not as attractive despite also having views across the course due to having few trees. Much like the Pete Dye course, one plays in solitude other than hearing highway 56 at holes nine, sixteen, seventeen tee and eighteen green. This quiet makes the Donald Ross course a very nice walk despite it being somewhat strenuous with the up and down terrain.
With regard to the routing, Mr. Ross was able to find the best locations for the tees and greens on this land. It is a superb routing with most of the tees and greens located on higher ground. Only five and twelve are somewhat level. The ninth hole returns one to the opposite side of the clubhouse with the tenth hole parallel to the first hole. The inward and outward nine go off in loops in opposite directions although the front nine turns for two holes. Mr. Ross built wide fairways and did a fine job in placement and numbers of bunkers. My caddie informed me the bunkers had been done over ten years ago (research shows it was in 2006 by Lee Schmidt who added back 36 bunkers along the fairway by working with the Donald Ross Society). However, I walked away thinking there should be another five bunkers to serve more as “eye candy” and provide definition to the wide fairways rather than for additional defense.
Many of the greens are sited into a hill or rise with false fronts. There is good shaping of the land just off the greens. There is a lot of movement on the greens and if one has to navigate a spine or tier or have a ball above the hole, then a three or four putt is a real possibility (I’ll get to my experience on the eighth hole later). I played it on a day when the greens were relatively slow due to recent heavy rains for two months. It would be terrifying if they had been quicker.
My only regret in walking as a single was two foursomes waved me through but a final foursome that I caught on the fourteenth green refused to do so. This resulted in the final four holes taking 80 minutes. It is more fatiguing to stand and wait. On the par 3 sixteenth, I watched two of them top their tee shots. Then two of them picked up after four shots although still not on the green of this133 yard hole. One player made a par, while the remaining player repeatedly bladed his shot over and off the sides of the green until he gave himself a putt for a ten. I had another chance to watch them on 17 where their best score was a double bogey. Although I was not happy with the time it took the foursome of 80+ years old to play these holes, I did admire how they enjoyed each other’s company as I heard them laughing at each other’s and their own bad shots. I sensed in their hearts they felt grateful to be playing with friends likely on one of their last “golf buddy” trips. The joy of the game demonstrated right in front of me.
This was my final round of a nine-day 3400 car ride where I played 9.65 rounds of golf on seven courses and ran a half marathon. I felt privileged to end the trip on such a lovely, interesting, challenging golf course. I have played a fair number of Donald Ross designed courses, including all of this most highly ranked courses, and have been a member at Inverness Club and still am at Aronimink. I feel the Ross course at French Lick to be in his top 50, somewhere between 25-50 based on one’s preference. Go through his list of 400+ courses and you will see this is praise, not sarcasm.
The best holes are 4, 6, 10, and a fine stretch from 12-14. It does have a weaker finish from 16-18 compared to the rest of the golf course, but the front nine and back nine are evenly balanced in terms of strategy and difficulty. A long hitter would find it perhaps even more challenging from those back tees than an average length hitter from the tees I played, but no matter one's length, anyone would find the greens to be perplexing and difficult to judge both pace and line.
The first hole is a par 4 of 422/401 from an elevated tee atop a hill in front of the clubhouse with a splendid long view over the course as well as the hole. The drive goes down the valley and then up to the green. There is a single bunker on either side but the one on the left is not really in play. At the green there is a large bunker at the front of either side and a rise behind the green which is sloped sharply back left to front right. I had my first three putt of the day but it was because the greens were so much slower than the Dye course. It is a very good green.
The second is visually pretty as a par 4 of 419/379. There are two bunkers in the fairway on the left as you play downhill from another higher point. Another bunker is short of the green with one closer on the left side. I would have liked to have seen another fairway bunker on the right side of this fairway for the longer hitter. There are good subtle slopes in this green.
The third is another par 4 of 424/404 now playing back the other way. You play your tee shot uphill on this hole and if you drive it far enough you will have a good look at the green still above you built into the hill behind it. Hit one’s tee shot too far to the higher ground on the right and the grass is very high likely resulting in a lost ball or an inability to advance the ball very far. There are three bunkers on the left side of the fairway and a large one at the right front of the green which has a semi-false front and is sloped steeply back to front with a tier on the left side. It is a visually pretty hole.
The fourth is a long par 3 of 240/194 which I admire. It plays uphill over a valley so add another 10-15 yards to the tee shot. There are two fronting bunkers set before a chipping area and two bunkers on the left. I had some extra time on this hole and played a few shots from different areas near the green to see the recovery options. It is a difficult hole but if one does not hit the green there are chances for recovery although you still might have a putt of 15 feet on another steep, tiered green.
The fifth is a par 4 of 476/461 so it is long from the Bronze tees that I played. You play from atop another hill down the fairway with a fall-off on both sides, but more pronounced on the right. There is a small bunker on the right at the beginning of the fairway and a much larger one protruding into the left fairway ending with one on either side of the green. The green shares the farthest point from the clubhouse with the twelfth hole. The fairway seems to roll more than the others. The green has swales and spines across it. A bogey here is an acceptable score. I probably should list this as another hole that I like.
Six is the second par 3 at 249/210 playing uphill again so add another 10-15 yards. I made a good chip and putt to par the hole which plays uphill as the green is on a plateau surrounded by three large bunkers with a sizeable fall-off to the left. Land short of the green and you will likely only see half of the flagstick. The green is easier to read than some others perhaps due to the challenge of arriving there.
Seven is par 5 of 538/513 and is rated the number one index which I did not understand. There are two bunkers in the fairway, the first one right in the middle. I landed my tee shot short of them so they seem to be a problem for longer hitters. The hole plays slightly uphill with a bunker front right and back left. For me I felt it to be one of the easier holes on the golf course. I felt another fairway bunker could have been built on the right. I liked the hole for its visual look with the tree line on the left.
Eight is a devil of a hole and the one that I think should be the number one index due to the severity of the green. It is a par 4 dogleg left of 392/368 with a large bunker on the left side of the turn. There are no bunkers at the largest green on the course and it does not need it given the green which is one of the steepest sloped greens I have ever played in my life. I had a back left pin location and my approach shot landed middle right which took it back down to the front right. I had a 80 feet putt up the steep slope that is the entirely of the green which I proceeded to leave 5 feet short to the right for a 3 putt. I had time so I tried the first putt again which went even less far and it rolled all the way down to the bottom left. I tried a few more putts with some ending all the way at the bottom or a few staying above the hole. I tried some putts from above the hole and could not stop any of them. Maybe I was unlucky in that pin placement. Maybe I was unlucky that the strong breeze was coming from behind the green. In any event, I felt it to be an unfair green. I also felt lucky to have three putted it for my score. As I left for the ninth tee, I remembered my caddie at the Dye course saying I would likely not like this green which drops six feet and he said when first built it had an even steeper slope (although likely slower green speeds).
The ninth works back over the entrance road to the other side of the clubhouse as a dogleg right. It is a par 4 of 366/358 but plays uphill. After being bewildered by the previous green, it was nice to play a breather hole. There is a generous fairway with the left side fairway bunker the one to avoid. The green has two bunkers fronting it on the right and nearly touches the eighteenth green. It felt like one of the smaller greens to me but it has a lot of undulations for its size.
Returning to the other side of the clubhouse similar to the first hole the tenth tee is elevated and starts this shorter par 4 of 383/374. Like the first hole, you play down and then up to a crowned green. Much like the first hole, there is a bunker on the right that does not come into play while the next bunker on the opposite side does. On both the first and tenth, Mr. Ross is showing one the better line to the green. There is another bunker left short that should not be in play unless one finds the trees on the left with their tee shot. There is a fronting bunker on the left followed by a chipping area. The crowned green has a more dramatic fall-off on its right side. I liked everything about the hole despite another three putts and a poor bunker shot.
The eleventh is another short par 4 at 367/345 playing steeply uphill. The hole is broken up by the edge of a pond that is not in play unless the wind is in one’s face, then two flanking bunkers that pinch into the fairway. The green sits high above with two bunkers fronting the green with another chipping area. The green is once again sloped sharply back to front and right to left.
Twelve is a par 4 of 435/430 where the fairway slopes right to left and narrows at around 300 yard with a drop-off on the left into heavier rough. You play to the farthest point of the property with a bunker pinching in from the right at the green and a bunker on the l left. I felt another bunker should have been added to the left side of the fairway to serve as a reminder to hit to the right. The green has a right to left tilt and ripples in it.
You now turn back the other way to make your way back to the clubhouse. Thirteen is another long par 3 of 252/228 so no real relief for the shorter hitter. This hole plays over a valley with a fronting middle bunker followed by a chipping area and a bunker on the right. The green has three levels to it but they provide a backstop. The final tier has a swale in it. It’s rare that one sees a par 3 with a single digit index, but this is rated #6.
Fourteen is a par 4 of 452/409 that curves gently to the left and finishes in front of the pond. There are two bunkers before the fairway acting as a guide. There are three bunkers down the right and then flanking bunkers at the green. Most players can hit their tee shot over the rise which then falls downhill. The approach shot is downhill to this green so the hole plays a bit shorter. I loved the undulating green on this hole.
Fifteen is a par 5 of 665/530. I had to wait on this tee and marveled at the ability of those who can play the back tee here which requires them to go over the pond up the hill. I was grateful my tee was at the middle right of the pond and looked at the land to the right and thought a nice short par 3 could be built here. The four fairway bunkers are on the left side with one on the right close to the green and then bunkers down the left continuing behind the green which is very elevated. I felt this to be the sneakiest green on the golf course due to the uphill shot that is more pronounced than a false front as well as excellent contouring. I felt the hole needed another bunker on the right side of the fairway.
Sixteen is the only short par 3 on the course at 151/133 with a long rough area in front of the green. The green is very heavily shaped. After a 20-minute wait, I felt really good about hitting my tee shot to 6 feet although missing the putt due to the tiers and slope of the green. It is an excellent green complex surrounded by six bunkers on all sides of which there is a set of double bunkers behind the green.
Seventeen is a short par 4 playing along the side of the hill to the right with a fairway that tilts right to left, It is easy to clear the crest of the rise which can add 20-40 yards to one’s tee shot. This hole of 379/362 has a very large green with a 4 feet ridge in it with the lower ground on the left. The approach shot is visually attractive.
Eighteen plays uphill to the side of the clubhouse and is a par 4 of 420/362 which I think plays 10 yards longer. A tree line goes down the right side but falls away halfway up the fairway. There are four bunkers with three on the left side pinching into the fairway and then two on the right side at the green which is elevated and has an excellent left to right slope. If one can carry the hill on the tee shot, you will get extra yardage before the next rise begins. The green is heavily contoured which is fitting given the quality of the shaping of all of the greens. It is a good finishing hole although the tee shot feels a bit out of character to the non-par 3’s on the course.
As an aside, French Lick, Indiana has two historic hotels, one with an amazing dome interior, a bar/restaurant with all of Larry Bird's significant basketball trophies, and a small casino attached to one of the hotels. As I departed French Lick, I drove on Abbeydell Pike where Mr. Bird lived with the outdoor basketball court that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson shot those famous Converse commercials, establishing a lifelong friendship.
I rated it at #231, at 85.25 points, right above The Harvester. If one wants to study Donald Ross’ earlier work, this is a good place for it. I preferred the Pete Dye course slightly because of the views and not having so many long uphill par 3’s, but either one is worth playing twice on a single visit.
I have previously opined on the Donald Ross course at French Lick and feel it is vastly underrated and much of that is tied to the lack of exposure the course has received tied to its off the main road location.
I am providing the comments architect Tom Doak provided from his updated "Confidential Guide" book series.
"One of Ross's boldest designs, the resort course features deep bunkers and an audacious set of greens, laid out across rolling topography punctuated by several ravines. It has all the makings of a cult classic, some contend you can get away with a few too many loose drives, but we don't see it that way as the greens provide such a strong defense. There is not one, but a pair of 230-yard :short" holes, which must have been truly fearsome in 1932 when Walter Hagen won the PGA Championship here.
*Make note that date is in error as the event was played in 1924*
Here is the key line --
"If French Lick enjoyed year round golf traffic like Pinehurst, you would never stop hearing about it."
Let me point out -- Doak is well-versed in Dye courses given his earlier involvement in working with the famed architect for a few years early on in his career development. In my opinion, the Ross layout is truly one of the first rate public courses in the USA. Frankly, the difference between the Ross and Dye is nothing less than day and night.
When heading to French Lick, I wanted to understand how raters on this site consistently gave the Donald Ross Course better ratings than the Pete Dye Course. After all, the Dye Course is the star of the show from a marketing perspective for the resort – it’s new, it’s magnificent, it hosts the annual LPGA Senior Championship in the area, etc. What could the Ross Course have that makes it that much better?
Prior to my round at French Lick, the only three courses I’d ever played of a Ross design (Belleview Biltmore in Clearwater, FL, the Old Course at the Homestead, and Pinehurst No. 2 prior to the Coore/Crenshaw renovation) had all been somewhat bastardized from Ross’s original design intent at the time I played them. As such, seeing this one which had actually been restored was exciting.
First, the good parts: most notably, the green complexes here are first-rate, as expected on a Ross layout. There’s a couple punch bowl-like ones (#1, #10), many with multiple tiers (seriously, too many to remember), and a few blind ones – with almost all featuring severe dropoffs to the front, sides, or rear. It’s an adventure, especially for a first-time player, simply to figure out where you want to try and direct your “misses” on each. But it’s oh-so-fun.
The set of twelve par fours on this golf course are downright awesome. All of them are different and yet most are the same in the way they force the player to think through what appears to be a wide-open tee shot and approach due to the lack of tree cover on the course. The wind, whipping at the top of ridges, but somewhat calmer in the valleys, adds to the challenge and delight of these magnificent holes. Unlike the Dye Course, whose holes primarly play along the top or edge of ridges, the Ross Course features a lot of par fours that either dip down into a valley and go back up a ridge, or play over a ridge and then down to the green into the valley. I didn’t walk the course, but I can imagine it being difficult due to the many hills.
My personal favorite holes included: #3, a mid-length par four featuring a blind tee shot and a downhill approach; #9, a quirky short par four along (and across!) the entrance drive, featuring an approach into the prevailing breeze to a push-up green atop a knoll; #10, one of the flatter holes on the course, a par four playing along a ridge up to a punch bowl-like green; #16, a “postage stamp” par three surrounded by bunkers; and #17, a short par four featuring a semi-blind approach and about a 5-foot high slope bisecting the green from left to right.
My only major gripe was the length to which most of the par threes – as well as one of the par fives – are arbitrarily extended from the back tees for (I’m guessing) the sake of the entire course hitting that magic 7,000-yard number. Having 225+ yard carries into par threes with either false fronts or severe dropoffs in front is absurd, yet three of the four here feature that type of shot. As a long hitter, I almost never hit a 3-wood into a par three; here at the Ross Course, I did so twice as both #6 and #13 were playing into a stiff breeze. On top of that, the 665-yard uphill par five #15 – playing into the prevailing wind – is downright silly. Why couldn’t these holes be kept at a reasonable yardage during the restoration? They’re challenging enough. Having #4, #6, #13, and #15 each playing about 30-40 yards shorter might add a half a star to my rating.
The conditioning wasn’t quite as good as the Dye Course, sadly. I can’t put my finger on what the fairways at the Ross Course are, but they’re not bentgrass or zoysia, and they were fairly soft and starting to go dormant in mid-October, which was a little disappointing. The greens were bumpy because they were recently aerated, but they still rolled fairly well considering. Maybe it’d be worth coming back in the height of summer to see how it looks then.
All in all, I’d describe my experience as this: I do agree with the other reviewers the Ross Course was probably the better golf course of the two at French Lick purely based on the strength of the green complexes and imaginative par fours, but considering the overall experience, the Dye and Ross Courses are vastly different but equally exciting rounds of golf at an otherwise unlikely destination.
Played October 19, 2019
First of all, apparently you've never played golf in Indiana? Grasses go dormant in October... Fairways are a blend. Approaches are bent. I think your issue with the Par 3's and #15 are invalid as most people have no business playing the Gold Tees at 7,030 yards on a course that tends to play about 300-400 yards longer. From the tees that I play (a golf professional), these holes are 194, 210, 228 (hardest hole on the course), and 530. Hard to gripe at those distances. The Par 3's are a staple of The Donald Ross Course. They can make or break your round. They are meant to be difficult! Only one has a false front. #6 is simply a forced carry... I'm not sure if you were aware but #14 and #15 have been flipped. #14 was originally the Par 5 and #15 was a Par 4. And if you call that hole "uphill", you're not doing the rest of the course justice. It is one of the flattest holes on the course. Despite disagreeing with some of your thoughts, I'm glad you enjoyed your time here at French Lick Resort and, in my opinion, The Donald Ross Course here is as close to any of his original designs. It offers so much creativity--sometimes demands it.
Luke, evidently you did not look at my profile before writing this review. I've played golf all over Indiana and the rest of the Midwest, yet I've never seen fairways like these. If you're aware, what kind of blend are they? They're clearly neither zoysia nor bent. Most zoysia I've seen at similar climate/latitude doesn't start to go dormant until late October at the earliest. And they weren't firm at all, unlike the Dye Course's fairways (which were bent).
As for the length of the holes, I don't think it's unreasonable that a player who plays to a 3.0 index would do so from the championship tees, regardless of how much longer a course purportedly plays from those tees. (Other than the four holes I mentioned, I didn't find the rest of the course played too long at all.) I also don't think it's unreasonable to have a single par three at 225+ forced carry from those tees on your layout. But three of them? I'm sorry, that's overkill for the sake of having a "7,000" on the scorecard. The course would be significantly better off shortening the championship tees by ~25 yards on each of the three long par threes and ~50 yards on #15. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!
I think Jeff's perspective on the par 3s has some validity
The Donald Ross Course makes the visit to French Lick worthwhile. It is a throwbacks throwback course. It is very walkable, albeit, the staff will try to dissuade you. The only real drawback to me were the tee yardage options, 7030, 6517 and 5950. As for the greens, don’t be above the hole.
As is Ross’s standard, the first hole is a welcoming par 4. The 2nd is a great birdie oppty. One feature that most people notice are bunkers that should not come into play, especially off the tee. This course has remained pretty true to the original design and as we should all remember the technology has changed significantly. The 3rd hole favor the right side off the fairway off the tee. The green is tricky to begin with but avoid the right greenside bunker. The 240 yard par 3 4th is not even the longest par 3 on the front side. The 4th is an easy hole compared to the long par 5th. It is the #3 handicap hole and my playing partner, The Ninja, conquered it by skulling his chip for a birdie. If you were getting bored, how does a 249 yard par 3 sound? This is followed by the number one handicap hole the par 5 7th. Initially, downhill this dogleg left then has a blind uphill approach. Big hitters can get home in two, keep in mind the levated green is well protected with bunkers short right and long left. The 8th can be tricky. Another dogleg left, you can drive it through the fairway. If you do draw the ball you may end up with a downhill lie on the approach. Best to lay back a wee bit. This is an especially nefarious green. Two putts should be rewarded with high 5s. The uphill 9th is a good birdie oppty as you head into the turn.
Best start the back well, 10 and 11 are relatively short par fours and while their greens may be perceived as sinister in a different context, here they are benign. On the tee, the 11th is almost the picture perfect postcard golf hole. Elevated tee, water hazard below with a fairway bunker left, one center and two right with an elevated green. Too bad I bogeyed it. On the par 4 12th favor the right side of the fairway off the tee. I believe the 256 yard par 3 13th is the longest par 3 I have ever played. I parked my ego and hit driver and then as a sign of the impending apocalypse sank the birdie putt. Happy day. I came crashing back to earth on the relatively simple 14th. A decent drive will get you over the ridge where you can take dead aim at the downhill green in front of the water hazard. How does a 665 yard uphill par 5 sound? The good news, is it is followed by the shortest par 3 on the course. If the pin is front do not be afraid to take a bit longer club as it will c’mon back. If you are real lucky the pin will be front middle, everything trundles there. The 17th was interesting. Not that tough on the card, but you have to aim down the right fairway /rough line to have a chance of keeping the ball in the fairway. Aim at least 5 yards right of the flag. The 18th is a strong finishing hole, uphill. If you finish with a par, you earned it.
This course exemplifies the brilliance and the simplicity of Ross. Enjoy!
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