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.
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