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
Date: February 07, 2020