Golf has been played at French Lick ever since the Tom Bendelow Valley course was unveiled in 1907. A fine Donald Ross layout appeared in 1917 – becoming the site of Walter Hagen’s victory in the USPGA Championship seven years later – and so these two courses served the area for almost ninety years until 2005 when the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels were amalgamated to form the new French Lick Resort.
It was at this time that the Cook Group, the new owners, decided to overhaul their golf operation at French Lick by redesigning the old Valley track to form the new 9-hole Valley Links layout and commissioning a new 18-hole track to be built on top of Mt. Airie.
And so, four years after the idea of routing eighteen holes across such rugged terrain was first floated, the Pete Dye course opened for business at the cost of a reputed $28 million – with a large proportion of that price tag incurred as the result of moving around 2.5 million cubic yards of earth on an extremely difficult site.It’s an absolute monster from the back tees at 8,102 yards, with five of the par fours on the card measuring over 500 yards. The first of these ultra-long two shotters is encountered on the very first hole, which sets the tone for the round – careful tee selection at the outset is absolutely essential as this tough track will easily destroy those who are over ambitious.
I have often wondered if the best work from golf course architects comes when they are just getting started. The ideas, at that point, are fresh and often times challenging to the status quo. Case in point -- Pete Dye. His early designs set the standard for the 2nd half of the 20th century with the likes of Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic, Harbour Town in South Carolina, The Golf Club in Indiana, to name just three.
In the 21st century Dye has continued to design courses but the emphasis has meant a greater need in ramping up the difficulty meter. In 2008 when Dye and his son Perry did Pound Ridge -- the brutish public layout just north of New York City -- I could not imagine a layout being any more demanding than what the duo created there. Just when I thought I had seen everything there comes a course that pushes the boundary even more so.
When I covered the '14 PGA Championship at Valhalla I decided to make a nearby visit to the renown French Lick Resort in southern Indiana. The facility was brought back to life by new ownership and amazingly hosted the 1924 PGA on the companion Donald Ross layout which is several miles away.
The Dye Course is located at the pinnacle of Mount Airie and overlooks the Hoosier National Forest in the nearby distance. The scenery on a clear day is mesmerizing. One would think creating a course on such a superb piece of terrain would be fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Instead of building a course that looks like it's been there for many, many years -- the layout seems to have been built on top of the land.
The architecture is way over-cooked -- plainly manufactured is apt word I can use which is charitable. There are ribbons of fairway which bottleneck the longer one hits a tee shot. Adding to a golfer's pain -- there are accompanying fall-offs so recovery options are akin to a person leaping from a plane with no parachute. One of the dimensions of The Dye Course is how severe the angles are when playing. Instead of providing for gradual movements -- you get sharp edges. Recovery shots are more theory than reality. An element of design that I consider important is proportionality. Shots played are assessed in a manner to the degree of your execution. The Dye Course treats golf shots with no differentiation -- if you fail the remedy is a simple one -- off figuratively with one's head. Ouch indeed!
A great example of the overdosing comes the bunkers at the course. Instead of blending in -- they are littered to the point of total overkill. The adage of "less is more" clearly was not on the agenda here. The Dye Course touts an image that says difficulty defines design. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That doesn't mean to say there are no good holes. There are -- when played from sensible tee boxes so scoring is possible. The putting surfaces are varied and a number of them have interesting internal designs. However, only two of the par-4's are below 400 yards -- several are beyond 500 -- and there's even a par-3 that plays 301 yards. Tennis anyone?
The estimated $28 million price tag clearly indicates a monumental effort was put into motion to create the final product. It's a shame because Hoosier golf is often undervalued by many people because of faulty assumptions that such a "flat state" is likely unable to have superior designs. Quite the contrary there is outstanding golf -- just elsewhere.
Demanding golf and superior architecture are not incompatible terms. Places such as Winged Foot / West, Oakmont, Carnoustie, are leading examples of where such a merger can be done sensibly. Think of a good movie -- there's quality writing, characters you invest in because of their depth. The Dye Course is the equivalent of an "action movie" -- believing endless and inane chase scenes followed-up by constant explosions constitutes riveting drama. Hardly.
There's no question Pete Dye is one of the all-time great architects -- someone who truly brought back to life a much needed connection in re-emphasizing the roots of the game found on the original links courses in the United Kingdom and Ireland. That's the Pete Dye I miss.
The Dye Course should simply have been printed "The Die Course" because for nearly all levels of golfers you can be sure your burial is a fait accompli.
by M. James Ward