French Lick Resort (Ross Course)
Indiana, United States of America
Though full of the design features that make Golden Age courses a delight to play, the Ross Course at the French Lick Resort also requires stout hitting, as evidenced by the 240 yard fourth hole above.
The Donald Ross Course at the French Lick Resort in southern Indiana highlights the design genius of Donald Ross as well as most of his more famous courses that were built for private clubs. All the key design elements are found here: Good terrain, an exemplary routing, broad fairway corridors, well placed bunkers to lend the open holes their playing strategy, and a wonderful set of varied greens that remain largely untouched.
Situated amid rolling land, Ross’s talent for routing is much in evidence with the tees and greens occupying the high spots. What is especially impressive is how Ross connected all the holes without a weak or filler hole in the bunch, all the while preserving short green to tee walks. Like many of his courses with nines that return to the clubhouse, the first and tenth holes parallel each other and then head off to form a loop in the opposite direction (other examples include Seminole, Mountain Ridge, Plainfield and Mark Twain). This routing works well as the direction of play constantly changes, an important consideration given how there is generally some breeze about on this elevated piece of Indiana countryside some 600 feet above sea level.
The greens have always been the star feature. Unlike his greens at Pinehurst No. 2 where the primary goal is just to get on them, these greens are characterized by tremendous interior undulations. Averaging almost 6,000 square feet, they are ample targets but ala St. Andrews, just hitting them is only the beginning. Get above the hole on such greens as the first or eighth, or be on the wrong tier such as on the thirteenth or seventeenth, or find yourself on the wrong side of a spine such as at the eleventh or eighteenth, and you have all but guaranteed at least one extra stroke.
Prior to Lee Schimdt’s 2006 restoration, these two components – Ross’s fine routing combined with these famous greens – defined the course. Working in close concert with The Donald Ross Society and its Executive Director Michael Fay, Schimdt’s work re-introduced a vital third element, namely effective bunkers. To be precise, thirty-six bunkers were re-introduced with the most important ones being central hazards that had been long ago removed. Prior to 2006, the golfer was free to swing out from the tee with little concern. Twenty-nine fairway bunkers were restored including a dominant one on the inside of the dogleg left eighth and important center line ones on the second, third, fifth, seventh, fifteenth, and eighteenth holes. Coupled with the club’s new fescue grassing scheme, the player now needs to focus on placing his ball properly off the tee.
Looking across the first fairway at the wicked eighth green with its six foot drop from back to front.
Two things have mercifully never changed here. One is that that the course has never had a tree problem and it retains an open air quality to this day. As a result, many magical long views are afforded across the course’s interior. Also, this course was built as a means to attract patrons to the French Lick Resort; it was never built for the purpose of selling homes around its perimeter. A game here is one played in solitude, free from outside disturbances as we shall see below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 420/400 yards; This is a rare hole where the splendid view from the tee is complimented by the design of the hole. Like many of Ross’s best openers (e.g. Salem, Oak Hill, Mid Pines) this one plays downhill to a generous landing area. Not only is the golfer inspired by the vista but the visitor can also quickly determine that the ideal line of play is down the left of the fairway. True of all Ross’s best work, the challenge stiffens at the green which features a severe slope from back-left to front-right. Nonetheless, play usually gets off to a smooth start, always an important consideration for an opening hole, be it a public or private course. Ross opined that a starting hole in the 400 yard range was preferable and this one fits the bill nicely.
Second hole, 420/380 yards; Of all the bunkers restored to Ross’s design by Schmidt, none caused the locals to gnash their teeth more than the pair of central hazards that were re-introduced into the second fairway. Given their prominent location (i.e.directly in the line of play!), it is little wonder that they had been removed in the 1950s. As Ross noted in the must-read Golf Has Never Failed Me, ‘Often, the highest recommendation of a bunker is when it is criticized. That shows that it is accomplishing the one thing for which it was built: It is making players think.’
In 2005, it was clear sailing down the middle of the second fairway. Today, golfers need to weigh the advantage of carrying these central hazards in order to enjoy the best angle into the green.
Third hole, 425/405 yards; Any good routing gives the player a sense of property and its virtues. Already by the third tee, the player has gained an appreciation of the rolling topography upon which Ross layed out the course in 1916.
A tee ball that carries past these two bunkers and over the hill enjoys a big kick forward down the fairway.
Once over the crest of the hill, this glorious view unfolds of the third green complex. The mammoth right greenside bunker is perfectly in scale with the sweep of the surrounding land. Anything smaller risked looking puny against its environment.
Benched into the hillside, it is no surprise to find that the third green is steeply pitched from back to front.
Fourth hole, 240/195 yards; The collection of one shot holes at the Ross Course should be heralded as among the best set that Ross ever designed. Going further, who can dismiss them as one of the standout sets in world golf? This one plays across a valley and there is a real sense of accomplishment – and relief – in seeing a tee ball land on the distant plateau green. Otherwise, a wide variety of recovery shots await, generally with only the flag visible as the golfer is likely to be well below the putting surface.
Fifth hole, 475/460 yards; Ross had a fondness for big holes of any par, and this is the first such two shotter at French Lick. From the tee on top of the hill, the hole drops and runs straight away along the top of the ridge with drop-offs on both sides. From here until the fourteenth tee, the golfer gets to see his ball land and bound along the fairway courtesy of Ross’s elevated tees and artful routing.
The ground falls away off either side of this fairway which Ross shrewdly laid atop a ridge line. The large bunker that juts into the fairway is 150 yards from the green and wasn’t there in 2005.
Though a veteran of golf course constrcution for over twenty years, Schmidt had never previously restored a Ross course. As evidenced by this bunker to the right of the fifth fairway, he was a quick study in making the bunkers look like they belonged on a Ross course in rural Indiana.
Sixth hole, 250/210 yards; A lesser designer might have left the player with the feeling that the property was too severe given its never ending rolls. However, not Ross as he uses the long one shotters to give the player essentially level (though dramatic) shots over some of the steepest banks on the property. One wonders what came first: Was it Ross’s discovery of the hog back that became the fifth fairway with this hole then becoming the logical sequel? Or did Ross locate the herioc sixth first and then work backwards to find the fifth? Either way yielded the same result which is distinctive golf of a very high order.
Hard as it is to imagine, each of the first three par threes gets successively harder. At the sixth, it is a ravine instead of a valley and the green features more slope than at the fourth.
Eighth hole, 390/370 yards; Ross did not design an abundance of dog-leg holes, as some modern architects are wont to do but this is one, featuring a sharp turn to the left. What distinguishes this hole is the tension created by a deep grass ravine and the steeply pitched back to front green just beyond it. An old course guide writes that the eighth is ‘one of the most talked about holes in Indiana golf’ – and rightly so! At one point the green dropped seven and one-half feet from the back to the front; today it is a mere six feet! Of course, today’s green speeds make it feel even more severe. Worse, the golfer frequently finds himself above forward hole locations because of the influence of the perilous ravine fronting the green. In Golf Has Never Failed Me, Ross wrote, ‘Deep grass ravines are truly a delightful type of hazard’ and ‘I lose no opportunity to use them in every posssible way.’ One can only imagine how the players performed on this infamous hole during the 1924 PGA Championship won by Walter Hagen.
This view from the left of the eighth green gives a sense of the green’s dramatic drop from back to front.
This view from behind the green captures both its size (it is the largest on the course at 7,502 square feet) and slope (hard to hide six feet of drop!).