French Lick Resort (Ross Course)
Indiana, United States of America

Tenth hole, 390/375 yards; Ross was so proficient at using topography maps that he famously never visited nearly half of the 400 courses that bear his name in North America. However, French Lick is one example in the Midwest where Ross spent time on site. How and where his personal attention effected the in-the-dirt final design is impossible to say. Look at this marvelous pulpit green pad below. Did Ross himself direct its construction or did his on-site construction foreman Sandy Alves push it up that extra bit, hoping for Ross’s approval? Impossible to know and assigning credit to that degree is a fool’s game. All that matters is the final product and this pulpit green is an architectural gem. Humourously, the old green keeper once grumbled words to the effect that,’We would have the course built and Ross would come along and ruin it.’

Though Ross located the tenth green on a high spot, Alves and he also significantly built up the green pad. Despite running parallel with the first hole, the two holes enjoy markedly different playing characteristics because of their varied green complexes.

Eleventh hole, 365/345 yards; Placing a tee on high is an easy step for an architect as he knows that most players will appreciate the commanding view down the length of a hole. However, how an architect elects to handle upslopes is a trickier proposition. Do nothing and the golfer is left with the impression of an uphill slug. Over do it and uphill holes quickly become too difficult for the majority of players. Ross struck a perfect balance here at the eleventh where his bunker scheme visually breaks up the far hillside in an appealing manner. In addition, he keep the length of the hole modest, making an allowance for the fact that the fairway plays up one of the more abrupt slopes on the property.

The placement of the bunkers works beautifully in conjunction with the fairway slopes. A draw at the right bunker hits hard and feeds off the right to left slope into the perfect position for a pitch. Even from the tee, the golfer gains a sense of the heavily contoured putting surface.

Twelfth hole, 435/430 yards; Topography imbues a golf hole with all sorts of unique playing characteristics but often those characteristics change with time. In Ross’s day, the player was pleased if he could find the flat portion along the left side of the fairway some 175 yards from the green. Today, the tiger is frustrated at having to lay back off the tee but the sloping fairway narrows considerably starting around the 300 yard mark from the back tee.

A nice flat area some 175 yards from the green down the left of the fairway provides both a fine stance and angle from which to approach the green. Those with greedier ambitions forever fight the right to left slope.

Thirteenth hole, 250/230 yards; What terror a resort guest with a hickory driver in his hand must have felt in 1920 when the hole measured 230 yards. Played across a steep valley, the tee shot is most certainly alarming yet the golfer is also inspired as Ross gives the golfer plenty of room to operate. Importantly, save for a topped shot, the golfer will finish the hole with the same ball with which he began, a design trait that is sadly absent on many showcase holes on modern courses. One of the deepest bunkers on the course is well short of the green with plenty of short grass between it and the green. Not feeling constrained, the golfer may even surprise himself and make a confident swing, sending the ball onto the tri-level (!) green. Why would Ross build such a fiendish green on such a long hole? Just imagine a bland oval green in its place and you have your answer!

 One great aspects of Schmidt’s work is how the scale of the bunkers once again matches the scale of the property/holes. The cavernous bunker that was recaptured forty yards short of the putting surface is a prime example.

Each segment of this three-level green seems shockingly shallow, but it works here since each also has a backstop. In fact, the top level is a bowl.

Fifteenth hole, 665/530 yards; The only fundamental changes to Ross’s holes occured at the fourteenth and fifteenth during the early 1970s when the club established an irrigation pond. As the two shotter fourteenth plays now, this pond serves as a handsome backdrop to a short iron approach. In Ross’s day, the green was another 150 yards ahead and the hole was a long three shotter over 600 yards in length. The fifteenth was a three shotter too though considerably shorter. Today, the tee for the fifteenth is back behind the irrigation pond and this attractive fairway meanders past cross bunkers before reaching a well conceived green complex.

The long fifteenth is capped off by this old-fashioned L shaped bunker that wraps around the green’s back left corner.

Sixteenth hole, 150/135 yards; Measured from the back markers, this hole is the shortest one shotter on the course by 90 yards – think about that! Surrounded by a circle of bunkers, the heavily contoured green calls for an appealing yet precise shot and wonderfully complements the bruisers that come before it.  Like the sixteenth at Royal North Devon, the sixteenth at Riviera and the seventeenth at Sand Hills, it demonstrates that length isn’t a pre-requisite for a course’s final one shotter.

A virtual island green in a sea of sand, the sixteenth is the most tightly defended green on the course.

The desire to stay below the day’s hole location on this steeply pitched back to front green often times leaves the golfer with this recovery shot from the front bunker.

Even more problematic is a recovery from the deeper right greenside bunker.

Originating with the ninth hole at Essex County outside of Boston, Ross deployed double bunkers from time to time. These two located behind the green are another example.

Seventeenth hole, 380/360 yards; This hole plays shorter than its modest length as a hill 200 yards out adds thirty yards to the drive. The right side of the green is four feet higher than the left and exemplifies the fun and challenge of severe greens. If the hole is to the right (the difficult location), the player can have a reasonable chance at a three with only the most exact of approaches. Otherwise, he will have to work hard to earn a four. If the hole is on the lower left, the player can use the slope that bisects the two sides of the green to funnel his ball toward the hole. When the hole is positioned on the right, the severity of the green hurts the player. When on the left, it aids him. Though audacious, the green contours work well together and allows the green overall to function well as a single unit.

Courtesy of an astonishing green, the seventeenth is a memorable penultimate hole despite its modest length.

One gains an appreciation of the difference in height of the right half of the green versus the left half by looking at Director of Golf Dave Harner’s feet relative to the day’s lower left hole location.

As seen from behind, the shadows help convey the green’s character. Measuring nearly 7,000 square feet, the seventeenth is the second largest green on the course.

Eighteenth hole, 420/415 yards; Imagine playing this hole back in the 1917 when the course opened. A big drive with a hickory club would have died into the upslope, leaving the golfer to bound a long iron or even wood approach shot past the greenside bunkering and onto the contoured green. Today, the tiger can carry the ball so far that he reaches the downslope of the hill that once deadened the tee ball, leaving but a short iron approach. Though no longer a brute at the highest level, this Home hole still makes for a superb finish for the vast majority of golfers and it joins the eighteenth at Inverness as being among Ross’s two or three finest closing holes.

As with many courses, the clubhouse at French Lick occupies the high point on the property. In such cases, the Home hole is frequently doomed to be some sort of uphill slog. Such is emphatically not the case here. As is evident in the view from the tee above, the Ross Course ends in a grand, majestic manner.

There is no more exhilarating way to end a hilly course than with a skyline green and the rolls through this putting surface make it one of the best.

Having concluded the round, one is likely to be smitten by the course and left wanting more. As with Ross’s best work, the golfer isn’t beaten up or exhausted but rather invigorated and thoughts for another nine or eighteen holes enter his mind. Also, there is a singularly playful exuberance found in this design. The features and hazards are a bit bolder, the greens a bit wilder, the green pads a bit steeper than at almost all of Ross’s other works. As he matured as an architect, Ross’s work featured more gradual transition lines from the built-up features. Still, Ross aficionados are evenly divided as to which period of Ross’s work they prefer. Some prefer his early work such as here, Essex County and Wannamoisett while others prefer his work in the late 1920s such as at Salem and Mountain Ridge. Regardless, the interaction between Ross and Alves at French Lick was special indeed as it yielded so many bold features that make for good golf. One only wishes that the two had accomplished more elsewhere along similar imaginative lines.

A testament to their work is how well the Ross Course has stood the test of time. It has hosted its fair share of big events (both men’s and women’s) without anyone feeling the need to augment the difficulty of the course by tree planting or other artificial means. Fairway width has not been compromised and save for the irrigation pond, water hazards haven’t been introduced to tighten the challenge either. The basic elements of sound design here have created challenge and enjoyment for golfers for nearly a century.

Thanks to the successful 2006 restoration led by Lee Schmidt under the watchful eye of Michael Fay of the Donald Ross Society, the course plays as Ross intended. Plenty of room off the tee for all levels of players, centerline hazards that need to be challenged by the better player to gain an advantage, and uniquely impressive green contours that reward those that place their golf ball properly. Simply put, to play and study French Lick Springs is to better understand and appreciate Donald Ross’s philosophy as a designer. Time here is well spent indeed.

The End