The beauty of French Lick Resort is matched only by it's storied tradition. (The PGA of America)
2010 PPNC set to visit Indiana's Land of Legends
Past and present are on proud display at reinvigorated French Lick Resort, which is primed -- and pumped -- to play host its first PGA of America event since Walter Hagen's historic 1924 PGA Championship victory.
By Don Jozwiak, Senior Editor, PGA Magazine
The list is lengthy of legendary athletes who have made the journey to French Lick, Ind., in search of vitality and restoration. During the early 1900s heyday of the small resort town in southern Indiana, Joe Louis came to train for heavyweight fights, Babe Ruth came to lose a few pounds in the off-season and entire Major League Baseball teams came for spring training -- in fact, the Chicago Cubs trained in town prior to the 1908 season, when the team last won the World Series.
Those athletes, like many everyday people, came to French Lick for the beautiful scenery, quiet atmosphere and -- most importantly -- the restorative power of the famed Pluto Mineral Springs. The springs were so popular that five trains a day ran from Chicago to French Lick in the early 1900s, and the town was able to support two large resorts and three golf courses. Architect Tom Bendelow built the first two courses in 1902, and French Lick came to the forefront of the American golf scene when legendary designer Donald Ross designed and opened his course in 1917. It hosted the 1924 PGA Championship, which culminated in a 36-hole match play final between PGA of America founding members Jim Barnes and Walter Hagen. Hagen was known for his dramatic comebacks, but The Haig had to fend off a furious finish by Barnes to earn a 2-up victory for his second PGA Championship and begin his unmatched four-year winning streak at the event.
It is only fitting, then, that French Lick should return to golf prominence with an event that will culminate in the victor claiming the Walter Hagen Cup in the hills of Indiana's Orange County. That's the ultimate goal of the 312 participants in the 2010 PGA Professional National Championship, which will be contested this month on The Pete Dye Course and The Donald Ross Course at French Lick Resort.
The National Championship marks the fruition of a remarkable restoration project on the Ross Course and the resort's two hotels, as well as an expansion that includes the building of the Dye Course. The connections between past and present at the 2010 PGA Professional National Championship are many. In addition to Indiana becoming the 14th state to host a PGA Professional National Championship by hosting its first PGA of America event since Hagen's historic 1924 victory in French Lick, the state is hosting its first PGA of America championship since John Daly won at the Pete Dye-designed Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel in 1991.
Dye is also connected to defending Champion Mike Small by virtue of Small's 2005 PGA Professional National Championship victory on Dye's Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C. -- and by the fact that the two men played together in a U.S. Amateur qualifying round when Small was a 19-year-old college student.
Small and his fellow competitors in the 2010 PGA Professional National Championship will have the unique opportunity to play two courses created by legendary designers from completely different eras. In addition to hosting the 1924 PGA Championship, the Ross Course has also hosted the LPGA Championship in 1959 and 1960, the 1957 Midwest Amateur -- in a bit of foreshadowing, the event was won by Pete Dye -- and a number of U.S. Open qualifiers and Indiana PGA Section events. The Dye Course only opened in April 2009, and the eye-catching design by the 2004 PGA Distinguished Service Award winner has already been named Best New Public Course of 2009 by Golf Digest. PGA Professional National Championship competitors will play one round on the Dye Course and one on the Ross Course, then those who make the cut of the low 70 and ties will play the final two rounds on the Dye Course.
"What's really notable is the uniqueness of the two golf courses," says Mark Tschetschot, PGA, director of PGA member championships. "In the Ross Course and the Dye Course, you have a historic course and a modern course -- two totally different layouts, design-wise. That'll present challenges in itself for the players. But I think they'll enjoy it. I believe the players will really have a good time challenging these two golf courses."
In addition to the golf courses, Tschetschot says French Lick Resort is uniquely suited to handle the large field of the PGA Professional National Championship.
"French Lick Resort has the ideal infrastructure for hosting the National Championship," says Tschetschot, who is working on his 12th PGA Professional National Championship. "With the two hotels just a mile apart, and the courses also very close, it's absolutely perfect. Nearly every player is staying on property, and you couldn't ask for a better situation. The resort's done a great job of getting ready, and we're really excited for the Championship to get started. This should be one of the best PGA Professional National Championships you could ask for."
Massive Renovation Project
Today, French Lick Resort is a vibrant destination with two luxury hotels -- French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel -- and a casino, along with three golf courses. The structures and the landscape, however, were in dire shape little more than a decade ago. It took a massive renovation and restoration process to bring the properties back to life, and to make new developments -- such as the Dye Course and the casino -- possible.
The hotels share a history that dates back to 1833, when a physician from nearby Paoli, Ind., bought 15,000 acres of land and set about building a hotel based on the purported healing powers of the mineral springs. The original French Lick Springs Hotel opened in 1845 and drew visitors from hundreds of miles away to enjoy the "miracle waters."
The wood-frame hotel burned in 1897, but was rebuilt on its present site the same year. In 1901, a group of investors, led by Indianapolis Mayor Tom Taggert, bought the property and convinced the Monon Railroad to run daily service between the hotel and Chicago. Taggert became the Democratic National Chairman, and French Lick became a preferred destination for politicians, athletes and celebrities. In fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt secured the support needed to run for U.S. President during a governor's conference at the hotel in 1931. Taggert also brought golf to French Lick, hiring Bendelow to build the area's first course in 1908, and bringing in Ross to build what was then known as The Hill Course in 1917.
The West Baden Springs Hotel, meanwhile, was making its own history a mile to the east. The first hotel on the site opened in 1855 and was acquired in 1888 by Lee Sinclair. An ambitious building project turned the hotel in to a sprawling resort, including an opera house, casino, pony and bicycle track and the full-size baseball field used by the Cubs and other major league teams. As with the neighboring resort, a devastating fire destroyed the original West Baden Springs Hotel. The 1901 fire consumed the entire building in June, but Sinclair pledged to build a new and more spectacular resort. With the help of architect Harrison Albright, Sinclair created the world's largest free-standing dome. Inspired by opulent European spas and constructed of nonflammable materials like concrete, the new West Baden Springs Hotel opened in September 1902 after just 288 days of construction.
Sinclair called his new hotel the Eighth Wonder of the World, and the breathtaking dome -- 200 feet in diameter and more than eight stories high -- remained the largest free-standing dome in the world until the Houston Astrodome opened in 1965. The luxury resort boasted two golf courses of its own and, of course, the mineral baths and drinking waters the area was known for. West Baden Springs Hotel became a regular destination of a cross-section of the famous and infamous, from businessmen such as Diamond Jim Brady and athletes like John L. Sullivan to Al Capone and his gang. After Sinclair's death in 1916, his daughter, Lillian, took over the resort and renovated it to her taste, then sold it to circus owner Ed Ballard for the remarkable sum of $1 million in 1923 -- when a nightly stay at the resort cost $3 per room, including meals.
Both French Lick resorts thrived until a confluence of events conspired to draw business away from the area. The rise of the automobile, and the increase in train routes to the south and air travel, caused the wealthy to shift their vacations to warmer-weather destinations, especially Florida.
And the stock market crash of 1929, as well as the Great Depression that followed, sharply curtailed the number of travelers who could afford to come to French Lick's luxurious resorts.
West Baden Springs Hotel Closes
French Lick Springs Hotel remained in business as a hotel, but West Baden Springs Hotel did not. Ballard closed the hotel in 1932, and in 1934 he sold it to the Jesuits for $1. The Jesuits used it as a seminary, known as West Baden College, until 1964. In 1966, a private culinary college called Northwood Institute took over the property and operated it until 1984. Neither group was able to afford or perform much upkeep on the massive structure, and it fell steadily into disrepair. The decline accelerated when Northwood sold the property to a development group in 1986, and the group went bankrupt before executing a redevelopment plan. West Baden Springs would spend the decade in a tangle of litigation and ownership changes, and the elements and abandonment took their toll. The structure was closed to the public in 1989 for safety reasons, and a portion of the exterior wall collapsed in January 1991. Meanwhile, scavengers made off with what was left of the hotel's opulent fixtures.
The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana stepped in to care for the structure, spending $140,000 of its own money and raising another $70,000 to patch the dome and shore up the hotel's structure. Various plans were floated for revitalizing the resort, and the breakthrough came in 1996. Historic Landmarks bought the property for $250,000, and the Cook Group stepped in as a corporate benefactor.
A successful maker of medical devices for many years, the Cook Group is also known for widespread redevelopment of architecturally significant structures in Indiana. Bill and Gayle Cook took special interest in West Baden Springs, and asked Steve Ferguson to assess its potential.
"I looked at it the first time in the fall of 1995, and I didn't think the hotel would remain standing through the winter," says Ferguson, a former Indiana legislator who is now president of French Lick Resort. "Historic Landmarks was looking for a donation of $1 million, but that money wasn't going to go anywhere with a building this size."
Fittingly, Ferguson had family connections to the property. A cousin had been one of the original investors in West Baden Springs Hotel, and Lillian Ballard had roomed at the Ferguson family farm outside of Bloomington while she was attending Indiana University. Confronted with the scope of what was needed to sustain, let alone renovate, the property, Ferguson and the Cooks decided to get fully involved.
"We talked about how much money would be needed to stabilize the structure and bring it back, and what could be done with it," Ferguson says. "It became clear that this was a project of the heart. We'd done a lot of preservation and we had the money to save the building, but we didn't know that we could turn it into something financially viable. But we also knew if somebody didn't do it, this treasure of a building was going to fall down."
The Cooks and their companies committed money and expertise: $14 million here, $30 million there, another $5 million for good measure. From 1996 through 2004, an array of projects -- restoring the exterior and all outbuildings, rebuilding the garden, returning the atrium, lobby and dining room to stately elegance -- were completed in hopes of drawing an investor to buy and reopen West Baden Springs Hotel. A group of residents lobbied for, and gained, approval for construction of a casino in French Lick to draw travelers to the half-renovated West Baden Springs Hotel and the still-open French Lick Springs Hotel. Trump Hotels secured the casino license in 2004, then lost it during a bankruptcy in 2005. As the casino license went back up to bid, Ferguson urged the Cooks to go all in.
"We came in with one objective, to save the West Baden Springs Resort," Ferguson remembers. "You had another owner at the French Lick Springs Resort who doesn't share that objective, and you were going to have a third party operating the casino with another set of objectives. I said that all three needed to be under one ownership for sake of the community."
The Cooks agreed. In spring of 2005, the Cooks bought French Lick Springs Hotel, and secured the gaming license in the fall of the same year. Historic Landmarks sold the West Baden Springs Resort to the Cook Group for a nominal fee and a pledge to completely restore both hotels. For the first time, both historic resorts were under the same ownership, and became known as French Lick Resort.
Historic Landmarks still holds a perpetual easement on the West Baden Springs Hotel property requiring the foundation's approval for exterior changes to the hotel and grounds, and ensuring that the site will be maintained no matter who may own it in the future.
Restoring the Ross, Debuting the Dye
The combining of the two resorts set off a whirlwind of construction and renovation. French Lick Springs Hotel closed after Thanksgiving 2005 and was completely restored -- including the new casino and a conference center -- in November 2006.
Restoration resumed at the West Baden Springs Hotel in the summer of 2006 and was completed by May 2007. For the first time since 1932, the structure was open as a hotel. Restored to its 1917 splendor, the hotel boasts 240 rooms and suites -- down from the original 508 small guest rooms to make room for updated plumbing, heating and cooling, and larger appointments expected in today's accommodations.
The winds of change quickly blew into the golf part of the operation. While the new casino was built to drive year-round traffic to French Lick, golf was also part of the master plan. "The important elements we had in our vision were restoring the Ross Course, restoring the Bendelow Course and building a third course," Ferguson says. "There was never a doubt that golf was important to the history and the future of the resort."
The remaining nine-hole Bendelow course was updated with an extensive new practice facility and renamed The Valley Links, and new life was breathed into the Ross Course. The original Ross blueprints and extensive photography from the 1924 PGA Championship were used to turn back the clock, while modernizations were completed on the course infrastructure.
Dave Harner, PGA, director of golf operations for French Lick Resort, had seen the years take their toll on the hotels and the Ross Course before the Cook Group got involved. A lifelong resident of French Lick, Harner has spent more than three decades working on the Ross Course. He's seen the course transformed from such lean times that he couldn't afford to buy new cups for the putting green to a case study in how to restore a classic course.
"The greens had gotten noticeably smaller and rounder over time due to circular mowing patterns. A lot of the original bunkers had been filled in during the early 1970s to make the course play easier, and the irrigation system was really antiquated," Harner says. "With the help of the Donald Ross Society, we restored the greens to their original sizes and shapes, a lot of them being square, and we put 35 bunkers back in -- Donald Ross didn't put them there to be pretty; they were there to create strategic play. We're now triple-row, fully irrigated, and the clubhouse has been renovated to look like it did in the 1920s."
Meanwhile, a third course was planned to bring a modern contrast to the golf offerings at French Lick Resort. Pete Dye was brought in to build the third course, which opened last April. The Dye Course is as contemporary as the Ross Course is classic, using elevation changes to create visual intimidation. The course is on the second-highest area in the state, and on a clear day you can see more than 40 miles.
"I've spent the last five decades designing golf courses all over the world, including courses on great coastal sites," says Dye, who now lives with his wife, Alice, in Indianapolis. "The course at French Lick is arguably the best inland site I've ever worked on."
The two courses offer a great contrast in playing style, and in how they were constructed.
"When the Ross Course was built, you took the golf course to the land," Harner says. "The story goes that when Donald Ross came to French Lick, he got on horseback and rode through the property to find the piece of land where he could build the best golf course while disrupting the least amount of earth. When Pete came in, he moved almost two million yards of dirt. So now, you take the land to the golf course."
Rebuilding an Entire Community
The renovations and new construction have brought increased energy -- and demand -- from golfers across the country.
"I used to do a lot of consumer golf shows to promote the facility before the renovations, as many as 20 a year all over the Midwest," Harner says. "The first thing people would say to me was, 'French Lick -- oh yeah, that's where Larry Bird's from.' Then the second thing would always be, 'You're in the middle of nowhere.' But what people are discovering now is that we're actually in the middle of everywhere. We're within a six-hour drive from cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Columbus, Louisville, Nashville, St. Louis and, of course, Indianapolis. There's a lot of population not too far from here. And as people come in and see the high level of maintenance, the hotels and the quality of the experience, they're seeing that French Lick is truly a national golf destination."
Beyond the resort and the golf courses, Harner is noticing big changes in his small town as a result of the dramatic rebirth of French Lick Resort. He was on the town council in 2005 when the Cook Group combined the hotels and casino license, and today serves on the French Lick redevelopment commission and tourism commission. Casino revenue has enabled the town of 1,900 to build all-new sidewalks and a town center, and plans are afoot to bring in new businesses. The economic impact of French Lick Resort is having a positive impact throughout the area.
"It's more than just hotels, it's more than just golf. It's about changing lives of people in this region. This whole project has really been about that from the very beginning," Harner says. "When we closed French Lick Springs Hotel for renovation in 2005 we had around 300 employees. We reopened in 2007 with more than 1,300. There are people in French Lick now who have houses and cars and bank accounts who never had them before. And that's really what this has all been about. Yes, the golf part is great -- that's my little corner of the world. But I closed down with about 35 employees and now I'm over 100. So the economic impact this effort has had has been tremendous. That's what I like to think about, that this has been more about changing lives than just about profitable operations."
Walter Hagen's name will again echo through the air in French Lick this month as the 2010 PGA Professional National Championship winner earns the cup bearing the legend's name. And The Haig himself would no doubt relate to the impressive comeback French Lick is enjoying. Must be something in the water.
This story appears courtesy of PGA Magazine, the official publication of The PGA of America.