French Lick Hotels & Hill Course — Home of the 2011 USHO

The U.S. Hickory Open is to be hosted this year by one of the most famous resorts in the country. The claim began with salt. Flowing mineral springs in the area left salt deposits that attracted such animals as deer, buffalo and French fur traders. The latter never really settled in and when the British and Germans starting nosing around the place in the early 1800s, nobody else was in sight, that is, except for the Native Americans who had probably been roaming the area for centuries. So developed the usual tensions between those who had ancient claims to the land, but no lawyers, and the newbies. This resulted in the construction of several blockhouses as protection against the perceived aggressive natives. One of these was at “the French lick.”

Statehood was bestowed on Indiana in 1816 and the French Lick area was reserved for salt mines. Later, as it became clear the only salt was that left from the mineral springs, the area was auctioned off, the lucky winner being Dr. William Bowles, a physician from Paoli. The good doctor went in for 15,000 acres. He developed it and a French Lick Springs Hotel, of “peculiar architecture” was built in 1845. The “miracle waters” were the main thing and Dr. Bowles promoted it well, visitors coming from the unheard of distance of 100 miles to “take the waters” and even lug bottles of it back home for use at leisure.

As time passed, various owners built new buildings and tried and discarded various entertainments including billiards, dancing and gambling. Fire took the original building in 1897. Tom Taggart, mayor of Indianapolis, and seven other investors plunged in and bought the property in 1901.

Under Taggart, the French Lick Springs Hotel came to prominence. The east wing, now known as the Spa Wing, was enlarged using the unique “French Lick Brick,” scagliola (faux marble), and Italian mosaic floors. A railroad spur was added so that Chicago patrons could de-train at the front entrance of the hotel. Gambling, though, was out. This did not sit well with Taggart who always disclaimed any connection with the gambling casinos throughout the valley. Golf, though, was in. Tom Bendelow was hired in 1907 to design the resort’s first golf course, the Valley Course, on flat to gently rolling terrain. About a dozen years later, Donald Ross, a Scotsman who was making a name for himself in the golf course world, was hired to build “The Hill Course.” Very hilly, very challenging, very Ross greens. (The latter is the venue for our hickory event.)

Taggart modernized and expanded the baths and built a new bottling house for the resort’s “Pluto Water.” Taggart kept his hand in politics to the point where he was named Democratic National Chairman. The elite of politics and society began to “discover” French Lick Springs and its luxurious spa. The hotel developed a reputation as the unofficial headquarters of the Democratic Party and it was from here that, in 1931, Franklin D. Roosevelt landed the party’s presidential nomination.


The West Baden Springs Hotel, itself a building of no small history.

The place got going about 1855 with guests coming by rail to indulge in the mineral waters. Lee W. Sinclair got it in 1888 and, after a fire destroyed everything in 1901, hired an unknown architect out of West Virginia to build a circular hotel out of nonflammable materials. Oh, the dome should be the world’s largest, by the way. Undaunted, the architect, Harrison Albright, set about his work and by September 1902 the thing was done. It was then called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Birds flew freely beneath the 200-foot atrium. An enormous fireplace burned 14-foot logs to keep the chill off and to warm the likes of such guests as Diamond Jim Brady, Al Capone and John Sullivan. Entire baseball teams would hold spring training there. The resort had everything – golf, horses, billiards, bowling, baseball, swimming, hiking, bicycling, movies and nightly theater.

The place went through a variety of owners from gambling men to Jesuits who toned everything down, sold off anything that would excite the senses and got down to the business of religious education. The Jesuits moved on and sold the place in 1985, but that owner went bankrupt. The building deteriorated. Indiana Landmarks undertook a campaign to  find a new owner and rebuild. Politics, lobbying and other sundry efforts came and went, including the Trump Hotels and Casinos. Nothing worked until about 2006 when the hotel was sold to the Cook Group Inc., which finally got the place up and running and re-opened in May 2007. Indiana Landmarks still keeps an eye on things, to ensure whoever owns the place maintains the facility to a proper, historic standard.


The Donald Ross Hill Course

It’s a par 70, just shy of 6,000 yards, or 5,050 for the ladies (or senior hickory players). The Ross tees are 6,500 and the tips take you back to 7,030. The course hosted the 1924 PGA and since has been a favorite for any number of Indiana championships. Course record of 62 is held by Denny Helpler of Warsaw, Ind. who, in 1990, won the entirely modest and unassuming Indiana Assistants’ Championship. (Note: before you play a money match, make sure your opponent is not an Indiana Assistant.)

Bent grass greens, heavily grassed walls on sand bunkers. Lots of mature trees and water on several holes. Elevation changes come often and often unwanted. Flat lies are few. A few years ago, the resort collaborated with the Donald Ross Society to restore the course to the architect’s intentions – 35 bunkers were brought back, with flat bottoms and deep faces. Greens were expanded to original square or rectangular shapes.

It’s a challenging course, but not unfair. To ease any pain that might arise, there is a full bar. The Ross course is ranked by Golfweek as one of the two best That You Can Play (a happily optimistic assumption) in Indiana. The famous who have tested the course include Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Patty Berg, local boy Larry Bird and Fuzzy Zoeller among others.