By Hugh Menzies
French Lick, Indiana. There is a name to conjure with. The name derives from a Frenchman who owned a salt works by a creek many moons ago. Lick was a word used for creek back then. It is, as basketball cognoscenti know, the hometown of NBA great, Larry Bird.
It was also, for three days of early July of this year, home of the 2011 U.S. Hickory Open golf tournament. Some 80 players assembled from around the U.S., Canada, and even Australia, to try their collective hands at taming the course Donald Ross created in 1917.
The golf course, though not especially long (5,981 yards for the Open division, 5,050 for the Seniors from the women’s – er- forward tees) – proved a serious challenge. Up and down hillsides it roamed, the sloping, angling fairways guarded by three inches of gnarly green rough that was backed up by two-foot high hay. Hit your ball in the green rough and it proved wisest to get it back into the short grass without trying to make up too much ground. Hit in the hay and kiss that ball goodbye.
This is my personal odyssey but, with the exception of the scores, it will be recognizable to all who participated. Having not long turned 70, I opted for the Senior division. I know my limitations. Well, almost.
As if the course were not tough enough, Mother Nature opened wide her furnace doors. I played my Monday practice round with Jay Harris and Bob Georgiade. Jay had equipment-approval duties so we could not hit the course until 11:30. By then the thermometer was registering 90 and heading higher. The humidity was not far behind.
We battled along – Jay playing only a few holes to rest his bad knee, Pete keeping up a running commentary, me discovering I couldn’t hit a long shot out of the rough, and, believe me, I had plenty of practice. The greens sloped in every direction but, fortunately, were not very fast. Downhill putts, however, were still an adventure. And you had to really belt them uphill.
After watching me for awhile, Jay, who supplied my clubs, predicted: “You’ll not break a hundred today, lad. You’ve got to rotate through the ball.” I pressed on, eager to prove him wrong. But he wasn’t. 101. Several lost balls and no putts fell.
That evening’s reception and club swap and sell show took place in the spectacular domed atrium of the West Baden Springs Hotel.
West Baden is a play on the German spa town of Wiesbaden. The hotel comprises a six-floor ring of rooms surrounding the massive atrium. The original hotel served as a watering hole for show biz folk and mobsters during the 1920s and ’30s – a casino was the main draw – and, when hard times came, was sold to the Jesuits for $1. They toned down the sensual excess and used it as a seminary for several decades. Not long ago, the Cook Group renovated it to the tune of $500 million, spruced up the Donald Ross course, created a mountain-top Pete Dye course, and invited America to come visit.
It was a most convivial evening and some clubs even changed hands.
The first day of the tournament dawned even hotter than the practice round. One of the local club pros, born and raised in French Lick, said he had never known it so hot. The previous day’s experience with the long hay led to the provision of 18 youngsters to serve as fore caddies.
Today, my partners were Bob Georgiade and Jim Davis, whose editing will no doubt vastly improve this epistle. Same story as Monday. Beaucoup balls in the rough and hay. And when I finally sank a putt on my ninth hole, Bob announced: “Hey, first putt in 27 holes.” Just to cheer me up.
My wife, Enid, came along for the ride. When I posted a 10 on one hole, she threw a cart wheelie that nearly deposited me in the hay. She swears it was accidental. But I happen to know she is a good driver. Snowmen are barely bearable but tens can embarrass a wife.
Score. 102. Pete did a bit better. Jim a little worse. Several folks decided they had had enough, including Michael Frye, Doug Marshall and Jay Harris.
A fine dinner atop a hill at the Pete Dye Mansion provided a much-needed restorative for all. The Woodford Reserve Distillery provided a further pick me-up with their finest bourbon delivered in 375 ml. bottles inscribed with each golfer’s name and the tournament logo. Hamp Munsey, Master of Ceremonies, announced that tomorrow promised to be just as hot so the hay should be treated as a lateral hazard. Don’t bother looking, just drop a ball, take a one-shot penalty and play on. We had an 8:30 shotgun start and Hamp figured it would be nice to tackle lunch some time before 2:30.
Enid stayed in bed next morning and wished me a sleepy “good luck” with more hope than expectation as I went out the door at 7 a.m. Hot again, but not quite as bad as the previous day. We posed for a team photo in full regalia then shed much of it.
I’m traditionalist and stubborn but not entirely stupid. No persimmon saw the light of this day. Driving iron off the tee and only irons thereafter. Result: 85. Not good enough to catch the stellar performance of Senior division winner Mike Just but enough to get me out of the cellar on a net basis.
Winner of the Open Division was Alan Grieve, who had traveled from Brisbane, Australia. Alan shot a very tidy 75-75 to defeat previous winners Rick Woeckener and Roger Andrews.
Boy, did the A/C in the clubhouse feel good as we devoured our awards luncheon and applauded the medalists.
Opinions on playing the Open at French Lick are, I suspect, mixed. But I think most enjoyed – in a masochistic sort of way – the challenge. And most may well opt to return, if a return there is.
One of my final day’s partners was Claudia Aaron. She and Mary Ellen Harkins comprised the Women’s division but Mary Ellen decided the combination of course and heat was just too much during the first round. Claudia battled intrepidly on to win the women’s crown, despite not playing a lot of regular golf recently and virtually no hickories. She, too, played from the forward tees but some holes, especially longish carries over garbage off the tee, were just too demanding. It is something organizers may want to consider in future if the SOHG plans on attracting more women to its ranks and tournaments.
And if climate change means future summers are going to be this hot, perhaps a different time of year may be in order for hickory golf’s premier event.
Minor caveats aside, it was an experience to remember.