It might be fair to say that two of Scotland’s greatest exports are rock singer Rod Stewart and golf course architect Donald Ross. While Stewart is still entertaining audiences worldwide, Ross has since passed away, but his legacy is as alive and vibrant as ever, as the many golf courses which he designed in the U.S. continue to entertain and humble all golfers.
While it’s fair to say that Ross’s most famous course design in the U.S. may be Pinehurst #2 in North Carolina, one of his classic pieces of work is in the Hoosier State – The Donald Ross Course at the French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana. It opened in 1917. It has stood the test of time and is as relevant, challenging, and fun to play today as it was at the time it opened for play during World War I. Three of the highlight moments at The Donald Ross Course are when it hosted the 1924 PGA Championship, where Walter Hagen defeated England’s ‘Long’ Jim Barnes in the 36-hole match play final…..and when this course hosted the LPGA Championship in 1959 (won by Betsy Rawls) and 1960 (won by Mickey Wright).
It’s fair to say that The Donald Ross Course at the French Lick Resort is where champions come to be crowned. They have in the past and they will continue to do so in the future.
It’s also worth noting that one other sporting champion, who has connections to French Lick, is former Boston Celtic legend and three-time NBA champion Larry Bird, who grew up in French Lick and graduated from nearby Springs Valley High School. Bird has played The Donald Ross Course on many occasions.
When Ross designed this layout – originally called The Hill Course, for good reason – he didn’t have access to machines which could dig and move dirt. Instead, he made the most of what Mother Nature provided. In laymen’s terms, he created golf’s equivalent of the Hope Diamond from a rough-cut gem. This masterpiece is not for a beginner golfer, but there are five sets of tees to give you the best option for your skill set. When you visit this course, be willing and prepared to play a forward set of tees – at least on the first journey. What this course lacks in distance is compensated by a steady breeze, Draconian rough, strategically placed sand traps, and slick, rolling greens. You will be delighted to know that water is not an issue here, thankfully. If you can ‘drive for show’ and ‘putt for dough,’ you will do well at The Donald Ross Course.
“I think what makes The Donald Ross Course so special is that it is challenging, but a fun course that is also fair,” notes Andy Fortner, former head golf professional at The Donald Ross Course at the French Lick Resort, who is now the head pro at the nearby Pete Dye Course in French Lick. “The bunkering and the greens are truly what make the course so challenging. The greens are elevated on most holes and have such severe false fronts that Donald Ross is so known for in his architecture style. It’s a great classic design that people love to play over and over again as it is always so much fun, but also such a tough test for your game. We actually have a gentleman who has played here in a group each year for the past 38 years and he has told his family that he would like to have his ashes spread on the course one day. We have many people who come in all the time and say, ‘This is my favorite all-time golf course.’ That’s a good feeling when that happens.”
While the rough at The Donald Ross Course is extremely tough, each golfer is given plenty of room to find the fairway off each teebox. In a nutshell, avoid the rough at all costs. Not only does the rough at this course make it difficult to advance your next shot, you often don’t find your ball at all. It truly is that penal. Once you experience the rough, you will get the message.
While the course truly doesn’t have a large number of sand bunkers, the ones that appear on the course are intended to hamper your efforts to secure a par. The sand traps are not very big, but they are usually deep. Simply get out of the bunkers and make no plans to return. Once you experience the sand, you will get the message.
The greens slope from back to front, they are fast, and many of them have false fronts. You are often safer aiming for the middle or back of the greens rather than expecting the ball to stop at the front. For any golfer who reaches any green in regulation at The Donald Ross Course at French Lick, coping with the putting surfaces — which are filled with multiple undulations, twists, and turns — is an experience unto itself. Two putts for par are not a given. A number of greens are two-tiered. Please, don’t finish on the wrong tier. If you do, it’s a certain three-putt. Try to leave yourself with uphill putts. That’s the pathway to putting success at The Donald Ross Course. Once you experience the greens, you will get the message.
Make plans to play The Donald Ross Course at the French Lick Resort (www.frenchlick.com). If you stay at the Resort, which has been renovated into a world-class destination, you will get preferred tee times.
When you walk off the 18th green, head to Hagen’s (in the clubhouse) for a snack and a libation. I would suggest having the Hole-in-One Hot Brown. The restaurant is named in honor of one of this course’s past champions – Walter Hagen. At Hagen’s, you will be welcomed with open arms, just as ‘Sir’ Walter probably was when he won the Wanamaker Trophy back in 1924. Would you expect anything else from the place where champions have played and won?
Finally, pace of play was always a concern of Donald Ross and it remains so to this day for those who run the show in French Lick. Ross believed that a round of golf should last no more than four and a half hours because, in his words, “Golf should be a pleasure, not a penance.”
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The writer of this story, Mike May, is a south Florida-based golf writer, who grew up not far from French Lick in the nearby town of Seymour. Mike can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org