On opening day for Major League Baseball two major cities along the Lake Michigan southern tip are hosting games, yet traffic is moving along nicely on the main interstates by late afternoon. Such is life after a post-pandemic season when stadiums are bringing back fans in limited capacities while also serving as vaccination sites.
Still, spring and hope are refreshingly in the air.
Not only are the temperatures around the Midwest forecasted above average for the coming week, but also the Augusta National Women’s Amateur has started in Georgia. The Masters will soon follow, back in its traditional spot on the schedule to represent some sense of normalcy.
The NCAA Tournament is back, too, after a one-year hiatus due to COVID. On the drive into Indianapolis along I-65 there are signs posted with the official March Madness logo, which sets the mood. Those same signs are all around town, too, at busy spots in the city. Instead of talking bubble “teams”, the bubble getting the most attention is the one the NCAA created in Indiana for the safety of its participants. Every game of the Tournament is being hosted in Indiana, at six different locations. It feels kind of like a Pete Dye Trail, except for hoops arenas not golf courses in the Hoosier State.
The confluence of energy led Midwest Golfing Magazine (MGM) to take it all in and begin its version of the 2021 golf season in southern Indiana where seeing is sometimes NOT believing.
Rocky Mountain High, Indiana?
The landscape of Indiana begins to change a bit south of Indianapolis. Flat farmland and wind turbines give way to more hills, forests and valleys. Straight-line highways are far less frequent than winding country roads. Two big cities – Louisville and Cincinnati – seem a shorter drive away from many points south than Chicago from the north.
The final stretch of IN-56 into two historically-linked towns features some beautiful homesteads with dwellings perched up on the hills. But nothing is quite like the mansion atop the hill at the Pete Dye Course at French Lick.
The “OMG” moment of this trip for MGM came just before turning into West Baden/French Lick. There it was in the distance, atop more of a “mountain” than a hill – the large flagpole and aforementioned mansion, the same one that identifies the course so much in pictures. About a mile away, they appeared as miniatures in the sky.
What? They built a golf course up there? Wait. Is that a fairway? A bunker?
A couple days later, it was confirmed – the course was up there, along with a bronze statue of the late great course designer Pete Dye and a rock commemorating his famous quote about a flagstick atop Mount Everest. Well, this may not have been have been Everest but it supposedly is the second highest point in Indiana. And maybe the closest Dye ever came to building that course he must have saw not only on a napkin sketch, but also in his dreams.
There are volcano-shaped bunkers. One par-3 green is about 50 yards long. Catch basins are slopes into the abyss are everywhere around the greens. There are bunkers within bunkers and cape designs to several holes. Dye himself said over a decade ago that the site was too rugged and had too many severe slopes to build a golf course. So then he made tee boxes there that stretch over 8,000 yards. Ah, Pete.
The Dye Course is considered by many as the top public course in Indiana. Views above the forested terrain stretch for some 30-40 miles in every direction from many vantage points. There are several greens from the fairway that look like they have an infinity edge behind them. And those slopes and banks feel like they are hoisting up the slim ribbons of fairways some 50-80 feet in the air. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway turns have nothing on them. No, these are more akin to ski slopes.
The entire experience gives off a Rocky Mountain high. Guests are even given a small bottle of local Bourbon and a cigar to cap it all off. The caddy experience adds another layer, too, not only to help navigate the surreal golf landscape but to keep things moving along.
On this particularly quiet day during opening week, Tyler Baker is MGM’s compadre. As the lead guitarist for the rock band Goodbye June, Baker picked up a caddying at the Dye Course last year when the pandemic hit. His band’s schedule began to evaporate and he had to look for supplemental work. He still drives three hours from Nashville and caddies for week-long stretches at a time until he heads back to his family.
Slowly but surely Baker’s gigs are coming back, a sign of the times.
From a Rocker to Rockers
The hotels at French Lick (www.frenchlick.com) and West Baden, an eighth wonder of the world-type property, were roaring about a century ago – and even before then. History tells of the prominent vacation, resort and gathering spots the hotels became for the wealthy and prominent as well as being a health retreat of sorts. Famous politicians, musicians, actors and athletes all visited. They are remembered on the “Wall of Fame” which graces the wide corridors in the French Lick Springs Hotel and casino wing.
Both hotels have National Historic Landmark status today and were renovated in recent decades to become resplendent again. While families and couples seem to dominate this spring visit, there is appeal for just about everyone including the golfer. West Baden Springs even features a museum room celebrating women’s golf in the circular hallways under its dome.
French Lick Springs has several display cases with artifacts, too, but the old-time charm lives in its preservation. The giant wrap-around porch is adorned with rockers, American flags and bunting. The lobby and second-floor opening above remain ornate. And the story of tunnel leading to the bowling alley on the lower level is remarkable in itself.
The clickity-clack of the train at the old depot nearby and the bell of the hotel trolley are ever-present. Room 1515 features a framed picture of the hotel front entrance bustling decades ago. It basically looks the same today. And to top it all off, Big Band music is playing in the background just about everywhere throughout the hotel.
The Dye Course is just up the “mountain” road behind the French Lick Springs Hotel. To get there, the road runs past the nine-hole Valley Links Course (Tom Bendelow, 1907), which is family friendly. It also features a “foot golf” course and is the confluence of biking and walking trails on the property.
But perhaps the course that best represents the history at French Lick is the Donald Ross Course (1917) about five minutes away by car. The Ross has a long history of hosting professional tournaments including the 1924 PGA Championship won by Walter Hagen (be sure to check out the golf shop display case). Betsy Rawls (1959) and Mickey Wright (1960) claimed LPGA Championships there. In recent years, like the Dye course, the Ross has hosted the best of women’s professional golf. And 15 years ago, it underwent a course restoration to bring back some of its original glory.
Looking back at the understated white clubhouse atop a hill from the first green conjures up visions of Shinnecock Hills. Seeing the long-flowing vistas, bunkers shooting into the fairways and perched greens bring back feelings of Lawsonia Links closer to home. The local knowledge at the Ross Course is to take an extra club into the greens yet stay below the hole at all costs. Not many courses can claim that combo.
On this trip to the Ross, MGM encounters a fairly breezy day. Two drivers on par-3s are required to reach the green into the wind from the Ross tees (second from the back). One of them – at the 213-yard sixth – hits into a large ridge in the middle green and stops just about a yard from the pitch mark. The 40-foot putt to a front right hole location has to run the side of that ridge. It would be impossible to keep on the green under tournament speeds. But on normal days, it is merely a bold challenge. Ross greens are nothing if not fun to putt – that is for those who can find their way to them by approach shot or even chip. Legend has it that Indiana native Fuzzy Zoeller used the Ross Course greens as a warm-up to get ready for Augusta National’s greens. Not a bad strategy.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
That classic theme song from the hit sitcom “Cheers” sums up Jeff Howerton’s relationship with his customers. On a warm, unseasonably humid day with thunderstorms rolling in later, the Sultan’s Run golf professional knows and addresses everyone crossing his path – from golfers putting on their shoes in the parking lot, to those about to tee off, to grounds employees, to regional golf writers he has not yet met.
Howerton does not look like Norm from “Cheers” and by all accounts does not have a seat at the end of the bar. But his golf swing is straight out of a PGA Tour highlights video from the 1980s – classic and smooth – and his welcoming attitude sets the tone at Sultan’s Run.
Those not totally familiar with the southern Indiana course (just 30 minutes from French Lick) may have seen pictures of the 18th hole there, however, and its unforgettable backdrop. The par-4, which shoots right off an elevated tee box, finishes to a natural rock, man-made waterfall feature behind the green. The setting offers up some great white noise while the final putts fall. And perched above the feature is the clubhouse making for a grand finish with a layout to match.
Sultan’s Run was a renowned horse farm before Dye-disciple Tim Liddy got his hands on it. Each hole is named after a champion descendant that was sired there. For golf, it is unlike anything at the French Lick Resort. It features Zoysia fairways and some tiered bunkering offers a classic look. Only two holes are relatively flat (No. 8 and 15). Six holes play uphill and 10 downhill, some quite impressively. In that way it is dramatic like the Dye course only in a less penal way.
The winding nature of the layout at Sultan’s Run was kind of like the trek into Belterra Casino Resort (www.belterracasino.com) that MGM took five days prior. The last stretch was on a one-lane road seemingly through resident backyards, yet the GPS said the 12-story destination was less than a mile away.
And then it appeared as if coming out of a tunnel (kind of like playing the 18th hole at Belterra). Belterra Golf Club director of golf operations Ty Robinett once referred to the casino hotel in an MGM interview as the “Bellagio in the cornfield” and he was spot on.
Belterra’s hotel is impressive in its setting (Florence, Indiana) and the casino is of the riverboat variety (on the Ohio River). The golf course on site is designed by Tom Fazio, who had to move extensive earth to create some gently rolling fairways in what feels like a parkland layout even with the trees bare. That makes the hotel visible in spring on every hole except the short 14th, a low-lying par-3.
Belterra draws much of its crowd from the surrounding big cities. A group from Cincinnati joined MGM for a round including a man named Dale, who is basically a once-a-year golfer and admitted on the first hole to being nervous playing with a regional golf writer. That hardly showed when he found himself in one of the deepest greenside bunkers on the course, some 30 yards from the pin. As he walked down to his ball, he said, “If this goes in, you’ll really have a story to write about.”
Proving how powerful the mind can be, Dale almost did it. His ball checked up just an inch from the hole, the best shot of his life considering the difficulty. It was the equivalent of getting Will Zalatoris at 60-1 to win the Masters, only to see him fall one shot short a week later. It was nearly a miracle, but still a memorable close miss from a visit to the sportsbook inside the casino.
Why Not One More for the Road?
The Purdue University golf teams have to be some of the luckiest in the country to have home courses like the Ackerman-Allen and Kampen on campus (www.purduegolf.com). The Ackerman-Allen is laid out parkland style in the shadows of Ross-Ade Stadium. The Evans Scholars house even resides along one of the holes. The Kampen is framed by large, waste-like bunkers and a couple holes run along a natural celery bog (also divided by Lindberg Road). Hole No. 14, a short par-4, has two tee boxes set like lily pads in the bog.
Both courses are part of Indiana’s Pete Dye Golf Trail and provide a convenient spot to stop on the long drive home. On an early April day, the Kampen is still closed to the public, only the Purdue men’s team is playing the course as they prepare for an Invitational. Former PGA Tour winner Steve Flesch is on the grounds, too, and there is word going around that included in his round at the Ackerman-Allen was a driver off the deck to reach a par-5 in two. Must be nice.
With such talent in the air, MGM feels a bit out of place. So, perhaps this is a fitting time to head home. Even the best of golf trips must come to an end. Until next time, Indiana.