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2 Play the Tips played French Lick (Ross) on Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Donald Ross Course at French Lick Resort

I'm just a hick from French Lick

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#1 - The opener at the Donald Ross Course is one of our favorite opening holes so far
#4 - The first of many long challenging par 3's
#9 - This pictures shows the road that your tee shots carries over on the medium / short length par 4 9th. The road your tee ball carries over is also the main entrance to the course.
#9 - Dave's second shot to the elevated Par 4 9th - He dunked it for eagle
#11 - Be careful to avoid the bunkers on this tee shot. The Ross Course is well protected by them.
#13 - Another brutally tough par 3 - We loved how open and clean everything looked on The Ross Course
#14 - The Downhill Approach to the Par 4 14th hole. This pond was actually not in the original design.
#17 - Look at how severe the undulation is in the 17th green!
#18 - Many people believe this to be one of Donald Ross's finest finishing holes.
#18 - Jason's approach to the 18th green

By all accounts, The Donald Ross Course at French Lick has mirrored the ‘boom, bust… boom’ history of it's hometown.  Once an incredibly popular tourist destination, French Lick has since seen its share of hard times and public neglect.  A recent injection of nearly half of a billion dollars has the town back on track, and has given the resort the opportunity to create a new course (The Pete Dye Course) and restore an old one.

The Hill Course, as it was formerly known, hosted the PGA Championship just seven years after it's establishment in 1917.  Walter Hagen won the tournament on the 36th hole of the final match against Englishman James Barnes.  Over the years, the Hill Course began to lose its Ross-ness; bunkers disappeared, greens were rounded out, and the prestige of the course dwindled along with the popularity of the southern Indiana town.  After being restored to the original designs found on course maps in the basement of the clubhouse, the newly labeled Donald Ross Course offers an exceptional test of golf that would undoubtedly still garner a nod of approval from its late namesake and architect.

Hailing from Beverly Country Club - Ross's pearl of the Midwest - we found it quite difficult to pass up the opportunity to travel to the land of Larry Bird and compare courses (and perhaps place a few bets at the resort casino).  After a late night drive, a 4am arrival and a few hours' sleep, we hopped back in the car and took the less-than-10 minute drive from the hillside Villas to the Ross course.  What awaited us was some of the most beautiful natural rolling terrain Indiana has to offer.  Standing on the porch of the clubhouse looking out on the course, one might start to believe that Ross didn’t use tools to move and shape the land, but rather simply convinced the earth to move itself, feeding it promises of greatness and major championships.

Despite his usual belief that the golfer should be eased in to his round with the first few holes, Ross apparently decided to throw his modus operandi out the window here.  Then again, maybe it’s just that there really aren’t any easy holes out here.  The course opens with a mid-sized par 4 that gives a splendid example of the elevation changes that await you.  The green here isn’t quite as sloping as others, but definitely gives you a taste of what’s to come.

Although he was a citizen and resident of the States from 1899 until his death in 1948, Mr. Ross brought with him the green complexes of his beloved Scotland.  We would venture to say that these are some of the most difficult 8-on-the-Stimpmeter greens you’ll ever play.  The extreme undulation of the putting surfaces forces you to think much more about where to place your approach shot, since poorly placed shots can easily – and frequently – find their way down a very steep hill in a very unproductive direction.  Much like the greens, the fairways proved difficult to navigate; many are crowned, and some slope in the opposite direction that the hole doglegs.  The Donald Ross Course could easily be conditioned to US Open difficulty if the grounds superintendant decided to be exceptionally evil.  All he would have to do is speed up the greens to a 12 (or thereabouts), like many modern day country clubs.  In those conditions, I would eagerly invite anyone to break par.

If you can keep it out of the heather, the par 4s and 5s aren’t too difficult.  The test comes on the short ones.  Well, the shortER ones… They aren’t short.  We know that Donald Ross liked being bold with his par 3 designs, but these par 3s of 240, 249, and 252 go beyond the bold and in to slightly absurd, so don’t forget your 3-wood – the one that has 3 perfect shots in it.  The greens on these long par 3s can be a point of debate.  The double- (and triple-) tiered greens could be regarded as fair or not, given your personal perspective.  While a long par 3 generally has a simple, flat putting surface to make up for its length, an argument could be made that Ross crafted the tiers as backstops for shots hit with fairway woods off of the tee.  We fell somewhere in the middle on the debate, seeing the idea behind the tiers on these holes, but feeling as though the greens were a little too demanding for holes that already had so much muscle.  Surprisingly, the shortest of them all, the 151 yard 16th, might be the most difficult.  Depending on the pin placement, one could easily four-putt (not like one of us did… we would never do that).  This green is borderline unfair, and puts all the others to shame.

The course was surprisingly aesthetically pleasing for a links course – both from the clubhouse and from the tee boxes.  Only a few trees on the property come in to play, and there is only one small pond behind the 14th green that was not in Ross’s original design.  The clubhouse sits atop one of the tallest hills on the property and provides a view of much of the course from the wrap-around porch.  Lush green lines perfectly define cuts of fairway and rough alike against the stark contrast of the browned-out heather.  With tree removal programs becoming more and more popular and allowing for better grass growing conditions, courses like The Donald Ross Course are becoming healthier and more pleasing to the eye.  Dave noted that in person, the combination of the slope, the lack of prominent trees, and the healthy rough and heather reminded him of a scaled down version of Shinnecock Hills.

Quite simply, this is one hell of a golf course.  For those who have never been to the birthplace of the great Larry Bird, we suggest it highly.  French Lick is a once-again burgeoning town that offers much more than golf.  We will be making the trip again in 2011, adding the Pete Dye Course to the list, and stopping in again at our old friend Donny’s.  We never pass up an opportunity to be graced with the legacy of the man who laid the foundation of American golf, and neither should you.