Donald Ross and Pete Dye Courses at French Lick

Story & Photos by: Ed & Fran Stone

Playing sports in Indiana usually conjurers up basketball and Indy car racing. For the golfer, you have to go about two hours South of Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the home of Larry Bird in French Lick to find the two of the best golf courses in this state, open to the public. They are the Donald Ross of French Lick (built in 1917) and the recently opened (2009) Pete Dye golf course.

The Donald Ross of French Lick, left (built in 1917), Tom Taggert home with Pete Dye statue, center and the recently opened (2009) Pete Dye golf course, right.  Two of the finest golf courses you will ever play. (Photo on right by Ken May)

Without a doubt, these courses are the most challenging for all skill levels of golf layouts you will find…anywhere. Whether you drive for an hour, day or week, the trek is worth the trip. On a recent visit, we found both courses in immaculate condition from tee to green. Be sure to bring your best shots and prepare for a most challenging round.
We’ll cover these two golf courses first and then give you a bit of history about the total resort and area.

Lee Schmidt, an Indiana golf course architect, and Michael Fay, executive director of the Donald Ross Society, were hired to oversee and make sure the renovation was kept as close to the real thing as possible.


Tom Taggert a native of Ireland was heavily involved in Indianapolis politics. He served as auditor of Marion County from 1886 to 1894. In 1895 he was elected mayor of Indianapolis, and served until 1901. He founded the city's park system during his tenure. Taggert had seen some of Donald Ross’ work at Pinehurst and wanted to host a championship tournament. So, in 1917, he and Crawford Fairbanks purchased a piece of land about three miles from downtown French Lick. They brought Ross in to build the course and seven years later (1924) the PGA Championship Golf Tournament was held at French Lick. Walter Hagen won that tournament and the next two for three consecutive golf tournament wins.

The Midwest amateur championship golf tournament was held at the Donald Ross French Lick Course for some 25 years. The 1959 & 1960 LPGA Championships were held here along with several PGA sectional events. This course has history and lots of class.

From about 1966 to 1999, the course did not receive the attention or care it deserved and steadily declined. Some of the bunkers had been filled in to cut maintenance costs and speed up play. When the Bill Cook group (more about them later) showed interest in buying the resort, they wanted to restore the course as close as possible to the original design. Lee Schmidt, an Indiana golf course architect, and Michael Fay, executive director of the Donald Ross Society, were hired to oversee and make sure the renovation was kept as close to the real thing as possible. Old drawings and maps were found and today, the course plays just about as close as one can get to the original…after a $4.5 million renovation in 2006. Some 35 bunkers were put back into the course layout, a new irrigation system and rerouting of cart paths all made for a better golf course. The Donald Ross French Lick course is one of only two Ross courses open to the public in the state of Indiana…this one and the Donald Ross club in Fort Wayne.

When you take on the challenge of the Donald Ross at French Lick, you should know something about the history and nostalgia of this course. The views are quite stunning. However, the placement of tee boxes, routing of fairways and configuration of greens are what makes this a different layout to play. Almost every hole has fescue on both sides of the fairway that has grown to some four to 12 inches making it most difficult to hit a recovery shot…if you can find your ball.


Golf Digest named the Pete Dye course as America’s Best New Public Course and called it “one of the most breathtaking and exciting 18 holes of golf in the country.”

Situated on the second highest point in the state of Indiana at 1,000 feet is the Pete Dye course. Located about two miles from the French Lick Resort Hotel and the West Baden Hotel, this 8,100-yard from the tips layout is a beauty in every respect. Yes, it is tough…depending on the tee box you select, but the views from every hole are awesome to the point you can see some 40 to 50 miles in all directions. In 2009, Golf Digest named the Pete Dye course as America’s Best New Public Course. It is recognized by the publication “as one of the most breathtaking and exciting 18 holes of golf in the country.” When first visiting and walking the mountainous terrain, Dye told the owners there was no way a golf course could be built on this site. After several weeks of thinking about this challenge, Dye contacted the owners and stated that he could create a masterpiece on the site. He did.

Quite candidly, this is a walkable course with elevation changes reaching only a six-degree grade from beginning to end. There are three man-made lakes and five sets of tee boxes, allowing all golfing skill levels to enjoy this beautiful and outstanding golf course layout.

Having two golf course hall of fame recipients with courses on the same resort is quite unusual and not many resorts can make that claim.
Jan Tellstrom
Golf Professional
Pete Dye Course

Of note to those visiting the Pete Dye course, as you approach the clubhouse, you will be impressed with the 19th century mansion of Thomas Taggart. It has been immaculately restored and decorated with painstaking detail. The Taggart Mansion is used for dining and overnight accommodations. The carriage house now serves as the pro shop and office of the course’s golf professional, Jan Tellstrom. Tellstrom was brought on staff nearly one year before opening. He had previously been head of the Indianapolis city parks golf course. He is the perfect golf professional for this job…he is affable and enjoys sharing stories of his great career. He is even more anxious to tell you all about the building of the Pete Dye course at French Lick.


History abounds with the overall French Lick Resort. The original hotel was known as the French Lick Springs Hotel, catering to travelers wanting to use the sulfur springs as healing properties. William A. Bowles a physician from the area built the first hotel in 1845, only to be destroyed by fire in 1897. This is when Tom Taggart became involved with the area, so he rebuilt the hotel soon after the fire, bigger and grander than before.

West Baden Hotel (top) and French Lick Springs Hotel (bottom) are both part of the French Lick Resort, which as a whole has undergone a $500 million restoration and development project.

Lee Wiley Sinclair purchased the original West Baden Springs Hotel, then known as the Mile Lick Inn in 1888. That property also burned and was rebuilt and opened in 1902 as the current West Baden Springs Hotel fashioned after the popular spas of Europe and once dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Of note is the six-story atrium domed area in the center of the building. It held the title as the largest freestanding dome in the World until the Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina was built in 1955. The building has gone through several owners and uses.

From 1934 to 1964, the Jesuits owned the property and converted the building into an austere seminary known as West Baden College, an affiliate of Loyola University Chicago. They converted the lobby into a chapel, installed stained glass in the windows and added French doors. Upon closing the seminary, the Jesuits returned to Chicago due to low enrollment and cost of escalating maintenance.

Today, visitors can view the cemetery created for the seminary's priests. There are some 39 graves in this plot, still owned by the Jesuits with the local French Lick Catholic Church overseeing upkeep of the site.

In the spring of 2006, Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (HLFI) West Baden signed over the West Baden Springs Hotel deed to The COOK Group, Inc., a global medical device manufacturing company, headquartered in Bloomington, Indiana for a token amount in appreciation for the $35 million already contributed toward partial restoration over the past several years. The restoration began later that summer.

The French Lick Springs Hotel and French Lick Resort Casino opened together on November 3, 2006.

TOP: The lobby of the West Baden Hotel
BOTTOM: Lobby of the French Lick Springs Hotel.

On June 23, 2007, a gala event celebrated the reopening of the West Baden Springs Hotel, some 75 years after it closed. The property now contained 243 rooms and suites, less than half of the original structure. The hotel's natatorium was rebuilt using historic photographs as a guide. Some $100 million went into bringing the hotel back to its intended purpose. The HLFI continues to hold a perpetual preservation easement on the West Baden Springs Hotel requiring that any changes to the hotel's exterior or grounds be approved by the Foundation, even if ownership changes.

West Baden is a part of the French Lick Resort, which as a whole has undergone a $500 million restoration and development project. In one of the largest such private projects in the U.S., the owners saved two turn-of-the-century grand hotels, added a casino, spas, the finest in amenities and a new golf course, thus bringing resort life back to Indiana. The National Trust has also recognized their work for Historic Preservation.


Dave Harner
Director of Golf
French Lick Resort

Dave Harner is the director of golf at French Lick Resort. He has spent some 30-plus years with the company and knows everything you want to know about the golf courses, resort and community. He was once mayor of French Lick. He has stated that the spectacular award winning Pete Dye golf course further solidifies French Lick Resort as one of the premier luxury golf destinations in the country. His analysis is that West Baden now joins other elite golf resort destinations such as American Club (Wisconsin), Grand Hotel (Michigan), Inn at Bay Harbor (Michigan), and Grand View Lodge (Minnesota) to name a few.

“We are very excited about the combination of West Baden, with its luxurious amenities and national recognition together with the highly acclaimed Pete Dye golf course,” he explained. “It is also an honor and a tribute to the vision of our owners that we are recognized by the top travelers of Condé Nast to be among the elite resort destinations in the United States and beyond.”

As a total resort property with two beautiful hotels, a casino and two outstanding golf courses, French Lick Resort is the only resort in the world combining the classic history of Donald Ross and the modern day design of the legendary Pete Dye. Added to the golfing, other amenities include world-class spas, indoor tennis courts, indoor & outdoor pools, indoor basketball courts, shopping, kidsfest, bowling alley & arcade, historical tours, hiking, mountain biking, stables, carriage rides and afternoon tea.

Throughout the year, concerts and entertainment are showcased in the resort hotels. Some of the recent headliners included: Natalie Cole, Kenny Rogers, Rodney Carrington, Rick Springfield, .38 Special, The Temptations and A Lee Greenwood & Crystal Gayle Country Christmas.

Meeting and conference planners have the choice of excellent space in either the French Lick Springs Hotel or the West Baden Hotel.
(Photos courtesy French Lick Resort)

Meeting and conference planners have the choice of excellent space in either the French Lick Springs Hotel or the West Baden Hotel. The French Lick Hotel offers 109,000 sq. ft. in the conference and event center breaking out into some 9 configurations. Other meeting space options include: a 125 theatre-style, 13,000 sq. ft. ballroom with three breakouts, a 6,700 sq. ft. junior ballroom with 2,800 sq. ft. foyer, a boardroom with seating for 15.

In the West Baden Hotel, there’s a 30,000 sq. ft. dome, which can be used for weddings, banquets and receptions. The hotel’s lobby spans 7,500 sq. ft. and 1,300 sq. ft. Veranda. There are various meeting rooms offering a unique setting for any gathering.

Here golfers and travelers alike can share and appreciate the beauty of this Indiana resort.

In the past few years, the West Baden Springs Hotel has garnered many accolades and top recognitions. They include:

  • 2008 - 21st on the list of the Top 75 Mainland U.S. Resorts by Condé Nast magazine.
  • 2009 - American Automobile Association recognized the hotel as one of the top 10 U.S. historic hotels and awarded it four diamonds.
  • 2009 - Zagat Survey included the hotel on their list of Top U.S. Hotels, Resorts & Spas.
French Lick Resort
French Lick Springs Hotel
West Baden Springs Hotel
Golf/Donald Ross at French Lick
Golf/Pete Dye Course