The Pete Dye Course at French Lick an ‘Old Soul’
Sometimes you know on the drive in that a golf course is going to be special. This was far more than that. It was otherworldly. By the time I arrived at the bag drop, I had goosebumps. Picture yourself starring in a golf film — one of those films with excellent cinematography, lighting and lines like Rowdy Herrington’s “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius.” Only, this story is about you being transported back in time to a mansion on top of a hill and there seems to be only you and a handful of other people around to enjoy hundreds of acres of some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet and 360 degree views that stretch for miles. Now go on to imagine that you get to play golf at this place, on one of the best designed golf courses known to mankind, a golf course that was sculpted out of that hillside in such a way that you think only dreams, or God, could have created such as place. You stand there, taking it all in, and you wonder “have I gone to heaven?” No, you’ve gone to Indiana. French Lick, to be precise. Home of Larry Bird and favorite of dreams and of dreamers. This fantasy has become real for a select few so far. A recent addition to golf’s elite courses, The Pete Dye Course has received numerous awards including Golf Magazine’s designation of “America’s Best New Course You Can Play” in 2009. This year, the course will host the LPGA Legends for the second time and is already on schedule to host it’s first major — the 2015 Senior PGA Championship Presented by KitchenAid. Not bad for a youngster that plays more like an old soul, with nuances going back to the very roots of the game and character that comes from another era.
Although the atmosphere (beautiful mansion, manicured everything, world class practice area, amazing vistas from the rear patio) is very formal, you’re among friends at the Pete Dye Course. Rigel Hahn, PGA, Assistant Golf Professional, greeted me with my name printed on a cart and a special gift that is given to all guests. The feeling shared by everyone there is that this is a place to be enjoyed and cherished. The good life in the hills of the midwest.
#1 has a great view of the valley from the tee box. It’s a few you could just sit there an enjoy for an hour. But it also warns you of the challenge that is to come. With a waste bunker running the entire left side and a pond beyond that, your start could be a rigorous test. The hole finishes with a small green with large sloping areas for the ball to roll off, adding a stroke or two to your score if you’re not careful and precise.
#2 includes more than a half dozen “volcano bunkers” erupting from the right side of the fairway — a fade/slice prone golfer’s Stonehenge nightmare. I briefly envisioned my ball hopping from one volcano to another, shot after bad shot, with the hole and my desire to play golf ending in an eruption of Tigeresque hat-over-mouth expletives, clubs and shoes thrown over the side of a cliff and a barefooted walk back to the car. But, that didn’t happen. I cleared my head of that thought and yes I did fade my drive into the right rough, but I managed to clear all of the volcanos and give myself a clear shot to the green. I was able to enjoy the scenery on that hole and found myself smiling at Dye’s dry wit and genius. He does things to throw your mind into a tailspin and yet have you admiring the beauty of it all at the same time. The green was another small one, setting the tone for a day that would not be easy.
#3 is a true 3-shot par 5, uphill and into the wind. It is a preview of the 18th, a classic test of your shotmaking skills with a sharp dogleg right and severe drop off on the left.
#4 is a nice scenic hole with a great backdrop. Miss right and you are OK. Miss left and if the waste bunker doesn’t get you the fescue will.
#5 is an uphill par 4 with a dozen or more bunkers on the right-hand rough. The trouble on the left is of course that slope down into thick fescue. Once again when you get to the Green the view is magnificent. And by this time, I’ve needed that view to bring me back to center, to remind me that this is a dream to be enjoyed.
#6 is a 387-yard par 4 with slope trouble on the left. I hit my best drive of the day, down the middle of the fairway, and the slope of the fairway funneled the ball down into the rough. With the pin tucked in the front left, it was impossible for me to go at it without risking the bunker, so I pitched up to the right (twice) for a two putt 5 and felt satisfied.
#7 is a dogleg left uphill par 5 measuring 480 but playing much longer. The course description on the GPS monitor calls it “A Taste of Scotland.” It’s not just a taste, it’s the reason you’d go to Scotland for golf in the first place. I say, spare yourself the flight time and expense and stay and play a few more days here instead. Sure, they’ve got history there — but I’ll bet they didn’t get FDR and Al Capone to “favorite” them!
#8 is a par 3 that you do not want to leave short and on the right side of the green. There are a half dozen traps waiting for you if you do. And just in case you decide to leave it out too far left, there’s one there to greet you too. I’d come to the Senior PGA Championship just to see those guys try to get it close from 213 yard from the tips. Fortunately, for us duffers, it’s playing at 155 from the whites, but that’s still a tough task to get it on and get it close on this hole.
I just had to do it.
On #9, I went back to the tips to play this beastly par 4 — 532 atrocious yards from the tips. Ok, it was just a practice swing to see where I’d wind up. Twice I barely made it past the forward tees. This is a man’s man’s golf hole.
The 10th teebox sits high atop a hill with a 360 view for miles. Today’s skies are overcast and there’s a slight breeze. This feels more like being at the beach than on a golf course today. There’s a pond right, just after a thin strip of fescue on the edge the ample rough. My drive was dead center of the perfectly manicured fairway, leaving me only 120 yards from the flag. The left edge of the fairway has a slight incline leading to what appears to be a drop off a cliff, but that’s an illusion separating 10 from the bordering fairway. This feels as if it’s a royal stage, and it will be for the many major events that are sure to come here. I squibbed my second shot, but it rolled heartily to within 10 paces of the green where I putted — these fairways are cut like many greens — to 10 feet past the pin and made a comebacker for par. That felt good. So does the breeze.
From the 11th tee, you can only see a thin sliver of the fairway, and then a dropoff to the left. If you hit left, you may have a very awkward lie from the many dips and mounds. From the white tees, this hole plays 378. From the tips, 456. Shot placement is key here, all the way through. The green has a 5-foot drop at the back that can make for a very hard return shot to a green that will slope away from you. Land your approach at the front of the green and let it run up to the flagstick.
#12 is a 361-yard par 4 from the white — a massive 529 from the tips. There’s a dropoff to the left and plenty of room for a missed shot on the right. The green has some slope to it and multiple breaks so take your time reading this one.
#13 has a waste bunker along the entire left side, along with a Shaq sized bunker right next to the green on that side. There’s a very large green here — be sure to hit it or come up short front. Anywhere left or right almost guarantees you bogey or worse.
From the Teebox on 14 you’re staring at a mountainous drop off the left-hand side into a sloping sea of fescue. If you hit it there, you’re dead. I hit my drive into the rough on the right and managed to scramble my way to a six. I consider that luck though because there’s a lot of trouble on this hole. Deep rough, weird angles and valleys and bunkers. When you make it to the green, it’s a postage stamp that is elevated. I don’t see many balls holding this green from anything outside of 100 yards unless the golfer has a soft touch, high arc and master spin control.
#15 has a generous looking fairway staring back at you. The hole plays to 330 from the white tees. It’s slightly uphill with a waste bunker between a sloping rough and the fairway. From the fairway, the green looks like an Emerald thumbtack. Once you get to the green it still looks small but there is a generous slightly sloping rollout area to the right. If that’s where you miss you’re good. The green is tamer than most, making it conducive some good scoring.
#16 is a very narrow par 3. Wind blows left to right, pushing everything it can into the lake. If you miss left, you have several bunkers to contend with. Anything but a straight shot here comes with a high price.
#17 has waste bunkers and awkward lies all the way down the right side. On the left are pot bunkers. A miss here, which I did by slicing right, easily takes par out of the equation. Tour players will love that from the 17th tee you can glimpse what the competition is doing on 18. The problem with that, is that you can see what the competition is doing on 18. Stay focused throughout. The green is narrow and deep with some moderate undulations that can play havoc with your closing score if you’re not careful.
#18 is a beautiful closing par 5. As the number 2 handicap hole, this will be a joy for fans who will see some great finishes here. This is a make it or break it hole. I pushed my drive long and left giving me a sidehill lie. My second shot over the gully came up short but everything is playable there. I had a short wedge to the green but misread my putt for birdie and wound up with a 3-putt six. Fun hole. I can see some birdies here, even with it playing 626 from the tips.
This course will be a favorite for fans and players alike, with great views everywhere, the feeling of “something magical” taking place, and one of Pete Dye’s best designs anywhere.