BENNER: French Lick could become wealthy golfers' paradise

July 27, 2009

For those of you who are not into golf or French Lick, you might want to stop reading here.


Unless you’re a parent who might someday like to see your son, or daughter, use golf to earn a college scholarship that would pay for his or her room, board and tuition.

Got your attention? More in a moment.

This past week, on the eve of the U.S. Senior Open Golf Championship that will be played at Carmel’s Crooked Stick Golf Club, designer Pete Dye’s first great masterpiece, I was fortunate to be invited to play his latest creation and maybe one of his greatest.

The phrase “Heaven on Earth” brings to mind different images for all of us. For the remainder of my time, “Heaven in Indiana” will bring to mind the Pete Dye Course at French Lick.

It seemed particularly so on the morning of July 20, when fog blanketed the valleys of Orange County. But on a hill that rises to nearly 1,000 feet above sea level—the highest point in southern Indiana—Dye’s course, bathed in sunshine above the fog below, afforded a spectacular and surreal scene that was absolutely breathtaking.

Beyond the emerald landscape, there are panoramic views of 30 to 40 miles. You have to ask yourself, is this Indiana or somewhere in the Appalachians?

Pardon me if I gush, but I didn’t know a place like this was possible in my beloved home state. Even Dye admits, “The ambiance around it is unbelievable.”

The course includes five sets of tees, stretching from 5,100 yards to an astounding 8,100. The holes, dotted with pot bunkers and “volcano” bunkers that look like they belong on the moon, sweep across the landscape and feature dramatic elevation changes and drop-offs for the errant shot.

“There are some aerobic exercises if you stray off the fairways,” says Dye. “You won’t need a treadmill.”

Is there a signature hole? There are 18 of them. Each one is a memory.

The Dye course, opened this spring, is the result of Bloomington billionaire Bill Cook’s open checkbook, the leadership of Steve Ferguson (Cook’s longtime top aide) and, of course, the fertile imagination of Dye. It is the capstone of the redevelopment of the French Lick Resort, which includes the refurbishing of the extraordinary West Baden Springs Hotel (once referred to as the “eighth wonder of the world”) and the French Lick Springs Hotel.

Obviously, the hope is that world-class golf—on both the Dye course and the refurbished classic Donald Ross course—will be an additional lure to the area, a two-hour drive from Indianapolis and slightly less so from Louisville and Evansville.

Make no mistake, the Dye course is no place for the meek of wallet. The greens fee is a staggering $350 (the Ross course goes for $115), and in today’s economy—or maybe in any economy—that may well eliminate about 95 percent of us who play the game. Oh, forecaddies are also required (and given the challenge of the course, necessary) for an additional minimum of $30.

My assumption is that Cook and company aren’t interested in the quantity of play, but in the quality of the golf experience. What they have created is unparalleled in Indiana and will stand as a lasting tribute to the genius of Dye.

Now, so you don’t come to the mistaken assumption I can afford $350 rounds of golf—I can’t—I was a guest at the Evans Scholars Alumni Golf Classic.

Evans Scholars is conducted by the Western Golf Association. For teenage boys and girls who spend their summers as caddies—and yes, even in the age of golf carts, many clubs still employ caddies—scholarships are available at a number of universities across the nation, including Indiana and Purdue.

It’s not for the elite. Applicants must demonstrate financial need, while also having excellent academic credentials and outstanding character traits. Women are included in the program and 20 percent of Evans Scholars recipients are minorities.

Part of the money that funds the scholarships comes from the WGA’s BMW Championship (formerly Western Open), an event on the PGA Tour that will come to Crooked Stick in 2012.

For more information on the Evans Scholars program, go to www.westerngolfassociation.com.

I now return you non-golfers to your regularly scheduled programming.•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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