Indiana, long known as a basketball state, is building a reputation as a growing hotbed for another sport: golf—and, in particular, women’s golf.
Brickyard Crossing Golf Course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway added to that status last month when it played host to the LPGA’s Indy Women in Tech Championship tournament for the second year in a row. But the real roots of women's professional golf in Indiana can be traced about a hundred miles south, to the hills of Orange County.
Next month, the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort in southern Indiana will host the Senior LPGA Championship, the season-closing event for the LPGA’s Legends Tour. It will mark another chapter in the resort's long history of being a welcoming spot for top women golfers.
While French Lick has embraced championship-caliber golf events of all kinds, beginning with the PGA Championships in 1924. the resort began what it calls a "love affair" with women's golf three decades later by hosting the 1958 French Lick Open, one of the events on the fledgling LPGA Tour.
It built on that by hosting the LPGA Championship in 1959 and again in 1960. Those events, in order, were won by Louise Suggs, Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright, all future World Golf Hall of Fame members.
Major golf events avoided French Lick over the last half of the 1900s as the resort fell into disrepair. But the rebirth of the West Baden Springs Hotel and French Lick Springs Hotel, plus a $5 million restoration of the Donald Ross Course, brought tournaments back in a big way. That pace escalated in 2009 when the resort added the renowned Pete Dye Course.
In 2013, the resort began hosting the Legends Tour Championship, which featured LPGA Tour pros age 45 and older.
For the past two years, French Lick also has hosted the Donald Ross Classic, an event on the Symetra Tour, the developmental tour of the LPGA that features up-and-coming stars.
Last year, French Lick replaced the Legends Tour Championship with the Senior LPGA Championship, the first major championship for senior women. The LPGA, the Pete Dye Course and French Lick agreed to a five-year deal to hold the event.
The Senior LPGA Championship was considered a landmark event for the LPGA, and it’s a huge undertaking for French Lick.
Last year’s event brought in 81 golfers for three days of golf, including World Golf Hall of Fame members Pat Bradley, Laura Davies, Betsy King and Hollis Stacy, plus players who accounted for 339 LPGA Tour victories and 43 LPGA major championships.
The tournament had a $600,000 total purse and a $90,000 winner's check that was claimed by Trish Johnson of England.
This year’s tournament is expected to have an even stronger field that will draw thousands of spectators to French Lick. One big addition is 31-time LPGA winner and two-time Solheim Cup captain Juli Inkster.
“We’re proud of how things went year one, but we want to keep growing the event,” said Dave Harner, director of golf operations for French Lick Resort. “Juli is a legend, a marquee name, and we're already getting excited to roll out the red carpet again and showcase these legends in French Lick and around the world.”
This year’s event begins with practice and qualifying rounds Oct. 10-11, pro-am events Oct. 12-14 and a three-day, 54-hole tournament running Monday, Oct. 15 through Wednesday, Oct. 17.
Harner said he doesn’t expect the event to be profitable. In fact, he said, it will lose money despite a sizable title sponsorship from Old National Bank and solid corporate support.
Area hotel rooms will be sold out and the tournament will be “well-attended,” but tickets are just $5 each to make it affordable for anyone to attend.
Making money isn’t the purpose of the event, Harner said. The two main goals are to increase exposure for the French Lick Resort area and to raise money for the Riley Children’s Foundation, he said. About $650,000 has been raised for the foundation so far by the four Legends Championship tournaments and last year’s Senior LPGA Championship.
Some of that money will be raised through an online auction featuring $125,000 worth of items that are up for bid.
The tournament and the resort community of French Lick and West Baden Springs will receive a wealth of national publicity on the Golf Channel, which plans to offer more than 12 hours of live coverage of the tournament.
Harner said the benefits to area businesses, tourism efforts and charity are big motivators to the 200 people who volunteer to help put on the tournament.