Location: French Lick, Ind.
Course architect: Donald Ross
Tees — Yardage | Rating/Slope:
Gold — 7,030 | 72.3 / 135
Ross — 6,517 | 72.3 / 132
Regulation — 5,981 | 69.5 / 131
Forward — 5,050 | 69.6 / 120
Saturday morning green fee: $$$ ($100-$149) | $$ ($50-$99 after 3 p.m)
Caddie service: Yes
Walker friendly: Yes
Fairways: Combination of rye, blue, Bermuda grasses
Starter: Donald Ross is on the short list of golf’s legendary architects. A Scottish-born apprentice to Old Tom Morris, Ross spent most of his adult life in the U.S. and much of it designing golf courses. His portfolio includes some of the country’s most revered fields, including Pinehurst No. 2, Aronimink, East Lake, Seminole, Inverness and Oakland Hills. Ross had a “less is more” philosophy when it came to moving dirt and manipulating the environment, and his courses reflect as much. He also became famous for his crowned or humpback greens, which are most prominent at Pinehurst, which favor run-up areas on the front end and penal conditions at the back.
The Donald Ross Course at French Lick is a postcard example of his artistic personality. The site of the 1924 PGA Championship won by Walter Hagen, the Ross underwent extensive renovations in 2005-06 that both restored and amplified Ross’ work. Some 80 flat-bottom, deep-face bunkers accessorize the course. The expansive greens are square and rectangular in shape, and feature the clever undulations that are typical of Ross. Laid atop rolling terrain, 600 feet above sea level, the Donald Ross Course is a visual joy and competitive treat.
Play because ...: If you do, you will find this to be one of the most enjoyable rounds you experience. Be sure to bring your best second-shot game, along with your best putting touch. Distinguished by prominent elevation changes and topsy-survey fairways, there are precious few trees and wonderful vistas. There are also lots of uphill, sidehill and downhill lies, which come with the territory. The many white-sand bunkers serve as a guide through broad fairway corridors and help map progress in strategic and penal locations. An old-school design, both nines go out and come back in, and the walks from greens to tees are short. Unlike Pinehurst No. 2 — where the first order of business is to get on the greens — the Donald Ross greens at French Lick provide big targets, averaging 6,000 square feet. And with their wavy interiors, getting on them isn’t nearly as difficult as getting off. If you’re on the wrong side of the hole, it will be a while. There are no weak links among the 18 holes, and the routing goes in a variety of directions, making the breeze that often blows across the high ground indiscriminate.
Takeaway: GolfWeek’s Best 2018: Courses You Can Play has the Donald Ross Course rated No. 2 in Indiana, second only to its younger cousin, the Pete Dye Course at French Lick. If you’re not a scratch player or a low handicapper, switch the batting order. The Dye Course has more aesthetic thrill rides, more buck ($400) for the bang, and more press. It also has more lost golf balls. No less demanding of quality golf shots, the Donald Ross Course is more subtle, more genuine and more playable. Bottom line, this is an authentic golf experience, with exquisite conditioning and classic charm. With many golf packages available at French Lick, the opportunity to play both courses in one place is truly special.
RATINGS [1 to 10 scale, 10 being the highest]
Food | Beverage: 9.5
Pro Shop: 9.5
Pace of play: 9.5
Best par 3: No. 4 (240 | 194 | 166 yards). The par 3s on this course are among the best Ross designed — anywhere. This is not the most difficult, but is certainly the most memorable. With a carry across a valley, there is a “damn the torpedoes” aspect that will reward you with a sense of relief and achievement after landing safely on the distant green. If the green is missed, then there are a variety of recovery shots, likely to feature an uphill stance, likely with the top of the flag as the only visual. The good news is this is the shortest of the par-3 holes and features one of the friendlier greens.
Best par 4: No. 5 (476 | 461 | 421 yards). This is a heckuva two-shot trip, the kind Ross loved. From an elevated tee, the hole drops down and runs along a ridge all the way to the green. A tee shot hugging the left side is best, avoiding the fairway bunkers some 150 yards from the green. From there, there is an open view of the next target. If you go right with the approach, be sure to carry the bunker that sits 15 yards from the front of the green.
Best par 5: No. 15 (665 | 530 | 485 yards). The par 5 at No. 7 is rated the No. 1 handicap hole, but this is a monster that — especially from the gold tees — will require three shots to get home. From the tee, there is a 200-yard carry across a lake, before the long run up a roly-poly fairway. An ideal position is left center of the fairway. Bunkers line the left side, so don't stray too far left. A marker notes the first-shot position of PGA professional Dave Dunfee (Lake Placid, Fla.), from where he scored a remarkable double-eagle in 1984. Gives you something to shoot for, ay?