WHERE ARE YOU PLAYING-TAKES YOU TO THE FRENCH LICK RESORT

RORY SPEARS (L) of Golfers on Golf-with 2019 Illinois Golf Hall of Fame Inductee Len Ziehm, have combined to bring you the next in a series of features on golf and destination travel. As the Covid-19 Virus goes away, it will be time for you to get away.  _____________________________________________________________________

THE PRIDE OF SOUTHERN INDIANA-Details online at FrenchLick.com.

HISTORY IN SOUTHERN INDIANA has been being made for well over 100 years. The feature below brings out what you find when your travels take you to French Lick Resort.

BY: RORY SPEARS with LEN ZIEHM.

FRENCH LICK is no longer just the town that NBA legend Larry Bird grew up in. It’s a community that has gone through a rebirth, simply because the town’s resort was brought back to life by an Indiana company that wanted to give back to it’s home state.

“Who would have thought that this project could happen in the small town of French Lick Indiana, with a population of 2500 residents. The resort employed 373 people when the Cook Group bought the resort about 15 years ago, and now we employ over 1700 people. The whole town has taken it upon itself to say this is our fabric of life, this is what we do. It’s where we live, and this the pride we have. It’s how we try and approach this.” says Brendan Sweeney, Director of Golf Marketing and Development.

THE WEST BADEN HOTEL is one of two hotels that comprise the French Lick Resort.

“Lots of golf history was made in French Lick before I first arrived in summer of 2009,” says Len Ziehm. “The resort had hosted the 1924 PGA Championship won by Walter Hagen (the first of his five straight wins in the tournament) and two LPGA Championships, both won by legendary players-Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright.”

“In 2009 when I got there French Lick was at the very beginning of it’s revival, one created by the generosity and visionary approach of billionaire Bill Cook,” adds Ziehm. ” Cook had just financed the rebuilding of two hotels and the day I first arrived, what is now the Donald Ross Course was just re-opening after a full-scale renovation. The five hour drive to southern Indiana was a big part of what helped create my plan to enter golf travel-writing after a 41 year career at the Chicago Sun-Times. This phase of my writing life has been a joy, and frequent stops at French Lick are a big part of the reason why.”

THE FRENCH LICK SPRINGS HOTEL (L)   THE NEW VALLEY TOWER ROOMS (R)

” On my first visit, I got a memorable truck ride with director of golf Dave Harner over what became the spectacular 27 million dollar Pete Dye Course. It wasn’t even grassed at that time, but what a terrific venue it has become. In 11 years since my first visit, I’ve been to French Lick at least once a year, and one year I had three visits. During those times I have seen the creation of the LPGA Legends Championship, the Legends Hall of Fame and the Senior LPGA Championship. The first major championship for women who had done so much for game and the development of the LPGA itself,” says Ziehm.

One of the most interesting things about the Pete Dye course, is that it almost never got built. Dye came down from his home off the 18th fairway at the Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel Indiana, just North of Indianapolis and looked at the land where French Lick Resort officials expected the course to be built. Dye walked the land and told resort officials he couldn’t build a golf course there. After driving home that night, Dye started drawing holes on a napkin. Early the next morning he called the resort back and said I think I can build it. So later that morning at a diner South of Indianapolis, a meeting was held, a deal was made, Dye’s legendary volcano bunkers were built, and the rest is history. The resort still has that napkin (more details of this story on the audio interview below with Brendan Sweeney).

Helen Alfredsson won the 2019 Senior LPGA Championship on the Pete Dye Course at French Lick. She won’t get to defend the title this year, due to the cancellation of the championship because of Covid-19 concerns.

When Ziehm first arrived in French Lick, the investment to rebuild the resort was reported to be over $500 million dollars.

As of last year, that number has gone up another $100 million dollars. Ziehm adds that every time he revisits the resort, there is something new on the property to check out.

Most recently the addition of the Valley Tower, with some 80 new rooms is right off the entrance of the casino. Those rooms have adjoining doors, so groups can move back and forth between the rooms, and around the social area’s in between. The Valley Sports Bar is another place for guests to meet, and new sports book where you can bet all the games, is just inside the casino’s entrance.

FORMER MEDINAH COUNTRY CLUB CADDIE BRENDAN SWEENEY has been the driving force behind golf at the French Lick Resort-along with director of golf Dave Harner, and head golf professional Andy Fortner.

Welcome to the gates of golf at the French Lick Resort. The Pete Dye Course is currently home to the Senior LPGA Championship. While the Donald Ross course is home to the Symetra Tour’s (the road to the LPGA) Donald Ross Classic. Both events scheduled for July of this summer have been canceled due to health concerns over the Covid-19 Virus. Both Championships will return in 2021.

“One of the reasons we had to cancel the Senior LPGA Championship was due to the kids that come from our charity Riley’s Hospital for Children to help as starters at the championship,” says Sweeney. ” Riley’s was built in Indianapolis in 1924, it’s kind of Indiana’s version of St. Jude’s hospital in Tennessee. One of the biggest heartbreaking things in canceling the Senior Women’s LPGA, was what to do with Riley’s. So we worked out a deal with Riley’s, and will do something special for them. But we could not put these kids in danger, when much of the world is in quarantine.”

The Pete Dye course and the Donald Ross course are only two-thirds of the resorts golf operation. If your looking for a nine-hole round of golf, the Valley Links course might be right for you. Valley Links was designed by Tom Bendelow who also designed the Medinah Country Club’s three courses, among some other famous gems. But Valley Links will get it’s due in the future. The plan is to add nine more holes, hopefully the effect’s of the virus on the economy don’t push this project back too far into the future.

The good news for golfers, is that with the two professional tournaments being canceled in July, there are more tee times available for resort guests to play golf.

The Pete Dye Golf Course, on a fall morning during the 2018 Sr. LPGA Championship.

“We are currently open for golf with restrictions in place,” says Sweeney. “Currently our rooms are not open, but there are a couple of hotels in the area that have rooms. We hope to have some rooms open in May, with soft openings for a couple of our restaurants. The restaurants around French Lick will open by the middle of the month. As for our casino, we are still awaiting word from the governors office on when we can do that.”

Click here to hear the interview with French Lick Resort’s golf marketing director Brendan Sweeney, to learn more about golf in French Lick. The resorts 175 year history, and how the resort has made this historical comeback, to be a leading destination property not only in Indiana, but in America.

Sweeney adds that the resorts maintenance staff has been working hard to make improvements, while the resort has been shut down. So that operations are at full steam ahead, when guests start returning in numbers, after the threat from the Covid-19 virus decreases.

For more information on the French Lick Resort and the safety precautions taken for staff and guests, please visit FrenchLick.com or (888)-936-9360. Book your upcoming “stay and play” today.

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About Rory Spears

Rory spent over 8 years growing up working at Rob Roy Golf Club in Prospect Hts.IL, then two years at Chevy Chase in Wheeling. He has covered golf in Chicago since 1986. Rory was one of the initial members of WSCR all-sports radio Chicago and covered golf there for 5 seasons, before moving on to work for ESPN/Sportsticker and ESPN Radio. In addition to hosting Golfers on Golf Radio on WNDZ Am 750 Chicago, he writes for both the Chicago District (CDGA) Magazine, and formerly Chicagoland Golf. Rory has played over 525 courses in 39 states, and rates golf courses. He does golf course management and communications consulting, within the golf industry.