A Win For French Lick and the Senior PGA
By Chris Jung
Before there was Larry Bird, there was West Baden.
But it is a healthy blend of the two that has positioned French Lick, Ind., as an attractive host site for the 76th Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid, and has the town abuzz with anticipation as a number the world’s top golfers prepare to make their descents into the rolling hills of Indiana in mid-May.
All photos courtesy of PGA of America
Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort
The Legend of Larry
It could be argued that French Lick played a significant role in forever changing the game of basketball.
The childhood home of a collegiate hoops icon and National Basketball Association legend, French Lick is responsible for launching the round ball career of Larry Bird – an international superstar, Olympic champion, and one of two men (along with Magic Johnson) who is credited with the initial flight of a cultural phenomenon known today as college basketball’s “March Madness.”
Born in nearby West Baden, Bird’s heralded tenure at Indiana State, and ensuing rivalry with Michigan State’s Johnson, created a ripple effect on the hardwood that not only revolutionized a sport but subsequently gave French Lick a nationwide familiarity and identity as a result.
Still, the all-time leading scorer at French Lick’s Springs Valley High School, Larry the Legend was, and is, an ambassador for the 1,800 person-populated southern Indiana town.
Ever-proud of its most celebrated son, the town – and more specifically the historically-famous French Lick Resort – has worked diligently for more than a decade to grow that brand, expand the reach that Bird’s wingspan helped create and build upon that aforementioned identity by staking claim as a prominent and respected destination for golf.
The long road to reaching that lofty aspiration will finally culminate next month when French Lick Resort and its renowned Pete Dye Golf Course hosts the Senior PGA Championship, a major tournament on the PGA of America’s Champions Tour. The event that will not only attract thousands of fans and spectators to town during its six-day span, but additionally usher in a worldwide television audience that will give millions of viewers the opportunity to pull back the curtain on one of the country’s best kept secrets.
“Cook”-ing Up a Legacy
West Baden Springs, a historic landmark hotel built in 1901 as a part of the French Lick Resort, is a mesmerizing structure well-known today for its massive dome atrium. It serves as the perfect complement to the French Lick Springs Hotel, which was built in the same year.
But the allure was not always so effervescent.
Decades after their respective construction, both hotels slowly turned decrepit. A facelift was desperately required. In 2006, that much-needed revitalization found its leader when the late Bill Cook stepped to the plate with a vision, enthusiasm and a hefty checkbook.
With wealth derived from the success of the Cook Group, a medical device company he founded with his wife Gayle, the Bloomington native orchestrated a $500 million restoration effort that ultimately invigorated the property, rejuvenated the community and revived a sagging economy by generating jobs and bringing forth a hearty desire to turn his dream into a tangible success.
Wanting to create a one-stop resort destination that included all the luxuries and amenities imaginable and would extol the virtues and traits he held dearest, Cook’s commitment also included a yearning to resuscitate the golf scene in French Lick and create a course fit for a king.
The birth of the Pete Dye Course
One of the wealthiest men in the world – before his death at the age of 80 in 2011 – Cook knew a good thing when he saw it. No matter what he did, Cook wanted to do it right. So when he put his mind to adding a world-class golf course to the French Lick Resort property, Cook brought in the best in the business.
Bryan Karns, who was brought on board as the Senior PGA Championship director in December 2013, has been living in French Lick in an apartment a mile down the road from the resort since accepting the position. Now well-versed on the subject matter and all things Orange County, Karns says Cook was undeniably integral in changing the culture at the resort and within the community.
“He changed the mentality as a result of his commitment to making things great,” Karns said. “And a big part of that was having a premier, world-class golf course and making something really incredible.”
Enter Pete Dye, one of the world’s most well-respected golf designers and architects, who was personally sought and recruited by Cook. Born in Urbana, Ohio, but a native of Carmel, Ind., Dye grew up playing on a nine-hole golf course built by his father.
That passion stayed with him for decades and eventually materialized into a career centered around the art of molding, designing and shaping some of the top courses in the world. Today, Dye is credited with over 100 courses in 15 U.S. states, including 17 in Indiana alone, and several countries around the world.
Etched into the hilltops of the Hoosier National Forest, the course at French Lick Resort, which bears Dye’s namesake, is one of four in existence on the property, but by far the most difficult and most picturesque – neither of which are by mistake.
At 7,400 yards, and possessing the flexibility to be stretched to more than 8,100 yards, the par-72 course is ranked as the top course in Indiana, one of the top 100 in the country and was designed by Dye to be challenging and charming all at once.
“I’ve seen a lot of golf courses, but Pete Dye is unbelievable. It’s really one-of-a-kind,” Karns said. “The challenges this course provides, and just how incredibly beautiful it is, will allow us the chance to provide our players a unique challenge. And for fans tuning in on TV, it’s going to look just unbelievable.”
2014 Senior PGA Champion, Colin Montgomerie held up the Alfred S. Bourne trophy he received after winning the tournament.
Prepping For PGA
With a completed resort restoration that includes a combined 700 rooms between French Lick and West Baden Springs, and then the Pete Dye Golf Course, which was officially made available for play in 2009, the resort continued its journey of working to attract a top-notch golf event to its location.
French Lick does have history when it comes to PGA tournaments. The 76th Senior PGA Championship will be the fourth major championship at the resort, following the 1924 PGA Championship, which was played on the Donald Ross Course and won by Walter Hagen, as well as the 1959 and 1960 Ladies Professional Golf Association Championships.
Wanting and needing to prove itself as a viable option, French Lick started at the ground floor and began setting up smaller-scale tournaments, like the Big 10 Conference Golf Championships, the women’s senior PGA Tour Legends Tour Championship and PNC Championships for club pros.
“Those events being held at French Lick really paved the way for us to continue looking at them (as a potential host),” Karns said. “Obviously, a lot of courses would like to have a Ryder Cup or a PGA Championship, but for us, ideally, we want to be able to go to a course and see how a smaller event plays out first.
“French Lick was definitely willing to host some of those as a way to really showcase itself.”
Not every potential host site is cut out to host a championship-caliber event, but Karns said along with French Lick Resorts’ willingness to prove itself, the team went above and beyond to answer any critique that was presented.
“There was never one silver bullet – and there never is – on why we came here or choose other sites,” Karns said. “It was just a combination of things and relationships, and ultimately a real commitment by French Lick Resort to work to say, ‘We’ll get that done, make those improvements and do whatever’s necessary to get (the Senior PGA Championship).’”
A Championship Decision
On July 30, 2013, French Lick was chosen as the 22nd host city in the history of the Champions Tour Senior PGA Championship. French Lick is the smallest site they’ve ever selected, Karns said.
“It’s not a situation we would normally go for, but having a beautiful facility to house our players and all the support staff really sold us,” Karns said. “When you can find those pockets of the country where people are passionate about golf, that’s really important. We’ve never done an event at a location this small and we probably won’t ever.”
Karns also cited the role that Louisville’s Valhalla Golf Course played into the decision. The previous host of several major golf tournaments, including the Ryder Cup, PGA Championship and Senior PGA Championship (2004 and 2011), the ability of French Lick Resort to emulate Valhalla’s success and to draw upon regional golf fans was another significant factor.
“During the last seven years (Valhalla) has done all three events – Ryder Cup, PGA Championship and Senior PGA Championship – so Louisville is a really a great resource to all of our host sites when it comes to anything,” Karns said. “There’s a natural connection that exists and it was a huge bonus being here, being able to go back to Louisville for local government, media folks, what have you. It’s been a huge added bonus. We’re all in this to grow the game in this region and put on great championships in a collaborative effort.”
‘A Who’s Who of Golf’
While a list of confirmed players won’t be available until closer to the tournament, French Lick residents and golf fans around the world can expect some of the top names in golf over the age of 50 to be a part of the 156-player field at Pete Dye Course.
Among the players who are eligible to compete for the coveted Alfred S. Bourne trophy that is given to the winner are Tom Watson, Fred Couples, Kentucky native Kenny Perry, Vijay Singh, newly-named United States Ryder Cup team captain Davis Love III and Senior PGA Championship defending title holder Colin Montgomerie.
“It’s really a who’s who of golf,” Karns said. “You’re going to look across the leaderboard and really recognize so many names, and that’s the really neat thing about the Champions Tour and Senior PGA Championship. And what’s amazing now, with the combination of equipment evolution and the personal fitness a lot of these guys are putting in, these golfers are turning 50 and still playing at an absurdly and extremely high level.”
Karns said the response from the community has been fantastic in regard to volunteers and support staff. Including Karns, the Senior PGA Championship employs a nine-person staff, making outside help crucial. Karns’ team has already filled all volunteer shifts.
“We have a waiting list in place for anyone that’s still interested,” Karns said. “The support from this market has been fantastic.”
As for parties interested in attending the tournament, which will be nationally televised by NBC and The Golf Channel, Karns surmised there isn’t a more affordable entry price for the value and experience of his event, as tickets start at $15 with kids and military free. Shuttles will be available to the resort and course. Visitors who don’t want to purchase tickets online can call 1-800-PGA-GOLF to order over the phone.
“When you look at Memorial Day weekend, it’s hard to beat mom or dad bringing the kids out for $30 to come see the Pete Dye Course and to see these fantastic golfers,” he said. “It’s just hard to beat that in this day in age.”
The French Lick Payoff
While putting on a championship-caliber event is the obvious goal for Karns and his team, the Oklahoma native and former corporate package salesman for Tulsa’s WNBA team, has come to enjoy and appreciate all that the French Lick community has to offer, including his frequent patronage at the German Café or Crazyhorse Ranch & Lodge for a prime cut steak.
Embedding himself into the area has Karns hopeful and confident that the Senior PGA Championship’s presence in French Lick will do wonders in terms of impact and payoff, including return visits by spectators for non-golf events.
“That’s the big piece here and really the payoff for this area and this community long term, the exposure,” Karns said. “I remember the first time I came up here and walked through the resort and on the golf course I was blown away. It was like, ‘How did I not know this was here?’ and ‘How do more people not know this is here?’ and that’s what we’re hoping.
“We draw people that want to come to our championship and see the greatest players in the world over the age of 50 play a championship-caliber event, but then what (the spectators) are going to do is come in for the day, see this place, and then go back home and plan a trip back whether it’s the next week, next month, or next year based on the exposure we help provide.”
Karns believes the Senior PGA Championship will be “the biggest show in town,” but that the reach of a big-time broadcast will also help viewers get a different vantage point of French Lick.
“When most people hear French Lick they think of Larry Bird,” Karns said. “So for viewers to see this beautiful golf course and some of the still shots that are incorporated into the broadcast, it will get people on their iPads or phones or whatever and Google ‘French Lick Resorts,’ and find out how close this amazing destination place is from their backyard. I think that the national and international exposure through television is really going to put this place on the map and have people realize what a hidden gem this is.”
A Vision Realized
From Cook to Dye to Karns, and even Steve Ferguson – chairman of the board of Cook, Inc. – the arrival of this momentous golf event in French Lick is nearly 15 years in the making and will be a vision finally realized by a group that has kept the integrity of its town at the forefront.
“When you’re in these smaller markets, it certainly means even more,” Karns said. “Steve Ferguson is such a nice individual and is committed to this area, and the revitalizing of this place. More than anything, I’m excited for him to see this all come together. To see 5,000 to 6,000 people out on the course (in May) will be a special thing for everyone here.”
Turning in their basketball rims for tin cups and sneakers for golf cleats, French Lick won’t use Bird, but rather birdies to put itself fully on the map next month.
And whether it’s a slam dunk or a hole-in-one, the Senior PGA Championship will be a win for French Lick when it tees off May 19-24.
76th Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid
Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort