French Lick’s Golf History Revisited This Week with With Senior PGA

French Lick’s Golf History Revisited This Week with With Senior PGA


French Lick may be best known as the home of basketball superstar Larry Bird, but over the resorts history it has been known as a haven for golfers from around the world.

Beginning today, the Pete Dye Course is hosting the 2015 Senior PGA Championship golf tournament.pete-dye-course-2

The community is hoping to help the event will draw an estimated 40,000 visitors to the region.

More than 150 golfers are competing in the tournament which begins today through May 24.

The signs are all over town: Something huge is about to happen here.

A giant golf ball planted at the entrance to the French Lick Resort. A golf-themed window display at a downtown hair salon. Freshly poured gravel at the municipal airport – they’re all in anticipation of the Senior PGA Championship. The event takes place May 19-24 at the French Lick Resort’s Pete Dye Course.

The PGA of America estimates 40,000 visitors will flood into French Lick to watch the tournament, which will feature 156 pro golfers from around the world. Potentially millions of other golf fans will watch the live telecast on the Golf Channel or NBC.

“This is the crown jewel for us. This is by far the biggest event we’ve hosted to date,” said Dave Harner, director of golf operations at the French Lick Resort. Harner is also a French Lick native and a town councilman. “It takes us from being what I call a regional destination to a worldwide destination.”

Millions more golf fans can watch the live broadcast of the event on the Golf Channel or NBC.

French Lick has more to offer beyond the baskets and birdies lies a town with a colorful past.

Brian Mull, for reports, politicians came to French Lick to trigger campaigns, arrange backroom deals or simply relax and enjoy the spas and scenery. Regular folks visited seeking miracle cures drawn from the waters of the mineral springs. Gamblers, athletes, crooners, comics and circus clowns passed through, not to mention three iconic golf course architects. American composer Irving Berlin wrote songs in French Lick and American gangster Al Capone dropped by. Even the Chicago Cubs found good fortune here.

Together they cooked up a interesting, vibrant story that’s recorded in detail at the French Lick West Baden Museum. Fans who visit in May to watch Colin Montgomerie try and defend his Senior PGA title should plan to tour the museum, where a May exhibit will feature the town’s rich golf history, which dates to the late 19th Century.

Early 1700s: How did French Lick get its name? Well, it was settled by the French, the first Europeans in Southern Indiana. They traded with the Native Americans, who were hunting buffalo. Those creatures and other wildlife enjoyed licking the salt and other minerals from the mineral springs prevalent in the area.

1830s: After the British take the land from the French, the Americans take it from the British. They divide and sell the land, with Dr. William Bowles purchasing 1500 acres in the valley where the town and resort are today.

1845: Bowles builds the French Lick Inn, where visitors travel from across the world to “take the waters.” This Pluto Water, named after the Roman god of the underworld, is said to improve gastric function and appetite, and cure alcoholism among other ailments and illnesses.

1855: The West Baden Springs Hotel is built at the same time, and competition is born between the two French Lick destinations. Not to be outdone, the West Baden, which is named for a German town, sells “Sprudel Water,” taken from the German word for springs, or bubbly.

1861: The “Dead Rat Club,” the first casino in the valley, opens inside the Homestead Hotel. By the 1920s there will be at least 13 and perhaps as many as 20 illegal gambling dens in the area.

1888: The first railroad tracks are laid in the valley, and both resorts are now open year-round, accommodating visitors from nearby cities such as Louisville, 55 miles east, and Indianapolis, about 100 miles to the north. In later years, some visitors spend the entire month of May in French Lick, enjoying the festivities between two nearby marquee events on the sports calendar – the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500.

1897: The first golf course is built.

Late 1800s, early 1900s: French Lick becomes a spring training destination for professional baseball teams. While the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox are the the most frequent visitors, a total of 14 teams choose French Lick for early season preparation and exhibitions over the years, including the Reds, Cardinals and Pirates. Perhaps the Cubs should return. They held spring training in town in 1907 and 1908 and won the World Series both years. They haven’t won one since, although they returned in 1943 due to World War II and again reached the World Series.

1901: Tom Taggart, a former mayor of Indianapolis and future U.S. Senator, purchases the French Lick Hotel. He was also the head of the National Democratic Party. “If you wanted to run for anything, you had to come to French Lick and get Tom’s approval,” said Travis Tarrants, co-director of the French Lick West Baden Museum.

1907: Taggart hires Tom Bendelow to build a new course. Bendelow also designed Medinah Country Club in Chicago, which has played host to several PGA Championships and one Ryder Cup.

1917: Taggart hires Donald Ross to build the Hills Course, a 6,777-yard, par-70 championship layout. Walter Hagen, no stranger to nightlife, won the PGA Championship here in 1924, while Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright claimed LPGA Championships in 1959 and 1960, respectively.

1922: Ed Ballard buys the West Baden Springs Hotel. Ballard also owns the American Circus Company. Its six circuses spend the winter in town from 1913 to 1930. Busted by the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, Ballard eventually sells the circus and the hotel.

1931: During one of many governor’s conferences held in French Lick, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced and gained momentum for his presidential campaign. He also met his future running mate, Harry Truman, for the first time. Among the other U.S. Presidents to visit French Lick over the years: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan.

1930s thru 1950: Boxing champion Joe Louis, who in 1952 became the first African American to compete in a PGA Tour event, trained and relaxed in French Lick. He played golf, rode horses and prepared for upcoming bouts. Other noted celebrities seen in French Lick: The Marx Brothers, Bing Crosby, Cole Porter and Bob Hope.

1949: French Lick takes a major blow when reformist governor Henry F. Schricker orders a Kentucky Derby weekend raid of the illegal gambling halls in French Lick. According to a 2007 New York Times article, Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson and Eddie Rickenbacker, the president of Eastern Airlines were in town at the time. “We’ve put a lid on French Lick, once and for all,” Schricker said after the raid. “The gamblers have been told to straighten up and clear out. Indiana will never see the likes of them again.”

1971: The Federal Government forces the French Lick hotel to stop bottling the “Pluto Water.” The economy continues to suffer.

2005: The Cook Medical Group out of Indianapolis purchases both hotels, and a $5 million restoration project restores the Donald Ross course built in 1917 to its original design. The Cook group has spent more than $600 million to help restore French Lick.

2006: A new legal casino opens.

2009: The Pete Dye Course at French Lick opens.