Best New Public: He has been to the mountaintop before: Pete Dye wins his fifth Best New award with the Pete Dye Course at French Lick, Ind. Surprisingly, it's his first win in more than a decade. View more photos of this course >
To hear Pete Dye tell it, French Lick was a job he tried to turn down but couldn't.
Seated in the clubhouse overlooking his dramatic new course, Dye rattles off a one-minute history of the place. A hundred years ago, the French Lick Resort
was the Las Vegas of Indiana, but by the start of this century, it was more like Flint, Mich.: run-down, boarded up, with little industry and lots of unemployment.
That's when William Cook, who made a fortune manufacturing stents for heart patients, bought the resort and spent an estimated $500 million refurbishing the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels, the latter with its domed lobby once billed the eighth wonder of the world. Cook spruced up the resort's fabled Donald Ross course
(where Dye won the 1957 Midwest Amateur) but gobbled up half the resort's original Tom Bendelow 18 for a new casino. So Cook brought in Dye from his summer home in Indianapolis and instructed him to create a new course that would help put more heads into beds.
Cook took Dye up to Mount Airie, a hilltop mansion built by the resort's original owner, Tom Taggart, surrounded by ridgelines of pastureland. Dye took one look at the place and figured there was no way to fit in a golf course. He turned Cook down.
But then Dye came back for a second look, with a topographic map in hand. Turns out there were 312 acres, plenty of room, and it was the second-highest point in the state. Dye noticed fantastic views in every direction, vistas as far as 30 miles across the rolling Hoosier National Forest. Realizing he had something special, he took the job and made 140 visits during construction.
From the Taggart mansion, which now serves as the clubhouse of the $350-green-fee resort course, one can view nearly all of Dye's finished product 50 feet below, routed like a four-pointed star, with squiggly fairways dotted by typical Pete Dye pot bunkers. The bunkers look like giant gopher holes, except for those atop mounds on the par-4 second. The resort calls them volcano bunkers, but they look more like the creepy egg-pods from the movie "Alien."
Once on the course, it becomes apparent that the bent-grass fairways are much narrower than the massive 60-yard-wide things seen on most new courses. These are just 30 yards wide, squeezed to 25 yards at the 300-yard mark.
"You've got to give the average golfer wide corridors, but it's too expensive to do wide fairways in bent grass -- too much water, too many chemicals," Dye says. "So we've got these fairways, and on each side of them we put in 30 yards of low-mow bluegrass rough, cut at two inches at the most. So every hole is really 90 yards wide, understand? That way, the average golfer can hit it all over the place but will still be able to get a club on the ball and hit it again."
So why not have 90 yards of bluegrass, from which a 30-yard-wide fairway could be mowed at a shorter cut? "Because I want a PGA Championship here," Dye says. "The pros won't play bluegrass fairways. They want bent grass."
There you have it. Pete Dye, turning 84 at the end of 2009, 50 years into the course-design business, is still chasing major championships. He's not satisfied that three of the next six PGAs will be played on his designs, at Whistling Straits
(twice) and the Ocean Course at Kiawah
, or that his Crooked Stick
was the site of the 2009 U.S. Senior Open or that his Blackwolf Run
will host the 2012 Women's Open. He wants more.
The Dye course at French Lick measures a whopping 8,102 yards, par 72, from the gold tees. It's not meant to ever play that long; the extra yardage on most holes exists only to provide flexibility when the wind kicks up, or when it doesn't.
It's a surprisingly easy course to walk, especially from the regular tees of 6,115 yards, each next to the preceding green. From there, Dye and I played the course, with caddies, in less than three hours. And thanks to Pete's wife, Alice (their 60th anniversary will be on Groundhog Day), the forward tees are just 5,151 yards.
There was a calendar produced by the resort featuring photos of its new Dye course. The last photo, taken during construction, shows Pete and the entire construction crew, including project supervisor Chris Lutzke (a fine architect), superintendent Russ Apple and nearly 50 others.
"That's why I'm still digging at my age," Dye says of the photo. "To keep a bunch of good kids in the business."
BEST NEW PUBLIC __1. The Pete Dye Course at French Lick (Ind.) Resort
__ Moravia, Iowa Yards: 6,988 Par: 72 Fee: $59 Kevin Norby 641-724-1400 honeycreekresort.com