72 Days til PGA Professional National Championship at French Lick

As we gear up for our first PGA Championship since opening the Dye Course, I thought I would share this feature story.

A new chapter in the illustrious history of the French Lick Resort will unfold June 27-30, as one of America’s historic and premier golf destinations hosts the 43rd PGA Professional National Championship.

The competition for 312 of the nation’s best PGA professionals will be staged on the resort’s new Pete Dye Course and the timeless classic Donald Ross Course.

Situated atop the rolling hills overlooking the Hoosier National Forest in southern Indiana, French Lick Resort has been an integral part of golf history since the 1917 when the Ross course opened, elevating the resort and the town of French Lick onto the national golf scene.

Although the resort has hosted several national championships, this event marks the first time the national championship for PGA professionals will be contested in Indiana. At stake for the professionals are the Walter Hagen trophy and a $500,000 purse. The event is sponsored by industry mainstays, Titleist, FootJoy, Cobra; and Club Car.

Golfers from around the Midwest and the country will be able to watch the event as all four days of competition will be televised live by the Golf Channel.

French Lick Resort’s first experience at hosting a major championship was in 1924 when the PGA Championship was held on The Donald Ross course. The event was won by the legendary Walter Hagen whose name adorns the crystal cup that will be presented to the PGA professional national champion.

The Donald Ross Course, designed of course by the famed Scottish architect, also hosted the 1959 and 1960 LPGA Championship. It was the home of the Midwest Amateur from the 1930s through the 1950s. Coincidentally, Pete Dye captured the 1957 Midwest Amateur on the course.

What makes this national championship unique is that players will face a combination of two great challenging, yet completely different layouts. Players will tee off on the par-70, 6,885-yard Donald Ross Course that opened in 1917, and on the par-72, 7,174-yard Pete Dye Course, which debuted 82 years later in the spring of 2009. The Championship’s final two rounds will be on the Pete Dye Course. The championship will mark the first time that a national tournament has been played on two courses designed by two Hall of Fame architects.

“I think you have the best of both worlds challenging some of the best golfers in the country,” said Dave Harner, director of golf at French Lick Resort. “You have the great classic course architect, Donald Ross, with his challenging green complexes and parkland layout. Then you have Pete Dye, who is without a doubt the most noted of the modern day architects with his challenging design aspects both visually and shot making.”

Dye said the two courses will play as different as any two courses he has ever seen as far as shot value and playability.

“The Ross course is really up and down and you will get a lot of shots where you can’t see the surface of the green, you’ll see the top of the pin, and you never get a flat lie over there,” he said. “Our course up on top has a tremendous change of elevation but the fairways are not flat but they are not rolling off like on the Ross.”

Adjusting to the difference in the grass on the fairways and the contours of the greens will also be a challenge. Some of the greens on the Ross course slope eight feet from back to front, there is Bermuda grass on the fairways and bent grass on the greens, Dye said.

”The speed of the greens will be 100 per cent different between both courses,” he said. “The superintendent will have those greens on our courses playing so fast it will scare you to death. Playing off short cut bent fairways on top of the hill and Bermuda on the Ross will make the approach shots completely different than rolling it up on bent grass. It will be fun to see because there has never been a contrast like that in the game of golf at a tournament of that magnitude.”

Dye said the difference in wind on his course will also be a major factor.

“I’m really thrilled with the long views and ambience of the scenery up on our course is pretty dramatic from all directions on all tees fairways and greens. But when you factor its up 800 feet, and when the wind comes out of Kansas its going to blow up there pretty good.”

Local Indiana PGA Professionals are very excited about the challenge they will face in June.

Todd Smith, from Peru Indiana and nine-time Indiana PGA Player of the Year, is excited about playing in his home state. Last August, Smith captured the Indiana PGA Championship on the Pete Dye Course.

“I don’t know if local knowledge will play a big factor in this championship,” said Smith. “These two golf courses (Donald Ross and Pete Dye) are all about hitting good shots. The nice thing is that all of us Indiana players don’t have to travel as far and we are familiar with the area.”

“I haven’t played any golf course as difficult as the Pete Dye Course that I thought was that fair rewarding good shots and penalizing poor shots. The golf courses are extremely scenic and are always in perfect condition. The green sites on both courses are very difficult. The winner of this championship will be a very good iron player. If you miss your shots into the green in the wrong places you will pay the price. The Pete Dye Course is the best golf course I have ever played.”

Smith will also be joined by five other Indiana PGA members, one of whom receives an automatic exemption – 1984 National Champion Bill Schumaker of Columbia City, Ind., who at age 60 is making his 29th appearance, a Championship record.

For Schumaker, who has played 85 rounds in the national championship, the Pete Dye Course is “phenomenal.”

“There’s no other course like it in Indiana, that’s for sure,” said Schumaker, the PGA head professional since 1977 at Crooked Lake Golf Course in Columbia City. “I think that it’s neat to see the National Championship coming to Indiana. I didn’t think that it would ever get to Indiana. I know that the resort and the Section will put their respective best foot forward to make it special.”

Many critics say Dye’s French Lick creation is one of the most breathtaking and exciting golf courses in the country. The course was carefully carved into a dramatic hilltop, one of the highest points in Indiana. It offers a variety of elevation changes, rugged and dramatic terrain, narrow fairways, and challenging bunkers. The course offers spectacular views stretching more than 40 miles from every hole.

Dye said the property is as good for golf as any he has worked on.“I have spent the past five decades designing golf courses all over the world, including courses on great coastal sites,” Dye explains. “This new course at French Lick Resort has brought great excitement to Alice and me because the course is on arguably the best inland site I have ever worked on.”