Ike and the French Lick Maneuver

Back before the 2008 Presidential election I took what was supposed to be a quick in and out trip to see and play the new Pete Dye-designed golf course at the French Lick Resort and Casino in Indiana. It turned out to be quicker than I thought, since the dastardly winds of Hurricane Ike (or what was left of him) had rolled into Louisville, Kentucky about the time I was supposed to land there.

The Pete Dye Course at the French Lick Resort

The plane was rerouted to Nashville, which meant I had about a four hour bus ride ahead of me to the Louisville airport, and then an hour’s-plus drive to the resort.

I missed a day of golf, but all was well in the end, and I think it’s now safe to step forward and take credit for Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. As the following piece shows (it originally appeared in the Brattleboro Reformer in Vermont before the election), my trip to Indiana clearly tipped the scales, and threw the formerly red state into the blue column for Obama. I don’t know whether Dave was the deciding vote or not, but I’d like to think our little chat had something to do with it. As for 2012, my strategy is still in the planning stages.


I packed the sticks and pinned on my “Vote Obama” button last month, traveling to the heartland to discover that Indiana is a swing state.

I was heading for the French Lick Resort, where the midwest meets the south, 70 miles northwest of Louisville, Kentucky, and where the Ryder Cup was set to unfold the following week.

I was set to preview the new Pete Dye course that will open in the spring, as well as play the restored Donald Ross course at this equally—actually, stunningly–restored casino resort town.

The hick from French Lick

Unfortunately, there is no lascivious origin for the town’s name. Its bubbling minerals springs left salty deposits on rocks that the wildlife would lick, the early settlers were French, and there you have it.

By the mid-19th century a Dr. William Bowles was bottling the local specialty, selling it as Pluto Water and putting up guests who had come for the cure in the French Lick Springs Hotel, where chef Louis Perrin created tomato juice in 1917.

In 1850, a mile away in Mile Lick, the similarly conceived Mile Lick Inn went up and the area was truly launched as a resort destination. The Mile Lick owner, Dr. John Lane, later changed the name of his hotel and the town to West Baden Springs, where Mr. and Mrs. Joe Bird created their son, Larry, in 1956.

FDR in 1931

Bird also lived across the town border, hence the nickname “the hick from French Lick.” The boom years were over by time Larry started dribbling. Both hotels had flourished for decades, largely because illegal gambling thrived until 1949, which it managed to do because the West Baden hotel became a headquarters for the state Republican party, while the French Lick hotel became a Democratic fixture.

Indeed, it was at a conference at the hotel for Democratic governors in 1931 that Franklin Roosevelt solidified support for his presidential run.

With the current presidential run on my mind, it was instructive to find out that not everyone in the country is a rabid Obama fan, and that a mere campaign button could provoke stares and comments and turn me into a proselytizer. I was ready to flap my gums at any opportunity.

Not for naught: the day after I returned, Obama had gone up two percentage points in Indiana polls and the state is now officially considered a tossup, if still leaning McCain’s way. And my handicap went down two points, so all in all it was a successful trip.

And after a half-century of bust days, French Lick looks to be revving up for success as well. What began as a philanthropic gesture in 1996 by the Cook Group Inc. to save and partially restore the West Baden Hotel took on a life of its own, ultimately a half-billion dollar effort that has included an historic restoration of both hotels, a new (legal) casino, two spas and the various golf courses.

The expenditure, if startling, is understandable just by walking into the atrium of the West Baden Hotel. Prior to the construction of the Houston Astrodome, the hotel held the record for the world’s largest free-span dome, stretching 200 feet and once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Shining once again with an old world elegance, the atrium is a visual and acoustic marvel.

With 45 holes of golf on hand, I never even made it to the casino, another marvel. There’s history in the golfing grounds, too. The nine-hole Valley Links adjacent to the French Lick hotel was built as an 18-hole layout in 1907 by Tom Bendelow. Lee Schmidt did the reworking in 2006.

Schmidt also took on the 2006 restoration to its original design of the Ross course, built in 1917 and the site of the 1924 PGA Championship won by Walter Hagen, and the 1959 and 1960 LPGA Championships (Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright, respectively).

The Donald Ross Course

At a cost of $6 million, the restoration included reshaping and expanding many of the greens to their antique square or rectangular configurations. It’s a splendid job, at a course traditionalists should flock to.

One curiosity is that the 1957 Midwest Amateur Tournament was held at the course, won by Pete Dye. Dye knew Ross, and Lee Schmidt once worked for Dye; there are fewer than six degrees of separation in the golf design world.

Dye was on hand for the preview rounds at his course, and responded to a fawning introduction with refreshing self-deprecation: “I may not be the leading architect of the day, but I am the oldest.”

Pete Dye, his handiwork in the background

His newest creation is a study in grandeur perched on one of the highest hilltops in Indiana, with 30-mile vistas in all directions, but plenty of work on the ground for the golfer to attend to in a brawny design likely to be compared to Dye’s work at Whistling Straits.

It was a lot to take in in a two day campaign, but there’s no question that French Lick is a fresh golf destination to reckon with.

On my last morning in Indiana I was ushered into the dining room for breakfast, the hostess seated me, wandered away, and then returned to say, sotto voce, “It’s nice to see someone wearing an Obama button here.”

“Not too many in these parts?”

She laughed, and said, “Pretty much none.”

My driver back to the airport, let’s call him Dave, wasn’t wearing one. Dave agreed that the Dye layout was a beautiful site, though he didn’t really play golf much.

In truth, Dave was something of a walking stereotype—a former truck drivin’ kind of guy, a pot-bellied, hog ridin’, beer swillin’, gap-toothed grinnin’, deer huntin’, chaw chewin’ McCain supporter.

But Dave had a brain in good working order, and we were able to bounce things back and forth genially enough for awhile before he sensibly concluded that we could agree to disagree.

So then we spent the rest of the ride talking about marriage, wives, kids, grandkids—the important stuff. Plus a lot about beer swillin’.


The Hurricane Collection:
Sandy: TAP Beer(s) of the Week: Stocking Up for Sandy
Irene: TAP Beer(s) of the Week: “Good Night Irene” and More Brown Than Black

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