Friday, August 2, 2013

French Lick

On Tuesday the PGA of America announced that it will hold the 2015 Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid at the Pete Dye Golf Course in French Lick. This championship is the most prestigious in all of senior golf and the announcement commanded lots of attention. Indiana Governor Mike Pence joined Jeff Fettig, CEO of Whirlpool; Steve Ferguson, Chairman of the Board of the Cook Group and President of French Lick Resorts and me in making the announcement.
It was truly an historic day for French Lick, which hosted the 1924 PGA Championship won by the legendary Walter Hagen. Over the years, French Lick has formulated an impressive resume of top flight golf events. Those include the Midwest Amateur, LPGA Championship, PGA Professional National Championship and the Big Ten Men’s and Women’s Championships.
For Pete Dye, it will be another major championship feather in his design portfolio, which is already impressive. The Indiana native has many great courses to his credit. None are any more breath taking than the Pete Dye Course at French Lick, which is located on top of one of the state’s highest elevations. This course will challenge the best senior players in the world in a variety of ways.
Indiana’s weather in late May can change in a hurry- several times in one day as a matter of fact. Wind promises to be a factor at French Lick and it could blow in 2-3 different directions during the four rounds of the Senior PGA. Just when players think they have this place figured out, they won’t. The elevation changes of the property will add to the drama. It is a guarantee that players will either like or hate this place.
Kerry Haigh is the Chief Championships Officer for the PGA. He handled the course setup in 2010 when 312 club professionals invaded French Lick and West Baden. Mike Small, the golf coach at University of Illinois, won the event with a score of ten under par. Small carved out a 65 during one of those rounds to set the course record. So, the place can be had and Haigh will make sure that French Lick is fair on top of challenging.
Tuesday was a very special day for Steve Ferguson. In many ways it was the culmination of a dream, which was to bring a major golf championship to Southern Indiana. Ferguson has been the father of French Lick in many ways. He secured the blessings and finances from the late Bill Cook to complete the total restoration to French Lick’s hotels and golf courses. Estimates indicate that this has been at least a $500 million project.           
Between the West Baden Hotel and the French Lick Springs Resort, over 600 hotel rooms await visitors. The ’24 PGA was held at the Donald Ross Course, previously known to many as the Hill Course. It has also been redone and there is no better 36 hole facility in the Midwest than French Lick. 
When Ferguson contacted Dye about building another course at French Lick in 2005, Pete wasn’t sure he could even do it on the property available. Ferguson will smile and tell you that it was good to know Pete let him know that before he started building it.
Dye, whom has done many philanthropic golf course design projects has unfortunately been tagged with the label “that given an unlimited budget, he can exceed it”. Upon walking and mentally surveying the property, Dye reached out to Ferguson and arranged a luncheon meeting.
Pete informed him that a golf course could be built, but Ferguson would need to acquire the mansion and acreage that sat on the highest point of the property. Otherwise, no golf course would be possible. This mansion is now the current clubhouse at the Pete Dye Course as Ferguson was able to acquire it from the landowner for a reasonable price.
Dye immediately went to work and created a true masterpiece. From the time the project started until it was finished, Ferguson had no idea what Pete was charging for the design fee. Dye once joked, “If you don’t like what I build, then don’t pay me.”
Finally in the fall of 2008, Alice Dye called Ferguson’s office in Bloomington and said that Pete needed to be paid now because we just elected a new President and she knew taxes were going to increase. When Ferguson called Pete to find out the price, Dye said, “Now, why would Alice call you and ask for that?”
Ferguson had researched Dye’s normal design fee and shot him a number. Pete responded, “I think that’s too much.”
Too which Ferguson coyly said, “Well, Pete, I will be happy to under pay you for your work.”
The two eventually agreed on the price and payment terms.  Since then they have entered into a consulting agreement which allows Dye to keep his finger prints on French Lick. That costs Ferguson $1 per year. Dye’s expenses are still unclear to Ferguson on whether Pete expects to be reimbursed.
In 2015 the Senior PGA will be televised for 12 hours reaching 130 countries and 430 million households. Those numbers even raised the eyebrows of Governor Pence when it comes to exposure for Indiana and its tourism. This year’s Senior PGA field consisted of 122 players representing 35 states. 34 international players came from 18 countries.
There were 19 major Champions who have combined to win 32 major championships. In addition, this year’s field included five former PGA Champions; eight U.S. and European Ryder Cup captains as well as seven members of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Ferguson is a big picture guy. He had the determination, vision, leadership and courage to resurrect French Lick. He looks forward to bringing this major event to Orange County and Southern Indiana. It was a very special day for Ferguson, no doubt. But, it was a bigger day for French Lick and Indiana. This was a proud day to be a Hoosier.          

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