Friday, April 30, 2010

Hebert prepares for 2010 club pro national championship at eye-popping French Lick Resort in Indiana

Scott Hebert got his first look at the intimidating Dye course at French Lick Resort & Casino, the host of the 2010 PGA Professional National Championship. And the head professional from Grand Traverse Resort and Spa near Traverse City liked what he saw.

“All the Pete Dye stuff is tough,” he said, just moments after listening to Dye talk about his latest course at a recent media day for the tournament. “(But) I do better on modern courses. They fit my game better.”

Hebert, the six-time Michigan Open champion, says he didn’t get to play much golf over the winter, instead settling for banging balls out of the impressive winter practice facility at Grand Traverse Resort.

Even so, Hebert is among the defending champions expected to contend at the 43rd edition of the tournament set for June 27-30. Hebert won the PNC in 2008 and was a member of the PGA team that smothered its international competition from Great Britain and Ireland last fall in the PGA Cup, a Ryder Cup competition for club pros.

The PNC will feature one round on the resort’s Donald Ross course and one of the Dye course before moving strictly to the showcase Dye course on the weekend. Hebert believes it will be a challenge to walk the Dye course.

“It’s a good course for me. You can’t overpower it,” he said. “It’s similar to The Bear. There’s a premium on irons. I look forward to playing. I hope it’s playing fast and firm.”

The event serves as a coming-out party for the resort, which has undergone a massive $500 million renovation since 2005, spearheaded by the Cook Group Inc. of nearby Bloomington, Ind. The West Baden Springs Hotel, circa 1902, once again shines as “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” thanks to its awe-inspiring six-story atrium and ornate decor. Even Al Capone, once a regular guest, would be impressed at its opulence.

The nearby luxurious French Lick Springs Hotel, another historic building dating to the turn of the last century, now offers a monstrous 51,000-square-foot casino featuring 1,300 slots and 41 table games.

As grand as the hotels are, the golf is even better.

No golf resort in the country delivers such a range of playing experiences as French Lick. Purists drool over the restored par-70 Donald Ross course, built in 1917. Its terrain ambles to and fro with endless variety … dog legs left and right, short holes, par 4s longer than 460 yards, uphill approaches, downhill tee shots. There are virtually no forced carries, but crooked lies on hillsides challenge even the best of ball strikers. It will play 6,885 yards for the 312 club pros from 43 states who have qualified for the PNC.

Dye delivers the modern ying to Ross’s old-school yang. He took a rugged, almost mountainous, site that is one of the highest points in the state, offering expansive views 40 miles in either direction, and imposed his will to find a course on it. The terrain he carved is reminiscent of Whistling Straights, host of this year’s PGA Championship.

The master of visual deception, Dye peppered ribbon-thin fairways with danger … a lateral water hazard here, a waste bunker there. Or maybe it’s a falloff zone or set of mounds that suck your ball into oblivion.

He used every trick in his bag except his signature railroad ties. He molded “volcano” bunkers – sand hazards perched atop mounds -- along the fairway of the second hole. He added “church pews,” ala Oakmont Country Club, in the fairway waste bunker on the 18th hole. Three par-5s boomerang left around steep drop-offs filled with juicy rough. Almost every green seemingly rests on stilts, surrounded by shaved collection zones. He stretched the course to a mindboggling 8,102 yards, but it will play a mere 7,174 yards in the tournament.

Todd Smith, who won the 2009 Indiana PGA Championship at The Pete Dye Course with a 9-over-par 223 for 54 holes, calls the layout “really special.”

"Mr. Dye gives you a chance to play a hole with ample room in a fairway, but when it comes to making a score on a hole, you have to be precise,” said Smith, a 47-year-old PGA head professional at Rock Hollow Golf Club and a nine-time Indiana PGA Player of the Year. “I love to play his courses."

Even by Dye’s standards, this is diabolical golf at its over-the-top best. Dye, who lives near Indianapolis, admits to being nervous how it will be received by top club pros. It’s only been open slightly over a year. And at $350 a round, it’s not for everybody.

The 84-year-old architect shouldn’t fret too much about what a few club pros might think. This course should only enhance the legacy of his hall-of-fame career. A statue of Dye guards the entrance to the course and his picture is prominently featured on every tee marker.

“This golf course is always in the eye of the beholder,” Dye said. “You always worry how it will be received. The ambience is so dramatic. … I’ve never done anything like this before. We’ll see what happens (at the tournament), for better or worse.”