By Mac Lacy
Golf and gaming — just how complementary are they? Many of America’s best new golf courses have been built by resorts with casinos. Do those top-flight courses draw golfers, gamers or both?
We decided to look at that question for this year’s gaming feature in The Group Travel Leader, and found numerous resorts where golf, gaming and groups go hand-in-hand.
French Lick Resort and The Pete Dye Course
French Lick, Indiana
Because we couldn’t take two weeks off to go play golf courses, my associate Sam Lacy and I took the opportunity to play one — the Pete Dye Course at the French Lick Resort in southern Indiana. Senior sales director Michele Bowling invited us to play the course and spend a night at the resort’s opulent West Baden Springs Hotel, a historic property that is a shining example of American hotel restoration.
A few years back, the French Lick Resort received a special exemption from the Indiana legislature to build a land-based casino so that this iconic resort could add gaming to its more historic elements. Around the same time, the resort’s owners hired noted architect Pete Dye to build a signature golf course.
The Pete Dye Course sits high atop a hill overlooking a heavily forested landscape, offering gorgeous views of the adjacent hillsides. Sam and I teed off early one morning without the benefit of a fore caddy. Boy, did we miss that guy! One of Dye’s best abilities is to create visual nuances and sight lines that will fool a golfer who does not know the course — or who doesn’t play with a caddy who does.
Dye is the creator of “volcano bunkers,” steep mounds with sand traps in the top, and he used a lot of those here. The likelihood of playing out of one seems remote because your ball tends to stop somewhere on the mound instead of rolling uphill into the bunker. But the aesthetic they bring to this course is unmistakable.
After our round, we spoke with head professional Jan Tellstrom.
“Pete Dye is considered the father of modern golf course architecture,” he said. “In my mind, his greatest strength is his ability to analyze a piece of ground and then design a course that accentuates it. He leverages the views on the course to feature that environment.”
Tellstrom addressed how the course and casino complement each other.
“Most of our players here are coming for the course,” he said, “but then again, most of them are staying at either one of the resort properties while they’re here. I don’t think our players are necessarily coming for the casino, but I think they consider the casino an amenity, and I’m sure many are going in the evenings.”
I asked him how much group play this course gets.
“We get a lot of groups — typically 12 to 16 people,” said Tellstrom. “Our biggest markets right now are Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Chicago, and then Louisville, Columbus, Ohio and St. Louis. Most of our groups here are dyed-in-the-wool golfers.”
That afternoon, we toured the resort’s two hotels and casino with its public relations manager, Dyan Duncan. These hotels have storied guest registries, hosting luminaries like Clark Gable, Joe Louis, Bing Crosby, the Reagans and Elizabeth Taylor.
The West Baden Springs Hotel is an architectural wonder. Its massive dome was the largest freestanding dome in America until the Astrodome was built. Its lobby reminds me of the wonderful old train terminals that have been restored in places such as Cincinnati and Kansas City. And our guest room was highlighted by a balcony that overlooked that elegant lobby.
The 51,000-square foot casino follows the French Lick Springs Hotel’s architectural lead — its masonry work is outstanding. In addition to its Vegas-style gaming options, it features one of the largest non-smoking areas in the country, with more than 9,500 square feet of smoke-free gaming space.
Both properties have sumptuous spas and several restaurants, including 1875: The Steakhouse, the resort’s signature dining option. Now a National Historic Landmark, the resort is again drawing leisure and meeting groups back to this gorgeous rural landscape, just an hour’s drive northwest of Louisville, Kentucky.
Grand Biloxi Resort Casino and Grand Bear Golf Course
I’ve stayed at the Grand Biloxi in Biloxi, Mississippi several times, and we held a BankTravel Conference there about 10 years ago. The casino directs golfers to their Grand Bear Course in nearby Saucier, a Jack Nicklaus design that is among the best on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I’ve played this course twice, most recently on a golf tour held after Travel South Showcase a few years ago.
This great 18-hole layout is tucked away in a remote cypress wetland about five miles off the main highway. The course features a large clubhouse and restaurant, and I recall talking with the pro about the trees they took off the course after Hurricane Katrina and how quickly they reopened the course. We played there in March, which is prime time down on the coast and the pine trees were lit by a bright spring sun.
“The course is in great shape and we’ll do 19,000-20,000 rounds this year,” said first assistant Ian Kahn. “But we lost the Grand in Gulfport completely, and we lost 1,000 rooms at the Grand in Biloxi during Katrina.
“As a result, we’re not getting that much play directly from the casino, but we are doing about 25 percent of our rounds from packaged groups from various sources.”
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