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Pinnacle of senior golf returning to state in 2015

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On Tuesday, the PGA of America announced it will conduct 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 much attention.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence joined me and Jeff Fettig, CEO of Whirlpool, and Steve Ferguson, chairman of the Cook Group and president of French Lick Resorts, in making the announcement.

It was truly a historic day for French Lick, which hosted the 1924 PGA Championship won by the legendary Walter Hagen.

Over the years, French Lick has amassed 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 in his already impressive design portfolio. The Indiana native has many great courses to his credit. None is more breathtaking than the Dye course at French Lick, which is 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 two or three 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 guaranteed 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, golf coach at the University of Illinois, won the event with a score of 10 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 French Lick is fair as well as challenging.

Tuesday was a very special day for 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 of French Lick’s hotels and golf courses. Estimates indicate this has been at least a $500 million project.

Between the West Baden Hotel and French Lick Springs Resort, more than 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 in French Lick in 2005, Pete wasn’t sure he could even do it on the property available. Ferguson will smile and tell you 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 Dye 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 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 underpay you for your work.”

The two eventually agreed on price and payment terms. Since then they have entered into a consulting agreement that allows Dye to keep his fingerprints 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. These numbers raised the eyebrows of the governor when it comes to exposure for Indiana and its tourism.

This year’s Senior PGA field consisted of 122 players representing 35 states. Thirty-four international players came from 18 countries. 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 and 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.

Ted Bishop is PGA of America president and director of golf and general manager of The Legends Golf Club in Franklin. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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