The tricky par-3 199-yard 7th, here photographed in 2005. The hole has since been cleverly remodelled by APDC. Photo: Patrick Drickey / stonehousegolf.comArnie with his wife and parents outside the Lodge in 1970
Identifying that moment in time when a golf course turns into an institution is far from easy. After all, how does one pinpoint the precise reasons behind the transition from humdrum Tour stop to the golfing equivalent of, say, the Pearly Gates?
In the case of Bay Hill Club & Lodge, perhaps it was those electrifying putts and concomitant fist pumps with which Tiger Woods claimed his fifth and sixth victories in nine years over the testing Orlando layout in 2008 and 2009.
Or perhaps it was the altogether more restrained celebrations of Ernie Els after the Big Easy had caressed home a 7ft putt to seal an equally popular win last year. Or perhaps it was the constant of teeing it up and contesting a title, year after year, at a tournament hosted by Arnold Palmer. Or perhaps, even, it was receiving that gold embossed invitation card from the King around the turn of the year—a call to arms that attests to a player’s status, pedigree or potential.
Or perhaps it was none of those things. Perhaps it was because, as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, ‘In my end is my beginning.’
The beginning, as far as Mr. Palmer was concerned, was unquestionably the means to a glorious end. In 1965, Bay Hill’s owners decided they needed an injection of publicity into their campaign to gain recognition for their new Florida golf resort. To accomplish this, they invited Mr. Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Don Cherry and Dave Ragan to Bay Hill for a winter exhibition match. To say it was love at first sight for Mr. Palmer might be an understatement—but shooting a winning 66 that day, seven strokes better than his great rival Nicklaus, certainly put a spring in his step.
Back then it was little more than a still-raw golf course with a tiny pro shop, small guest lodge and a handful of modest bungalows carved out of the orange groves and desolate razor brush that so characterized central Florida. It was a breathtaking wilderness of laid-back rural ambience surrounded by pristine freshwater lakes and abundant wildlife—waterfowl, snakes and alligators. “I loved Bay Hill from the first time I saw it, and I loved the area,” Mr. Palmer reminisces. “It was near perfect, a golfer’s paradise in my book. Orlando is a great town and it is a wonderful place to play golf.”
Indeed, he was so smitten with the place he told his wife Winnie: “Babe, I’ve just played the best course in Florida, and I want to own it.”
That winter, Mr. Palmer returned to Bay Hill in order to escape Pennsylvania’s harsh winter and to work on his game. He had already decided he wanted to acquire this Orlando golfing paradise that had so taken his fancy, and his efforts reached partial fruition in 1970 when he and several partners took an option to assume control.
“Bay Hill was something special. With its splendid isolation and Eden-like abundance of wildlife, it really was a little bit of paradise on earth,” he said. “We envisioned ourselves being happy there for a very long time, building a second home where we could go to relax before beginning the madness of another tour season, where I could practice to my heart’s content, with only a few club members and their guests around to interrupt my concentration. Best of all, we could adopt a slower pace of life—something we greatly needed at this hectic point in our lives.”
Arnie with his wife and parents outside the Lodge in 1970
He also established an office at the club, played golf and cards with the gang, sipped beer in the grillroom. No question—Mr. Palmer had found the quiet, out-of-the way place whence he could retreat each winter with his family and relax in the warmth.
But purchasing Bay Hill was easier said than done. Thus Mark McCormack, the owner of International Management Group (IMG) and Mr. Palmer’s long-time business guru, along with his great personal friend and confidant, Russ Meyer, went to work in order to maneuver Arnold Palmer Enterprises into a position to buy the club and all its assets.
As it turned out, almost a dozen of the initial investors needed to be satisfied and negotiating with them took the best part of the next five years. “In 1969, we finalized and signed a five-year lease with an option to buy the club,” Mr. Palmer said. “We immediately set about making improvements to the course and to the lodge, figuring we would own the whole shooting match outright by the end of the lease.”
In 1974, at the end of that option, the course’s owners went against their agreement with Mr. Palmer and struck a deal to sell the property to another bidder. But the new owner—George Powell, president and CEO of Yellow Freight transport lines out of Kansas City—“turned out to be a real gentleman,” Mr. Palmer noted. “He graciously agreed to renegotiate the deal and we eventually purchased the club and course from him. The final price we paid was a bit higher than we had hoped it would be but at least Bay Hill was finally ours.”
So in 1976, after a decade-long love affair, Bay Hill formally belonged to Mr. Palmer, and it has been the King’s southern castle ever since.
Apart from Native Americans and a few masochistic lovers of humidity, no one really lived in central Florida until the advent of air conditioning.
Before that time, Orlando and Orange County occupied land that was devoted almost exclusively to the growth, processing and distribution of citrus fruits.
By the early 1960s, though, the region had been staked out as the launch pad for the U.S space program following President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon.
In hindsight, this must have been the signal to Walt Disney Productions that the entertainment company’s search for an eastern outpost was over.
Land was purchased during the late 1960s—more than 27,000 acres of it, as it happened—and in 1971, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World opened for business.
In the meantime, the area had already attracted the attention of a group of wealthy investors and prominent businessmen—mainly from Nashville—who were seeking a more discreet form of entertainment.
In 1961, they found the ideal location for their residential winter golfing retreat on a stretch of greenbelt controlled by the Dr. P. Phillips Foundation, named after a prominent local landowner, and irrigated from the nearby Butler Chain of Lakes.
Prior to that time, only two golf courses had been built in Orlando and the town’s relative anonymity seemed destined to stretch long into the future.
But a few local golfers felt the 640-acre tract of white sand and scrub pine, wedged between two large citrus groves to the west of Apopka Vineland Road and east of Lake Tibet Butler, would be the ideal location for a new course, especially as the elevation variations on site were far from typical of central Florida. In other words, the very features that rendered the land unsuitable for cultivation in Dr. Phillips’ opinion were nigh-on perfect for golf.
Dick Wilson, Bay Hill's first course architect, charged $1000 a hole
However, the project required capital—$100,000 initially, and much more once the Nashville investors, all members of Belle Meade Country Club in Tennessee, came on board. The Bay Hill Club, Inc., to which was assigned an option from the Dr. P. Phillips Foundation to lease and purchase the land, was formed. By the end of 1960, plans for the club and its residential subdivisions had been drawn up and Dick Wilson, a leading course architect of the time, was engaged for the then-princely fee of $18,000. Wilson laid out two of the three 9-hole loops—the Challenger and Champion, which today form the revered Championship course. The third 9, the Charger, in the western corner of the property, came later.
In an ironic piece of symmetry, Wilson had just completed a much-acclaimed design for Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, Pennsylvania which years later Mr. Palmer renovated, having captained the United States to victory there in the 1975 Ryder Cup.
By the by, the name “Bay Hill” was coined around the time of the initial purchase by one of the Nashville investors. According to legend, he noticed a number of bay trees on the high ground between what is now the 2nd green and 3rd tee. It didn’t take long for “Bay trees on the Hill” to ellipse into Bay Hill—and the name has since stood the test of time.
A lot of the dynamics relating to Mr. Palmer’s acquisition of Bay Hill changed in 1970 when Disney Corporation announced its plans to create the world’s grandest family theme park. However, Mr. Palmer’s initial reservations about this development soon subsided. “The people at Disney couldn’t have been more gracious and the experience brought home to me what an unprecedented impact the park’s presence was going to have on Orlando and the surrounding environment,” he said.
“Thanks to those freshwater lakes to the west and north, access to our little sanctuary would remain fairly limited. With no through traffic and only small residential streets connecting something like 600 residential lots, I figured that we would become an oasis of calm in the midst of it all.”
The next stop for Mr. Palmer and Bay Hill was the PGA Tour, though as with all truly fulfilling relationships the introduction was accidental. The Florida Citrus Open (won by Mr. Palmer in 1971) had been a fixture on the PGA Tour schedule since 1966. It filled a slot that no other state could manage at that time of year, and the players loved escaping their northern hibernations to take a tilt at some welcome dollars.
Yet by 1978 the tournament’s best days were, seemingly, behind it. Mr. Palmer takes up the story: “I got a phone call from Orlando businessman Frank Hubbard. Frank was concerned that the Citrus Open was dying on the vine at the Rio Pinar Country Club and he wondered if moving the tournament to Bay Hill and attaching my name to the event might somehow revive what had been a very popular and prosperous stop on the PGA Tour.
“When I thought about it I realized that this was indeed a way I could give something valuable back to the PGA Tour which had been so very good to me and my family. A year later, in the spring of 1979 with me playing the host role, the new Bay Hill tournament debuted with a strong field including Jack Nicklaus.
“I don’t remember much about the 70 I shot in the first round; what I do recall is being incredibly nervous about having the entire golf world, my old friends and several million network television viewers, come to Bay Hill. I needn’t have worried. We got rave reviews and that first Bay Hill event was won in a thrilling playoff by a Wake Forest graduate, Bob Byman.
“It was Winnie’s idea to make the children’s hospital the principal beneficiary of the charity monies created by the Bay Hill tournament.”
The tournament was an overnight success, and 32 years later it’s still alive and kicking, and now enjoying that much-envied, prestige slot on the PGA Tour schedule just a fortnight before the Masters.
In harness with the late Ed Seay and, more recently, Erik Larsen, Mr. Palmer and the troops from Arnold Palmer Design Company honed and fine-tuned Bay Hill over the years—a policy that is still ongoing, to which the latest (2009) facelift will testify. The objective to this day is to present a stiff test for Tour pros while at the same time offering an enjoyable experience to club members and handicap golfers.
“Even though Bay Hill is a private course, you’re still able to stay at the lodge and play a round of golf,” said Mr. Palmer. “I really like that golfers are able to play my course as the PGA Tour pros do.”
Tiger Woods celebrates sinking a 16ft putt to win the API in 2009
Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer. That, perhaps, is the best indicator of how special Bay Hill Club & Lodge really is. General manager Ray Easler calls the Woods-Palmer connection to Bay Hill “an incredible marriage.”
“It seems to be fate that the two are tied together,” Easler said. “Tiger only lives a mile and a half away. You have the new legend next to the living legend.
A lot of the newer courses are designed for longer hitters. Bay Hill is suited to shot-makers. That is Mr. Palmer’s style. Also, the way we set it up is along the lines of Augusta National. We are the tune-up for Augusta. We have long rough and fast greens.”
And with a winners’ roll call that includes Fuzzy Zoeller, Loren Roberts, Tom Kite, Payne Stewart, Paul Azinger, Ben Crenshaw, Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson, the Invitational at Bay Hill has no shortage of class or pedigree.
A Japanese consortium could have bought Bay Hill during the 1980s but their offer collapsed. Otherwise, Mr. Palmer’s ownership of Bay Hill Club & Lodge has been sacrosanct, and beyond approach.
The course ratings highlight the fact that the closing hole—the 18th—is its toughest and there is always an over-riding impression that its firm fairways and even firmer TifEagle greens, along with its wicked rough, will some time soon put the course into contention to stage a U.S. Open.
Els, a double U.S. Open winner and current Bay Hill champion, is certainly a fan. “I think it’s brilliant,” he said last March after inking his name into the tournament’s roll of honor for a second time. “They are really tough pin positions. I mean, 11-under won. That’s where, as a designer, you want the winning score to be.”
According to one online pundit, “the layout itself has a few pedestrian Florida holes, where the typical bunkers and water hazards await. But they are offset by several stunners that confound even the world’s best.”
Take, for example, the 558-yard 6th hole that bends boomerang-style around a massive pond. John Daly hit six consecutive tee shots into the water for an 18 in 1998. It was a “Tin Cup” moment in real life, showcasing how tempting it is to cut off too much of the corner.
The property has just enough humps and ridges to create several semi-blind tee shots, notably the par-5 12th and par-4 15th. Playing the proper angle off the tee on many holes could make the difference of at least two strokes.
The finish garners more than its share of the TV coverage for the simple reason that people love carnage. A train wreck is possible on any of the final three holes. The 517-yard, par-5 16th challenges the players to carry the water hazard on their second shot or risk being called a wimp in the locker room. The skinny green on the 219-yard 17th is hard to hit and hold. And we’ve all witnessed the destructive charms of the 18th hole. Years ago, Mr. Palmer himself transformed a weak par-5 into a stout par-4 of 441 yards with a hook-shaped green tucked behind the rock-lined “Devil’s Bathtub,” a pond that has rinsed the likes of Vijay Singh and others.
And who can forget Robert Gamez holing a 7-iron from 176 yards for an eagle to beat Greg Norman, the perennial “bad luck” golfer, by one shot in 1990?
A plaque in the fairway still marks the accomplishment.
One of my golf-writing colleagues observed that Arnold Palmer massages Bay Hill as much as Donald Ross did his courses at Pinehurst, tweaking it annually to keep it competitive for when the world’s best come to town. As T.S. Eliot also wrote, “In my beginning is my end.”