Compared to the flashy resorts in the Orlando area, Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge is pretty staid. It's quiet, low-key, even conservative. Yet, in the winter months, there's a palpable buzz around the property, verging on electric. The King is in the house.
Mr. Palmer has held court here since 1976. He now spends some of his winter months in the desert near Palm Springs, California, but even so, there's nowhere else on earth that you're more likely to run into Arnold Palmer than in the grill room, in the locker room or on the putting green at Bay Hill. Honestly, that's what makes this place great.
Make no mistake, Bay Hill is a club and lodge, not a family resort. Folks come back here year after year to check into low-slung buildings that house modest but well-appointed guest rooms. The ambiance is that of a warm and friendly private club. Yes, there's tennis and a spa, but nothing about Bay Hill is going to confuse you with the Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons or Disney, for that matter. Bay Hill guests could care less. Bay Hill is all about golf. And Arnie.
Arnold Palmer and Bay Hill have been synonymous since the 1960s. They go together like milk and cookies, or beer and pretzels if you prefer. It's a comfortable fit. Back when Arnie first stumbled upon this place, there was nothing around except citrus groves. He immediately liked the laid-back, rural ambiance. In 1965, Palmer showed up at the four-year-old Bay Hill property for an exhibition with Jack Nicklaus, Dave Ragan and Don Cherry. At the par-5 12th that day, Palmer lashed a 3-wood approach that darted between the bunkers and stopped 12 feet from the cup. He knocked down the eagle putt, shot a 66 and beat his nearest rival by seven strokes. He was smitten with Bay Hill.
In 1970, Palmer and his partners took out an option to buy Bay Hill and accomplished their mission six years later. He established an office at the club, played golf and cards with the gang, sipped beer in the grillroom. Bay Hill was Arnie's hangout. Still is. All that was left to do was to bring a big-time golf competition to the club. That came in 1979, with the debut of the PGA Tour's Bay Hill Citrus Classic. Twenty-seven years later, the event is stronger than ever.
Architecture purists are less than enamored with Bay Hill's championship 18. Architect Dick Wilson's style, as with his contemporary, Robert Trent Jones Sr. has fallen from favor these days. True, Bay Hill has more elevation change than many Florida courses, but you certainly wouldn't call it hilly. No, the faultfinders note the lack of variety and overemphasis on the aerial game. And, to be fair, Palmer is continually tinkering with the design, so at times, some of the changes are reflective of Arnie's thinking at that moment, rather than striving for a pure restoration or redesign.
Nevertheless, there's a host of folks, from tour pros to club members to resort guests who gush about Bay Hill. It's straightforward, yes, but there's no hidden shots, nothing goofy. Wilson did build handsome bunkers and Palmer has added mounds, new green configurations and enhanced esthetics in the lakes, so there's a bit of eye candy about. Mostly, though, Bay Hill's layout revolves around serious drama. The closing trio of holes is practically guaranteed to produce exciting, occasionally disastrous finishes.
Palmer has retouched the 16th several times over the years; today, it's a short, reachable par-5 where eagle is a definite possibility, but water directly in front of the green and a wildly contoured putting surface forces you to make quality shots. Seventeen is just a brute, a 219-yard par-3 over water to a fairly shallow green.
Finally, the 441-yard, par-4 18th is rightly one of the most feared finales on Tour. In this era, the yardage won't scare anybody, but water up the right side of the landing area limits flailing away with the driver. Most daunting is the approach, however. It's virtually all-carry over the water to a slender, banana-shaped green. Drive it in the rough and even the pros will lay up. For Sunday's final round, the hole is historically cut front-right, so that if you're trying to get it close and have a realistic birdie try, you'd better steel yourself first. Bail out left, and you're likely facing a three-putt or tricky chip. Go long and a trio of bunkers awaits. Is there any scarier shot than a downhill bunker shot to a green that slopes towards the water?
Straightforward, risk/reward holes, followed by the relaxed, glitz-free stylings of the club and lodge. Asking Arnie to pass the peanuts. We're talking Bay Hill. Arnie's Place. There's nothing in golf quite like basking in Arnie's aura.
To play Bay Hill, you must be a guest of the 70-room Lodge.