Bay Hill was originally developed from a Floridian orange grove and the property is located close to downtown Orlando. The Bay Hill Club & Lodge was the brainchild of a group of investors from Nashville and they commissioned architect Dick Wilson to design the course. In 1961 18 holes opened for play.
Bay Hill was home to the “King” himself. Arnold Palmer fell in love with the place after the Tennessean owners invited Jack Nicklaus, Don Cherry, Dave Ragan and himself to play in an exhibition match in 1965 to promote the club. In 1976, Palmer bought Bay Hill Club & Lodge and it remained his winter home until his passing in 2016.
The Florida Citrus Open dates back to 1966 and it became a PGA Tour favourite and a forerunner to the Masters. In 1979, the event moved across town to Bay Hill and the Bay Hill Invitational was born. Today the event is known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational and it attracts big sponsors and the top pros.
Bay Hill Club and Lodge is a 27-hole facility and the Champion, Challenger and Charger are the names of the three loops of nine. The Invitational is played on the Champion and Challenger loops and this long, tight track is considered one of the toughest courses on the Tour, most notably the two long par threes on the back nine (14 and 17), which have dashed the hopes of many would-be champions.
The Bay Hill Invitational (now called the Arnold Palmer Invitational) has certainly seen its fair share of Tour excitement, but statistically the climax to the 1990 event (then called the Nestle Invitational) was pure Disney fantasy. Tour rookie Robert Gamez was one stroke behind Greg Norman and Larry Mize when he reached the tough 441-yard par four 18th on Sunday. Gamez knew victory was unlikely but after a perfect drive he left himself 176 yards across water to the hole. Gamez then proceed to hole a 7-iron for an eagle and first prize cheque of $162,000. We think this may be the longest winning shot in the history of professional golf… be sure to tell us if you know otherwise.
Palmer and his partner Ed Seay altered much of Dick Wilson’s original design, so today’s Bay Hill is very much the King's creation. In summer 2009, Palmer again updated his classic course. “Bay Hill is a great golf course. We don’t want to change it – let’s tweak it", said Arnold Palmer. “Let's get the greens closer to the water and take the sand where you can see it.”
After a four-month renovation, Palmer’s revised Bay Hill now sports newly positioned bunkers with proud sand faces, re-grassed greens with flatter edges for more pin positions and new tees which now stretch Bay Hill to a whopping 7,400 yards.
If you stay in one of Bay Hill’s lodges, you become a member of the Club, sharing in membership privileges, which include the golf. One thing's for sure, you're bound to feel the spirit of the King, which will live at Bay Hill forever.
When you consider Bay Hill was the domain of Arnold Palmer, hosts an annual PGA TOUR stop -- which is an invitational event -- and has been the scene for no less than eight wins from Tiger Woods -- you have the makings for a major amount of hype that has fallen over to the course itself.
There are other courses that benefit from the connection to a variety of similar type situations. Unfortunately, there are many people who seem to believe that because of the other elements that the actual course itself must be equally top tier. That's not always the case and Bay Hill is a testament to a layout that is bereft of design elements that really merit the plaudits the course receives.
Like so many other courses in Florida -- Bay Hill is on relatively flat and uninspiring land. The course is also engulfed in housing and the prevalence of water, a common
matter for Sunshine State layouts, is also a primary emphasis for golfers to avoid.
Palmer made it a point to constantly tweak the design over the years -- adding features as need be and making sure the course would remain a test for the world's best players.
There's no question the growing of the rough and the elevated putting surfaces make for some challenging golf. But the overall strategic elements are simply not present. It's follow the mechanics in hitting straight tee shots and approaching the greens with deft approach play. That doesn't mean to say the holes are
poor -- just uninspiring with only the final trio really standing apart. And that is chiefly related to the need for players to smartly carry their approaches over water which can quickly wreck one's scorecard -- the 18th being the most notable.
There are plenty of courses that have reaped benefits from having annual television exposure and, as I mentioned at the outset, it doesn't hurt to have someone such as Tiger Woods winning in a constant fashion to make people believe that the course must be of equal qualities. Having Woods return to Bay Hill this week likely ensures a high number of eyeballs will be tuning in for the event.
So long as the event is at Bay Hill the intersection with Palmer will be front and center. It's hard for people to realize the course itself is limited to what the topography allows and doesn't allow because the inclusion of the word "hill" is quite amusing given that the ant hills in Florida can seem like the Rocky Mountains.
by M. James Ward