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. 18 holes opened for play in 1961.
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. See footnote.
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 includes the golf. One thing's for sure, you're bound to feel the spirit of the King, which will live at Bay Hill forever.
Footnote December 2020: Nicholas commented as follows: "Jonathan Byrd made a hole in one on the fourth playoff hole from 196 yards to win the 2010 Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open."
As the son of a member and an Orlando area native who played many high school rounds at Bay Hill, I've come to know the course and the club well. There are a number of primary points that come to mind when I think of Bay Hill. They include:
1. It's very difficult to score well on this course. The opening 2 holes are a real punch in the face. It's a requirement to warm up here - you don't want to be attempting the below without proper preparation:
-driver, long iron on 1
-very long iron on the superb 2nd (par 3). The left side of this green beckons but aim for the right side, hit it true, and the green will funnel to the middle. If you can hit a 180+ yard high fade into a hard green and hold it, then that might be the play here - and I'd be happily be your partner.
-driver, short iron over water on the dogleg 3rd.
-The rest ain't much easier. The 5th is underrated and tempts too many into too much club off the tee. The par 5 6th is simply one of the best holes in golf where strategy and decision making are still driving me nuts 100+ rounds in. The 8th is excellent from the proper tees, an elegant dogleg with an endlessly interesting green complex.
-There are duds, however. The par 5 12th is forgettable. The par 4 15th is just strange - with its 90 degree dogleg right. It asks you to leave the driver in the bag and then punishes a well struck hybrid or iron by kicking it through the fairway and leaving you with a long, long approach. A baby cut 3 or 5 wood is the shot here but for most players that's not realistic request.
-Par 5 16th is one of the more fun holes on the course - a risk/reward birdie opportunity
-17 and 18 are strong, difficult holes that are hard to forget.
- When you come, do yourself a favor and play from the proper tees - as most players I see here are hitting hybrids all day long.
2. Ever since struggling with some greens/mold issues and then a vandalism/insurance issue that required the greens to be replaced and a few touch ups to the bunkering and green side areas a few years ago, the course has been cared for so meticulously and consistently that it has to now be among the best conditioned courses in the Southeast US. The greens are consistently harder and faster year over year. This was evident in 2020's Arnold Palmer Invitational. Huge congrats to the staff on this improvement.
3. The practice facility (upgraded a few years ago) is world class and offers short game facilities that are just perfect.
4. The ability to welcome others to the club via the Lodge is something I wish more clubs offered. It's truly a fun, welcoming environment where you can play cards in the locker room where the King collected his winnings, grab a beer by the putting green, etc. It lends a more relaxed vibe to the entire club, as is evidenced by it's growing cadre of younger members and families, something other clubs in Orlando are struggling with. It's also surprisingly walkable and the caddies are excellent. Bottom line: Bay Hill is a fun place to hang out and swing the wrenches, something so many clubs inexplicably miss.
To date Bay Hill, Copperhead and Cobble Beach are my three favorite courses. I play the tips and I find Copperhead to be the most challenging but the most rewarding of any golf course I have played. Bay Hill comes close. I like how approachable most of the course is with the exception of the par 5, 16th?, with water in front. So proud to hit my 5 Iron onto the green and put for Eagle! Now that creates good vibes about the course and the experience. My Favorite hole ever.
This one was another course I had long had in my pending to play list and the chance to do it never really came close until a Tour I did to TPC Sawgrass last May. Together with the 2 rounds in a day at Mountain Lake I followed them with a night at the Lodge and a round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational course the following day.
First of all I have to point the Lodge, the quality of the rooms, the food, the memorabilia inside the Club House (from golf clubs to pictures and even a Guitar signed by Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top). Food is something of the highest quality as well and the attention to detail the crew has is just great.
The course was in amazing shape due to the winter rye grass not gone yet and the greens were rolling just in great speed and truthness. This one is a course that most of us have seen on TV many times and have it quite fresh in our minds, including that fast left to right putt on 18th Tiger has made a couple of times.
There are many shots than when played on ground are just very different from what we see on the screen:
- Par 5 5th is that one where Daily scored a 15 going directly for the green and sending 4 balls to the water. It looks like you can reach it but from the tees we played it is a 350yds carry, not for me.
- Par 4 8th is a great dog leg where again green a little bit elevated looks like closer, shot is very demanding and a narrow miss can send you to the water easily.
- Par 4 13th which is stroke index 1, the green is very shallow and a narrow miss will be rocks and water, count me a double bogey …
- 16th is a great par 5, second shot demands precision to an elevated green where the carry is longer than it looks like.
- 17th is a very pretty hole, elevated tee and a fantastic view.
- 18th is as tough as it shows on TV. I was not sure with the tee shot, aiming a low cut pulled it to the rough and was left 200yds from the rough to the most narrow entrance in the world! Of course, good shot but not brave enough to the bunker and bogey. This is one shot you must hit from the fairway, this makes it even special that driver Palmer hit off the deck some years ago.
It is not only a great experience but also a fun course, open to scoring if you play well but who will show it’s teeth if you miss. And as it is not tough to play, if you travel to Orlando it is a must play.
Bay Hill was opened in 1961 and the first 18 holes (Champion / Challenger) were designed by Dick Wilson. Bob Simmons designed the 3rd nine. A lot of folks think that Bay Hill was an Arnold Palmer creation and his contribution cannot be over looked. Palmer took an option to purchase in 1970 and in the mid-70s he exercised his option. He continued tinkering with the course and facilities until his death.
To the course, the fist does not welcome you but rather grabs you by the testicles. Depending upon the tees, and there are five, 3 of which are over 400 yards. Dogleg left with a small green surrounded by four bunkers. The course starts to squeeze on the 2nd. A par 3 with 3 tees longer than 200 yards. Favor the right side as there is a significant left slope. The par 4 3rd is what I would call signature hole lite. Dogleg left with a water hazard in the elbow to a well-protected green with bunkers short left, right and long and of course water left. You can exhale on the par 5 4th, pretty straight forward, favor the left side, creek down the right some bunkers left. Hit three decent shots and walk away with your par. The 6th causes for discretion off the tee. There are four bunkers protecting the landing are on both sides about 130 yards out. Club selection on your approach is important as there is a severe camelback in the center of the green.
Ahh, the signature 6th, a U shaped par 5 surrounding a water hazard. When the pros play there they often have fun in the practice round trying to drive the green from the box, which is about a 300 yard carry over the water. The first time I played it we were in a scramble. Our first golfer teed off, he was older gentleman and hit it right down the middle. Our second golfer cut a little bit of the water hazard off and was about twenty yards further. Our third player cut it off a little bit more for perhaps another 10 yards. I got up, took a big rip and hit it well, but it doesn’t quite make it; splash. We got to the third drive and prepared for our second shot. Sure enough the wily veteran hit his right down the middle; our second golfer cut the corner over the hazard and our third cut the corner a little bit more. Then it was my turn, once again I hit it pretty well, but alas, I cut off too much once again, splash.
For our approach shot we were about 120 yards out, but the pin was tucked way left, about as close as it can get to the water hazard. Our number one player hit his approach onto the green to leave us with about a 30 foot birdie putt. Number two skulled his shot over the green and our third player hit it to within 15 feet. Now it was my turn; once again I hit it pretty well, but overcooked it just a bit and it bounced into the water hazard. We then go to line up our birdie putt and our leadoff man drained it for a birdie. High fives all around. I then threw a ball down and took a practice putt. I lipped it and as I picked up my ball I hear, “That’s our A player? He lost three balls on the that hole.” Can’t say as I blame them, actually it was worse; I lost three balls on three swings. We did end up finishing in the money.
The par 4 8th is demanding. Slight dogleg right, be left off the tee or run the risk of being blocked out, yet don’t hit it so well that you end up in the left elbow bunker. That is the easy part, your approach must carry the pond, but if you left, right or long bring your sand wedge. No rest for the weary, the 9th is a long par 4 slight dogleg left. Do not try to clear the bunker on the left. Another well protected green with bunkers on every point of the compass.
The par 4 10th is slight dogleg right and looks fairly benign. The key, as with most holes, is the drive. There are a couple of bunkers left and a long one on the right corner. Déjà vu, the 11th is eerily similar to #3. Plenty of ways to get into trouble and this hole does play a club longer on the approach. I really like the par 4 13th. Not long but you really need to hit two good golf shots to have a chance at par. Bunkers protect both sides of the fairway with water in front and bunkers behind the green. The par 5 16th is a birdie oppty (in the tournament it plays as a par 4). Left is preferable off the tee, and unless you are really long laying up is prudent. This is one of the most undulating greens on the course so pick your distance accordingly. The par 3 17th is an excellent par 3, but I think it is more visually intimidating than it really is. It is unlikely that the pin will be back right when you are playing. Commit and go to whatever the yardage is. If you are short, you should end up in the wraparound bunker. The 18th is a super finishing hole. Water right and OB left off the tee and water right and short and bunkers long.
Bay Hill is a daunting test of golf and not for the faint of heart
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