Bay Hill Club and Lodge: Arnold Palmer welcomes golfers to Orlando

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

ORLANDO -- Mention the Bay Hill Club and Lodge and serious golfers will probably get a dreamy look in their eyes. Bay Hill, located within 10 miles of the Walt Disney World Resort in southwest Orlando, is one of the most prestigious semi-private clubs in the country, if not the world. Any club with Arnold Palmer as president must be special.

18 Holes | Resort/Private | Par: 72 | 7381 yards
9 Holes | Resort/Private | Par: 36 | 3309 yards
18th hole at Bay Hill Club & Lodge
The PGA Tour's long-standing relationship with Bay Hill Club and Lodge reaffirms that this is truly hallowed grounds.
18th hole at Bay Hill Club & Lodge

The PGA Tour's long-standing relationship with the course reaffirms that this is truly hallowed grounds. The Bay Hill Invitational has been a PGA Tour event since 1979 when Bob Byman won that first tournament two decades ago. The course, which was built in 1961 by Dick Wilson, continues to be one of the top stops on the PGA Tour today.

Past champions of the event reads like a who's who of golf - Ernie Els (1998), Phil Mickelson (1997), Ben Crenshaw ('93), Fred Couples ('92), Tom Kite ('89), Payne Stewart ('87) and Fuzzy Zoeller ('85) to name a few. These great men of golf are pictured on a wall of fame near the pro shop, which is considered one of the top 100 in the country, according to Golf Shop Operations.

The Bay Hill Invitational 2000, which will be March 13-19, promises to be even better with many of the past champions and others like Tiger Woods, David Duval, Vijay Singh, Tom Lehman, and Justin Leonard expected to participate. Watch the action on TV and your pining to play here will only soar.

Golf Digest tagged the course as No. 97 on its list of "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses" in 1997, which rewards it as No. 14 among the country's best public courses, and No. 6 among the state's best. Golf Magazine ranked it No. 2 among Silver Medal Resorts in 1996 and No. 15 on the "Top 100 Golf Courses You Can Play in the U.S." in 1996.

At least a dozen former or current PGA Tour players have lived along its flowing, bermuda-grass fairways, honing their games or enjoying friendly rounds with its members. Scott Hoch still does.

Stewart owned a house right next to the 12th tee box for a while. Paul Lawrie also called the upscale neighborhood home until a fire burned his house down and he chose not to rebuild.

The facility actually has three nines - the Challenger, the Champion, and the Charger - but the tournament is held on the Challenger/Champion mix, which plays a long 7,204 yards from the tips (75.1 rating/139 slope). The Charger nine is the shortest of the three at 3,409 yards.

The first hole on the Challenger nine, a 414-yard dogleg left, is the third hardest hole on the course. Four sand traps on the right of the fairway and four more around the green will gobble up any off-target attempt.

The third hole is a magnificent sight, a 372-yard dogleg left that bends around a huge pond. If you're too conscious of the water, two bunkers and a crowd of trees off to the right will bother any second shot.

A skinny, hidden creek creeps up the entire right side of the fourth hole, a 495-yard par 5. Another forest of trees and two left bunkers call for a straight tee shot. Five bunkers with slight mounding surround the green.

After a seven-bunker challenge on No. 5, a 364-yard par 4, No. 6 might be the most intimidating, yet prettiest, hole at Bay Hill. From tee to green in a straight line is probably only about 450 yards, but the hole plays 500 yards, drastically bending left around a large pond.

Several alligators said to live in the pond will make you think twice about cutting it too close to the shoreline, and a tree line will catch any shots that slice right. It seems any flag is a sucker pin on this green, which slopes toward the water.

Some consider No. 7, a simple 167-yard par-3, a chance to sink a hole-in-one, although six bunkers tell of a different story. No. 8, a 393-yard dogleg right, features trouble near the green with a pond short left and three bunkers right. The ninth hole, the longest par 4 at 436 yards, is also the No. 1 handicap, although it is fairly wide open.

After No. 10, a 370-yard dogleg right, the course cranks the challenge up a notch, with water on seven of the final eight holes. No. 11 is similar to No. 3 and No. 6. It bends to the left with a pond coming into play at the 180-yard mark.

The 12th hole is the course's longest, a 525-yard par 5. It requires a blind tee shot that should clear three fairway bunkers. Reaching in two is nearly impossible for amateurs, though, with seven greenside bunkers and mounding. No. 13 could be a birdie or double-bogey. It's short at 342 yards, but the approach must carry a pond, which also flows around the green's right side.

The final three holes have often decided the winner of the Bay Hill Invitational. No. 16 is a relatively short par 5 at 489 yards, but trees and five fairway bunkers make it a tight driving hole.

Two ponds, which are linked by a smaller stream of water, guard the front of the green, as do some majestic houses and four bunkers in back. No. 17, a 182-yard par 3, is all carry over a pond that also runs along the green's right side.

Palmer himself transformed what was considered a weak par-5 into a long, stout par 4 (414 yards) with a hook-shaped green that doglegs around the edge of a pond, nicknamed Devil's Bathtub. This 18th hole has been recreated at a golf course in South Carolina, which copies mimics of the world's best golf holes.

Besides a beautiful golf course, Bay Hill provides another amenity that sets it apart from most upscale resorts - the chance to feel like a pro with your own forecaddy. A forecaddy walks with each foursome doing all the little things that make a round more enjoyable.

My foursome's forecaddy, Barry Barnes, raked all of our sand traps, cleaned every ball once it found the green, calculated yardage's to the green and read every putt, often to perfection.

Barnes, who has caddied on the Nike Tour, was so attentive, he figured out each player's strengths and weaknesses after several holes and offered suggestions on what clubs to hit and where to aim. He also gave just enough tips to help your game, but not enough to bruise your ego.

But like most high-profile semi-private clubs, you need to know the right people or be willing to pay the right price to play. Green fees are for resort or member guests only. No walk-ons are allowed.

Golf packages at the 64-room lodge, which also has tennis courts, meeting rooms, and a health club and spa, can run from $209 to $309 for individuals and up to $489 a night for a couple.

Even if it's a little out of your price range, don't miss a rare opportunity to play here where the tradition grows with each passing year. If you're really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Palmer visiting with guests on any given day.

Besides the golf, Bay Hill's proximity to some of Orlando's finest tourist traps - Disney, Universal Studios, and Sea World - and its year-round sunny weather make it a perfect vacation spot.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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