Feel like a Professional at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge

By Elaine Gallant, Contributor

ORLANDO, FL - The PGA Tour swings annually through Florida in March, starting in Miami and finishing north at Ponte Vedra Beach. Of the four courses featured, it's Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge, host of the Bay Hill Invitational where players can best imagine what it's like to play professionally.

While semi-private, guests of its 64-room lodge and member guests are welcome - but be advised. The air at Bay Hill is so heavily scented from 23 successful PGA Tour years and from champions the likes of Tiger Woods ('01 & '00), Ernie Els ('98), Phil Mickelson ('97), and Fred Couples ('92), that it's likely you'll try just a bit too hard.

"There's still that atmosphere of playing a golf course that the greatest players in the world play," says Jim Deaton, Bay Hill's Director of Golf. "You can feel it, both when you walk through the clubhouse and when you see all the pictures on the Wall of Champions in the foyer. It kind of builds up the excitement."

This excitement also grew from Arnold Palmer's enthusiasm in 1965 when he first laid eyes on Bay Hill's spacious terrain. Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were involved in an exhibition match. Palmer scored 66 to Nicklaus' 72 and fell instantly in love with the course. Five years later, he and his partners succeeded in buying the club and have never looked back.

Over the years, Bay Hill has received many awards. Its most recent, for 2000 and 1999, is from Florida Golf News as the number one "Best Course in Florida." In 1997, Golf Digest ranked it 97th of "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses," 14th amongst the country's best public courses and sixth within the State of Florida. While in 1996, Golf Magazine placed it second on its list of Silver Medal Resorts and 15th within the "Top 100 Golf Courses You Can Play in the US."

Bay Hill consists of three 9-hole courses: the Challenger, Champion and Charger. Dick Wilson built the Challenger and Champion courses in 1961, which combined host the Invitational. Bob Simmons added the Charger in 1968. Renovations to the courses by Palmer and Ed Seay in 1989 and in 1997 added length and a new design to many of the greens.

Play the Tournament courses and you'll begin at its third handicapped hole, Challenger's 441-yard, dogleg left, par 4. Any shot right will find a series of fairway bunkers, but a risk left along the tree line, might get rewarded with a clean approach to the well-bunkered, elevated green. The choice is a tough one.

Hole number 3 tightens the screws if your tee shot fails to fall. At 395 yards, this par 4 around one of Bay Hill's many lakes, feels more like a grassy stretch of beach rather than a safe landing area. Even the elevated green offers little security with its rocky, waterside edge spelling nothing but trouble.

Unfortunately, trouble is relative as John Daly discovered in 1998 on hole number 6, a 543-yard marathon around the same lake. He posted 18 strokes. While a birdie here is possible, six of Daly's balls performed swan dives.

Another intimidating hole is the downhill and often upwind 459-yard, par 4 at number 8. Here, a stand of pines on the right forces play to the left toward a large sand bunker. Second shots are often water carries to a back-to-front sloping green, so any pin placement left or forward, must be played with accuracy.

At the turn comes the Champion course, a less stressed and, in some cases, more beautiful nine. While it has plenty of contentious fairway, bunker and water hazards, it tends to feel a bit more relaxed, but be careful. While you may have finally found your game, it's on this nine where the Tour's most recognizable finishing holes exist.

They begin at the downhill, 517-yard number 16 featuring a twin set of towering pines that narrowly hug the fairway off the tee. A birdie opportunity waits at the reachable, water-protected green, as Tom Herron did to win in 1999 during a playoff with Tom Lehman. But, should the pin be placed on the cusp of the upper tier, anything - including the pond and front bunker - could spell disaster.

Continuing to the par 3 number 17 from its elevated tee, this 219-yard heart stopper flies almost entirely over water. Its small and strategically bunkered green is nearly surrounded. Taking aim here is more like target shooting and any penalty can be costly. But even if you survive, it's the 441-yard, par 4 at number 18 that warrants top billing.

"If you had to rate a golf course and wanted to have the final examination be the epitome of what a really good golf course design is, the 18th hole is the perfect example," Deaton says. "It's one you look forward to with a little relish but also with a little intimidation because you know it's going to be a very difficult par for a good player. A lot of tragedies and a lot of great triumphs have happened here."

Off the tee, the fairway's uphill mounding deceptively leads you right of center. Follow it and you're in the rough. The more preferred landing area is on the left where a downhill slope begins much earlier.

As for the upside down, L-shaped green, Deaton says with its forward slope and minimal landing area, there isn't an easy flag location anywhere. And, with most players hitting from 160 - 200 yards out, heavy bunkering and a front water hazard trimmed with a rocky edge, makes this the most demanding second shot of any finishing hole on the PGA Tour.

If you're extremely lucky, you might end-up doing as Robert Gamez did in 1990 when his 176-yard, 7-iron shot for eagle later proved a winner. Or like Tiger in 2001, who landed within 15 feet of the flag after being awarded a free drop on his out-of-bounds tee shot that was stopped by a spectator. His winning birdie was the only birdie ever recorded by someone in the final group.

You'll face the same conditions every champion has faced since 1979 if you play after the Invitational. Greens will be fast - 10.5 or higher on the Stimpmeter and cut to within 3/8 of an inch. The rough will be at least 1.5 inches high. Also, because you're a guest, an assigned caddy or forecaddy will offer suggestions, read the greens, and rake your traps. You might even spot Palmer or any one of the 30 or more Tour players who call Bay Hill and Orlando home.

So go ahead - feel like the professional at Bay Hill. Watch your putts and drives. Fix your divots and ball marks. Dress appropriately, and yes, try to play by the rules.

The combined Challenger and Champion courses measure 7,204 yards from the Palmer tees and carry a course/slope rating of 75.1/139. The blues measure 6,920 yards at 73.8/138; the yellows play 6,647 yards at 72.4/130; the reds play 6,220 yards at 70.4/124; and the forward tees play 5,235 yards at 72.7/130.

The Charger's 9-hole Palmer tees measure 3,409 yards at 35.8/123; the blues play 3,291 yards and 35.7/123; the yellows play 3,178 yards and 35.0/117; the reds play 2,905 yards and 33.8/105; and the forward tees play 2,635 yards at 35.3/122.

Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge
9000 Bay Hill Boulevard
Orlando, FL 32819
(407)-876-2429, or (888)-422-9445
Fax: (407)-876-1035

For Invitational information and tickets, call (407)-876-2888, (407)-876-7774 or check out the web site at www.bayhillinvitational.bizland.com.

Elaine GallantElaine Gallant, Contributor

Elaine Gallant is a freelance writer specializing in golf, tennis, and travel. Her many experiences with travel and golf have taken her around the Untied States, Europe, Greece, the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaiian Islands, Australia and points in between.

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