Bay Hill Invitational Preview: Tiger and Arnold Take Center Stage
ORLANDO, FL - Affectionately known as "Arnie's Tournament" the Bay Hill Invitational is in every possible way the product of Arnold Palmer. Though the event's history dates back to 1966 when it was known as the Florida Citrus Open Invitational (when citrus really meant something around these parts), it wasn't until 1979 that the name Bay Hill went onto the tournament letterhead as the Bay Hill Citrus Classic, before becoming the Bay Hill Classic in 1980 (later sponsored by Hertz, then Nestle, and finally Cooper Tires).
Palmer's influence on the tournament and the course goes back almost to the beginning. He first played Bay Hill in 1965 during an exhibition and liked the course so much he bought it five years later. Palmer has been Bay Hill's prime mover ever since, not only owning the course but serving as its president, green committee chairman, and even winning the tournament in 1971.
Always among the tour players' favorite tournaments, Bay Hill has been an anchor on the Florida swing since the first tournament in 1966, consistently drawing one of the top fields of the year. Further enhancing its illustrious history is two-time defending champion Tiger Woods. Given his recent dominance and the fact that he could paddle his way through the Butler Chain of Lakes to Bay Hill from his home in Windermere, it can almost be said that this is now Woods' tournament as well as Palmer's.
Woods' strong showing at Doral and the fact that he is on home soil make him again the odds-on favorite to win. Many other pros look forward to the Southern Swing and historically the Florida-based players, including the Orlando-area contingent, turn in strong showings at Bay Hill.
With Woods winning the two previous Bay Hill's, it would seem the tournament set-up favors long hitters. This is not always the case as players of all characteristics have won here, from great putters (Loren Roberts, Ben Crenshaw), to big hitters (Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Dan Forsman), to the steady game managers (Tom Kite, Paul Azinger, Payne Stewart, Hale Irwin). Just as notable is the list of those who haven't won in the tournament's 36-year history. Jerry Heard won here twice; Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Greg Norman have never.
Dick Wilson designed Bay Hill in 1961 during an important period of golf construction for both the state and the architect (Wilson also designed Doral's Blue Course the same year). Most of what is at Bay Hill now, however, is more the work of Arnold Palmer than Wilson.
Since 1965, Palmer has continually tweaked portions of the course to enhance not only its playability but also its aesthetic appearance (the lake at the famed 18th hole, for instance, has displayed a number of different borders over the years including grass, bulkheads, and the current rock wall). An official redesign is accredited to Palmer in 1980.
As one would expect for a course that carries Palmer's reputation, Bay Hill is a long course that tends to favor those who drive the ball well and play aggressively. Though the terrain is relatively flat, additional depth has been created in the forms of mounds, humps, and elevated and depressed bunkers. Water comes into play on 10 holes to offer a splendid collection of white-knuckle approaches, particularly on the homeward nine.
Bay Hill's two par three holes on this nine are among the Tour's most challenging. While the uphill 200+ yard 14th will likely not destroy anyone's score, it remains a difficult par and an unlikely birdie. The 17th, however, is severe, one of the most dreaded one-shotters in Florida. At 220 yards and covered closely by water short, left, and right, along with complimentary bunkering, getting the ball on the green is usually all the pros are trying to do here, even on Sunday.
Years ago the 17th was the sight of one of Palmer's most fabled pars. Playing with friends, Palmer drove his tee shot into the water. Upset and choosing not to go to the designated drop area, he re-teed and proceeded to hole out the long iron for a three. It's unlikely this scene will be replayed this year.
Of course most viewers know well the 18th, the 441-yard par four with a slender green that curls right tightly around the lake. Last year, Woods, standing on a cart path and level with Phil Mickelson who was watching from above the green, striped a 6-iron from a bald lie to 12 feet. He proceeded to make the putt, pump his fist, and win the tournament, breaking out of his "slump" to begin a momentous run that included a win at The Players Championship the following week and a historic victory at the Masters after that.
The most famous shot in tournament history also came at the 18th. In the 1990 tournament, Robert Gamez trailed Greg Norman by a shot heading into the final hole. Needing birdie to tie, the young Gamez holed out from 190 yards for an unlikely eagle in what was, at the time, the latest installment of Norman's ongoing victimization to heroic shots.
Course record: 62 (Andy Bean 1981; Greg Norman 1984)
Tournament record: 264 (Payne Stewart 1987)
Highest winning score: 283 (Mike Nicolette, defeating Greg Norman in a playoff in 1983)
First winner: Lionel Hebert in 1966
Repeat winners: Loren Roberts (1994-95); Tiger Woods (2000-01)
Margin of Victory: 11 (Bob Lunn, 1970)
You Can Play It
Bay Hill is located toward the west side of Orlando off Apopka-Vineland Road north of Sand Lake Road and is open to guests of members and to those staying at the lodge. What you will find regardless of season is a relaxed, well-groomed facility that feels much more cozy than one might anticipate.
Golf Magazine's Brian McCallan says of Bay Hill: "The club, a time warp for true enthusiasts, perpetuates Arnie's version of the good life in the Sunshine State circa 1976." Indeed there is a throwback aspect to Bay Hill. It's impressive that the club seems so sure of itself, reluctant to change for the sake of change especially while living in the shadow of the modern, hyperactive DisneyWorld epicenter just a few miles to the south. But then again, with favored status from the PGA and a legendary owner in Arnold Palmer, why shouldn't it feel secure?
For tickets call 1-866-764-4843 or visit www.bayhillinvitational.bizland.com. Tickets begin at $70 for individual spectators.
2002 Bay Hill Invitational Preview
When: March 11-17, 2002
Where: Bay Hill Club and Lodge, Orlando, FL
Vitals: 7,239 yards, par 72
At Stake: $4 million in prize money, $720,000 to the winner
Defending Champion: Tiger Woods (273)
Runner Up: Phil Mickelson (274)
March 7, 2002