Bay Hill is synonymous with Arnold Palmer as his winter retreat and the host venue for the golf tournament that bears his name. The facility was built in the early 1960’s by a group of Nashville businessmen who hired Dick Wilson-one of the prominent architects of the day-to build a championship course in the middle of nowhere. Arnold came to the recently opened course in the mid-sixties to play an exhibition match with Jack Nicklaus and fell in love with the quality of the course as well as the reclusiveness of Orlando. In the early 1970’s through the connections of Mike McCormick and IMG, Arnold put together a group of investors to buy Bay Hill from the original Nashville businessmen who put it together.
The rest was history as Arnold began to spend more and more time at Bay Hill with Winnie his wife and her Golden Retriever Riley and they put their personal stamp on every aspect of the operation. The casual character of this first class destination facility is clearly a reflection of their personalities and values. Arnold and Ed Seay have continually tweaked the course itself to keep it up to standards to challenge the PGA touring pros that play there every spring. Yet it remains totally playable to the large contingent of members and guests who play it every day.
The first impression of the course is that it is not as macho as you would expect after seeing it year after year on TV. The who’s who of winners over the last 30 years shows an amazing diversity of players win here-from Andy Bean, Gary Koch, and Tom Kite to Freddie Couples, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods (6 times).
The course itself is not particularly brutish in length but it is technical enough to require really good management of ball flight and distance. The greens are quick and undulating so it takes tactical planning with approach shots and aptitude with the flat stick to score well.
The topography is actually un-Florida-like so you have your share of up and down holes to deal with. The par fives are not particularly long-at least two are reachable if you crank your driver-and there are not really many stout par fours of 425 or longer. The shorter par fours are the most difficult to me-they all have a good measure of Arnold’s favorite risk-reward thinking to them. The overall variety of holes is it’s strongest suit-no two holes feel remotely alike. Fairway bunkers are sprawling but tactically placed.
You cannot help but notice the artistry of the shaping and vistas of the bunkers-they are in the right places to make you think hard before taking the aggressive line on most holes. Greenside bunkering is not overdone but they are very steep sloped so you can get some very challenging exit paths, especially if you short side yourself on an approach miss.
This is clearly a course where knowing when to attack and when to back off make a real difference in your final score. Thoughtful aggressiveness is the mantra here. You have to go for it when the odds are in your favor because you need some low scores to balance the few paybacks you are likely to render through the day.
Do not miss the men’s locker room-it is a throwback to the days before political correctness dominated our lives. It is a place for men to unwind after a round-have a drink, play some cards, and settle all the bets of the day. The memorabilia on the walls is enough to fill a museum.
Architect: Dick Wilson (1963) Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay (since 1970)
Tees Par Rating Slope Yardage
Green 72 75.4 142 7381
Blue 72 73.7 139 6895
Yellow 72 71.6 134 6437