Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, FL
Tee Time: April 18, 2014, 10:10, 81 F, overcast
Designer: Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay (1961)
Playing Partners: Brad, Tyler
Tees: Blue, Par 72 (73.7 rating/139 slope/6,895 yards)
Course Handicap: 10 (8.5 index)
Stats: 96 (53-43); 32 putts; 6/14 fairways; 2/18 greens; 6 penalty strokes
According to the United States Geological Survey, the state of Florida is 18.5% water. And according to my personal research, 50% of that area can be found at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge. Trust me. Some form of water is in play on 10 of the 18 holes, and you will find it. There is greenside water, long carries over water, water to the left, water to the right. There is nowhere to hide, it will get you. Fortunately only the water is dangerous, as I only saw one baby alligator patrolling one of the 8 or so lakes.
That’s the first thing I took away from my round at Bay Hill. The second is that this course is difficult. The 73.7/139 rating from the Blue tees should’ve given me a hint, but it plays even tougher than that. The wind can pick up and send balls sailing all over. Your mind has no choice but to keep that threat of water at its forefront. It’s long. Whatever your handicap is, you will shoot worse than it here. Just accept that and have fun. What this course really teaches you is that golf isn’t a game of straight lines. Obviously some holes are extreme examples of this, but the safest way around here is with accurate draws and fades. Any straight line you draw on the course will bring you near an obstacle. If you can work the ball, you’ll have fun here. I suck at that, but once I started thinking in curves and arcs, the course felt less intimidating. I think that’s why the pros have fun here and why the top-ranked names in the game tend to do so well.
The first hole is a big dogleg-left par 4, but this one has no water anywhere which is fine with me. Bunkers are reachable through the fairway from the tee and the shallow green is well guarded by a wide bunker. From there it’s straight to the 220-yard par-3 2nd, which plays a little downhill with a small round bunker guarding the middle of the green. Missing left or right is fine and can be an easy chip to possibly get up-and-down. And then the real fun begins. The first of the signature banana holes is the par-4 3rd. From the tee, the view of the water on the left dominates your vision as only a narrow strip of fairway is your real target. Unless you absolutely crush a tee shot, your next shot is almost all carry over water and a sand trap to the green. I put two in the water and escaped with a 9, so hopefully others do better. The first par 5 is the 491-yard 4th, with a creek running up the far right side and an elevated green that rolls back any shot that tries to sneak on. The short, 366-yard 5th is pretty. From a raised tee box the large lake of holes 3 and 6 is viewable through a picket fence of trees. The left side is well guarded by a line of fairway bunkers but it’s one of the few holes you don’t need a driver so hazards are not a big concern here.
The par-3 7th is a pretty hole that would rank high at many other courses but it probably gets overlooked by all the beautiful water holes at Bay Hill. It’s a straight forward 184-yard shot to a green surrounded on all sides by sand. The 8th is one of the toughest holes I though. It requires a long, accurate shot because of the big trees on the right. From there it’s uphill over water to a shallow green guarded by a pond. The front of the green banks steeply into the water but with sand behind, you risk running it back off the green and rinsing it anyway. Best to just hit a perfect shot. The 446-yard 9th brings you back by the lodge with a gentle dogleg-left around a large fairway bunker to a big green.
Grab a club sandwich and, obviously, an Arnold Palmer drink before making the turn. The par-4, 383-yard 10th is a little break from the water that plays even more prominently on the back nine. Such as at the 11th, a dogleg-left, 409-yard par 4 that features the same steeply banked front to a green behind a pond. The second shot is pretty long, over water and to a shallow green, so good luck. The monster, 562-yard 12th is one of the merciful times when the water is basically out of play. It’s a pretty easier fairway to hit and from there a well placed second shot can set up a good look to a green set among several bunkers. My second favorite hole is the 356-yard 13th. It plays similar off the tee to the 5th, with an accurate shot setting up the approach. There is a lake, however, guarding the front and framed with rocks that make coming up short an instant penalty stroke. Like most of these holes over the water, the green plays shallow. The 179-yard 14th might be the toughest par-3 on the course.
It plays uphill to a green that has to be hit, otherwise there are four fairway bunkers lurking to grab any poor shots. The 15th is a sharp dogleg-right par 4 with sand and trees protecting the corner. From the fairway it’s not too tough to make a par, however, as the green is relatively easier to hit than most here at Bay Hill. The final par 5 is the 16th. A good shot off the tee makes this 490-yard hole reachable, but there is a large lake to the left and the water also cuts in front of the green. It’s definitely doable, but you’re looking at a risky carry. The upside is that going over the green isn’t the worst thing in the world, with a bailout area to the back right. The 177-yard 17th is an intimidating hole. From the tee all you see is the lake (and the baby alligator) that merges into the Texas-sized greenside bunker guarding a very wide putting surface. It is a good-looking hole, and I bet it’s really stunning on sunny days with the blue sky reflecting off the water. The instantly-recognizable closing 18th features that big banana green that’s been the home to so much drama over the years on the PGA Tour. Especially with the pin at the back right position. Today it was front left, and it plays much easier from there. Even I managed to par it. When I made my par putt I also spiked my hat into the green like Tiger Woods at the 2008 Arnold Palmer Invitational. Man, he’s really dominated here, hasn’t he?
The third and final takeaway from my round here is obviously how important having Bay Hill is. Arnold Palmer is the unquestioned face of golf. He made the sport fun, popular and exciting. He was Tiger Woods before Woods was even born. That to this day, any guest of the resort can meet him and have a genuine conversation with a living legend is a cool thing to see. I wish he had been hanging around while I was here, but unfortunately I didn’t see him. His presence is everywhere, not just in the refrigerators filled with his signature beverage. It’s a place where the values of golf and being a gentleman are still respected. No hats indoors, proper attire and manners matter here. It really reflects in the staff, who are as polite as any hospitality staff in the country. Every one of them that I spoke to had only the highest respect for golf and Mr. Palmer himself. He earns that from the way he treats his guests, employees and fans, not just from his reputation. Just being on the property you feel like you’re at a sanctuary for the sport, almost the same atmosphere inside the Baseball Hall of Fame’s walls in Cooperstown.
#6, Par 5, 528 yards, 2-handicap, My Score: 6
Layout: A; a great setup, no wonder it’s so fun to watch on TV. This course was made for the big leagues and doesn’t disappoint.
Amenities: A; a pro shop that caters to the souvenir-hunting crowd, as well as a great warmup area and stocked snack bar
Staff: A; everyone is very friendly, even to this lone business traveler. Our forecaddie Luiz was the only thing saving me from shooting over 100.
Difficulty: A; like I said, this course is very hard..
Scenery: B+; each individual hole has its charm and as a whole it really is picturesque set amongst the country club mansions here in Orlando.
Value: A; it’s about $200 for a round, which is a bargain compared to many other courses of its caliber and prestige, especially in the state of Florida. The only catch is you have to stay at the lodge to play, which, with a AAA discount, is about $185 a night. Not bad, but it is a cost.
Overall GPA: 3.9 (A); this is a bucket list course, but I think it might even be more fun to watch the tournament here in March every year.