Last March, my wife and I stopped at Bay Hill in Orlando to help celebrate its 50th anniversary and more importantly,
, the man who popularized golf for me and millions more on black and white TV sets in the '60s.
When I was a kid, I watched him and his large "army" mass as he would methodically assault each hole with a rousing finish in myriad tournaments. Palmer enjoyed a flair for the dramatic, especially when playing against the likes of
, the Golden Bear and South African
, always dressed in black like
The Bay Hill Club was originally built in 1961. Four years afterwards in 1965, the "King of Golf," Palmer, played here and won a charity golf event on the unknown course. He fell in love with Orlando and Bay Hill, and in 1970, acquired the course with a 5-year lease that ended with Arnie making it the Florida home he frequents today.
By 1979, Palmer successfully created a tournament that became an official
Tour stop, attracting some of the strongest golf fields. It's now called the "Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard," an annual March event. The entire production is overseen and directed by the golf legend himself.
Palmer made some improvements. All 18 greens are redesigned, bunkers reworked, and yardage increased from 7,103 to 7,196. Par increased from 71 to 72.
Bay Hill was the first golf course planted with
Tifway (Tifton 419) Bermuda grass
. Wildlife still inhabited the land including a family of bobcats that resided around the now famous 17th green. Otters claimed the lakes as their homes.
announced the purchase of over 27,000 acres of land nearby, where the
Walt Disney World Resort
would soon emerge.
Today, beautiful homes surround the golf course and line adjacent boulevards. Gardens, trees and lawns are a flowering testimonial to the lushness of Central Florida and the care and concern of the Bay Hill community.
We stay in the 70-room lodge, a comfortable and value-added experience for guests. Everywhere on the property, I encounter historic pictures and golf memorabilia such as trophies and medals that outline Arnold Palmer's sterling career. There are magazines on coffee table, most featuring Arnie on the cover. I discover that Palmer was a great friend of
who would often invite Arnie over to chat. Ike I recall also enjoyed a game of golf and had a putting green installed on his
This course and lodge are located 20 minutes from downtown Orlando and features 27 holes of golf, the
Arnold Palmer Golf Academy
, tennis on four courts, a full service spa and salon, fitness center, four dining locations, and 9,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space.
As we walk around the property, we encounter many of the tournament banners with pictures of previous Bay Hill winners such as
V. J. Singh
, all blowing in the breeze. And there are plenty of orange trees here in Central Florida, known for its sweet produce, natural hills and valleys.
The huge scoreboard still stand today as do the stands around the 18th green, but they are empty as the tournament was just captured by Martin Laird who at one point lost his three shot lead, and trailed by three.
Laird is the first European golfer to win the beautiful trophy that was presented by Arnold Palmer himself. Just 28, Laird, came to America from Scotland to play college golf and remained ever since.
As the sun lowers in the west, we climb into the empty stands circling #18 and briefly watch a few people putt out on the enormous green, flanked with numerous sand traps and a large water hazard that could easily support a hundred alligators. The yellow flag at the pin flutters in the gentle wind. It's a stunning setting for a tournament finish and an appropriate home for Arnold Palmer.
(At this year's event, March 18-24, spectator tickets start at $40 for a single day and $100 for a week's pass.)
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.