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Arnold Palmer T-shot, photo by Mike Keenan
Arnold Palmer At The Tee

Orlando's Bay Hill, a Golf Course Owned by Legendary Arnie Palmer

© by Mike Keenan

Last March, my wife and I stopped at Bay Hill in Orlando to help celebrate its 50th anniversary and more importantly, Arnold Palmer , 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 Jack Nicklaus , the Golden Bear and South African Gary Player , always dressed in black like Johnny Cash .

Bay Hill Lodge, photo by Mike Keenan   Bay Hill, 18th green long putt, photo by Mike Keenan   Bay Hill, 18th green stands, photo by Mike Keenan   Bay Hill, 18th green traps, photo by Mike Keenan   Bay Hill, 18th green, photo by Mike Keenan

     A few years back in 1972, I had the great pleasure of watching Arnold Palmer play in the Canadian Open tournament in Ridgeway at the Cherry Hill course . I watched him on the practise tee in the morning, banging out hundreds of shots, amazed at how hard he worked during the tournament. (In '72, Gay Brewer won the event, edging out Sam Adams and Dave Hill .)

Golf memorabilia, photo by Mike Keenan   Home ajoining Bay Hill course, photo by Mike Keenan   Orlando orange tree, photo by Mike Keenan   Three golf greats, Palmr, Nicklaus & Player, photo by Mike Keenan

     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 PGA 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.
     In 1965, Walt Disney 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 President Eisenhower 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 Gettysburg farm.
     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 Ernie Els , Tiger Woods , V. J. Singh , Rod Pampling , Kenny Perry , Phil Mickelson and Loren Roberts , 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.)

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

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.
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