Orlando's Other Kingdom: Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club and Lodge

Reprinted with permission from Golf Odyssey.

After starting our Orlando survey last month by focusing our critical lens on the elegant new Waldorf Astoria Orlando and its Rees Jones golf course, we conclude this month with a look at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge. Tucked amidst a quiet neighborhood well removed from the cacophony of Orlando's myriad theme parks, this venerable golf club, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, is a special place for travelers who relish the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the game's great champions and possibly even rub elbows with golf royalty. Above all, Bay Hill is Arnold Palmer's home (and home course) for most of the year. Moreover, each March, Bay Hill hosts the PGA Tour's Arnold Palmer Invitational. The tournament eighteen is a long and tough Florida layout without any gimmicks—just one solid, immaculately groomed hole after another. Whether you seek a measuring stick for your game or desire to work on your swing, Bay Hill, with its 27 holes (a third nine lies beyond the practice ground), excellent practice facilities, and Arnold Palmer Golf Academy just steps from the guestrooms of the Lodge, provides an attractive option for a short golf-immersion getaway with your spouse, buddies, or even on your own. Just bear in mind, Bay Hill is a private golf realm. If you're not a member or a member's guest, you must stay at the Lodge to gain access.

Bay Hill's special aura and appeal stems entirely from Arnold Palmer—“Mr. Palmer,” as the staff respectfully refers to him. Befitting his reputation for being a great man of the people, Mr. Palmer is about as accessible in his realm as any figure of such iconic stature could be. The King resides at Bay Hill from late fall through the better part of spring. He comes to work in his office above the pro shop for a few hours every day with his dog Mulligan. Most days, he dines at Bay Hill's two primary dining rooms. He has regular games on the golf course, and he's often on the right edge of the driving range testing out new Calloway clubs to tinker with back in the workshop at his house.

Our return to Bay Hill for the first time since 2005 found Mr. Palmer as good-spirited and charismatic as ever. As we hit balls a few yards away from him on the range, we watched a couple shyly approach him. When he heard them say they always wanted to meet him, he waved them up and said rather sweetly, “Well then, come up and say ‘hi.'” His warmth toward guests eager to meet him or get a picture taken with him is a reflection of the friendliness that wafts through the entire property. Most of the staff members have worked devotedly at Bay Hill for years. Ginny at the front desk and John the bell captain are longtime familiar faces and always eager to share their font of local information.

The Lodge is much improved since we last wrote about it. If ever a place needed an upgrade, this was it. As we said of the old accommodations in our November 2005 issue, “Only the most rabid golfers will readily excuse the forlorn and dowdy aspect of the remaining old accommodations. The bathrooms are basic, the decorations plain, and the amenities scant. We immediately noticed the television mounted awkwardly high up on the wall and the furnishings that looked like they had come from a garage sale. When we inquired about checking e-mail, the friendly crew at the front desk directed us to a couple of Internet cafes in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

A $7 million upgrade that began in 2005 brought much-needed renovations, including a more welcoming lobby, new furniture and upgraded bathrooms in the guestrooms, and new meeting space. While the Lodge can't be described as luxurious, it's a very comfortable place for golfers. It's also a place where solo travelers will never feel awkward or lost in the shuffle. Compared to other retreats, it also offers very fine value. Those who want lots of activities and nightlife won't find them at Bay Hill, although the theme parks as well as Orlando's lively “Restaurant Row” on Sand Lake Road are nearby.
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THE GOLF

Arnold Palmer fell for Bay Hill (Rating: B+) the first time he played the then-four-year-old Dick Wilson-designed club in 1965. He later bought it, and he has put his own stamp on it ever since, redesigning it twice and tweaking it constantly. He seems motivated to prevent the world's best pros from tearing it up during the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Tiger Woods has won here five times. Last year, Ernie Els won the tournament for the second time at 11 under par.

Fans of the PGA Tour are doubtless already familiar with the layout. Typical of Florida courses, it lacks distinctive landforms even as it incorporates plenty of water. Although Bay Hill is a good driving course that rewards long hitters, you're best served putting your ball in the proper position in the fairway. The hardest task at Bay Hill is getting close to the pin on the large elevated greens stoutly defended by Palmer's formidable bunkering.

Bay Hill Club and Lodge's long (438 yards from the penultimate blue markers) dogleg-left opening hole provides a bruising initiation to the round. Even after a solid drive to the narrow fairway, you'll face a lengthy approach to a small green defended by four deep bunkers. Following a long but relatively easy par three, the 3rd hole is another dogleg left. This one traces the boundary of a lake. It's a mere prelude, however, to the spectacular boomerang-shaped double-dogleg-left par-five 6th. Bold golfers often recklessly take on too much of the lake that looms to the left. During the final round of the tour event in 1998, John Daly infamously hit six consecutive shots into the water en route to an 18 on the hole.

On the back nine, holes 17 and 18 are almost as nerve-wracking as the finish at the TPC Sawgrass. Mr. Palmer continues to toughen up the par-three 17th. This long par three calls for a carry over water to a green defended by an enormous beach bunker that blankets the front of a green that looks awfully shallow from the tee. Beware that the water wraps around the right rear of the putting surface.

The pressure ramps up on 18, the longest par four on the back nine and a beautifully designed final test. Standing in the landing area and looking at the lake to the right, bunkers to the left and rear of the crescent-shaped green, the prospect is pure intimidation. Three bunkers line the back of the putting surface. If you're in one of them, good luck. The green slopes away toward the water.

The Charger Course is Bay Hill's shorter third nine. It receives a fair bit of play during twilight hours and on weekend mornings when the tournament eighteen is reserved for members. The 2nd, a short par three whose shallow green is fronted by rocks, wetlands, and a pond, may be Bay Hill's prettiest one-shotter. The most interesting hole is the 4th, a short, eminently drivable par four with a lake hugging the right side of the serpentine fairway all the way from tee to green.

Bay Hill's greens are fast and tricky. Most undulate and sport two tiers. Be prepared to fly the ball onto the elevated putting surfaces. The large, deep bunkers filled with brilliant white sand constrict the target even more. Bay Hill's rough may also be formidable, especially in the run-up to the Arnold Palmer Invitational. You can rest assured course conditions will be excellent. If you don't fix your divot or ball mark, you will feel like you're personally letting Arnold Palmer down.

Overall, Bay Hill exudes a friendly club feel. We found the starters, beverage cart attendants, and player's assistants engaging and helpful. The golf shop offers a full array of merchandise. Bay Hill observes a reserved decorum as well. Don't wear your hat indoors and make sure your shirt is tucked in at all times.
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LODGING

Bay Hill Lodge (Rating: B) has improved markedly. We had our concerns about the renovation plan. On one hand, the lodge was in deep need of an update. However, there was a certain charm and character to the place that, thankfully, was not lost in the renovation process. The hodgepodge dowdy rusticity of the old rooms is gone, replaced by uniform furnishings including new beds and linens. Brown, green, and beige tones predominate. A large armoire houses a 27-inch flat-screen television and a DVD player. Complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout. In the bathrooms, although the tub and shower are still combined and a curtain still hangs on a rod, improvements include a more spacious vanity area, new flooring and tiling, and a nice oversized showerhead. The only peculiar aspect about the new setup is the placement of the luggage rack in the bathroom.

If you are traveling with a group or desire a little more privacy, Bay Hill rents out eight two-bedroom houses on a cul de sac just past the tennis club. Like the rooms in the Lodge, they are priced quite attractively. With the addition of new meeting space during the renovations, Bay Hill can also serve as a neat place for a corporate retreat. The boardroom looks out on the putting green.

One of the charming constants of Bay Hill Club and Lodge is its intimate scale and the quality of the staff. The staff members are genuine and personable. Everyone we met referred to us by name and asked how we enjoyed our rounds of golf. Ginny at the front desk will be rooting for you to meet Mr. Palmer if that's your goal, and she'll let you know when and where she last saw him.
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RESTAURANTS

Bay Hill (Dining Rating: B-) stays within its comfort factor in its dining offerings. This is, after all, where Arnold Palmer eats most of his meals when he's at home. The main restaurant, the Grill and Classic Room, is open every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The back part of the dining room is large and open. In the front, the television only gets turned on by guest request. Breakfast is highlighted by an extensive buffet with eggs and omelets made to order. The dinner menu is wide ranging, but you won't go wrong with the lobster bisque, the filet mignon or a steak, and the key lime pie for dessert. All-you-can-eat pot roast and prime rib specials are featured on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. Gentlemen are requested to wear jackets at dinner.

The Bay Window, Bay Hill's casual dining room, is open for lunch and dinner from Thursday through Sunday. During our previous visit, this attractive room was only used for special functions, but thankfully, since the renovations, it's been converted back to a primary restaurant. We especially like the bar area. Highlights from the pub-style menu include salads, flatbreads, pizza, a pasta dish or two, and chicken pot pie. In season, the Terrace Café, by the pool, offers light fare, including burgers and salads.

Should you elect to venture off property, Orlando's “Restaurant Row” is just a couple miles away on West Sand Lake Road. Ocean Prime (tel: 407-781-4880) is a very good, though also very expensive, seafood restaurant. Timpano Chophouse and Martini Bar (tel: 407-248-0429) offers nice selections of pastas and steaks in a vibrant atmosphere with jazz and swing bands every evening. Next door, The Samba Room (tel: 407-226-0550), a Latin bistro, pulses with Cuban, Brazilian, and South American rhythms.
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NON-GOLF ACTIVITIES

Non-golf activities aren't a strong suit of Bay Hill (remember, it's Bay Hill “Club & Lodge,” rather than “Resort”), but it's a good place for tennis players. Lodge guests enjoy complimentary access to Bay Hill's vibrant tennis club and its lighted Har-Tru courts. Additional facilities include a junior Olympic-size pool, a workout room with a full complement of cardio and weight machines, and a small spa/salon that offers two treatment rooms and a facial room. Bay Hill also has a marina and docks on the Butler chain of lakes. The waters are known for excellent bass fishing. Orlando's theme parks, meanwhile, are about 15 minutes away.

Craig Better is one of the founding editors of Golf Vacation Insider. In addition to traveling to 15 foreign countries, he has twice traveled across America to play golf courses in all 50 United States. Prior to joining Golf Vacation Insider, Craig was a freelance writer who contributed to GOLF Magazine, Travel + Leisure Golf, Maxim Magazine, USAToday.com, and co-authored Zagat Survey’s book, America’s Top Golf Courses.
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