Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club and Resort — great, though expensive, golf

Bay Hill Golf and Resort
Orlando, FLA
Designer: Dick Wilson, with renovation by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay

Many think of Bay Hill as an exclusive enclave on the outskirts of Orlando. That’s not really true. Sure it is pricey, but ultimately anyone can play Bay Hill if they are willing to shell out the green fees and stay at the resort.
So is it worth it?
Many have complained that Bay Hill is unexceptional, built on typical Florida land (re: flat and dull) and lacking in interest. I’ve had the chance to tackle Bay Hill twice and found the course to be a strong test of golf, interesting and, in the end, charming.
It seems to me that Palmer and his lead designer, Ed Seay, have understood what makes Dick Wilson courses strong (angled, strategic approaches, interesting green contours) and accentuated those factors. It is kind of the opposite of what happened at Doral (which appears to have finished Raymond Floyd’s design career), where the club essentially went bunker crazy and threw sand everywhere.

With that, here’s a run down of some of the most interesting holes at Bay Hill:

#2 – 218 yards — after a relatively dull opening, Bay Hill demonstrates some of its challenge on the second hole, a notoriously difficult par three. Bunkered left and centre, this hole forces players to carry a long, high iron if they hope to get anywhere near the hole. That’s essentially the shot one needs at Bay Hill — you’re not going to run many balls in on this track.

#4 — 530 yards — it is the green site that makes this par five. The tee shot is straight ahead, with a creek running alongside the right of the fairway, but it is the approach that makes this hole tough. Losing it to the left makes it difficult to recover.

#6 — 558 yards — this isn’t that tough a hole, but the angled fairway, which winds its way around the lake that is central to the third, fourth and sixth holes, means disaster lurks (just ask John Daly). The interesting thing about this hole is that Wilson asks for a degree of precision. Just blasting it up the middle means you’ll likely end up in a fairway bunker. In order to find the fairway, a player has to bite off some of the pond. The question is how much?

#11 — 438 yards — some will point to the 17th or 18th holes as the best at Bay Hill. I think it is the 11th, hands down. Once more utilizing water of the left (see a theme developing here?), Wilson uses the pond to psychologically push players towards the right bunkers, hurting their approach in the process. The green is terrific, perched alongside the water and with plenty of contour. Lots of rounds go awry on this one.

#17 — 219 yards — This is a par three that has probably been lengthened to an extreme, especially given the size and contour in the green. I bet this is a better hole at the distance most amateurs play it — about 170 yards, giving golfers a shot at holding this green. It is tremendously difficult for the pros, but lacks the drama of the 18th. It is typically hold on and pray with this one for Tour players.

#18 — 441 yards — Step up and blast a drive and hope you’re not left with 180 yards into this fascinating green. This is a great finishing hole, much better than Wilson’s Doral version. I think the drama rests in the way the green is situated. Rather than putting water in front, Wilson angled the green, forcing players to play to the left and risk the bunkers in order to avoid the pond. This might be too tough for most hackers lucky enough to tee it up at Bay Hill, but it makes for a great Tour finisher.

So is Bay Hill worth the cash? Every individual will have to justify that to themselves. However, Bay Hill is a great strategic golf course, something many overlook when they toss it aside with a comment that, “The only reason anyone goes is for Arnold.”
Of course people go for Arnold. After all, where else might one wander over to the driving range, only to find themselves hitting balls next to one of the game’s most legendary figures?
But there’s more to Bay Hill than the King.

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Jeff Lancaster

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