Bay Hill has a wonderful tournament history dating back to 1979, when the PGA Tour moved its Florida Citrus Open to the club. Bob Byman captured the first event staged at Bay Hill, defeating John Schroeder in a playoff. Back in 1960, several gentlemen from Nashville, Tennessee, hired Dick Wilson and Joe Lee to craft a special retreat where they could enjoy their favorite hobby. Wilson designed many courses in Florida, including Doral's Blue Monster and Pine Tree and several famous courses around the United States, namely Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania, NCR in Ohio and La Costa Resort in California. Lee, known for many Sunshine State courses in his own right, such as Magnolia, Palm and Lake Buena Vista courses in Disney World, worked with Wilson on many projects, including La Costa and Cog Hill in Illinois. The duo created a remarkable course that gently rolls across 270 acres along the shores of the Butler Chain of Lakes.
After completion, the owners, in an effort to promote the club, invited Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Don Cherry and Dave Ragan to play in an exhibition in 1965. Mr. Palmer, who shot 66 to beat Nicklaus, fell in love with the course and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mr. Palmer, along with several partners assumed control of the club in 1970 and then just six years later, Mr. Palmer purchased the club outright and became the club owner, president and green committee chairman. Over the years, Mr. Palmer, along with the recently-deceased Ed Seay have tinkered with the design of the course in an effort to make Bay Hill one of the most beautiful and demanding layouts in golf.
The list of champions at this event reads like a who's who of Hall-of-Famers past, present and future. From Tom Kite (1982, '89), Payne Stewart (1987) and Ben Crenshaw (1983) to Paul Azinger (1988), Phil Mickelson (1997), Ernie Els (1998), Vijay Singh (2007) and Tiger Woods (2000-03).
Although never a winner of this event, Greg Norman enjoyed success at Bay Hill, posting a pair of runner-up finishes, making the cut in his first 12 appearances and recording six top-10s and nine top-15s. Norman was a tad snake-bitten at Bay Hill, losing in a playoff in 1983 to little-known Mike Nicolette on the first extra hole, as Nicolette won for the first and only time, and then finishing one shot back of Robert Gamez, who holed out for eagle on the final hole from the fairway. Norman, along with Andy Bean, owns the course record of 62.
When Payne Stewart captured the 1987 event, he posted a record total of 264 which still stands today. Stewart, who defeated David Frost by three shots, donated his entire winner's check to a local hospital in memory of his father.
Following the 1989 event, Mr. Palmer and his design team reworked the entire course, including all 18 greens and bunkers, while lengthening the course almost 100 yards, changing the par to 72.
The USGA made its only stop at Bay Hill in 1991 for the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, where who else but Tiger Woods captured the first of his three consecutive Junior Amateur titles. Woods, the medalist with a two-day total of 140, defeated Brad Zwetschke on the 19th hole.
Fred Couples' eighth career title came in 1992, as he cruised to a whopping nine-stroke victory over Gene Sauers. Couples opened with rounds of 67-69-63 and closed with a round of 70 for a 269 total, second lowest in event history. Loren Roberts became the first back-to-back champion of this event when he titled in 1994-95. During those two tournaments, Roberts blistered the Bay Hill course with eight sub-par rounds, five rounds in the 60s and a total of 29-under-par.
Phil Mickelson's 10th career victory came in 1997, as he closed with a sizzling seven-under-par 65 for a three-shot win over Stuart Appleby. After missing the cut the first two times he played the tournament and failing to break par in his first five rounds at Bay Hill, Mickelson responded with rounds of 65-70-65 to finish at 16-under. Lefty has recorded three top-five finishes in his last five appearances.
No player over the years, however, has dominated this event like Woods. The No. 1 player in the world claimed four consecutive wins (2000-03) and has never missed the cut at this event as a professional. When he captured the 2003 tournament, he snapped Couples' winning mark by posting an 11-shot victory. During that four-year streak, Woods was a combined 65-under par with 12 rounds in the 60s and 15-of-16 rounds under par.
For the 2007 tournament, Mr. Palmer changed the course to a par of 70 at 7,137 yards. Vijay Singh, at 44 years old, won for the 31st time in his Hall of Fame career, defeating Rocco Mediate by two shots. Singh, who has never missed a cut at this event in 15 starts, has six top-10 finishes. Trailing by three heading into the final round, Singh made seven birdies and despite back-to- back bogeys on 16 and 17, was able to shoot his second straight 67 for the win. 'It means a lot,' said Singh after the win. 'This was my first ever tournament in America. I love this place.'
REVIEW: Most courses start you off with a gentile par five or routine par four, not Bay Hill. The first hole is a robust 441-yard dogleg left gem that features a tight landing area and several fairway bunkers down the right side. To make matters worse, thick rough lines both sides of the fairway, not to mention out of bounds down the left. After a successful tee ball, a medium-to- long iron remains to a slightly uphill and shallow green, just 22 paces deep. Two traps front and two rear will see plenty of action and can make an up-and-down virtually impossible.
There is not let up when you reach the second tee, a lengthy par three that can be stretched to 238 yards from the Palmer tees. Another miniscule green, this putting surface slopes hard from right to left and is surrounded by a trio of bunkers. The front pot bunker is quite diabolical, so avoid it at all costs. During the 2007 tournament, Dean Wilson aced this hole during the first round.
The fifth is a routine par four, just 384 yards in length. Bending slightly to the left, the key is the tee shot, which must dissect the quartet of fairway bunkers around the 130-yard mark. Just a short iron remains to a receptive green which features a crown in the center. Once again, sand plays a predominant role around the putting surface.
With today's technology, the par-five sixth is reachable in two, but the risk outweighs the reward. Wrapped around the lake, a draw aimed at the center of the three fairway bunkers would be the smart start. The landing area is generous, but the water is just a few paces away. A long iron or fairway metal layup will leave a short pitch to the longest green on the course, a whopping 50 yards in depth. Water left and two bunkers right will keep you honest, but if you play sensible, birdies can be had on the No. 1 handicap hole on the course.
The most straight-forward hole on the course, the seventh is also the shortest at 197 yards. Six bunkers surround the putting surface, which slopes from back to front. With a calm breeze, this hole can provide plenty of scoring opportunities.
One of my favorite holes on the course, the eighth is a tough dogleg right par four that reaches 459 yards in length. Not only does the drive have to be straight and true, it needs to be long enough to get past the trees down the right avoiding a blocked approach to the green. From the fairway, a medium-to-long iron remains to an elevated putting surface fronted by water. The green itself is just 23 paces deep, but quite wide with bunkers in the rear and right. The slope runs hard from back to front and is very slick. Anything short will most certainly run back into the drink, so club wisely.
As you return towards the clubhouse, your work is hardly complete. At the difficult ninth, your tee shot must reach the fairway for you to have any shot at getting on in regulation. A long trap and out-of-bounds guard the left side and a pair of bunkers and trees protect the right. As the hole doglegs to the left, a long iron or fairway metal will be needed to reach the putting surface. Three bunkers surround the green, which is one of the longest on the course. The final hole on the Challenger nine also happens to be the longest par four on the course.
The Champion nine opens with a forgiving, but clever, dogleg-right par four. This short par four is quite deceiving, as the fairway, which is fairly wide, is tightened by the trees and a 35-yard long bunker down the right, as well as a duo of traps down the left. Take three-metal off the tee and set up a longer, but easier, approach from the fairway. Make sure you add a little extra to your second, as the green is slightly elevated and guarded by three bunkers.
Similar to the third, the 11th is another dogleg-left par four that sweeps around a lake towards the green. Longer than its predecessor, this hole features a more forgiving fairway with a pair of bunkers down the right side, with the water coming into play at the 168-yard marker. A mid-to-short iron approach needs to be spot on, as the green is long and narrow with sand short and right. The putting surface plays a half club longer with its elevated stature. If you think left is bad, long is out-of-bounds.
The real test of the inward nine begins AT the 12th, the longest hole on the course. At 580 yards, this straightaway par five is rarely reached in two, as it plays uphill from tee to green. The danger here really is in the narrow fairway, which is guarded by thick rough. Sand comes to the forefront with your layup at the 130-yard mark down the right and two massive traps on either side of the landing area at 65 yards in. The putting surface is fairly large with a handful of bunkers surrounding the promised land. A real birdie chance.
Another sensational hole, the 13th is the shortest par four on the course at just 364 yards. Three-metal or less is the play off the tee, as the pond fronting the green is reachable with the big stick. Be wary of the bunkers guarding both sides of the fairway, as they can produce a very scary approach. Just a wedge should remain to attack this hole, however the green is just 26 paces deep and it slopes from back to front. A precise shot will be rewarded, but too much spin will end up in a rocky grave. By the way, the bunkers in the rear are no bargain either.
The final four holes are as good as they get in Florida. For starters, the 15th is a sharp, dogleg right that necessitates the player cutting the corner. That means hitting 250 yards over the two bunkers, trees and homes to leave the shortest approach in. Bailing out left will leave a very long second shot to a small and well-guarded green. Just 31 paces in depth, the putting surface, which has five traps surrounding it, has four distinct sections, making a two-putt very difficult.
Converted to a par four for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the 16th for us mortals is a solid, 517-yard par five reachable in two shots with a couple of conditions.
First, the tee shot is semi-blind from the tips and must be threaded between the numerous fairway bunkers and the trees. The longer, but better angle to get home is the left side. However, the water fronting the green must be avoided, otherwise your chance at birdie is gone and the possibility of double-bogey or worse is conceivable. Sand short-right and deep protects one of the must undulating greens on the course. A front pin could be the most difficult, as it brings the slope of the green into play and any ball not landing on top will certainly spin back towards the water. No one said it was going to be easy. During the 2007 tournament, this hole produced a stroke average of 4.411, 21st most difficult on the PGA Tour.
The par threes at Bay Hill are rated the four easiest holes on the course, but let me tell you first hand, as a player, this is not the case. A back-right flag on the 17th can stretch this one-shotter to 230 yards from the tips, over water and over sand. A high, well-struck long-iron or fairway-metal will be needed to negotiate all the trouble that this hole dishes out. Don't forget the water hazard that wraps around the right and rear portion of the green, as any low shot into this miniscule putting surface will end up wet.
How difficult is the closing hole at Bay Hill? During the 2006 tournament, it ranked as the toughest hole of the event with a 4.319 average. It's best not to know that going in, otherwise you'll be shaking in your shoes.
FINAL WORD: Just a stone's throw from downtown Orlando and Disney World, Bay Hill Club & Lodge is certainly worth the price of admission.
The Lodge features 70 newly-renovated rooms, with a full service salon and spa, dining and aquatics. The pro shop is completely stocked for both men and women, not to mention trinkets with Mr. Palmer's signature. Yes, it's a bit expensive to stay and play at Bay Hill, but not only do you get a chance to play one of the best venues in the state, you have a real good chance at meeting the host.
With five sets of tees, ranging from 5,235 to 7,267 yards, Bay Hill is for all types of players. The Challenger and Champion nines make up the tournament course, but a third nine, the Charger, is also very competitive. How tough is Bay Hill? During the 2007 Arnold Palmer Invitational, the scoring average for the four days was 72.054 (the course played to a par 70). All four rounds were over par, including the final day (74.513). For the year, Bay Hill was the seventh most difficult on the PGA Tour.
Over the years, Bay Hill has been ranked as one of the top golf resorts in North America, one of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses by Golf Digest and one of the top-10 public access courses in the state of Florida.
To host an annual stop on the PGA Tour, courses must go through rigorous upkeep for the standards of today's professional and Bay Hill absolutely measures up. Most people believe that when the event concludes in the spring, the site conditioning slips. I'm here to tell you that even in mid-summer, Bay Hill is in mint condition. From tee to green the course is immaculate and the landscaping sensational. The staff was also very gracious and accommodating, making my stay that much more enjoyable.
Would you expect anything less from the king of golf? I think not. I definitely will be back.
Phil Sokol writes for the Sports Network, and periodically contributes to GolfChannel.com. Send your thoughts on this article to Phil Sokol at firstname.lastname@example.org.