ORLANDO, Fla. - Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer will forever be intimately linked to the Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
And that, perhaps, is the best indicator of how special this private southwest Orlando golf course really is. Marketing executives couldn't dream up a better pair of icons to be associated with their course.
Palmer has long served as the face of Bay Hill, bringing his Arnold Palmer Invitational to Florida every year since 1979. The course's daily afternoon shootout, sometimes with Palmer in the game, has become the stuff of legend. Woods is linked to Bay Hill for one reason: how thoroughly he has dominated the Invitational, winning a record six times, including a PGA Tour-record-tying four times in a row from 2000 to 2003.
Bay Hill General Manager Ray Easler calls the Woods-Palmer connection to Bay Hill "an incredible marriage."
Bay Hill is one of the toughest courses on Tour, one of the reasons why Tiger Woods has won a record six times here. "It seems to be fate that the two are tied together," Easler said. "Tiger only lives a mile and a half away. He plays with us every year. You have the new legend coming about next to the living legend."
Past champions of the Invitational reads like a hall-of-fame banquet: Ernie Els (1998), Phil Mickelson (1997), Ben Crenshaw (1993), Fred Couples (1992), Tom Kite (1989), Payne Stewart (1987) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1985), to name a few.
Only Doral Golf Resort and Spa's Blue Monster has hosted a pro tournament longer than Bay Hill. The 7,157-yard course continues to stand up to the world's best players and put on a show while doing so. The 31st annual Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard had a new slot on the PGA Tour calendar this past March, just two weeks before the Masters. And for the second consecutive year, Woods won with a dramatic birdie putt on the 72nd and final hole.
"I like the new dates, and it could make our field stronger, although we've always enjoyed having great fields," Palmer, winner of 62 PGA Tour titles, including seven majors, told PGATour.com.
Nothing's easy at Bay Hill
To keep up with today's long bombers, Bay Hill, designed by the venerable Dick Wilson in 1961, converted in 2007 to a par-70 layout for the tournament with two member par 5s playing as par 4s.
Playing the 27 holes of Bay Hill without a tour card requires an invitation from a member or a stay in its 64-room lodge. The added expense of spending the night is well worth the chance to tee it up at a place so steeped in history. Tennis courts, a health club, a luxury spa and the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy make Bay Hill feel more like a resort getaway than just a private club.
The layout itself has a few pedestrian Florida holes, where the typical bunkers and water hazards await. But they are offset by several stunners that confound even the world's best.
The 558-yard sixth hole bends boomerang-style around a massive pond. John Daly hit six consecutive tee shots into the water for an 18 in 1998. It was a "Tin Cup" moment in real life, showcasing how tempting it is to cut off too much of the corner.
The property has just enough humps and ridges to create several semi-blind tee shots, notably the par-5 12th and par-4 15th. Playing the proper angle off the tee on many holes could be the difference of at least two strokes.
The golf course's finish garners more than its share of the TV coverage for the simple reason that people love carnage. A train wreck is possible on any of the final three holes. The 517-yard, par-5 16th now plays as a nasty par 4, forcing players to carry the water hazard in front on their second shot or risk being called a wimp in the locker room. The skinny green on the 219-yard 17th is hard to hit and hold.
And we've all witnessed the destructive charms of the 18th hole. Years ago, Palmer himself transformed a weak par 5 into a stout par 4 of 441 yards with a hook-shaped green tucked behind the rock-lined "Devil's Bathtub," a pond that has rinsed the likes of Vijay Singh and others.
Who can forget Woods' rousing birdie putt, and subsequent fist-pump, on the green to capture the 2008 tournament? Not to be outdone, Robert Gamez holed a 7-iron from 176 yards for an eagle to beat Greg Norman by one in 1990. A plaque in the fairway still marks the accomplishment.
It's a fitting finish to a course fit for a King - Arnold Palmer himself.
Bay Hill Club & Lodge: The verdict
Easler considers Bay Hill a classic golf course that the pros love to play before The Masters.
"It really hasn't changed an enormous amount the last 40 years," he said. "A lot of the newer courses are designed for longer hitters. Bay Hill is suited to shotmakers. That is Mr. Palmer's style. Also, the way we set it up is along the lines of Augusta. We are the tuneup for Augusta. We have long rough and fast greens."
Playing where the pros play is no marketing sham. It's a thrill to tee it up at PGA Tour stops, especially dynamic layouts like Bay Hill. The course features arguably the second-best three-hole finish in Florida (behind the TPC of Sawgrass Stadium course). The chance to run into "Mr. Palmer" and shake his hand just adds to the allure.