Away Game | Orlando

The King and I

April 2010

It's breakfast as usual -- tenured waitresses delivering contagious smiles and topping off coffee for golfers about to battle the elements of agronomy. Four men in khaki shorts and striped shirts get up from their table and head for the range. On their way out, they can't help but stop in front of the big wall of images to pay their respects. It's like they're in the Louvre, the way they drop their jaws, tilt their heads and point to their favorites. Some pictures are black and white, some are in color, but the common denominator is Arnold Palmer. And if this group would just turn around, they could snap one of their own -- because Palmer is drinking a cup of coffee at the table behind them.

Such is life at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge.

"I don't plant myself here for that purpose," says Palmer, "I just happen to be here."

Just 20 minutes from downtown Orlando, Bay Hill has been his home from October through March since 1976. Palmer's daughter and son-in-law run the place. His grandson Sam Saunders, who turned pro last year, can be seen on the range working on his game. And Palmer plays with some of his best friends three times a week.

All he asks is that you kindly remove your cap in the lobby, hallways and dining areas. But Palmer is also clear he doesn't want his resort to feel ostentatious. "We want it to be a first-class, feel-comfortable-type place. It's part of the mystique about Bay Hill -- family. I bought it so that I could have a place to practice, and so I could feel like I was at home. It's worked out perfectly, and I've been improving it ever since."

bay hill

In 2007, Bay Hill finished a $7 million renovation of the lodge and an upgrade to the clubhouse. There are 70 guest rooms, 10 cottages (two bedrooms, two bathrooms), a spa, pool, four dining options, six tennis courts, a golf academy and 27 holes. In the peak season, January through March, golf packages start at $305 a night per person for double-occupancy and include breakfast, golf, cart and range balls. Forecaddies ($60 per group, plus gratuity) are required for a threesome or more.

Last May, Bay Hill closed the championship course for a $2 million makeover, mainly because the greens were old and in bad shape. "We needed to grow grass," says Erik Larsen, executive vice president of Arnold Palmer Design Co., also based on the property.

Palmer changed the grass on the greens to a new strain of Bermuda. He flattened tees, raised bunkers, defined lake edges, improved cartpaths, fixed some drainage issues and straightened fairway lines. The most recognizable difference is the bunkers. They come into play more often, and they're visible. "Now it's much more intimidating," says Larsen. "We lit the place up."

Subscribe to Golf Digest
Subscribe today