By Jason Bruno
Just about a month or so after the last putt dropped at the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational, we returned to Bay Hill to experience what it’s like to be a guest at the club where Mr.Palmer called home every winter and spring for nearly the last half-century of his life.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational, which was a celebration of “A Life Well Played”, and it was an honor to be on hand to cover the event that won’t soon be forgotten. It was a special week dedicated to remembering Arnie.
On a beautiful spring morning in Orlando, the new statue of The King forges an unforgettable symbol of an American icon that is missed by all. The 13-foot effigy stands tall over the 1st tee in homage to the golf legend that continues to inspire so many.
Palmer fell hard for the place when he first visited the club for an exhibition match back in 1965 and “began the quest to make it his own”. The quiet surroundings, abundant wildlife, and a golf course that fit his eye were exactly what a 35-year-old Palmer was looking for. According to longtime assistant and friend Doc Giffin, “It appealed to him because of the privacy, he thought he had found a nice, quiet, lovely place (with a golf course).” In 1970, Bay Hill became his winter home, and in 1979, the PGA Tour moved it’s Central Florida stop permanently to Bay Hill (which was originally designed by Dick Wilson in 1961).
To this day, remarkably, Bay Hill remains the serene place that Palmer first laid eyes on over 50 years ago. Located on 270 acres along with the Butler chain of lakes between the ultra-affluent communities of Windermere and Dr.Phillips, the residences of Bay Hill itself are handsomely modest and unassuming in a locale where gaudy gated mansions are the norm. In fact, for many years, you could have driven through and seen the four time Masters Champion coming out of his condo in the neighborhood to take his dog for a stroll early in the a.m hours.
Despite all of the big-time tourism development in the area over the last 45 years (Bay Hill is now bordered to the south by Walt Disney World and to the east by Universal Studios), the place somehow has retained it’s quaint feel, so much so that when you turn west heading into the Bay Hill neighborhood, it seems as if time has stood still and it’s 1975.
The intimate charm of the lodge is felt from the moment you arrive. The staff has a large role in that. It’s almost as if Mr.Palmer has infused a micro-chip of his own welcoming nature into every one of his personnel. While taking notes during my stay, I constantly referred to it as the “A.P Effect”.
As we learned, experiencing Bay Hill Club and Lodge as a guest is unique to any other golf destination that we have featured. Yes, it has all of the customary amenities that you’d expect at other well-known world class golf destinations. It is a private club for its members, but it also doubles as a big-time player in the golf resort industry, not in its size, but in its stature. The seventy room lodge offers 3 restaurants, 3 bars, an aquatic center, fitness center, spa, salon, Marina (bass fishing), tennis academy, 9,000 sq, ft of meeting space, and of course 27 holes of Arnold Palmer’s personal golf treasure. However, it’s Mr.Palmer’s culture and DNA that’s branded into the fiber of Bay Hill that makes it the gem that it is today. You can’t discuss a single element of the place without mentioning his influence and presence here (even today some 9 months since his passing, and likely for several decades to come). It’s a really powerful positive energy that exists here. It’s old-school manners, proper presentation, and an abundance of kindness.
Little cool reminders like Mr.Palmer’s “Umbrella” logo imprinted in the sand ashtray give you an idea of just how well everything down to the smallest detail is well thought out. The AP “Umbrella” logo is recognizable worldwide, and perhaps has an even greater significance to those here and at Palmer’s club in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
If someone at the club bestows one of The King’s signature pins to you consider it an honor as I did when longtime lockeroom attendant Rick Roberts was kind enough to pass a few on to me after spending some time remembering his boss and friend that he still misses dearly. The card table where Arnie and his group would gather each day is just about a medium-length birdie putt away from where Roberts’ would serve up the King’s favorite – Ketel One. He introduced me to Arnie’s close friend and shootout partner Dick Ferris (who brought Palmer into the fold as a co-owner of Pebble Beach along with Clint Eastwood and Peter Ueberroth back in the summer ’99).
Recently a $7 million renovation of the rooms were completed – resulting in spacious and comfortable lodging, nothing ostentatious. Views of the course and practice areas remind you that you’re just steps away from the action. The feeling conjures up the vibe that you’re staying in Arnie’s spare room at Latrobe. Photos from a “Life Well Played” don the walls of every room. In ours was a black-n-white from the 1965 Ryder Cup Team deboarding at the airport in England. (Unlike many resorts that rotate stock photos in their rooms, every picture in every room at Bay Hill Lodge is a different moment in Arnold Palmer’s life – each selected by Mr.Palmer and his family).
The compulsion to pull the curtains away and observe the setting is too much for any golfer to bear. What a great spot to spend a few days, now it’s time to grab the putter and wedge.
Another view from just outside the room – the practice putting area, starters booth and 1st tee.
On your way to the Salon, Spa, Pool, Lounge, Cafe or Golf Academy you traverse through this beautiful courtyard and gardens.
Mr.Palmer’s personal table in the Bay Hill grill room. He would sit in the chair closest to the door so he could see everyone in the room.
Palmer’s Payne Stewart award is displayed in Bay Hill’s grillroom
While on the property I spoke with many of the key figures at the club not only about Mr.Palmer but also about the day-to-day operations at Bay Hill. One of the great people in the industry to sit down with is Roy Schindele who is the Director of Sales and Marketing.
LN How does the loss of Mr.Palmer impact the day to day operations at the club, and how do you move forward as a staff considering how large of a presence, he was on a daily basis?
R.S: “The vibe here at the club comes from the staff that is so proud to have worked with him (Mr.Palmer) directly – carrying on his legacy comes naturally. That’s indicative of the tenure of the people who have worked for him. We have people that have been here 37 years, 34 years, 28 years, and right on down the line. Todd (Harris) our Tennis Pro has been here 46 years. If anything we’ve stepped up our game and tightened things up a little bit to his standards and wishes in a very unwavering way” Schindele said. He continued, “The little things of respect and honor have been carried forward. For example, try walking down the hallway with your hat on, we’re going to ask you to take it off because that is what Mr.Palmer would do. His philosophy was consistency, customer service and if you take care of those two things, the bottom line will take care of itself. It’s just a step forward, not necessarily a monetary decision but what’s right for the guest or the member.”
Dining in the grill room is another excellent experience. The full 180-degree window view of the practice areas and 1st tee set the mood for the day. Sometimes the finest of details come in the pursuit of deliciousness, Schindele gave us a minute example of one that you’re sure to notice with your taste buds. While in the grill room having breakfast before departing for home, I made an observation about how spectacular the bacon was – so much so, that I felt compelled to take this photo (above). The best way I could describe the “Bay Hill Bacon” (as I now refer to it) is not by its texture or taste but by what I would do for another serving. I’d make the 150-mile trek up the Florida Turnpike from West Palm Beach just to get another portion.
As it turns out, Schindele brought it up without me saying a word. “Our bacon is never frozen from the time it’s produced, to when it’s delivered here, cooked, and put on your plate – because we found that (freezing it) it diminishes the taste. It costs the club nearly triple of what most resorts pay, but again it’s not a monetary decision, it’s about quality.” Right then I thought “Arnie must have loved bacon as much as his guests.” Once again I jotted down “The A.P Effect”.
While a guest, work on your game all you want, the staff will keep you supplied with pyramids of range balls all day long.
Mr.Palmer’s spot on the range is still set up each day in memory of where he enjoyed spending so much of his time each day before heading out to play in the daily “Shootout” match with his regulars. During the PGA Tour stop in March his golf bag was also on display here on the far right side of the practice tee. Quite often he’d be seen back out here in the evenings tinkering with a new club or swing thought. Many like Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player have said that no one ever loved the game of golf more than Arnold Palmer.
My last evening at the lodge I had the entire shortgame area to myself, oh what it must be like to be a member. Being a guest is the next best thing.
In the photo (above), look beyond the statue towards the lodge – you can see PGA Tour Pro Dicky Pride working on his putting. He later would tell me “That is definitely my testing spot,” Pride said. “I use the windows of the dining room as a mirror to check my setup.”
A close friend of Arnold Palmer and golf legend himself Dow Finsterwald is a member and resident at Bay Hill. We spent a few minutes watching the 1958 PGA Champion make putt after putt from 8 feet and all he could say was “they’re not going in the center of the cup.” Still a competitor at 87 years old. On any given day, you can bump into a golf legend like Dow at Bay Hill.
The main attraction at Bay Hill is always the golf course and it lived up to expectations, challenging a young tour player and a middle-aged grinder with every club in the bag. We had a magnificent day on Arnie’s championship layout. The 184 yd par 3 seventh (pictured above).
The 460-yard par 4 eighth was sporting a tucked championship Sunday pin (even though it was a Monday). It played as our seventeenth (we started on the back nine), it’s also where I missed a 10 footer for birdie to keep the match alive. The young pro (Michael Kartrude) had closed me out 2&1.
The 438 yard eleventh has danger written all over it. There is no shortage of right to left approach shots on Arnie’s signature course. After all, it was the King’s natural shot shape. You can see the water level in this photo, Florida was in serious drought conditions in late April. Now, not so much.
A view from beside the 221 yards back tee on the gorgeous seventeenth. The blue tees where I played from were 177 yards.
The 458 yard par 4 eighteenth is easily one of the more memorable finishing holes on the PGA Tour. It has been the scene of so many victorious Tiger celebrations that were shared with Arnie. In 2016, it was Jason Day who celebrated here with Mr.Palmer one last time.
One of the really cool items inside the clubhouse is this guitar that ZZ Top gave Palmer as a gift.
This timeless black and white image from the Masters Par 3 contest show Arnie and Tiger Woods playing to a magnificent throng of patrons. It might be my single favorite golf photo. It was a gift from former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge to Sam Saunders. Today it hangs in the clubhouse just outside the grill room.
This wall of Palmer golf memories in the grill room is a reminder of what a full life he led and those he shared it with.
To be at Bay Hill is a treat in itself. It’s a Lodge, a private golf club and resort all in one. To be a Stay n Play guest taps you into that whole experience, but first and foremost it is Arnold Palmer’s (winter) home and will always remembered and honored as such. Mr.Palmer’s family has done an outstanding job of carrying it forward. The staff here are truly an extension of him and his legacy. So when you arrive and check in at the lodge, soak it all in – we did.
When I pulled out of Bay Hill and made the right hand turn onto Apopka- Vineland road heading for home, I had this hard to describe feeling, it was as if I had just exited one era in my rearview mirror, and entered into another looking forward. I thought “Wow, that’s powerful. It’s a one of kind intangible sensation you have while on the grounds. I stopped at a red light a few miles down the road, took out my note pad and one last time jotted down: “AP Effect”.
If you ask me about a lasting vision that I take away from Bay Hill each time I’m on the property – it is this photo. It requires no explanation. It simply makes me smile . . .
For more info or to book your stay at Arnie’s Place: http://www.bayhill.com/