What better way is there to celebrate Arnold Palmer's birthday than reminiscing about staying at his Bay Hill Lodge and Club, walking the fairways and thinking about how much the game of golf means to our lives?
The Bay Hill Lodge and Club has been a host to a PGA Tour tournament for the last 35 years. One of a select number of "Invitationals" on tour, it is distinctly Palmer's—whether you look at the golf course, the field or how the tournament is conducted.
When I drove to the club to play golf (I am not a professional golfer, so it was not championship week), it looked different. If you have played a golf course before or after seeing a golf tournament, you know what I mean. It is different without the grandstands, galleries and ropes.
Bay Hill looked more alive than ever to me with her open vistas and magnolia trees in blossom. She was beautiful in her nakedness. Although the Bay Hill tournament welcome is as warm as anywhere on tour, the smile and greeting of Khadijah and Ginny at the front desk made me feel like family. I felt as invited as the golf pros in Palmer's tournament.
My room overlooked the putting green and the Rolex clock it envelops. Looking past the green to the practice tee, I did what I always wanted to do: hit some balls, work on my game in the evening, sleep and repeat the next morning. There is something special about staying on the grounds of a golf course.
I took a walk down the corridors of what is the nicest lodge I have ever seen. I went past a steward as he ran a rag along the top to dust a chair rail. The place was spotless. The accommodations were so clean and maintained that one could eat off the light wood floors or sleep comfortably on the rugs of the long corridors.
The pictures and artwork were so unique, so Palmer-esque that I knew there was no other place like this in the world.
Heading toward the pro shop I saw a plaque of the past invitational champions. I reminisced about coming here for the tournament since 2008. How could Tiger make a 25-foot birdie putt to win by one and then do it again the following year? That year, though a man, I was a kid and hung around the 18th green a long time after the excitement dissipated.
A real kid ran home and came back with a putter and a few golf balls. We tried that same putt 50 times and could not make it even once like Tiger did.
The plaque had more recent Tiger plates: for 2012 when Tiger broke his winless streak on tour dating back to September 2009 and only a few weeks ago when he ascended back to the World No. 1 Golfer. There were his four-in-a-row from 2000 to 2003, making eight the number of times Tiger has won a tournament at Bay Hill, tying Sam Snead's eight Greater Greensboro Opens.
Of course, if you ask Tiger, this is old news, as he won seven times on tour at Torrey Pines—eight, if you count his last major won: the U.S. Open in 2008.
A trip down the corridors, into the locker room and around the grounds rates right up there with a visit to the USGA Golf House, the PGA Village and the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Tops on my list of touch points were the picture of Palmer in church—Oakmont's famous Church Pews, the cover of the September 1954 Golf World proclaiming "The New Amateur King" and having a quiet reflective moment in Winnie's Hummingbird Garden. I wish my dad were alive; I would bring him here in a heartbeat.
Though they did not put it in the name of the Bay Hill Lodge and Club, remember there is a vintage 1961 Dick Wilson designed golf course that was modernized by a hands-on Palmer renovation in time for the 2010 tournament. Though I did not climb a tree like Sergio Garcia did on the 10th hole, I did take a ground-level double-bogey there on my way to a memorable back nine 39.
After hitting some balls on the range I met a new friend and enjoyed an Arnold Palmer (the beverage) and dinner in the Bay Window Room. Though I missed the tennis courts, spa, salon, pool and fitness center, I can personally certify that the lodge, club, golf course and restaurant are all A-plus.
Bay Hill opened 10 years before Walt Disney World. Dreams do come true in Orlando, whether at the Magic Kingdom or a few miles away at the King's magical Bay Hill Lodge and Club.
Happy birthday, Arnold Palmer!