I took warm-up swings on the driving range between PGA Tour player Daniel Chopra and LPGA Tour star Suzann Pettersen. But neither was the biggest golf-world celebrity I saw during a recent visit to the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla.
That distinction belonged to Arnold Palmer, the legend who has owned the golf club since 1975 and makes his winter home there.
I bumped into Palmer, now 84, as I was going into the locker room and he was coming out. He stopped, exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes and shook my hand with his big leathery mitt before sauntering off to his golf cart, which carried two giant tour bags crammed with probably three dozen clubs. (When you’re The King, as Palmer is known, it’s okay to exceed the limit of 14.) I saw him again twice in my two-day stay, both times at dinner in the lodge’s dining room, where he often takes his meals from his favourite table near the bar.
As an avid golfer and golf watcher who understands Palmer’s place in the history of the game, I was thrilled to meet him. But my encounter with the still-charismatic icon was merely a bonus on top of a magical 48 hours on the property. (For a golf nut, Bay Hill is Orlando’s true Magic Kingdom.)
The other highlight was playing Bay Hill itself, a course Palmer has gradually transformed into one of Florida’s best. The club plays host each year to a PGA Tour event now known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Tiger Woods has won the tournament a staggering eight times.
One of golf’s charms is that regular, recreational players like me can tee up on exactly the same courses as touring professionals.
Beer league hockey players won’t get many (if any) opportunities to skate at Madison Square Garden and Slo-Pitch participants won’t get onto Wrigley Field for a game, but golfers of all levels (even the hackers) can walk many of the same fairways as the pros and hit (or at least attempt) all the famous shots they’ve seen on TV highlight reels.
There’s definitely a heightened excitement and cachet when playing where the pros play.
I didn’t enjoy as much success at Bay Hill as Woods – I actually played quite poorly by even my own modest standards, with the low point coming on the sixth hole when I hit two balls into the water and posted a 10 on my scorecard. (Pro golfer John Daly once scored 18 on the same hole so I didn’t feel too bad.) But I could not have enjoyed myself more. Bay Hill is thoroughly fair and fun, the two features I admire most in a golf course.
The opportunity to play PGA Tour venues in Florida does not end at Bay Hill, though.
Florida offers a rich list of options for those with big-league courses on their bucket lists.
All five of the PGA Tour stops in the Sunshine State are accessible to the public. No other state has as many. (California has the same number of official PGA Tour tournaments, but one is played on a private course.)
The others in Florida are the Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor (near Tampa), TPC Sawgrass’s Stadium course in Ponte Vedra Beach, PGA National Resort and Spa’s Champion layout in Palm Beach Gardens and the Blue Monster at Trump National Doral in Miami.
My favourite of the five, notwithstanding my recent excellent adventure at Bay Hill, is Copperhead at Innisbrook.
The home of the Valspar Championship is not your typical, flat Florida track. It’s plotted on a surprisingly rolling piece of land that features lots of elevation changes and tree-lined fairways.
Again, it’s fair and playable. Tee shots don’t have to be laser straight or long (if you’re playing off the correct tees for your ability) but it’s no pushover and requires strategic thinking, especially through the closing three holes that are known as the Snake Pit.
A golfer can’t walk in off the street and play Copperhead, Innisbrook’s other three courses or Bay Hill. You must be a guest at the resorts to book a tee time.
But don’t take that as a barrier – take it as an opportunity to enjoy two of Florida’s most unique and charming resorts. With their guest rooms in lodges (Bay Hill has a 70-room lodge and Innisbrook’s property is dotted with clusters of smaller buildings) and their decor dominated by dark wood, they take on a more northern feel. Both are luxurious without being gaudy and neither will break the bank. (Bay Hill, for example, has a package this fall that ranges from $171 to $263 a night per person, golf included.) Innisbrook has the added benefit of being oriented to families.
PGA National, home of the Honda Classic, also requires you to be a guest to get on the Champion or its four other courses. TPC Sawgrass and the Blue Monster – which is closed for a multimillion-dollar renovation commissioned by new owner Donald Trump but is expected to be open in time for winter play and next year’s Cadillac Championship – both have spiffy accommodations on site but invite non-guests as well – or at least those with enough money in their wallets to cover the green fees, which, in both cases, have a rack rate of more than $400.
TPC Sawgrass’s Stadium course is likely the most famous of the five, largely because it has the island green on the par-three 17th hole.
Designers Pete and Alice Dye’s signature hole is short by anyone’s standards but its watery surroundings make it a nervy test. Many fail the test. Sawgrass estimates 140,000 balls get rinsed on that hole alone every year, some by the touring pros who compete in the Players Championship each spring.
So don’t worry if your tee shot at the 17th ends up wet. It’s all part of the experience of playing where the pros play.
Other Florida courses that welcome professionals and amateurs alike
TPC Sawgrass, Dye’s Valley course, Ponte Vedra Beach
The home of the 2013 Web.com Tour Championship is the less-famous (but still strong) sister course of TPC Sawgrass’s Stadium layout.
Tiburon Golf Club, Gold course, Naples
Guests of the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort have access to the Greg Norman-designed track that this fall holds both the LPGA Tour’s CME Group Titleholders and the Franklin Templeton Shootout, an exhibition featuring 24 top PGA Tour players.
LPGA International, Champions course, Daytona Beach
Located at the headquarters of the LPGA Tour, the course is used for the circuit’s annual qualifying school and the lower-tier Symetra Tour’s season finale.
Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Orlando
The PNC Father/Son Challenge, an exhibition featuring touring pros and their kids, will be held there in December.
Abacoa Golf Club, Jupiter
The Golfslinger Tour is among the mini-tours that have made stops here at this under-recognized public gem.