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.