The look and tone of the place is a direct result of Palmer’s influence and presence. He lives on the property, plays golf regularly on the Bay Hill course, frequents the dining room (he eats at the same table in the Bay Window dining room) and saunters about without fuss or fanfare.
On the day I arrived, I was looking around the property and about to enter the men’s locker room at the golf course. He pushed the door open and walked out. There I was, face to face with one of golf’s true living legends. (We exchanged pleasantries and I shook his large, calloused hands before he headed to his golf cart, which carried two tour bags brimming with probably 30 or more clubs.) I later saw Palmer at dinner, on both nights I was there.
I don’t mind admitting it was a thrill to meet Palmer in person, just as it would be to any lodge visitor, no doubt. “It’s like little kids seeing Mickey Mouse,” Bay Hill marketing director Leigh Anne Huckaby told me. “Grown men seeing Mr. Palmer are the same way.”
Guilty as charged. But it is worth noting that mob scenes do not surround Palmer despite his fame, which is refreshing. This is his home after all. We are all just his guests.
(The only nod I saw to his celebrity came when he exited the dining room each night – he gave a subtle little wave to the dining room, just as he would have in his playing days when he left a green to applause.) It’s certainly a special feeling to be at Bay Hill. The low-slung lodge, with its dark wood furniture and earth-tone colour scheme that make it feel so much more northern than southern (no pastels here), looks out on to the putting green, range and a few holes of the golf course.
In other words, there’s no commute time from the bedroom to the first tee.
I played the course with Globe and Mail colleague Lorne Rubenstein. We headed out early, the second group on a spectacular cloudless warm morning, and zipped around the layout that challenges the best PGA Tour players each year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Neither of us played well but I loved the course. Although it is dotted with water hazards, which claimed more than a few of our shots, it’s an entirely playable course that is free of gimmicks and trickery. Just solid hole after hole.
We got to see the course in its typical winter condition, which was superb but not fully toughened yet for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which begins March 21.
The course will be at its busiest with visitors as the tournament approaches. “Everyone wants to play the course in tournament condition,” Huckaby said.
For those with Bay Hill on their bucket list, here’s the nice part. It is possible to play the course without being a member or a guest of a member.
The only catch is, you must stay at the lodge. You can’t just drive in the gates. But that in itself shouldn’t be a concern. The lodge is as much of a treat as the course itself.
STREAMSONG: This is Florida? That’s the question that came to my mind when I visited the stunning new Streamsong, which is 90 minutes west of Orlando.
The 36-hole public facility, which officially opened Jan. 26. is built on an old phosphate mine site owned by Mosaic Co.
It’s a stunning piece of land, even if it is a manufactured landscape. Very un-Florida-like. Nebraska maybe?
The two courses (the Red, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the Blue by Tom Doak), wind through massive sand dunes and around small natural lakes.
Although nowhere near the ocean (or anything else, for that matter), the courses play like links and bear the same kind of look, feel and shot values as, say, the Bandon Dunes courses in Oregon or Cabot Links in Nova Scotia.
A luxury resort is under construction on the property. For now, it’s just about the golf – but definitely worth the effort to reach. (Staying in Lakeland, 45 minutes west of Orlando, is probably the best option.) It’s safe to say there is nothing else like it in the state, or even the U.S. Southeast.