Arnold Palmer got his first set of clubs when he was 4 and was a caddie at age 12.
So did my son. And so was my son.
Coincidence? We’ll see.
I grew up watching golf on TV with my grandpa — a game no one else in my family cared to understand. And I grew up watching his favorite golfer amass 92 victories, and I’ve proudly paid tribute to grandpa’s golf education with my own lifetime allegiance to “Arnie’s Army.”
My grandfather passed away a few years back, but I remember fondly those “fan-tastic” times with him. I’ve done my best to pass on his legacy of love for golf to my own son — now 14 — my most frequent travel companion, caddie and playing partner. So imagine the thrill and sensation of walking the grounds of Mr. Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge, standing in the clubhouse that hosts his revered Arnold Palmer Invitational and eating at the same table at which he dined many mornings — and being able to do it all with my son.
As unique and memorable experiences go, that one’s certainly up there.
And if you are ever in Orlando, you can easily do the same.
It’s true, Mr. Palmer amicably dined here (at The Grill) among family, friends and resort guests with regularity. Now that’s a “dining experience” that can’t be matched in many places across the country. He was even known to order up his namesake hybrid drink — half lemonade, half iced tea.
Keep in mind, this is Arnold Palmer’s home, even after his passing. This is where the seven-time major champion lived much of the year and played amidst the everyday authenticity, unique amenities and 27 holes of golf designed by Dick Wilson and Bob Simmons — at least a dozen of which you’re unlikely to forget.
Bay Hill Lodge is a boutique hotel in the most complimentary sense, a cozy 70-room layout compact in size but overflowing in vibrant décor and personality. Some of those airy fresh rooms even have balconies overlooking one of golf’s most famous putting greens where a guest can leisurely sit and watch his son chip and putt for more than two hours.
Service is particularly notable throughout the property, with an ever-present active and charming staff ready to assist (and maybe even hunt down whipped cream for hot chocolate) yet appreciatively remain unobtrusive in their tireless hospitality. Management at Bay Hill knows many visitors are looking to find that sense of “home” while on vacation, and they ensure that clean comfort is the exceptional rule at their resort. Additionally, guests receive many otherwise “member exclusive” privileges, including access to the luxurious spa and salon, the fitness center, swimming pool, tennis courts and restaurants.
The family-friendly Bay Window restaurant provides an “American grill” menu with a four-seasons dining environment for afternoon and evening appetites. (Does Florida have four seasons?) From the Bay Window’s patio (that sounds backwards), you have footsteps proximity to the famed putting green with its iconic Rolex “clock tower” and could easily end up watching your son putt for another 45 minutes — well into the darkness. Reasonably, after more than three hours of watching your kid practice, you might need a drink. Perk up to another guest perk and seek counseling from an empathetic bartender at the Member’s Lounge — the perfect way to cap a day, reminiscing or perhaps looking forward to another glorious one at Bay Hill.
The glory most will remember is found outdoors on the resort’s grand and floral championship nines. While the PGA Tour only plays 18 of the facility’s holes, there are in fact nine more — the Charger Nine — and a visit to Bay Hill is not truly complete unless you’ve played all 27. Many guests have discovered the Charger Nine to be their favorite — perhaps even Mr. Palmer as well (four of the resort’s 12 best holes are on this nine). On a historic note: In 2011, the King recorded his 20th lifetime hole-in-one on the Charger’s No. 7. But the true history, the awe-and-then-some “traces of greatness” experience and the epic photo finish exist on the Arnold Palmer Invitational 18.
There’s a certain intimidation factor to playing a course the PGA Tour plays, even if you play it from 1,000 yards shorter than the pros. Bay Hill’s personable caddies will do their best to keep you calm throughout the round, but they’re not miracle workers. My only hook of the day came on the hole (No. 6) where I was explicitly told not to go left. Something my son reminded me of immediately after the splash.
Fortunately the front nine is peppered with enough memorability to help you forget your own potential foolishness, with what I’d contend are four more of the 12 best holes on property at 3, 5, 8 and the “don’t go left” stunner at 6. The 6th hole at Bay Hill is where fan-favorite John Daly infamously recorded an 18, hitting six balls into the water in a true-to-life “Tin Cup” moment.
He, of course, was able to laugh it off. Note to self.
Part of Palmer’s mastery — a great deal of it in golf architecture — is in his ability to spread the love. He’s forever been and forever will be a man of the fans, and fans of Bay Hill will no doubt notice four more incredible holes on the resort’s third and final nine. No. 13 is such a great hole (downhill two-shot par 4 over water) that it stays in your head even after you play out the closing trio crescendo and celebrate a par on 18 like you’ve just won $1.134 million (with 10 billion fewer people watching).
I once had the naïve notion that I’d someday play a round of golf with Mr. Palmer. The terms of my dream have since been renegotiated. Staying at Mr. Palmer’s “home” and playing on his course — walking in his legendary footsteps with my son — is “dream come true” enough.
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Where It’s At: 9000 Bay Hill Boulevard, Orlando. Wedged between Universal (3.4 miles), SeaWorld (6.5 miles) and Walt Disney World (6.1 miles).
Ideal Stay & Play: 1-2 nights. 27 holes of golf. One round on the 18-hole Bay Hill championship routing, one round on the Charger Nine.
What It’s About: Bay Hill is a boutique resort with a private country club feel. Service and the “home away from home” aura are the specialty.
Family Focus: Spacious, private guest cottages with access to the swimming pool, recreational facilities and convenient proximity to every area resort are Bay Hill’s best family attributes.
Local Food & Drinks: (High End) Chef’s Table at the Edgewater or Seasons 52; (Social) Capa; (Casual) Harry and Larry’s BBQ; (Hot Spot) Yum Yum Cupcake Truck
Day GolfGetaway: Orange County National Golf Center ($40-$130) has 45 high-value holes of golf (Crooked Cat, Panther and a nine-hole short course) just 16 miles west of Bay Hill.
Eric N. Hart is the Family Travel Editor for Golf News Net and contributing golf journalist for several regional and national publications — experiencing the diverse amenities of the world, often with his wife and four children in tow. He has stayed at 120-plus resorts and played more than 400 courses while exploring 48 states and 35 countries worldwide. This story is part of his ongoing “Family Fun — Florida Golf Resorts” series. Follow Eric @MobileGolfer on Instagram and @TheMobileGolfer on Twitter. And check out his podcast episodes of “Talking Golf Getaways with Mitch Laurance & Darin Bunch” for more great family golf-travel destinations and vacation ideas.