Players are Skipping It, Caddies Speak Ill of It
The championship course at Bay Hill was built in Orlando around the early 1960s. I’ve been hearing the name ever since as one of the PGA’s prominent venues. It was owned by various individuals and entities until Arnold Palmer bought it it in the ’70s. Palmer always had a great eye for business ventures, and to create a PGA sanctioned tournament on the strength on his own reputation – how could he lose? In addition, it wouldn’t have been the first time high-level tournament play had been tried there. In 1966, it was the Florid Citrus Open Invitational, Twenty years later, it was the Herz Bay Hill Classic. Then it morphed into the Nestle Invitational in 1989. By 1996, it was the Bay Hill Invitational, and the Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Invitational.
It is difficult to think of a player who was and is more revered than Palmer without going back to an era before he and his fans were born. Bobby Jones, perhaps, and a few others, but Palmer was a special man within a special generation of great golfers. His tournament at Bay Hill, however, is having problems, although Palmer himself is not part of it. Fpr one thing, some of the big names are declining to show up. Tiger has won here about 60,000 times, and his presence has waned as well. Various theories are put forward as the reason for the tournament’s decline at Bay Hill. It appears as though the prize money is all right, as PGA events go. However, one of the problems for any tournament is being placed on the calendar in the weeks leading up to the Masters. The golf press is building up to Augusta, not Bay Hill, and the players are prepping themselves for the first major of the year. There is discipline involved, and most don’t just go out and play themselves blind every week. They pace their physical well-being, and the groove of their game to flower in just the right week, at the same time as the azaleas in Georgia.
Other problems have been mentioned in terms of Bay Hill itself, and some of the most discerning analysis comes from caddies, which is more than understandable. They are golf experts who stand around and watch everything that happens on the course. In an interview with several, some surprising things came out. One caddie, asked about the overriding problem, confessed that for him, it’s just “not a good golf course.” Different people judge the quaity of a course differently, but another describes Bay Hill as a “typical Florida course.” Despite the enormity of the golf industry’s presence in Florida, where the climate and, to a point, the topography favors it, I am somewhat tired of the Florida look. Despite the sunniness, the vegetation doesn’t look opulent, the ground is built up from a natural swamp, and most of it is flat, flat, flat. Bay Hill brings a series of lakes into play, adding somewhat to the scenery, but it’s not enough. It’s a straight shot course, without any hidden approaches, unless one goes wildly off the mark. A third caddie surprised by suggesting that “they don’t care, to be honest.” The greens have the reputation of being of poor quality, and Palmer himself had to deal with a grass-eating infestation of nematodes that almost wrecked the place. Tiger still expects that spectators will see good putts going “weird ways.” Several hole alterations are favored by the caddies, who find the course a particularly long zig-zag walk if their player is having a bad day.
Still, among my favorite golf moments is that of Palmer, nearing retirement, hitting a low “stinger” driver off the fairway onto a green 220 plus away. I loved it when people like Arnie threw away the book and went instinctive. I’d like to see more of that now. Regardless, if there’s going to be a tournament named in tribute to a man of such stature, it should receive a picture-perfect course, and a perfect spot on the annual calendar. After all, he did a lot to make the game what it is today. We might as well act accordingly.