It was in 1960 that ground was broken in a South Orange County wilderness that 50 years later would be known as the home of one of golf’s greatest legends, and one of the finest golf courses in the world.
As all happy endings have in common, the tract of land that would become Bay Hill began with a problem – a fluke of nature of sorts. This large tract of land located in Central Florida, a state known for its sweet produce, with natural hills and valleys, lakes and streams would not grow citrus. The land was lacking enough nutrients or the water holding capacity to grow citrus economically. This unproductive raw land was part of the vast holdings of Dr. P. Phillips, a Tennessee physician who settled in Central Florida in 1897 and moved to Orlando in 1905. He became the world’s largest individual grower of citrus and the producer of the first acceptable canned orange juice. The land was however, surrounded by the some of the finest citrus spreads in Central Florida, and one of the largest tangerine groves in the world.
In 1954, Dr. Phillips sold his holdings to Granada Groves, a subsidiary of the Minute Maid Corporation, and retained only the raw land. Phillip’s son took over the task of developing the raw land in hopes of finding a productive purpose. The wheel had now been set in motion for the beginning of Bay Hill, but it was not until 1959 that two key men became involved, one with the life-long dream of creating a championship golf course. Tom Barnes, a native of Minnesota, took an option on the land with his partner, Tom Dore, a Michigan businessman who surveyed the land and saw an immediate vision of what this land could become. It was this partnership that broke ground on the golf course in 1960 and christened the area “Bay Hill” for the bay that touched the Northwest boundary and for the hills that surrounded the lakes and wetlands.
In September, 1960, another group of businessmen from Nashville, TN exercised the option on the land from Dr. Phillips and now all of the resources were gathered to make Bay Hill a reality. There would be no overnight transformation as the 60’s was a decade of slow development and calculated growth, so it was late in 1961 when the 18-hole golf course opened. The contractor for the first 18 holes as well as the original streets was Frank Hubbard, Hubbard Construction Company; the original golf course architect was Dick Wilson.
Bay Hill was the first golf course planted with Tifway (Tifton 419) Bermuda grass. Wildlife still inhabited the land including a family of bobcats that resided around the now famous 17th green. Otters still claimed the lakes as their homes.
The existing maintenance barn was the original Pro Shop and lunch room as it would be another two years before the present Pro Shop would be built, and five more years would pass before the clubhouse and lodge were completed. Additionally, in that same year, a third nine holes, now known as The Charger, was built and opened for play. The Bay Hill community was also beginning to emerge and a glimpse of today’s Bay Hill Boulevard, lined in homes, became evident.
There were other significant events taking place in Orlando during this time. In 1965, Walt Disney announced the purchase of over 27,000 acres of land nearby, where the Walt Disney World Resort would soon emerge. In this same year, Arnold Palmer played in (and won) a charity exhibition tournament at Bay Hill, sponsored by the Orlando Chamber of Commerce, and his love for this beautiful property and challenging golf venue began. “Palmer Brings Bay Hill to Knees” was the headline of the sports section of the Orlando Sentinel on March 1, 1965. Palmer’s reaction to the new fledgling club was profound. So much so that he told his wife, Winnie that he wanted to own it.
In 1970, Arnold Palmer, already the most celebrated statesman of the game of golf, known around the world for his accomplishments, took a five-year lease with an option to buy, and Bay Hill had a new beginning. Since taking ownership in 1975, Palmer has polished the original visions of Bay Hill into the opulent diamond it is today with the stature of a world-class facility.
In 1979, Arnold Palmer successfully negotiated Bay Hill as the venue to host a major event on the PGA TOUR. The Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard (formerly the Bay Hill Invitational) bears a special aura in professional golf. The tournament, one of the premiere-event jewels on the TOUR, annually attracts one of the strongest fields of the season to one of the circuit’s finest courses, with the entire production overseen and directed by the Legend himself.
In Summer, 2009 Palmer decided to renovate the famous course with the Arnold Palmer Design Company and was hands-on throughout the entire process. The specific goals of the renovation were focused in three distinct areas: Agronomic/Maintenance (redesign of all 18 greens), Playability and Aesthetics which included the reworking of all the bunkering and major changes in four holes that altered the yardage from 7,103 to 7,196 and from par 71 to par 72.
Today, beautiful homes surround the golf courses and line the boulevards. Gardens, trees and lawns are a flowering testimonial to the lushness of Central Florida and the care and concern of the Bay Hill community. The Bay Hill Club would not be what it is today without the pioneering efforts of the earliest residents and first Club members. The magic of this special place comes in the perfect combination of the comfortable lodge atmosphere and outstanding golf, the influences of the Palmer family, and a level of hospitality and warmth that leave you feeling like the most esteemed member of the finest private club, but also part of a family that only Bay Hill can offer.