My brother is a pretty well traveled guy. He's marveled at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, gorged on tapas on Las Ramblas, shucked oysters fresh from Elliott Bay, and drained a birdie putt on #18 at Torrey Pines, among many other adventures. And yet, if you were to ask him his favorite place in the world, the Bay Hill Club & Lodge would be at, or very near, the top of the list.
Why Bay Hill? Simple.... Arnold Palmer.
Right smack in the middle of the theme park capital of the world lies The King's winter home for the last four decades, as well as the host of the PGA Tour event that bears his name. There's a distinct 1970's feel to the place from the moment you pass through the front gate. It's charming, unpretentious, and the polar opposite of its counterparts in Miami and Ponte Vedra. While the other members of the Florida Swing have spent millions on flashy new clubhouses and a continuous string of resort renovations, Bay Hill has simply remained what it always has been... A tribute to the man who made it all possible.
Over the last few years, my brother RJ and I have made a weekend at Bay Hill an annual tradition. Both of us would agree, for anyone that is passionate about this great game, The Lodge might possibly be the greatest hotel in the world. It is nothing short of an Arnold Palmer museum, and after several visits we still haven't come close to seeing all of the memorabilia.
|My favorite picture in The Lodge... Arnie & Ike.|
But it's not only the history.. There's something about being at Bay Hill that just feels.. comfortable. Almost like returning home. Be it the bleu cheese chips in Bay Window, the French Toast in the dining room, or the nightcap by the firepit outside of the clubhouse. Oh, and did I mention the shampoo? This stuff is so great, RJ gave me a year's supply for Christmas.
While my brother and I are unanimous in our approval of The Lodge, the actual golf course is a different story. He loves it. I hate it. Sorry Mr. Palmer, but it's true. No amount of nostalgia and history will change my mind. I could go on and on about how Bay Hill is the poster child for penal golf architecture, however I'll spare you the dissertation. Simply put, the course is just too damn hard.
|Seriously.. What is fun about this?|
The experience at The Lodge offsets most of this pain, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we didn't admit that what has really kept us coming back was the hope of meeting The King. For years all we've heard from staff and fellow guests was that from October thru April, Arnie is always at Bay Hill. After four visits between the two of us without a single sighting of Mr. Palmer, my brother decided to take matters into his own hands.
It started with a letter to Mr. Palmer's office in Latrobe, which somehow succeeded in both reaching his longtime assistant, Doc Griffin, and making it clear to him that we weren't desperate fanboys. The reply that came via email was a polite "We'll see what we can do, but don't get your hopes up." Still, this felt like progress..
|My brother celebrating victory in The Showdown at Bay Hill II|
In addition to sending the letter, RJ suggested that we plan the next Bay Hill outing on a weekday. The common denominator of all of our previous trips was that they were on a weekend. The thought was that perhaps Mr. Palmer made himself scarce over the weekends when the club was busy. The logic seemed sound, at least to this desperate fanboy.
We were joined on this trip by our good friend and member of our regular foursome, BV. My brother was stuck in an unfortunately timed meeting, so the plan was for BV and I to head down early for 9-holes and RJ would join us after work. For the first time ever, I arrived to Bay Hill hoping to not see Arnold Palmer... at least not until my brother arrived. If BV and I managed to meet Arnie and my brother didn't.. after all of his planning to make it happen.. I'd never live it down. RJ not being one to hold a grudge would be happy for us, but I'd never forgive myself.
|The Showdown at Bay Hill I with our Dad.|
We stopped by the front desk, headed straight to the dining room for a quick lunch and, of course, in walks The King....
BV and I sat somewhat paralyzed for the next few minutes as person after person stopped at Arnie's table to say hello. I was reluctant to do the same, not for fear of being rude by interrupting his lunch (which it was), but because I'd be doing so without my brother. Finally, BV made the hard sell...
"This could be your one and only chance. He'll be more pissed if you don't take it than if you do and he misses out."
He had a point... So I hatched a plan to head to the bathroom (my shirt was untucked and I had just eaten a burger, which I highly recommend) and as I returned, if and only if Arnie looked up as I passed would I stop. Again, part of me hoped he wouldn't notice, yet in the fog of the moment I had forgotten everything I'd observed over the last 10 minutes...
No one goes by Arnold Palmer's table without him noticing. He acknowledged each and every person that came by. From the Bay Hill members for which having lunch near him was just a regular Thursday afternoon, to our fellow starstruck guests asking him to sign their empty iced tea and lemonade bottles. As I rounded the corner toward the restaurant, The King and I locked eyes, and I think I managed to put together a few words about how much we enjoy Bay Hill.
Success... Sort of.
We finished our meal, and The King did the same. A few minutes later, he took hold of the arm of his guest for lunch (Jimmy Roberts of NBC) and made his way, albeit slowly, out of the dining room.
As we made our way around Bay Hill's Charger 9, I couldn't help but wonder if BV was right. Would that be our one and only encounter? Surely, I hoped, my brother would get his chance...
After golf, BV and I sat in the Bay Window Lounge and enjoyed a beverage. Our plan was to meet RJ in the Men's Locker Room for a few hands of cards and cocktails before heading to dinner. On a whim, I decided to go survey the scene in the locker room first, thinking we may have been better off just staying where we were. I took one step inside and sure enough, there in the very first seat was Arnold Palmer...
Again, I tried to play it cool by pretending to be looking for someone who apparently wasn't there. I made a bee line back to BV, interrupted his conversation with an aspiring Tour pro, and told him we had to go. Back in the locker room, we set up shop at the table next to Arnie, and watched the door like a hawk, hoping with each time it opened that RJ would come walking through.
Roughly a dozen hands of gin and two cocktails later, still no sign. Arnie's glass was empty, time was running out... So I decided the time had come to let my brother in on the secret...
He made it... By now, BV and I were just totally accustomed to being in The King's presence, but RJ still had to work through the initial shell-shock that we'd experienced during lunch. Alas, this wasn't meant to be his moment. No more than 5 minutes after RJ arrived, Mr. Palmer shuffled out to his golf cart, and soon the Bay Hill locker room emptied.
My brother seized the moment.. He made friends with the bartender and struck up conversation with the guys who had been at Arnie's table, all of which led to an important question...
"If we're here at the same time tomorrow, what are our odds of shaking his hand and maybe a picture?
Fast forward to the next afternoon, we returned to the locker room, greeted our new friend behind the bar, and tried to pretend as if we were there for any reason except meeting Arnold Palmer. We stuck out like sore thumbs.
A few minutes later, and right at the appointed time, Arnie walked in and sat down in his usual chair.
"OK gents, we're going to strike while the iron is hot," the bartender said as he delivered our drinks.... "Mr. Palmer, we have some guests here from Ocala that would like to say hello."
Let this be a lesson kids... Always get to know the club bartender.
We sat watching the golf on TV for a little while longer, before making our way to the door. Mr. Palmer said goodbye as we passed his table, and it was then that things felt a little heavy. As exciting as the last hour had been, there was a distinct sadness in the air as my brother and I pulled away from Bay Hill. In one unforgettable moment, we had just said hello and possibly goodbye to a man who has done more for us through a lifetime in the game of golf than we could ever imagine. This wasn't about a picture. It was about saying thank you to a beloved member of the family whose time with us is running preciously short.
Long Live The King