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A love story

A love story

Arnold Palmer and Bay Hill are a match made in heaven


The story of Arnold Palmer and Bay Hill is a story of love at first sight. Palmer put Bay Hill on the map, and the course keeps his legend alive by hosting an annual celebration of his legacy: the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. Winners at Bay Hill must display the same grit and guile that Palmer did during his legendary career, and the winner is rewarded with his trademark red cardigan.

Bay Hill opened in 1961 in a remote corner of central Florida, on a site that featured natural hills and valleys, lakes and streams. It was surrounded by citrus groves but ill-suited for that use. It was perfect for another purpose, though: golf.

A few years after its opening, Bay Hill’s destiny was forever changed when Arnold Palmer visited to play an exhibition match. He shot 66 in the match on Feb. 28, 1965, to tie the course record and beat Jack Nicklaus by seven shots. “Palmer Brings Bay Hill to its Knees” read the next day’s newspaper.

The Bay Hill he saw on that first visit was “little more than a still-raw golf course with a tiny pro shop, a small guest lodge and a few modest bungalows carved out of the orange groves,” he later wrote. This photo of the club’s first (pictured) and 10th holes shows what Bay Hill looked like in its early years. Palmer immediately fell in love with the course.

“I’ve just played the best golf course in Florida, and I want to own it.”

- Arnold Palmer to his wife, Winnie, after playing Bay Hill for the first time

It was Bay Hill’s rustic locale that appealed to Palmer. “With its splendid isolation and Eden-like abundance of wildlife,” Palmer said, “it really was a little bit of paradise on earth.” He signed a five-year lease for the club in 1970 before exercising an option to buy in 1975. Bay Hill became a PGA TOUR venue four years later, breathing new life into the PGA TOUR’s annual stop in Orlando, Florida.

Bay Hill's 18th hole (pictured) has changed dramatically over the years, becoming one of the PGA TOUR's iconic finishing holes. (Courtesy of Bay Hill)

Bay Hill's 18th hole (pictured) has changed dramatically over the years, becoming one of the PGA TOUR's iconic finishing holes. (Courtesy of Bay Hill)

As this photo from 1962 (left) shows, Bay Hill’s finishing hole was originally a par 5 with a green elevated well above the lake and guarded by a steep embankment on the right. In preparation for its first PGA TOUR event, the 18th was converted from a par 5 to a long par 4 that demanded a long approach over the water.

Bay Hill’s final hole is now one of the most famous – and difficult – holes on the PGA TOUR. It has been the stage for so many dramatic finishes, from Robert Gamez’s walk-off eagle to Tiger Woods’ trio of clutch birdie putts.

“I realized that this indeed was a way I could give something valuable back to the PGA TOUR, which has been so very good to me and my family.”

– Arnold Palmer on his decision to bring a PGA TOUR event to Bay Hill

This series of aerial photographs show the growth of Bay Hill over the years. (Courtesy of Bay Hill)

This series of aerial photographs show the growth of Bay Hill over the years. (Courtesy of Bay Hill)

From a rustic outpost to one of golf’s most recognizable courses, Bay Hill’s growth has continued over the past half-century. Today it is also known as one of the PGA TOUR’s toughest venues. It is the only course to rank in the top 10 in difficulty in each of the previous five seasons.

This year’s tournament marks the 20th anniversary of Mastercard’s sponsorship of the tournament. During that time, it has raised millions of dollars for children and families in the Orlando area and beyond. The tournament has experienced significant growth with enhanced player fields, fan experiences and designation as a Signature Event in 2024, as well. Along with Tiger Woods’ Genesis Invitational and Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament presented by Workday, the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard is one of three invitationals on TOUR hosted by legends of the game.

The list of winners at Bay Hill – which includes the likes of Tiger Woods (eight times), Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Payne Stewart, Jason Day and Scottie Scheffler – is testament to the club’s stature. It has Arnold Palmer to thank. Bay Hill is the club Arnie built.

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