Arnold Palmer fell in love with Bay Hill, forever changed Orlando

By Edgar Thompson
Published on
Arnold Palmer fell in love with Bay Hill, forever changed Orlando

Arnold Palmer discovered Bay Hill by accident.

Back when Sand Lake was a two-lane road amid the Central Florida orange groves, the world's most popular golfer stumbled upon this remote corner of Orlando.

"You almost had to get lost to find Bay Hill." said Roy Saunders, Palmer's son-in-law.

The 35-year-old Palmer immediately felt at home.

While visiting Bay Hill for an exhibition match during the winter of 1965, Palmer found a golf course that fit his eye, rugged natural surroundings teeming with wildlife and solitude that suited his western Pennsylvania sensibilities.

"It appealed to him because of the privacy," longtime Palmer right-hand man Doc Giffin recalled. "He thought he had found a nice, quiet, lovely place -- with a golf course."

Tourism and 20th-century progress would reshape Palmer's vision, but he didn't fight it. Palmer's business sense and ability to dream big would give him ownership of Bay Hill Club and Lodge in 1970. He soon transformed it into a high-end resort and one of the most popular stops on the PGA Tour.

In the week ahead, many of the world's top golfers and sizable crowds will descend on Palmer's winter oasis for the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Even as Disney World butted up on the Bay Hill's southern border in the early 1970s, Universal Orlando squeezed the property from the east two decades later and hundreds of homes and condos sprouted up over the years within the community, Bay Hill remained Palmer's sanctuary.

"He didn't like to leave," said Cori Britt, vice president of Arnold Palmer Enterprises. "He was very comfortable here."

Palmer, of course, would venture out.

The man affectionately know as The King had a Midas Touch with the city of Orlando, whether it was building the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children or founding Golf Channel.

But Palmer inevitably would return to Bay Hill and resume his routine.

"He was a stay-at-home guy when he wasn't on the road traveling, working or playing golf," Giffin said.

Palmer would awake each day around 5 a.m. at Bay Hill, go for a jog or a walk with his dog and then get in a workout before having breakfast.

At his desk each day by 8 a.m., Palmer would attend to a business empire eventually worth around $700 million, featuring golf course design and ownership, a clothing line and the iced tea and lemonade concoction bearing his name.

"Business first, golf second," longtime friend and Bay Hill resident Howdy Giles said while describing Palmer's routine.

Golf was a given for Palmer each day at Bay Hill.

"It'd be hard to say he didn't put his hands on a golf club every day," Saunders said.

Following a quick lunch -- his go-to was liverwurst slathered in mustard and accompanied by an "Arnold Palmer," -- Palmer would tee off during "The Shootout."

Surely one of the longest-standing money games going, "The Shootout" is played every day, weather permitting, other than Christmas or during tournament week. Each golfer puts $40 in the pot and three of four scores count per team each hole.

There was a time when Greg Norman, Corey Pavin and the late Payne Stewart were regulars in the game. Palmer's regular foursome usually included Dick Ferris, former CEO of United Airlines, dear friend Bruce Walters and Bill Damron, whose son Robert is a PGA Tour pro.

"He loved to play golf," Saunders said of Palmer. "He liked the competition, the friendships and he loved the walk."

Palmer also loved to tinker and spent countless hours in his workshop grinding soles, re-gripping clubs and building them from scratch.

Palmer's iron grip largely was forged during those days. Wrapping leather grips would leave a man's hands aching with fatigue after the third club, Saunders said.

"He'd do it all the time," Saunders continued. "He had incredibly strong hands. That was one of the things about Mr. Palmer. His hands were so recognizable.

"He had some mitts."

Palmer's brute strength was the foundation of his golf game.

"Up until the time he turned 80 he could still hit the junk out of the ball," Saunders said.

Saunders, a 4-handicap himself, recalled Palmer, a couple of years shy of the Senior Tour, reminding his new son-in-law who was boss.

Shortly after Saunders married Palmer's daughter, Amy, Palmer shot a 65 and hit the flagsticks with iron shots on the third and fifth holes at Bay Hill.

"He let me know real quick, this is how you do it," Saunders said. "It was something to watch."

Palmer's last hurrah in golf also came at Bay Hill.

On Nov. 8, 2011, at the age of 81, he hit a 5-iron over a water hazard to a shallow green and found the hole on the 163-yard, par-3 7th hole on the Charger course -- one of three nine-hole layouts at Bay Hill.

Palmer's 20th career hole-in-one set in motion a celebration -- cocktails in the locker room followed by an impromptu dinner party.

"It was almost like he won the Masters," said Britt, who keeps in his office an empty bottle of Arnold Palmer Wine cabernet sauvignon reserve from that night.

Britt met Palmer as a 12-year-old caddying at Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club, Palmer's course near his hometown and summer home.

Palmer took to Britt and hired him at age 16 to do odd jobs. Britt joined Arnold Palmer Enterprises after attending Latrobe's St. Vincent's College and caddied for Palmer during his final years of competitive golf (1999-2006).

Britt met his future wife while working in Orlando, moved to Bay Hill in 2006 and has an office connecting to Palmer's office.

Many of Palmer's friends would migrate to Bay Hill to stay connected to him.

Longtime business manager Mark McCormack had a condominium across the street for Palmer's place. Friend and harness racing legend Delvin Miller owned the condo next door. Giles, Palmer's dentist and devoted fan, and Dow Finsterwald, 1958 PGA Championship winner and Palmer confidant, have condos on the floor below.

Like many people born in the Depression era, Palmer enjoyed simplicity and predictability. Yet Palmer's fame required him be incredibly flexible, even at Bay Hill.

Rarely did a day go by when a member of Arnie's Army did not approach him for an autograph or photo.

"People would come up and say, 'Mr. Palmer, I hate to bother you ...', while he was eating lunch," Giles recalled. "He would always stand up and shake their hand; if it was a lady he would hug her. Most of these pros would blow you off.

"That's why he was The King: he did things other people don't do."

Palmer always made time for visitors to Bay Hill, even though a wall showcasing his enormous celebrity was a bump and run away from the table where he ate.

There are photos of Palmer with Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford -- the former president and Palmer looking for Ford's lost ball. A young Tiger Woods stands between Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in one photo, while Bobby Jones, cigarette holder in hand, is with Palmer in another.

A photo of the Big Three -- Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player -- or shots of Palmer with Bill Murray, Michael Jordan or Yogi Berra are museum material.

Instead, the photos are fixtures in Palmer's second home.

Palmer did not know what awaited him when Nicklaus, PGA Tour pro Dave Ragan and entertainer and top amateur Don Cherry accompanied him for an exhibition at Bay Hill 52 years ago.

The Dick Wilson course layout was rough around the edges, with snakes and alligators lurking in the reeds bordering the course.

"We always warned people if you hit a ball off the fairway, don't go after it," Giffin said.

Palmer loved the wild, rolling terrain and the Butler Chains of Lakes bordering to the west.

Even as Bay Hill and its surroundings changed in all other directions, Palmer would sit on this third-floor deck overlooking the marina, drink a Ketel One on the rocks with a lemon twist and survey Lake Tibet to the west.

"We were having a cocktail one evening," Britt recalled, "and he made a comment on what a peaceful setting it was."

But as Orlando grew, Palmer was savvy enough to sense a business opportunity. He helped develop Isleworth and its golf course, even moving there briefly in 1987 with his wife, Winnie.

The Palmers soon would return to Bay Hill.

Arnold Palmer would battle prostate cancer there in 1997, but otherwise his winter routine generally was unwavering until December 2014. Heading to a dinner for the PNC Father-Son Challenge, Palmer tripped and fell, badly dislocating his shoulder.

"That really stopped him," Saunders said.

After the injury, Palmer rarely practiced and no longer played golf. He still drove his decked-out, EZ-GO Executive golf cart around the property to remain close to the game.

Palmer loved westerns and would retire early some days to read a Zane Grey novel or watch a movie with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, one of Palmer's partners in the purchase of Pebble Beach in 1999.

With the crush of Orlando's booming tourist sector less than a mile away, Bay Hill still provided Palmer tranquility.

These days, a left turn off Apopka-Vineland Road into the peaceful development feels like a return to the 1970s. A road winds past homes that are well maintained and understated like The King himself.

Palmer's footprint at Bay Hill will never fade away.

He touched countless lives through business, charity and, of course, golf. But even those who never met Palmer feel at home while visiting his winter retreat.

"His personality and his success had a lot to do with Bay Hill," Giffin said. "He didn't covet it. It just developed.

"People were just attracted to Arnold Palmer, a common man, because of the kind of person he was."

This article is written by Edgar Thompson from The Orlando Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to