By JEFF BABINEAU - Golfweek Custom Media
In September of last year, Arnold Palmer was at Bay Hill to help re-open the club that has been part of his life for four-plus decades after its significant summer renovation. The greens have been re-graded and now feature new Emerald Bermudagrass, and the bunkering around the nearly 7,400-yard layout has been redone and altered dramatically. Mainly, whereas the old Bay Hill was known for lots of subtle, hidden bunkering, the renovation brings the new bunkering front and center before the golfer. It’s sure to get the pros’ attention.
Palmer and the folks at Bay Hill have undergone a philosophical change when it comes to the tournament as well. Mainly, let the players shoot what they’re going to shoot in relation to par. In the past, the fourth and 16th holes, which play as par 5s for members, have been transformed into somewhat awkward par 4s during tournament week, making Bay Hill a par 70.
Thus, when Tiger Woods made a dramatic, curling birdie putt at 18 to capture his sixth Bay Hill title last March and shoot 275, he was listed at only 5 under.
“Our purpose has changed a little,” Palmer said. “Par 4s to par 5s, we’re going to rethink that...with the thinking that the galleries enjoy seeing the players make birdies. We’re going to par 72 and give them an opportunity to make birdies.”
The change at 16 had been somewhat controversial, altering a hole where players once could move up the leaderboard on Sundays with eagles and birdies. Some of the biggest moments in the tournament’s history happened there.
“It was a little bit debatable. I think there’s a risk/reward situation there (at 16),” Palmer said. “If I can keep them on the back of that tee, it will still be somewhat of a challenge. Fact is, it will be fun watching guys coming down the stretch.”
Roughs around the greens have been cut to shorter lengths, allowing more chipping (and possibly putting) options for players, and the new greens feature not only many more possible hole locations, but many more runoff areas. One other significant change could come at the 425-yard, dogleg-right 15th hole, where players could possibly tee off from the 11th tee, across Bay Hill Boulevard. With the new tee, the hole would play at roughly 460 yards and bring reshaped fairway bunkers more into play.
“I don’t think the PGA Tour will put it there,” he said of the 15th tee moving across the road, an idea sparked by Erik Larsen of the Palmer Design Group. Palmer added with a sly grin, “It’s their call. If they choose to, I’ll support it 100 percent.”
Greens -- Every green has been redesigned and rebuilt except for No. 18, which was just rebuilt. Slopes were flattened out around the edges to make all corners available for hole locations, which was not an option in the past.
Bunkers -- Fairway and greenside bunkers were all redesigned and relocated closer to the greens or fairways to be more of a strategic figure than in the past. Forward edges have also been lowered so that players will be able to see the bunkers better. New hole locations will bring greenside bunkers more into play.
Tees -- All the tees have been redone. The main changes in regards to positioning include the No. 2 tee being moved about 8-9 yards to the right, the No. 4 tee pushed farther back as the hole will now play as a par-5, and the opportunity to play a new tee across the road on No. 15.
Pond Banks -- The pond banks at No. 3 and No. 6 were excavated and the mucky material was replaced to create a firmer stance. The pond bank on No. 6 was enlarged by 8-10 yards and the grass bank was beefed up to be approximately 1-2 feet above the water. The fairway line did not change but whereas there was approximately 40-50 feet of rough on the right-hand side, there is now approximately 10-12 feet of rough.