It was one of my cushier assignments. Even the US Embassy official who issued my media visa seemed to think so. “Why aren’t you going to Afghanistan for some real reporting?” he said. A little churlish, I thought. But then, you don’t mess with a man with a Homeland Security badge.
My mission? To report on Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s golf course outside Orlando, Florida. Yep. I had to stay there, and not only that, I had to play the course as well. I think they call it “frontline journalism”.
All that was a year or so ago, but it came back to me in all its manicured-greens-and-fluffy-bathrobes glory this week when I realised that the annual US Masters warmer-upper is kicking off tomorrow (Thursday, March 20, 2014).
The Bay Hill Invitational is a big deal in the golf world. Tiger has won it a few times and the word is that if you do well at Bay Hill, you’re in with a shout at Augusta on April 10.
The first thing you notice when you arrive at Bay Hill is, well, that there’s not much to notice. The gateway is kind of low-key and the club house is low-rise. You just turn into the entrance which is on a suburban street in a suburban housing development.
And boy, is it flat. I sometimes forget how flat Florida is. Sure, they’ve got some mounds and shaped fairways, but elevated tees? Cliff-side greens? Forget it. The Bay Hill course doesn’t deviate more than 10 feet from the horizontal anywhere.
They paired me up with this old guy. He was 70, he said. And he’d had both his hips replaced. Still, he played off 16. American handicap, I thought. Probably more like 22 at home.
But no. He had a great swing and lovely timing. Not much power, but straight and rhythmic. And he knew his way round too. He was a generous teacher. Not so generous when it came to giving putts, mind, but that’s another matter.
He told me about the two types of grass they use – bentgrass and Bermuda – and how, at a certain time of the year, the Bermuda grass is dormant. It goes straw-coloured and dies back a bit. It’s called the “transition” and the Bay Hill greens were in transition.
He also taught me to look at the grain of the grass. Back home in Ireland, it’s not much of a factor, but on US greens it definitely affects the putt. You hit it harder when going against the grain.
If I had my way, I’d go back there on a Friday afternoon in the summer sometime in the 1960s. I’d go back for the money game.
Bay Hill is also tight. They’d build a holiday villa in your ear around here, and there were many pink stucco houses encroaching close to the fairways. They all had huge bug-screen cages over their gardens and pools, so the danger of being hit by a golf ball were slight.
On one hole, I managed to slice my drive off a bug-screen and back out into the middle of the fairway. The old guy liked that one.
“I used to be able to drive this hole,” he said on one par 4. “I’d hit it out over that tree and bring it back in.” There was a wistfulness about what he said, as if he resented having to poke it 170 or so down the middle nowadays when, in his glory days, he had the power and daring to send it soaring towards the flag.
“There used to be a money game here every Friday,” he said. “Mr Palmer used to play. All the pros from the courses around used to come. A hundred dollars a head.”
I could picture it. A hot Friday afternoon. Nothing much doing at their home courses and the chance of a couple of thou over at Bay Hill. Some excitement and maybe some side bets made too.
“Mister” Palmer. They all called him that, as if his great achievements in golf had elevated him above the Seves and even the Tigers.
The old guy won two and one. The 17th hole was my undoing – a long carry over water to a green surrounded by bunkers. I put one in the sand – more like a small beach than a bunker really – and failed to get up and down.
We met up again in the locker room. They have a bar there, right in the locker room. It feels a little hokey at first, a sort of manufactured boys room, like the dens they have in American houses.
But it works. It’s informal. There’s no dress code and you can sit on those comfortable high stools and go over your round. It was “Mister” Palmer’s idea, apparently.
The bedrooms and restaurants have that same masculine, clubby, slightly 1950s feel, the sort of place where a good shower and a good club sandwich is valued more than matching drapes.
It was quiet there that night. “Mister” Palmer was not in residence. I went to the local mall and had dinner there. Otherwise it would have been just me and a wall full of portraits of “Mister” Palmer in the dining room.
I liked Bay Hill. I liked the course and the club house and the bar in the locker room. I’d go back, for sure. But if I had my way, I’d go back there on a Friday afternoon in the summer sometime in the 1960s. I’d go back for the money game.