March 14, 2006

Bay Hill Invitational 2006: - an inside-the-ropes preview exclusively for Sportsfilter

This week sees the PGA Tour circus roll into Orlando for its last ever annual stop at the Bay Hill Invitational – from next year, the tournament will be held at the same course, in the same week, with the same sponsor, but will be known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational. I was lucky enough to spend some time in Arnie’s playground last month as the final preparations were being made to the course.

The winner at Bay Hill will hit the ball a long way, and while it will be an advantage to hit the ball straighter than I did while I was there, it’s not a necessity. Since the technological distance revolution (which began in earnest in 1997) the winners there have been Mickelson, Els, Herron, Woods (for four years in a row from 2000), Chad Campbell, and, last year, Kenny Perry – none of those players are renowned for holding back off the tee.

The technological changes in the game have made a bigger impact on some courses than they have on others – much of the talk in the run-up to next month’s Masters has been about the course changes to Augusta National that will make it the second longest course ever to host a major (after Whistling Straits) – and it’s fair to say that Bay Hill has had the worst of it.

Surrounded by real estate, the course is limited in how much it can defend itself with more length. When I played it in February with my father, we played from the tips. The course sounds long at 7,267 yards (Augusta will measure 7,445 in April), but of all the things I struggled with that day, distance wasn’t one of them.

The par threes must once have been tremendously challenging. In the classic style, there are two on the front nine and two on the back. They average 210 yards long, and only one of them (the seventh) is shorter than 200 yards (at a mere 197).

I was once a pro but have fallen from grace and now play off three. My father is 60 years old, but still hits it hard. He played off scratch for many years, but now plays off 10 (much to his disgust). To give you some idea of how long the par threes play, I’ll list what clubs we hit to each.

Hole 2 – 218 yards
This hole looks like it plays quite significantly downhill, but the laser-guided forecaddie assured us it was an optical illusion and there is only a drop of five feet from tee to green. The old man hit a cut up three-wood to about ten feet. I hit a four-iron over the back (optical illusion my arse).

Hole 7 – 197 yards
We walked back to this tee with the marijuana-guided forecaddie shouting after us that we were playing into the wind. We clearly weren’t – what little wind there was coming from behind us - so I brought an eight-iron and seven-iron. My dad believed him and brought a four. I hit my eight-iron to fifteen feet, pin-high; the old man hit a high cut with his four-iron to ten feet (and holed his putt after I’d missed mine).

Hole 14 – 206 yards
This hole plays ever so slightly uphill. The breeze (which was at most half a club strong) was from about 10 o’clock. I hit a six-iron into someone’s house, thirty yards right of the green (to cries of “Great shot, pro!” from the gin-soaked forecaddie) and then another six-iron into the bunker back right; the old man hit a four-iron into the bunker back left.

Hole 17 – 219 yards
This is a Bay Hill signature hole over water to a smallish green. The old man hit a three-iron to eighteen feet. I hit a five-iron into the water short, and then another five-iron into the bunker short right. On reflection, I might not have had enough club.

With the exception of the 17th then, I was going in with a mid-iron to all of these holes, which once would have presented a very different challenge.

The par fours vary in length from the 364 yard 13th hole (I hit three-wood, lob wedge over the back) to the 467 yard 9th hole (I hit a drive that must have caught the cart-path as I went in with an eight-iron from the trees - it caught a branch but still finished only just short). Some of the par fours are excellent tests that ask questions from the tee and the fairway (or, if you’re me, the heavy rough), but some of them are straightforward, unthinking holes that the cameras won’t be flocking to. None of the par fives is worthy of the name when the pros are in town.

Worthy or not, another signature hole is the 558 yard (alleged) par five 6th hole. This is the hole that it once took John Daly 18 shots to complete. The hole is crescent shaped around a lake - a clever design feature that essentially allows the player to decide how brave he or she is feeling off the tee that day. I wasn’t feeling overly brave, so luckily for me I had been aiming well right when I pulled my tee shot into the perfect position in the fairway. I hit a four iron second to about 30 feet (and missed the eagle putt).

The fundamental flaw with this hole is that the carry from tee to green in a straight line is only 330 yards. I say “only” – that is still a mighty blow, but it’s no longer unheard of. I look forward to seeing how JB Holmes approaches that hole this week. A drivable par five? If they don’t change it in the next few years, it soon will be.

The one I’ll be watching with most interest is the 15th hole. It’s a 425 yard par four that doglegs right. I hit just about my best drive of the day there over the corner. I was left with 79 yards to a pin in the back right (if you can believe the crack-addled forecaddie). I’m eager to see if the pros take the same line, and if they do, how far off the pace I am these days.

As for who is going to win this week: someone who hits the ball a long way, but not necessarily straight, someone who can putt well on fast, sloped greens, someone who knows how to win at this and other venues…

Sound like anyone you know?

posted by JJ to commentary at 08:14 AM - 0 comments

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