Arnold Palmer and Bay Hill

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Arnold Palmer's First Visit to Bay Hill Club

Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill Club in 1965
Arnold Palmer during his first visit to Bay Hill in 1965. Courtesy of Bay Hill Club and Lodge; used with permission

Arnold Palmer owned the Bay Hill Club and Lodge until his death in 2016. That's the club where the Arnold Palmer Invitational is played annually. But Palmer's relationship with the club wasn't one of convenience or simply business. Palmer first visited Bay Hill in 1965, fell in love with the place and soon knew he wanted to live there and own the club.

In this gallery, we tell the story of Palmer's first visit to Bay Hill in 1965, a visit that also included Jack Nicklaus. The three photos from Palmer's very first visit to Bay Hill appear here courtesy of Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

The King's Long History with Bay Hill Club and Lodge

It was 1965. Arnold Palmer was in his mid-30s and still on top of the PGA Tour. He had won The Masters again in 1964, becoming that tournament's first four-time winner.

Palmer was living in Pennsylvania, but was interested in a winter home in warmer climes.

He found it when he showed up at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in 1965 for an exhibition match against Jack Nicklaus.

Bay Hill was only four years old at that time. The club opened in 1961, with the original course design by architect Dick Wilson. Outside of Orlando, in South Orange County, the area where Bay Hill was built was still a true wilderness in 1960, when ground was broken on the project.

The reason this piece of land had survived mostly untouched by developers is that, the official Bay Hill Web site reports, it was unsuitable for growing produce. Otherwise, Bay Hill might instead be a citrus grove.

According to BayHill.com, when Bay Hill Club opened in 1961, the course was the first to use Tifway Bermuda grass. It was still rough around the edges, though: The maintenance barn served as the pro shop the first two years of the club's history.

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Arnold Palmer Falls in Love with Bay Hill

Arnold Palmer Teeing Off at Bay Hill 1965
Arnold Palmer tees off during an exhibition match at Bay Hill in 1965. Courtesy of Bay Hill Club and Lodge; used with permission

In 1965, shortly after Walt Disney bought land nearby on which to build his fantasyland, the Orlando Chamber of Commerce sponsored an exhibition round at Bay Hill to raise money for charity. That was the event that first brought Arnold Palmer to Bay Hill.

Palmer knew right away he'd found his winter home - and a property that he wanted to own. The official Web site of Arnold Palmer states:

"For Arnold, Bay Hill was a golfer's paradise. He had been looking for a quiet, out-of-the way place where he could retreat to every winter with his family. Arnold was so smitten with the course he raced home and told his wife Winnie, 'Babe, I’ve just played the best course in Florida and I want to own it.' "

And that set in motion a decade-long quest by Palmer to buy Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

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Arnie Beats Jack, Wins Bay Hill

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill Club in 1965
Jack Nicklaus (left) with Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill in 1965. Courtesy of Bay Hill Club and Lodge; used with permission

Arnold Palmer's first visit to Bay Hill was for an exhibition match against Jack Nicklaus. The career-long competition between Palmer and Nicklaus is still evident on ArnoldPalmer.com, where the King's official Web site states, parenthetically, about that exhibition: "(Palmer) won the exhibition, by the way."

Palmer's desire not just to live at Bay Hill near Orlando, but also to own the club, began coming to fruition first in 1970, when Palmer took out a five-year lease of the club with an option to buy.

And Arnold Palmer did become the owner of Bay Hill Club and Lodge in 1975 - but not without nearly losing the club. According to ArnoldPalmer.com, "in 1974, the course owners struck a deal to sell the property to another bidder."

That seems odd, doesn't it? Arnie, the King, is leasing your club with an option to buy, and you go out and make a deal with someone else? Luckily, those other bidders were apparently sensible types; when Palmer approached them, they agreed to sell Bay Hill to Palmer.

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Arnold Palmer and Bay Hill - An Enduring Team

Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill Club in 2010
Arnold Palmer during the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in 2010. Scott Halleran / Getty Images

So Arnold Palmer became the owner of Bay Hill Club and Lodge in 1975. He made his winter home there. What next?

A PGA Tour event at his property - at his home - sounded nice. The Florida Citrus Open was already played in Orlando, and had been since 1966. Palmer won it in 1971. He approached the PGA Tour about moving the tournament to Bay Hill, and the tour agreed.

So in 1979, the Bay Hill Citrus Classic - later known as the Bay Hill Invitational - began. With Palmer as the host, the tournament quickly became one of the high-profile events on the PGA Tour.

Then, in 2007, the tournament was renamed in honor its host and Bay Hill's owner as the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The photo above shows Palmer at Bay Hill in 2010, 45 years after his first visit to the course for that exhibition match in 1965. There are few instances in golf history where a golfer and a golf course are so tightly linked. But like Bobby Jones and Augusta National, like Jack Nicklaus and Muirfield Village, Arnold Palmer and Bay Hill Club and Lodge are forever together.