A backstage tour of the Arnold Palmer Invitational's Bay Hill Club & Lodge offers a rare insight into setting up a course
ORLANDO — Think you can break 100 on a PGA Tour layout?
Of course, the first part of the game average players fret about is length, and, yes, that would be a major factor when attempting to subdue a PGA Tour venue. But a behind-the-scene facility tour of Bay Hill Club & Lodge as part of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America Conference and Trade Show offered insight on so much more than, let’s say, 7,500 yards from the tips.
"I get these guys coming up to me who sometimes say ‘the winning score at their golf club was 20 under par for a PGA Tour event and that you guys always set up the courses too easy,'" says Bland Cooper, a competitions agronomist who works 10 tournaments a year for the PGA Tour, one of which is the upcoming Arnold Palmer Invitational the first week of March. "I tell them to come out a day after a tournament and if you break 80 I’ll give you a million dollars and for every stroke you are over 80 you give me a dollar. I’ll make money every time."
Cooper says the biggest difference in a standard golf course and those set up on the PGA Tour is overall firmness — from tees to greens — and everything in between.
"There is big disconnect with what the average club member thinks is firm and what a pro golfer thinks is firm — and they are not one-in-the-same," Cooper says. "Your average amateur player just can’t play firm conditions. Go watch a pro-am and see what happens, and they really aren’t that firm for those events, so just imagine what they are for Thursday-Sunday of a PGA Tour event."
PGA Tour and golf course agronomists who host PGA Tour events at their respective courses need to juggle dozens of hats when it comes to how challenging a venue needs to be — or not be.
And often who is calling the shots.
"One thing that I kind of learned over the years, even more so since being here at Bay Hill, is just how drastically different tournaments are run that you see on TV week-to-week," says Chris Flynn, director of grounds at Bay Hill. "The nuances, the things you don’t see on TV, so it’s easy to critique how the golf course looks. But there's so much behind the scenes that you just don't know."
Like tournament funding, resources or how long a course is closed prior to a PGA Tour event.
Flynn, who employs 40 full-time workers on his agronomy staff, points to the varying differences on the upcoming PGA Tour swing through the Sunshine State. It will begin with the Honda Classic (PGA National, The Champion, Palm Beach Gardens) followed by the Arnold Palmer Invitational, The Players Championship (TPC Sawgrass, Stadium Course, Ponte Vedra Beach) and finishing with the Valspar Championship (Innisbrook Resort, Copperhead Course, Palm Harbor).
"Those four properties are managed are so wildly different," Flynn says. "You can't even compare. You know, for an equity club that could mean you have members that have a say on how they want the golf course to look and play. You could have a general manager that has input; owners that have an input. If you're a municipality, right? And if the sponsors want, they can stick their nose into things and you gotta keep the sponsors happy."
The PGA Tour stop at Bay Hill is often considered one of the most difficult venues outside of the majors, with super fast greens and extremely high rough. And at this time of the year in Florida, wind can play a major factor in scoring, like last year when Scottie Scheffler won with a 5-under-par 283 score.
So, Flynn and Cooper have to keep a pulse on numerous parts of the game, not only from an agronomy standpoint but a player’s point of view.
"When we don’t have any wind it is whatever we can get the greens, maybe 14-14 ½ on the Stimpmeter," says Cooper of possibly the flattest greens on the PGA Tour. "But the worst thing in the world is we have wind and the ball moves when guys are addressing it on the green. That’s a big problem because NBC has sold a ton of ads for their coverage and if we have to go down because we have the greens too fast ... you know what is going to hit the fan."
Cooper annually makes at least five trips to Bay Hill to assess the agronomy at certain points of the year. And once the event is two weeks away he breaks out his playbook, which differs from some of his peers.
"We all have a main goal, but we each go about it differently," he says of other PGA Tour agronomy officials. "I like to collect my own data. I will start Stimping greens and taking moisture readings in every single green in the mornings and then in the afternoons to see what happens during the course of the day after we cut them in the morning."
Cooper’s preparations also differ from others in that he takes firmness readings on all the par 3s. There is a method to his madness.
"I am going to look at the par 3s because that’s a known distance — all the players are playing from that same set of tees, so I know based on my grid how firm the greens are and can correspond accordingly," he says. "I want the rules officials to be very comfortable where they place the hole locations. So I can tell them, ‘Look, based on this firmness you can put a hole this close to the edge or vice versa, it’s really firm and you can’t put a hole location there.'
"And my philosophy of working a golf tournament from 35,000 feet is I start the tournament going backwards. In other words, where do I want the golf course to be Sunday afternoon when the last shot is hit? I will then work backwards and gradually transition to making sure Thursday and Friday are pretty similar days."
Palmer, for one, wanted Bay Hill to be a stern test.
"He used to tell me if I walk in the locker room and 50 percent of the players say the course is too hard and 50 percent say it’s too easy, then I’m doing my job,” Cooper says.
Flynn said when Palmer was alive the course didn’t close prior to the PGA Tour event. Now it closes three days prior to prep. Venues like TPC Sawgrass can close up to three weeks prior to The Players.
"Mr. Palmer was a special guy, you know, in a good way, real blue collar," Flynn says. "He wasn't hung up on aesthetics. He really didn't give a crap what the golf course looked like. He really, really didn't. He used to say ‘Everybody's gotta play the same course. I don't care if it looks a little rough.’
"Now, when Mr. Palmer was alive, nobody was gonna complain, right? Certainly no Tour player was gonna come here and complain about conditions. When Mr. Palmer was alive, the tour wasn't gonna say anything. When Mr. Palmer passed away, it was a whole different ballgame, all right? To attract the Tour players we no longer had Mr. Palmer to rest our shoulders on. Same with our business model. We just couldn't rest that people were gonna become members here and come play Bay Hill because they knew Mr. Palmer was going to be around.”
Flynn had to deflect plenty of criticism last year when players didn’t score well in the wind, pounding their proverbial fists about how long the rough was. He laughs, saying it comes with the territory of a PGA Tour setup.
"It's easy to dismiss them all, right?" Flynn says of the pros. "But it does matter, especially when it's a big name. Even last week, my owners came to me because all the MasterCard people were in town for meetings. And one of the follow ups in my meeting with my owners was them asking me about the rough, saying 'it’s gonna be down, right?' MasterCard was asking about it. MasterCard obviously sponsors a lot of players too, right? You see a lot of players with that MasterCard logo on, right? So even the players are in the sponsor's ears about wanting the rough to be down this year."