Benkusky restores Wilson features on Palm Aire’s Champions course

  • Palm Aire
    Michael Benkusky

    Michael Benkusky has completed a comprehensive renovation of the Champions course at Palm Aire in Florida

  • Palm Aire
    Michael Benkusky

    Benkusky has rebuild bunkers and restored original contours on greens

  • Palm Aire
    Michael Benkusky

    On the sixteenth, Benkusky renovated the greenside bunkers to make them more visible to players hitting their approach shots

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

Palm Aire Country Club in Sarasota, Florida, has reopened its Dick Wilson-designed Champions course following a renovation by Michael Benkusky.

Benkusky has renovated greens to incorporate more pinnable areas and rebuilt bunkers to an updated Wilson look, with their placement adjusted to accommodate today’s game. In-play areas have also been regrassed with Bimini bermuda.

“This club is full of Dick Wilson fans and let’s be fair: who isn’t a fan of Dick Wilson?” said Benkusky. “We were more than happy to put a whole host of original elements back into play. We did restore all his runway tees, but my favourite restorative project was probably the super cool four-bunker complex we built on the inside of the dogleg at the seventh. At some point they turned that grouping into one big bunker, but we went back to Wilson’s more striking, more visible original configuration.”

Another goal of this project was a reduction in sand, to help superintendent Erik Gowdy and his staff with bunker maintenance. The end result has eliminated more than 30 per cent of the previous bunker square footage. Benkusky also oversaw the elimination of 12 acres of turf — mainly in the shadow of trees, around tee areas — and replaced them with expanses of crushed shells.

“We moved a lot of bunkers down the fairways, to better sync up with modern ball flights, and flashed sand up on the faces for better visibility,” said Benkusky. “The fourth is a good example of how all this came together: We removed some oaks that were shading the main tee box there, replaced underperforming turf with shells, pushed the championship tees back 40 yards, and eliminated the fairway bunker on the inside of this dogleg right. We added two bunkers outside the dogleg, which frame the hole up very nicely.”

Tees have been restored to the ‘runways’ laid out by Wilson, and expanded to give a range of total course distance from 4,466 to 7,126 yards. “As with most clubs, the ‘drive equity’ here had been sorely lacking,” said Benkusky. “We’ve truly made the course more fun for everyone.”

On greens, Benkusky elected to strip six inches of organic matter off the surface down to the original mix layer. “This gave us the proper medium to improve water infiltration and playability, meaning firmness and speed consistency,” he said. “As part of the process, we were also able to find the original green shapes and expand the greens out to their original size, increasing the total area of most greens by four feet in all directions. We restored the original contours and made adjustments to counter today’s green speeds to create new, peripheral pin placement areas.”

Benkusky says he has enjoyed the opportunity to study, restore and renovate a Wilson design. “If you look at the master plan of the Champions course, there is water everywhere — but it really doesn’t come into play that much. Wilson was a master at that illusion. I learned a few things about making the water visible but always giving the player safe passage. Of course, one of my favourites holes at Palm Aire is the sixteenth, where water does come into play. The routing there is pristine. I didn’t mess with it. But we did re-do the greenside bunkers, which are more visible today and truly showcase a great Wilson design.”

Joe Rassett, general manager and chief operating officer at Palm Aire, said: “The members are pretty much blown away. Michael took a piece of classic architecture and made it more suited to the modern game. The extended tee boxes, for example: The members now play as far back or forward as they like. The whole course today is so much more versatile, attractive and strategic.”

Palm Aire’s second 18, the Lakes course, is next in line for a renovation. “We’d have liked to renovate the Lakes by the end of 2023, but it’s really a matter of getting on the schedule [of a course construction firm] — and then it’s a matter of turf availability,” said Rassett. “Michael is well aware of what we’re planning, and considering what he’s done on the Champions course, he is definitely the number one candidate to handle the master plan and design. But I think it’s fair to say that we’re all trying to determine next steps.”