Palm Aire Country Club in Sarasota, Florida, has approved Michael Benkusky’s renovation plans for its Champions course, originally laid out by Dick Wilson in 1957.
The project will begin in summer 2021 and includes regrassing, rebuilding bunkers and expanding tees. The project will also see a net reduction of around 10 acres of maintained turf.
“Having always wanting to work in Florida, I am excited to have a club and course with so much history and one designed by one of the greats in modern golf architecture,” said Benkusky.
Originally opened as DeSoto Lakes Golf Club, the venue has hosted a PGA event – in 1960, won by Sam Snead – and several LPGA events. It was purchased and renamed by the Palm Aire resort chain in 1972 and opened a second course, the ‘Lakes’, designed by Joe Lee, in 1982.
“Over the years, renovations have been completed on the Champions course,” said Benkusky. “A new island eighteenth green was designed by Ron Kirby in 1984 and Chip Powell redesigned the greens in 1997 to their current configuration. The basic routing has stayed the same.”
Benkusky will “refresh” the course for modern play.
“Bunkers will be rebuilt to an updated Wilson look and bunker placement adjusted to accommodate today’s game,” said Benkusky. “Greens will be scraped to remove the build-up of organic matter and the greens evaluated to incorporate new pin placement areas. Finally, the in-play areas will be regrassed with Bimini bermuda to create a clean playing surface, and over 10 acres of turf will be replaced with crushed shells to reduce turf areas.”
Tees will be restored to the ‘runways’ laid out by Wilson, and expanded to give a range of total course distance from 4,400 to 7,200 yards.
Striking a balance between restoring the course’s difficulty and making it an appealing experience to the membership has been important for the project. “The new and forward tees we are incorporating allows us to both lengthen and shorten the course,” said Benkusky. “That allows us to adjust the yardages in between and provide even more variety for the golfer and more options to play the yardage that fits their game. Secondly, the bunker programme allows us to adjust locations which may bring the bunkers into play if you are aggressive but provides more room to navigate around the hazards.”
While researching the club, Benkusky consulted Ron Whitten’s Gentleman Joe Lee book, which noted Palm Aire’s inclusion in a Golf Digest list of ‘Top Toughest Courses’ Whitten provided additional materials for Benkusky and these discoveries have convinced the club to emphasise the course’s challenge, with Palm Aire’s ‘Green Monster’ a reference to Wilson’s ‘Blue Monster’ layout at Doral on Florida’s east coast.
“We are excited to have Michael Benkusky involved with us and this project,” said Joe Rassett, general manager and COO of Palm Aire Country Club. “The ability to take a masterpiece such as our Champions course and modernise it to today’s game while protecting and enhancing the original design is why Mike was chosen for this project.”