The course today is much more versatile, attractive, and strategic

SARASOTA, Fla. — Architect Michael Benkusky’s renovation of the Dick Wilson-designed Champions Course, here at Palm Aire Country Club, marks its first anniversary this month. That milestone means the members have played it all winter long and first-blush reactions are well past. The verdict is in.

“The members are pretty much blown away,” says Joe Rassett, General Manager and Chief Operating Officer at 36-hole Palm Aire. “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.”

Benkusky, principal of Illinois-based Michael J. Benkusky Golf Course Architecture, broke ground at Palm Aire CC in 2020. It reopened in 2021 with new greens, strategically renovated bunkering, and new blanket of Bimini bermudagrass. The forward tees moved up, the championship tees moved back, and Dick Wilson’s signature panache was restored.

“This club is full of Dick Wilson fans and let’s be fair: Who isn’t a fan of Dick Wilson?” Benkusky says. “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 favorite restorative project was probably the super cool 4-bunker complex we built on the inside of the dogleg at 7. 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 finished product eliminates more than 30 percent 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 attractive, maintenance-friendly expanses of crushed shells.

“We moved a lot bunkers down the fairways, to better sync up with modern ball flights, and flashed sand up on the faces for better visibility,” the architect explains. “The 4th 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.”

The tips at Palm Aire Country Club today measure 7,126, an addition of 121 yards. More important, Benkusky strategically pushed the forward tees further up the fairways. The Seven and the Eight tees now measure 4,877 and 4,466 yards, respectively. “As with most clubs, the ‘drive equity’ here had been sorely lacking,” the architect says. “We’ve truly made the course more fun for everyone.”

Palm Aire’s second 18, the Lakes Course, is next on the docket, though supply chain issues and in-demand contractors make scheduling the next renovation a puzzle. “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,” Rassett explains. “Michael is well aware of what we’re planning, and considering what he’s done on the Champions Course, he is definitely the #1 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.”

Palm Aire Country Club

In the meantime, Benkusky is busy all over the Midwest, adding aesthetic, strategic and structural value to golf courses looking to solve longstanding issues and leverage new market opportunities.

• At Point O’ Woods G&CC, the Robert Trent Jones Sr. classic in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Benkusky just finished a Master Plan, and the members are set to vote on phase 1, a comprehensive $600,000 drainage project. Work is scheduled to begin on that project in the fall of 2022.

• At Waveland GC in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, the architect recently designed five new greens and rerouted several holes to create a fancy new practice facility — at the oldest municipal golf course west of the Mississippi River.

• At Briar Ridge Country Club in Dyer, Indiana, Benkusky removed one hole and created a new, signature par-3 that will showcase the club’s entrance. It doesn’t sound like much, but the change will allow for more families to join the Briar Ridge neighborhood and produce revenue, enabling further upgrades and additions to an already stellar country club.

“I’ve worked with the folks at Briar Ridge for years, last fall we began the first phase, moving a single hole to create seven new golf course lots,” he says. “It’s hard to believe that golf-related housing has made such a comeback, but here’s a club smartly reading the market as it stands today, not 15 years ago. At Waveland, we honestly formulated the practice facility project before the recent golf boom. Today, demand for that amenity is through the roof.”

Back in Florida, at Palm Aire, members and superintendent Erik Gowdy are loving the new greens, which were not rebuilt but are nevertheless bigger and healthier and smoother compared to pre-restoration conditions. They were rebuilt in 1997, but it was determined that complete reconstruction was not needed. Once soil samples were taken and the green profile reviewed, it was agreed the soil profiles — the internal workings of the green infrastructure — were sound. However, a layer of organic matter had developed causing the greens to underperform.

 “We elected to strip six inches of organic matter off the green surface down to the original mix layer,” Benkusky says. “This gave us the proper medium to improve water infiltration and playability, meaning firmness and speed consistency. 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 it was both a thrill and an education to study, then restore and add complementary features to Dick Wilson’s work.

“If you look at the Master Plan of the Champions Course here, there is water everywhere — but it really doesn’t come into play that much,” he said. “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 favorites holes at Palm Aire is the 16th, where water does come into play. The routing there is pristine. Didn’t mess with it. But we did redo the greenside bunkers, which are more visible today and truly showcase a great Wilson design.”

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