Architect Michael Benkusky renovation of the Dick Wilson-designed Champions Course, at the Palm Aire Country Club in Sarasota, Florida, celebrates its first anniversary this month. This stage means that the members have been playing there all winter and the first reactions have gone well. The verdict is in.
“The members are pretty much blown away,” said Joe Rasset, general manager and chief operating officer of the 36-hole facility. “Michael took a piece of classic architecture and made it more suitable for modern play. Extended tees, for example: Members now play as far back or forward as they want. The set of the course today is so much more versatile, attractive and strategic.
Benkusky, principal of Illinois-based Michael J. Benkusky Golf Course Architecture, opened Palm Aire in 2020. It reopened in 2021 with new greens, a strategically renovated bunkering and a new Bimini Bermudagrass cover. The front tees went up, the championship tees moved back and Wilson’s signature panache was restored.
“This club is full of Dick Wilson fans and let’s be fair: who isn’t a Dick Wilson fan? Benkusky said. “We were more than happy to bring a whole host of original elements back into play. We restored all of his trail tees, but my favorite restoration project was probably the super cool four bunker complex we built inside the dogleg at seven. At one point they turned this group into one large bunker, but we reverted to Wilson’s more striking and visible original setup.
Another goal was to reduce the amount of sand to help the superintendent Erik Gowdy and his staff to the maintenance of the bunkers. The finished product eliminates over 30% of the area of the previous bunker. Benkusky also oversaw the removal of 12 acres of turf — mostly under tree shade, around the tee boxes — and replaced it with attractive, easy-to-maintain expanses of crushed seashells.
“We moved a lot of bunkers around the fairways, to better sync with modern ball flights, and put sand on the faces for better visibility,” Benkusky said. “The fourth is a great example of how it all came together: we removed oak trees that shaded the main tee, replaced underperforming turf with seashells, pushed championship tees back 40 yards and eliminated the fairway bunker inside this dogleg to the right We have added two bunkers outside the dogleg, which frame the hole very well.
Tips at the Palm Aire Country Club today measure 7,126, an addition of 121 yards. More importantly, Benkusky strategically pushed the front tees higher up the fairways. Tees Seven and Eight are now 4,877 and 4,466 yards respectively. “As with most clubs, ‘motivational fairness’ here was sorely lacking,” Benkusky said. “We really 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 planning the next renovation a headache. “We would have liked to renovate the lakes by the end of 2023, but it’s really a question of keeping to the schedule (of a course construction company) – and then it’s a question of the availability of the turf”, Rassett said. “Michael is well aware of what we’re planning, and given what he’s done on the Champions Course, he’s definitely the #1 candidate to handle the master plan and design. But I think he is fair to say that we are all trying to figure out the next steps.
In the meantime, Benkusky is busy throughout the Midwest, adding aesthetic, strategic and structural value to golf courses seeking to address longstanding issues and capitalize on new market opportunities.
- At Point O’ Woods Golf & Country Club, a design by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Benkusky has just completed a master plan, and members are about to vote on Phase 1, a drainage project full $600,000. Work is expected to begin on this project in the fall of 2022.
- At Waveland Golf Course in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, Benkusky recently designed five new greens and rerouted several holes to create a sophisticated new practice facility – on the oldest municipal golf course in the west of the Mississippi River.
- At Briar Ridge Country Club in Dyer, Indiana, Benkusky has removed a hole and created a new signature par 3 that will showcase the entrance to the club. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the change will allow more families to join the Briar Ridge neighborhood and generate income, allowing for further improvements and additions to an already stellar country club.
“I’ve worked with the folks at Briar Ridge for years, last fall we started phase one, moving a single hole to create seven new golf courses,” Benkusky said. “It’s hard to believe golf-related accommodation has made such a comeback, but here is a club that cleverly reads 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 the demand for this equipment is through the roof.
Back in Florida at Palm Aire, the members and Gowdy are enjoying the new greens, which have not been rebuilt but are nevertheless larger, healthier and smoother compared to pre-restoration conditions. They were rebuilt in 1997, but it was determined that a full rebuild was not necessary. After the soil samples were taken and the green profile examined, it was agreed that the soil profiles – the inner workings of green infrastructure – were sound. However, a layer of organic matter had developed, causing the greens to underperform.
“We chose to remove six inches of organic material from the green surface down to the original mixed layer,” Benkusky said. “It gave us the proper support to improve water seepage and playability, which means firmness and consistency in speed. As part of the process, we were also able to find the original green shapes and expand the greens to their original size, increasing the total area of most greens by four feet in all directions.We have restored the original outlines and made adjustments to counter today’s green speeds to create new peripheral pin placement areas.
For Benkusky, it was a thrill and an education to study, then restore and add complementary features to Wilson’s work.
“If you look at the Champions Course masterplan here, there’s water everywhere – but that doesn’t really come into play,” he said. “Wilson was a master at this illusion. I learned some things about how to make water visible while still allowing the player to pass safely. Of course, one of my favorite holes in Palm Aire is the 16th, where the water comes in. The routing there is impeccable. I didn’t spoil that. But we redid the bunkers on the green side, which are more visible today and really show off a great design Wilson.