Design Notes

Michael Benkusky refreshes Palm Aire, relishes a return

Pebble Beach refines its legendary eighth hole; Nicklaus Design teams with the Donald Ross Society at Rhode Island’s Winnapaug; Caspar Grauballe reworks France’s Golf de Rougemont


The latest news and notes in golf course architecture.

> Midwestern design stalwart Michael Benkusky had always yearned for a project in Florida. When the opportunity presented itself at Palm Aire Country Club in Sarasota, he not only took it, he crushed it. When the Champions course reopened in 2021, it was clear he aced the test.

"The members are pretty much blown away," said Joe Rassett, general manager and COO of the 36-hole facility. "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, is best known as the lead designer on Canyata, a perennial top-100 layout in southern Illinois, and for his restoration efforts primarily around the Midwest. The chance to reinvigorate a layout that once occupied a spot in the Golf Digest Top 100 was too good to pass up.

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“Having always wanted the opportunity to work in Florida,” said Benkusky early in 2021, “I’m excited to have a club and course with so much history and one designed by one of the greats in modern golf architecture.”

Benkusky was referencing Dick Wilson, who created Palm Aire’s Champions course in 1957. From inception until new ownership arrived in 1972, the course was known as DeSoto Lakes, and it played host to a PGA Tour event in 1960, won by Sam Snead, and to several LPGA Tour events. Wilson, of course, was renowned for Florida spreads such as Bay Hill, PGA National (now BallenIsles) and Doral.

“This club is full of Dick Wilson fans and let’s be fair: Who isn’t a fan of Dick Wilson?” Benkusky said. “We were more than happy to put a host of original elements back into play. We did restore his runway tees, but my favorite restorative project was probably the super cool four-bunker complex we built on the inside of the dogleg at seven, a 348-yard par 4."

Benkusky also regrassed and expanded the greens, added forward and back tees and reworked and reduced the sand features. The finished product eliminated more than 30 percent of the previous bunker square footage. He 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.

Benkusky anticipates moving forward sometime soon with similar plans for the club’s second course, the Lakes, designed by Wilson’s protege and subsequent partner, Joe Lee in 1982. In the meantime, he's currently focused on three Midwestern courses.

At Point O’ Woods Golf & Country Club, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where luminaries such as Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods captured the Western Amateur, Benkusky recently completed a master plan, with work expected to commence on a comprehensive drainage 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 state-of-the-art new practice facility — at the oldest municipal golf course (1901) 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.

> Pebble Beach Golf Links, host to six U.S. Opens and ranked by many as the top public-access course in the United States, is both altering and restoring its legendary par-4 eighth hole. The 427-yard test which features a second shot over the Pacific Ocean that Jack Nicklaus calls the greatest approach in golf, is becoming both safer and fairer.

The area approaching the edge of the cliff over Carmel Bay on the right side of the fairway has been “pulled back,” according to John Sawin, vice president and director of golf at Pebble Beach. The repositioning was implemented to stop golfers from replicating the dangerously scary shot that Jordan Spieth successfully attempted at the 2022 AT&T Pebble Beach PGA Tour event.

Spieth was a mere 18 inches from the cliff edge, yet somehow pulled off a 7-iron shot for the ages, with the potential loss of life and limb less than two feet away. The penalty line is now marked six feet from the edge and the end of the fairway has been pulled back a similar distance. In addition, Pebble Beach has heightened the cut of rough between the end of the fairway and the bluff significantly.

“We wanted a ball that goes into the area to be far less appealing to play,” Sawin told Golf Digest. “The problem with Jordan’s shot was that he had a fairly clean lie, albeit on the edge of a cliff. He felt that he could get a club on it, whereas we want lies in there to be fairly unattractive so that people take a drop and not even be tempted to play out of there.”

A more conventional renovation is concurrently taking place at the eighth green, which is now under the knife, with a temporary green in play just in front of it.

“What we’re doing with our green projects (including the eighth) is coring-out the old greens and basically removing the sand build-up from 100 years of sand shots, said Sawin of the in-house project. “Then we’re installing SubAir and using the USGA construction specifications. And in certain instances, we’re also making subtle adjustments to slopes to restore the original design intent of the greens to accommodate today’s green speeds.”

When completed, the putting surface will be expanded by about 300 feet, putting it just over 3,000 square feet total. The softened contours in the back-left and back-right portions will bump up the pin-able areas on the green significantly.

“During the 2019 U.S. Open, all four hole locations were in the center of the green, because nothing else was pin-able at those speeds,” said Sawin. “One of our goals was to increase our options and grab more pin-able areas. But it will play nearly the same.”

> Winnapaug Golf Club in Westerly, Rhode Island, has tapped Nicklaus Design to update its Donald Ross-designed, century-old layout. It will be the first renovation undertaking by Nicklaus Design of a Donald Ross course. To ensure a seamless process, the firm will align with the Donald Ross Society, an organization created in 1989 in response to the careless remodeling of several Ross classics, to assist in preserving and enhancing the Ross traits while making it relevant for today’s golfers. The Winnapaug Golf Group, a golf and community development concern headed by Nicholas and Jill Scola is directing the effort.

“Our ultimate goal is to provide an affordable, relaxing golf experience on a layout that will simulate private course conditions but with public access for our local and wider community to enjoy for the next 100 years,” said Nicholas Scola. “We’re certain that in leveraging the expertise and innovation of Nicklaus Design, the modernized course, when completed, will maintain the original Donald Ross characteristics that were intended when the course was built in 1922.”

Chad Goetz, senior design associate for Nicklaus Design, will spearhead the project, in tandem with Winnapaug’s superintendent, James Trichter. The expectation is to foster Ross design precepts and strategies, rather than necessarily replicating the holes as they first existed. “In our discussions with the Scolas we simply ask that the work in restoring the course be done correctly in accord with the standards and quality originally espoused by Donald Ross,” said Michael Fay, founder of the Donald Ross Society. “We understand that restoration and development are necessary for the 100-year-old course in order to remain functional and economically viable well into the future. Visualizing the course in 2022 as it was in 1922 is our wish.” Construction is slated to commence in October 2022, with work to continue over the next several winters.     

> Danish architect Caspar Grauballe, the current vice president of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects, is in the process of reimagining Golf de Rougemont-le-Chateau in northeast France’s Bourgogne-Franche-Comte region, near the borders of Germany and Switzerland. Originally a Robert Berthet design from the late 1980s, Rougemont will undergo a major overhaul over the next few years. The construction of new tees took place in 2021 and this spring, work involved building a new hole and new practice greens.

“My plan is to improve the playing experience by developing the framework for better playing surfaces, changing the layout to reduce the climbs on certain holes, making the course more visually attractive and reducing the blindness of a few holes,” said Grauballe.  As such, the longtime former associate of Hawtree, Ltd., who worked on such gems as Ballybunion, Royal Aberdeen, Portmarnock and Trump International in Scotland, is re-routing portions of the layout. 

“The rerouting uses much of the existing hole locations, but there are major changes on both nines,” said Grauballe. “A new short par 4 is introduced as the fifth hole, and the ninth is an amalgamation of the old sixth and ninth holes, to form a great par 5. On the back nine, a new 14th hole is introduced on new land; a par 4 playing from an elevated tee position to a rolling fairway with great views toward the village. The old 17th is being replaced as well. This opens up some changes that will reduce climbs for players and also introduces a new 13th hole — a par 3 sitting on top of the site with tremendous views across the landscape. The 18th will change from a short par 5 with a blind drive to a par 4 with a very dramatic tee shot to the fairway and green — 80 feet below — next to a lake.”

Grauballe envisions that blind holes will disappear and the greens will feature more movement than the current set, putting more emphasis on the short game.