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Links to the past at Palm Aire Country Club in Sarasota

Palm Aire's Champions Course renovation aims to restore its historical design in Sarasota.

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A line of plaques in a hallway at Palm Aire Country Club tell the proud story, of legends of the game competing on what is now the Champions Course when it was DeSoto Lakes.

When the course first opened in 1957, it didn't take long for the world's best golfers to take notice. In the 1960 DeSoto Open, for example, Sam Sneed rallied to beat golfing heavyweights such as Billy Casper, Doug Sanders, Arnold Palmer, Ken Venturi and Gary Player.

The next year, Hall of Famer Louise Suggs won the Golden Circle of Golf Festival event over the course. It was one of her 58 tour wins.

Plaques tell of the golfing legends who have competed at the course line Palm Aire Country Club.
Plaques tell of the golfing legends who have competed at the course line Palm Aire Country Club.

The course was the toast of Florida golf.

Then the years passed. DeSoto Lakes changed over to Palm Aire Country Club and the layout simply began to age.

As the century turned, Palm Aire Country Club members had listed the renovation of the Champions Course as a top priority. But before the work could be done, the recession hit. A strategic plan drawn up by the board went quiet in 2009.

The quiet period is over.

Joe Rassett, the club's general manager and chief operating officer, said a "multimillion-dollar renovation" will begin April 26. The entire course will be shut down as Michael J. Benkusky Golf Course Architecture begins work with the project expect to be completed by mid-November.

"This will be a true tee-to-green renovation," Rassett said. "We're redoing the fairways, the rough, the bunkers, the greens. We want our historical design modernized."

The course was designed by noted architect Dick Wilson, who was known for elevating greens on relatively flat layouts and for using ponds and bunkers to force golfers to come into the greens with high irons as opposed to bouncing the ball in. Simple erosion and maintenance over the years had made the bunkers larger and the greens smaller. Wilson's design was compromised.

The history of the course was of the utmost importance to the membership so Rassett met with Mike Benkusky and asked him what he knew of Wilson. Benkusky was a golf history whiz so Rassett knew it would be a good fit. 

Rassett said the course will be reworked so the white (or middle) tees most closely resemble Wilson's original design. The modernization part comes when golfers move forward or back to play the tees that either shorten or lengthen the course.

"You can make the course as easy or as challenging as you want," Rassett said.

The course also will get new crushed shell paths and about 40 trees that were "damaging the layout" will be removed.

Palm Aire also has another 18-hole course, the Lakes Course, which will keep the members busy while the work is being done.

Rassett said the catalyst for getting the project started was the membership.

"You have to decide if you want it and if you want to keep up with the Jones," he said. "This is not a bundled country club. We do it the old fashioned way. We have 500 equity members from full golf to social. They all had a say whether we moved forward."

A vote of the membership was overwhelmingly in favor of the project. Rassett also noted that those who live in Palm Aire, whether or not they are members of the country club, will have their home values positively impacted by the project.

"The whole process is intriguing," he said. "The club has survived COVID and now is investing in the future. Could we host a U.S. Open qualifier on this course? Absolutely. Could we host a (U.S.) Mid-Amateur? Absolutely. There will be something here for every level of golfer."


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