FROM DESOTO LAKES TO PALM AIRE COUNTRY CLUB - A Legendary Journey
There is a rich history to be told—indeed to be celebrated. It is a fine history filled with name changes, famous architects, buildings constructed and torn down, courses designed and redesigned, amenities added and dreams fulfilled. And, of course, there were the famous golf personalities who traveled great distances to test this golf course which had gained notoriety throughout the nation. At the "end" of this history we have a place called Palm Aire Country Club. Very few Country Clubs have such a legendary history. Even fewer have one that evolved and transformed itself so completely over the past 50 to 60 years.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Palm Aire Country Club was originally called The Desoto Lakes Golf Club and Lodge. It began as an idea in the mid 1950's. From 1955 to 1956, the 1400 acres we now know as Palm Aire were owned by three different developers. In April, 1955 Cecil and Marian Daugherty sold it to developers Michael Freeman and Jacob Nalven. The following November, they sold it to the Cooper Creek Company, headed by David Baird, a real visionary. Despite poor road access to the area and a relatively sparse population, Baird set out to build the Desoto Lakes Country Club Colony. His dream was to build a large residential development around a very challenging golf course.
Because of the vision and creativity of Mr. Baird, Desoto Lakes was destined for greatness from the very beginning. Baird, demonstrating tremendous foresight, hired the renowned architect Dick Wilson to design his Course. Wilson, who is responsible for notable courses as Doral's Blue Monster in Miami (1962) and Laurel Valley (1960) in Western Pennsylvania. He would later become the chief architect of the famed Bay Hill Course (1961) in Orlando Florida. Another significant early accomplishment of Mr. Baird was the construction of a "Lodge" to be added to the complex. Baird realized that in order to sell his home sites, he needed a place for potential buyers to stay. Thus, Desoto Lakes Country Club became The Desoto Lakes Golf Club and Lodge. The Lodge remained in operation until the late 1970's and was situated on the site of today's Lakes Course first tee.
The Desoto Lakes Golf Club was officially opened to the public in 1957. Measuring 6984 yards in length and earning a par 71 rating, the course certainly presented a challenge to golfers during these days! It was soon to earn the nickname "The Green Monster" and was described in several publications as a Course of Distinction in the United States, comparing favorably to the likes of Pine Valley, Pinehurst, Merion and Pebble Beach! Many touring PGA Professionals enjoyed playing at Desoto Lakes. Ted Kroll, who had been on two U.S. Ryder Cup Teams and won several tournaments on tour, was the club’s first head pro. Hired for publicity purposes to attract golfers and buyers to the area, Jimmie Demaret and Jackie Burke took on the position of Professionals in Residence. It did not take long for Desoto Lakes to earn an outstanding reputation nationally.
The "publicity" strategy to attract people to this newly developing area continued into the early 1960's with several high-profile events. All Star Golf, the forerunner to Shells Wonderful World of Golf, was televised and held at Desoto Lakes several times in the early 60's and featured players like Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Jackie Burke. The First Annual (and only) DeSoto Open Golf Tournament was held, in 1960, featuring a number of prominent professionals. Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Ken Venturi, and many others competed for what was then one of the largest purses on the PGA Tour. Sam Snead won the tournament in dramatic fashion and provided a thrilling finish for one of the first tournaments ever televised to a national audience. Not to be outdone, The LPGA Tour came in 1961 and saw Hall Of Famer Louise Suggs win against such notables as Patti Berg, Marlene Hagge and Alice Bauer. In addition, the National Lefthanders Tournament was held at Desoto Lake for many years and helped launch the career of Bob Charles.
The emphasis on big name events and players to attract buyers subsided after that rush of events in the early 60's. The developers began to shift their focus to growing the community and the club. The first home on the golf course, occupied by Greens Keeper Jack Benard, was built in 1959 along Tournament Boulevard. By 1968, Cooper Creek sold the development rights to the Maurice Parker and Irving Levitt Corporation of Pittsburgh, PA. Parker and Levitt began a partnership with Florida Palm Aire (FPA), a Pompano, Florida based development company, in 1970. In 1971, Florida Palm Aire bought out Parker/Levitt and the name was officially changed to Palm Aire West the following year.
At this time, the increase of amenities at the Club began in earnest. The opening of the Tennis Complex occurred in 1970. Just a short two years later the courts were active with the Desoto Lakes Junior Vets and Senior Invitational Tournament. The pool also continued to be a special gathering location. As the "new" Palm Aire West began to evolve, the transition from Desoto Lakes continued. The Lodge was taken down in late 1979 and a vision of an even grander future began to develop as the club approached the 1980's.
THE TRANSITION YEARS…
It was during the 1980’s decade that Palm Aire West would officially turn the page on the DeSoto Lakes legacy and begin to take on the look that the club continues with today. In 1981, construction began on a new course, soon to be known as The Lakes. Joe Lee, a longtime associate of Dick Wilson's, was chosen as the co-architect. Lee had significant credentials of his own, having designed all of the Disney Courses in Orlando, been chosen by Ben Hogan to design his course at Trophy Club Country Club in Trophy Club, Texas (Dallas area) and was designer of Chicago's Cog Hill No. 4. The Lakes Course opened in May of 1982, and during the Opening Day Tournament, Lee hit his very first hole-in-one! The expansion continued in 1984 with construction beginning on a new clubhouse. The old clubhouse, located behind the 9th Green on what is now The Champions Course, would be utilized for storage for several years before being torn down in the late 1980's.
Other dramatic changes occurring during this time period included the addition of a new driving range in 1981 along with full cart path accessibility for all 18 holes. Most significant was the conversion of the 18th hole on the Champions Course into an "island" green with a new bulkhead and sand traps that would eventually shift from the left side to the right side of the green.
Tennis also experienced some impressive changes. What is now the current Tennis/Athletic Center was opened in 1981 and four more courts were added to the complex. Shortly thereafter, in 1984, the courts were illuminated to allow for evening play.
The most dramatic change for the club and its future took place between 1985 and 1990. Ironically, it had nothing to do with buildings, courses or amenities. It was the transition of Palm Aire West from a privately owned and operated club to a member-owned club. This transition included active demonstrations by members who picketed Florida Palm Aire (FPA) railing against the initial terms of the takeover. Eventually, an agreement was reached and a transition "Advisory Board" was elected to oversee the conversion which was completed in 1990.
Once all the facilities were built and ownership of the club had been legitimately transferred to its members, the neighborhood experienced an enormous housing boom resulting in incredible growth, as well as a huge increase in membership for the "Legendary" Palm Aire Country Club.
PALM AIRE COUNTRY CLUB …
Over the past 25 years, the Palm Aire Country Club did not see major changes to the current infrastructure. An expansion of the clubhouse took place in 1992 when the back veranda was added. Further renovations inside the clubhouse have taken place over the years, some out of necessity and others in response to changes in style trends. The Champions Course was refurbished in 1996, adding more water, bunkers and new turf. In 2001, a very controversial Fitness Center was added to the club as part of the tennis and pool complex. At the time, many neighboring clubs were adding fitness services to appeal to a new type of member. Despite the debate surrounding it initially, the Fitness Center proved to be a most welcome addition over the years and remains an important amenity of the Club today.
The Tennis Center has always been an important feature of the club. It gained much recognition in 2014 when it hosted the USTA Super Senior Tournament for the state of Florida. Also, due to the initiative of two current PACC members, Pickle Ball, a new and popular sport, was added to the program at the Tennis, Pool and Fitness Center.
More recently, member-initiated and funded improvements came to the driving range and the outdoor space near the clubhouse. In 2012, the Driving Range became the Gus Andreone Practice and Teaching Facility. Through donations from his many friends, the driving range was expanded and renovated. Monuments and flowers were installed in celebration of Gus’ 100th birthday. Also in 2013, a large outdoor porch was constructed adjacent to the lounge to honor long-time member Guy Pistilli. Guy's many friends donated funds to make the porch possible. Finally, in 2013, a complete renovation of the Champions Course irrigation system was completed. This $1.3 million project, done without any assessment to the club's membership, included new pumps, pipes, wire and sprinkler heads across all 18 holes.
Over the past 60 years, Palm Aire Country Club has experienced many changes. With an active membership and a dedicated staff, the club boasts a full array of social activities. Group Play brings golfers together quickly, and frequently results in the establishment of long-lasting friendships. Tennis continues to gain in scope and popularity and Pickleball is all the rage! The number of social members at Palm Aire has increased tremendously, more than likely due to some of the exciting features that have been added to the clubhouse social program. Wacky Wednesday, our weekly themed buffet and lottery, is usually sold out during the peak of season. Large-scale dinner/show productions have met with incredible success. Completely funded by member donations in 2014, the Lakes Putting Green is our newest amenity! A beautiful gazebo and flower garden replace the former Lakes Putting Green providing a colorful backdrop for club functions.
The Palm Aire Country Club is a “work in progress.” It is ever evolving and changing in response to the needs of its members and to other conditions that impact its growth and prosperity. Palm Aire is a vibrant and active club where members consider themselves part of the Palm Aire “Family.” It is a caring community of like-minded and spirited people who enjoy working and playing together today, creating tomorrow's memories.
The history of Palm Aire submitted by: Ed Kornberger