WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - South Florida seems to change daily. The Sunshine State's seductively warm climate encourages creates a steady stream of migration south, especially in the winter. New people moving in means demand for new places to live, see and be seen, and real estate developers are happy to oblige.
In that tradition sits Banyan Cay Resort & Golf Club, the area's most recent golf course opening. Originally the 36-hole President Golf & Country Club, Banyan Cay comprises 18 holes, recently reopened and redesigned by nearby resident — oh, and winningest major champion of all time — Jack Nicklaus. Late in 2019, a new hotel is scheduled to open under the upscale Noble House Hotels & Resorts brand. Noble House owns other Florida properties in the Keys and Naples, as well as Wyoming, Washington, Colorado and California.
The High Notes
Number 300. Banyan Cay is the 300th course to open with a Jack Nicklaus Signature designation. Nicklaus and his design firm are responsible for more than 400 courses worldwide, but the Signature courses receive greater involvement from the Golden Bear himself in the form of multiple personal visits during planning and construction, as well as a generally more hands-on approach. Since he makes his home just up the road from Banyan Cay in North Palm Beach, Nicklaus was well-placed to put in a good number more on-site hours than he usually does, even at Signature courses of his.
Unusual sights. South Florida golf courses tend to have a pretty predictable aesthetic: flattish fairways, abundant tropical vegetation, plentiful water hazards (often with multiple forced carries) and relatively uninspired bunkering, with holed often bordered by rows of houses. Banyan Cay breaks free of those expectations in a number of ways that help it stand out. First of all, Nicklaus' team built some nice movement into the fairways, which heave and roll as much as 20 feet in places. At a time when minimalist golf courses are popular, this is a case where the hand of man is evident, but almost always in service of compelling golf. No one would call the half-punchbowl 13th green natural, but it is hard to deny the fun of using the slopes to get a ball close to the day's hole location.
Another point of differentiation at Banyan Cay: the handful of bunkers that Nicklaus' team, led by Chris Cochran, built with stacked artificial sod — the increasingly popular "Better Billy Method." These pots are not what a South Florida-bound golfer would normally expect, but they form a memorable motif that gives the course an interesting look. The most consequential of these hazards sits in the center of the green of the short par-4 12th.
Finally, there are the condo towers of the "Lands of the President" residential development in which Banyan Cay (formerly the President Golf & Country Club) sits. Some purists may dismiss them as eyesores, but I thought they lent an interesting sense of place to the course. After all, you're practically in the center of the action in West Palm Beach - signs of the heavy snowbird influence are unavoidable. The juxtaposition of these buildings with the course's open plan, interspersed with majestic banyan trees, gives Banyan Cay character.
Open to non-members...eventually. The redesigned Banyan Cay course is the first big step in a process that will transform this corner of West Palm Beach. Outside play will not be available until the aforementioned, forthcoming 140-room boutique Noble House hotel opens. Noble House is no stranger to golf, also operating the LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort across the state in Naples. As at LaPlaya, the Banyan Cay course will be open only to members of the associated private club and hotel guests. But since the hotel is not estimated to be finished until late 2019, and the membership is still growing, that will give Banyan Cay the better part of two years to mature before welcoming its first resort guest players. It was already in terrific shape when I played it a few weeks ago; once the on-site hotel is completed, the course will rival The Breakers' Rees Jones Course as a premium resort play in town.