Strantz’s eyes light up as he roars “Forrest Fezler, my design partner is a perfect compliment to me. We are brothers in arms. I saw that Fu Manchu moustache and I knew I had my man.”
Together, they let it roll as high as it would go, creating scorching, towering golf adventures without being contrived or campy. “Forrest is especially good at making sure I don’t get carried away” he says emphatically. “He will look at me and say ‘Mike, how is my mom going to play that hole?’ His mom is in her 80’s.” Sometimes dialing it down a notch is a good idea. Even Fezler hints that one green that generated such a discussion, the 9th at Tobacco Road, could have been much more severe had he not raised an eyebrow in Mike’s direction.
“I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT!”
With Fezler helping channel and focus his artistic creative freedom, Strantz expanded on Mackenzie and Dye by building contours and hazards that were larger than life. Bigger, bolder, holes resulted and the scale of his designs (and hazards) commanded attention. Except for Caledonia, Strantz courses are enormous. Your group feels and looks like a bunch of Hobbits scrambling around the surreal landscape of Middle Earth. And somebody in the group is sure to utter those controversial words – words of wither praise or condemnation – “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Oh, but you have, if you’ve been across the pond. Like Alistair Mackenzie and, to a lesser extent Charles Blair Macdonald, Strantz used hole designs and strategies gleaned from the greatest courses in the UK and Ireland, then made them bolder.
“I like what Alistair Mackenzie said” Strantz says breezily, gesturing as he rocks back in his chair and crosses his legs. “A hole must have strategy and subtlety that is intricate and reveals itself over many plays. Tough hazards and arresting visuals accomplish two goals” he continues, his eyes riveted on me as if trying to sear the information into my brain. “First, the amateur loves trying and pulling off an impossible shot. Second, if an expert gets in a tough place, he may try an impossible shot and make matters worse for himself. Dr. Mackenzie wrote in his book The Spirit of St. Andrews, ‘People get more pleasure in playing a hole which looks almost impossible, but is not so difficult as it appears.’ My holes look much more fierce than they play. But it’s an optical illusion. The fairways are actually wide. Once you get over the hill in front of the tee box, you get out and say ‘Hey there’s a lot of room out here.’”
Another of Strantz’s great optical illusions was to raise bunker lips so that the hazard looked closer to the green than it was. He would also raise green entries so that they appeared smaller than they really were. “Besides,” Strantz says in defense of his design features, “golf would be boring if all the hazards and shots were standardized.”
He’s right. Strategy is the lifeblood of the game. Sadly, too many five and under handicappers are too concerned with their score and what they see on TV to understand this concept. The optical illusions still confound first time players and closed minds. Mistaking size, severity and illusion for quirks and flaws, some less imaginative critics view his semi-blind shots and visual pranks as a negative, but adventurous golfers and hardcore connoisseurs know better. What looks at first to be hyperbole is, upon deeper reflection, a most faithful and accurate rendition of all the ancient and revered elements of golf design. Just like Pete Dye. Even Dye himself acknowledged this when he told Mike he used Mike’s bunkering at Bull’s Bay (Mike’s home course, a private design in Awendaw, S.C.) as the springboard for his other-worldy bunkering at Whistling Straits, site of the 2004 PGA Championship.
Amazingly, Strantz also employed his penchant for optical illusion to make it appear as though he moved a lot of earth. Yes, Royal New Kent really was that hurly-burly a topography before Strantz built the course. He merely added a little earth to the higher areas, cut the low areas a little lower and gave the impression of moving millions of cubic yards of earth. Yes, those green settings at Stonehouse, nestled cozily in their own little amphitheatres, were natural, not manufactured. “I let the lay of the land dictate the holes and I try to use as many natural fairways and green sites that I can find” he says. What critics mistake for “contrived” is really an excellent, innovative use of the site’s best natural features. In this regard, Strantz surpasses even Dye – Dye moves far more earth to accomplish his vision.
Despite his severe of greenside trouble, fearsome larger than life playing fields and contours Mackenzie himself would have envied, fearsome bunkering, and a vocal minority of unimaginative critics, course for course, Strantz has the strongest resume of any architect. With only seven original designs and two redesigns (six public, three private), Strantz claimed three top new public course awards in four years. His best course, Tobacco Road did not win the year it opened, but recently was voted the most adventurous course in America by Golf Magazine editors and readers and is as equally revered by golf course architecture aficionados as nearby Pinehurst No. 2…if not more. His final work, the redesign of Monterey Peninsula (Shore Course) is masterpiece in Pebble Beach, California which holds its own with Cypress Point and the resort courses admirably. Several golf insiders say it will host a major as soon as the members will permit one.
Indeed, Strantz’s genius in designing MPCC is that he was more restrained than at earlier sites. Strantz knew he was designing in the shadow of Mackenzie at Cypress Point and Jack Neville at Pebble Beach. He gave us his best work. Fairways meander gracefully from side to side amidst Cypress trees and oceanfront before, like Cypress Point, the course makes its final tack home at the seventeenth.
No less a personage than four time best new course award winner Jim Engh called Strantz “the designer I most admire. His terrific strategies and angles of attack on holes were the things I liked most about Mike. You learn something every time you play one of his courses. I especially like Royal New Kent because I’d never seen anything like it before. It’s bold and abstract. And it made his par-3s are especially phenomenal.”
Because of his solid, bedrock foundational elements, even naysayers must admit that Strantz mastered every genre he attempted. Parkland masterpiece at Caledonia, links recreation at RNK, a public Pine Valley meets Ireland at The Road, Strantz never failed to seize attention and create challenging holes. Sometimes cracking the code of a Strantz hole can be as difficult as a New York Times Sunday Crossword. Some holes are a primal scream and the golfer must always keep himself on high alert, but that is what makes for a wonderful golf adventure.
Strantz’s colorful persona, artistic flair and reputation for building intimidating, man-sized courses gave rise to a few myths. First, it’s a myth his courses are too expensive to build or maintain. Strantz’s team was so efficient their projects actually ran half the price of most other upscale public daily fee courses constructed in the same period. Further, maintenance budgets are no larger then other comparable courses from the same generation.
Now here’s the kicker: Mike’s public courses are generally more competitively priced than their competition. Strantz does a terrific job of offering a phenomenal world-class alternative to the ultra-expensive and posh resorts mere minutes away. Many experts consider Royal New Kent the best course in Virginia and Tobacco Road the best course in North Carolina. They are certainly the best values in their respective states. Tobacco Road would be a bargain at twice the price it asks (usually $65). Tot Hill Farm, Stonehouse and Royal New Kent all top out around $70, but most people play for about 2/3 of that price. Even Caledonia, the crown jewel of all South Carolina public golf can be had for around $80 or less at times.
Next it’s a myth his courses are too hard. This is a microcosm of the reasons slow play has become so pandemic as well. I’ll break it down like a fraction for you.
1) People play the wrong set of tees. The next 25 handicapper who says “Yeah, but I wanna feel like I’m getting my money’s worth and see the whole course” should get a thumb in the eye because it takes five and a half hours to find their ball all day. Are you a scratch golfer (or at least a solid 5?) If not, get where you belong.
2) People don’t play smart. Are you a bogey golfer trying to carry the 225 yard chasm at number 2 at Royal New Kent? Do you still wonder why you shot 113? Mike’s course is a marathon not a sprint. He doesn’t build “afterthought holes.” Try to save shots on your way along, not squander them. If it’s a 200 yard carry over water from four-inch rough and there’s oodles of room to play safe, why are you aiming for the pin? Also, 2.5 (corollary to 2) Mike is a Mackenzian. That means the direct line to the hole is fraught with peril. Make a game plan to minimize mental errors and stick to it. Play wisely.
3) People get intimidated by the visuals. Strantz wants you shaking in your boots. Don’t let him in your head and you’ll have done the lion’s share of lowering your score before taking your first swing.
4) When in doubt, go over the mound in front of you. Strantz’s fairways are behind the mound.
5) Finally, it’s a myth that Mike and his courses are “too artistic” or “weird.” Take a trip out to Ireland or Scotland (Prestwick, for example) and then come back and tell me that what you saw there was weird. What gets labeled as “weird” by the neophyte or the frustrated is really a throwback to holes Mike saw across the pond. Just because you never saw anything like it before does not mean it does not work as a golf hole, or is “unfair.” It actually has solid roots in tried and true design philosophy.
THE REAL MIKE – FOREVER THE LION IN SUMMER
Nevertheless, Mike had to endure criticism as well as acclaim to his dying day. Everything from the look and feel of his courses tom the much maligned waterfall at the 18th at Royal New Kent was fodder for the myopic.
Strantz hurt just as much as anyone when his hard work was unappreciated. “It’s human nature,” he confided in a wonderfully candid moment. He gave a ragged smile and sad sigh of acceptance. “I feel badly when someone might not like or understand one of my courses. Of course, they are welcome to their opinion but it hurts sometimes nonetheless. While Mackenzie was self confident in the face of criticism, I have too thin a skin. That’s one of the ways Heidi has been a great influence on my career. She has taught me to be patient. I used to be very impatient I had to stick with it, I am also very sensitive. She’s helped me be more accepting of everything.”
“Heidi is a rock” adds Forrest Fezler concisely. He is right. Equally superlative as her rightly famous husband, Heidi is not only possessed of a singular clarity of vision, but she is uncommonly kind and sensitive. At one moment she will dissect an opponent on the tennis court with the predatory nature and reflexes of a panther on the hunt (watch out for her serve and volley game!), and the next she will be the tender caretaker of a lame horse with special needs. An accomplished rider, her horse a beautiful brown and white paint named Blaine. Mike rode “Degas” (pronounced “DAY-gus” like “Vegas,” not “DAY-gah” like the Artist.)
With Heidi backing his every step (at times even acting as his translator for interviews after Mike’s tongue was removed), even through his cruel cancer, Mike never regretted anything he designed – not even the waterfall on 18 at RNK – “Due to about a dozen non-negotiable reasons that was the only location for the irrigation for the course. I knew I was going to take heat for 18 not looking like the rest of the course and being “not authentic.” Perhaps this anticipated ridicule spawned the waterfall. He knew they would hang him for the water on 18, so to be sassy, even impertinent he added a waterfall just to tweak our nose.
That story is a perfect example of how Strantz achieved the heights he hit. Like the great counterculture writers such as Kerouac and Kesey, his work was about freedom of the self in an industry lashed to convention and tradition, conditioned by the powers that be to merely like only things they have seen before.
Because of his puckishness, his tenacity in his design concepts and his character – The Maverick – we all felt we knew him vicariously as part cowboy, part rebel, rugged, burly, manly-man. But Strantz also had a great depth of personality outside of the Maverick…a side players never saw. He mellowed out Jazz greats Ahmad Jamal, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. Despite being a little cowboy, he also had a country warmth and sincerity. Success never spoiled him.
There is an undercurrent of “outlaw,” but if this is a Hollywood western, Strantz is the hero, not the villain. He is good vs. evil (promoting ancient architectural features like blind shots vs. an unwilling, close-minded industry and lazy, lowest common denominator collective golf psyche). He was also David vs. goliath – after all, his first solo effort, Caledonia Golf and Fish Club deputed as the Number One course in all Myrtle Beach and has held that spot ever since against all comers.
Mike’s humanity touched so many that friends and hardcore fans have entire shrines devoted to him. That’s how much of an impact he had on people’s lives. Faith so influenced his life, one of his most beautiful works of art, a red and gold stained glass piece depicting Jesus’ crucifixion graces a South Carolina church. Ever the devoted family man, he worked only on projects near home until his daughters Dana and Andrea finished college.
It was soon thereafter – right as he was accepting the Monterey Peninsula Country Club (Shore Course) job that he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue despite never having been a smoker. The cancer was cruel and ruthless. When the American Society of Golf Course Architects met at Monterey Peninsula in April, they were so overwhelmed by the course they made Mike an honorary member. Sadly, in his final days, Mike was too weak to be able to acknowledge the honor personally.
If there is any drawback to his work, it may be that at this moment in history, his abstract lines – so beloved when they were Seth Raynor’s – are too Baroque to find mainstream acceptance. In truth, only Tot Hill Farm in North Carolina may be truly weird. The fairways are so fanciful you could get turned around and end up playing back the way you came. The course was made stranger by a re-routing prompted by floods. One green was used for two holes and 17 and 18 were mashed into one giant par-7 closing hole. But in terms of refreshing and groundbreaking experiments, the par 7 and re-routing that occurred were a popular success, with many hoping the re-routing would become permanent – just to make the course unique. Sadly, since one green had to be used for two holes, the logistical inconvenience this “crossover” caused scuttled any hopes of a course with a routing otherwise unique in the annals of golf.
Yes, Mike’s career was short, but he won back-to-back best new course awards for Royal New Kent and Stonehouse. Golf World named him 1998 Architect of the Year. Strantz was a young designer, but already had four defining works – Caledonia, Tobacco Road, Bulls Bay and MPCC – any one of which would be the magnum opus of any architect’s career. Over the course of his life, his courses, like Pete Dye’s, will become firmly woven as the fabric of our national golf character. And he showed us things we otherwise might never have seen.
Via con dios, Mike. Onward to immortality and eternal youth. At least Heidi, Dana, Andrea, Fuzzy and all your friends and family will always remember you young and vibrant and strapping. We will always remember you as the lion in summer.
A NEEDED VOICE, A SHOCKRA, AN AVATAR
In an industry that too often finds solace and comfort in hard-bitten solidarity and rigid adherence to tradition, Strantz’s exuberant voice and vision are uncompromised by objective rules and ancient dogma. Instead, he fashioned the old into the 21st century neo-classic, paying homage to the ancient ways while polishing them for the future.
Musician Reid Genauer once wrote that the measure of a man is his worth, not his wealth. To our inestimable delight, Strantz’s worth and wealth are ours too. We see further, hear more clearly, run faster, soar higher and reach farther as a collective golf community, expanding our horizons and celebrating more deeply the unquenchable spirit of our great game. Strantz’s vision serves the game in ways even the best scholars are only beginning to understand. He thunders across the golf landscape resonating with architects and players alike.
Some may unfairly brand him outlaw and contrarian, but nothing could be further from the truth. That’s the media leaving a label…where heroes and demons do not exist, it is necessary to invent them. Strantz has made no conscience decision to rebel against conformity (not that that’s a bad thing within limits of reasonableness). Yes he was a Maverick, but he was a Maverick with a true golfer’s soul.
Like musical genius Beck, Strantz transcended genres even while reinventing them. He was Van Gogh…it’s what you’ve seen before, but never in a way like this…with an aura, a flourish, a spark of color. Mike Strantz hurtled golf design into the 22nd Century. In a world where homogenization and gentrification are the altars a misguided many worship on, Mike’s individualism still shines through, dazzling and compelling. Most importantly, since his courses are priced so everyone can enjoy them, grateful public golfers can enjoy world class golf.
Mike Strantz was such a brilliant, incendiary talent that he would not have been a benchmark for those that followed…you know, as in “He’s gonna be the next Mike Strantz.” Mike will always be the only Mike Strantz – as in there are no other comparisons; The One and Only Maverick. Retire the moniker. It’s Mike’s and Mike’s alone.
There are a few talents that only come a few times a century. We see it in a different way with Tom Doak also. Such immense talents are supposed to be rare. And sadly, like Jeff Buckley, Mike’s life was short, but what a mark he left. There is a healthy love and respect for his work. The word is spreading…and true lovers of golf will never forget.
Photo (c) courtesy of the Strantz and Fezler familes.