Crazy Man or Mad Genius? Mike Strantz wasn’t out to get you. He was out to get you to play better golf. And better golf courses. And as with most visionaries lost in their prime, we can only wonder where his talents would have taken the next generation of design.
Standing on the No. 1 tee at Tobacco Road, I was hooked. Actually, fascinated might be a better word — this was not your ordinary golf course. And that’s a very good thing. Two huge mounds stand sentry, providing a narrow gateway to the fairway. How do I hit this shot? And where? My hands and knees began to rattle as the adrenaline started pumping. My brain was spinning. And it was only the first shot of an unforgettable day.
• • •
Mike Strantz was a master of deception.
Schooled as an artist and taught by one of the greats in golf architecture, this Ohio native who later called Charleston, S.C., his home grew into a complex course designer — equal parts Harry Houdini and Salvador Dali. From the charming Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in South Carolina to the bold and beautiful Tobacco Road northeast of Pinehurst to what many consider the nearly “unconquerable” Royal New Kent in Virginia, Strantz built courses with a single goal: He wanted to make you think.
“Mike always stressed to me, we have to stimulate the golfer’s senses,” says Forrest Fezler, the 1973 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and Strantz’ longtime design partner. “Because if we don’t, they’re going to get bored with the game and won’t want to play anymore. So we need to create excitement — and when you stand on the tee, we want your heart to go right to your throat.”
But in most cases, that trepidation is nothing more than sleight of hand — or sleight of land — from a master magician employing his tricks, such as pinch points and peek-a-boos, to create a heart-swallowing sense of challenge on holes that are not as difficult as they appear.
“It’s so wide and playable, that once you actually hit the golf shot, you think to yourself, ‘Wow, that was really something — I hit the ball in the fairway.’ Well, the fairway might be 120 yards wide, but you feel like you’ve accomplished something,” Fezler continues, adding that Strantz built shorter courses with an emphasis on precision over power. “Yardage isn’t a criteria in great golf holes. Unfortunately, guys on Tour hit the ball so far that if you have all 450-yard par-4s and 220-yard par-3s and 600-yard par-5s, you don’t have any variety of golf shots.
“So Mike tried to take the driver out of your hands and make you think a little bit more. And as soon as you’re forced to think, you’re dead. He wanted to get people to wonder about what they’re going to do, and then there’s the mind game. And if a golfer can win that mind game, they walk off the golf course with their shoulders back and say, ‘I played pretty darn good out there today — that’s a hard golf course.’ But in reality, it really wasn’t.”
• • •
Genius and inspiration never surface overnight, although they often shine through from an early age. For Strantz — a lifelong golfer who starting working on the Chippewa Golf Club grounds crew in Curtis, Ohio, at age 14 — his path toward life as a working artist took a turn into turf management when he left Miami University (Ohio) in favor of Michigan State.
“He was in the studio art program at Miami of Ohio and doing fine, but just realized it was going to be hard to make a living that way. He liked to say he met this girl named Heidi Walker and started realizing that he should find a career, something where he could earn money,” recalls his wife, now Heidi Strantz Mortimer. “Mike was an extremely talented artist, profoundly talented, but just couldn’t envision himself making money as an artist.”
It was during work for the 1978 U.S. Open at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio, that Strantz was spotted by Tom Fazio and asked to join his crew as a shaper.
“The Fazio team thought he was a hard worker and industrious and bright and a go-getter, so they said, ‘Well, do you wanna come work for us?’ It was being in the right place at the right time and putting in an all-out effort.”
Years later in 1985, when the Fazio team was building Golden Eagle in Tallahassee, Fla., for former Tour player Forrest Fezler, a friendship began that eventually in 1994 turned into a working relationship under the Maverick Golf Design moniker. This time around would be different. Strantz had left Fazio to spend more time at home, and with his new partnership came a renewed ambition and family-friendly travel schedule. They would only work on one course at a time, and Strantz would leave for a job site on Monday morning, come home on Tuesday night, then leave again on Thursday morning and come back Friday night — a plan that resulted in only being away two nights a week.
It was a system that allowed his creativity to flourish and resulted in the best work of his life, beginning with Caledonia and ending with two renovations in California — Silver Creek Valley Country Club in San Jose and the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club.
“To me, the worst golf course is one where you can’t really remember any particular holes, where you end up thinking it was a waste of time — that you could have gone shopping instead,” Strantz told reporters, including Fairways + Greens’ Vic Williams, at a Silver Creek preview event back in 2002. “He came across as a guy you’d just as soon find on the next stool at whatever down-home saloon you wandered into,” Williams remembers. “In the few moments we golf writers met and listened to him, Strantz immediately established himself as one of us, a regular guy who couldn’t hide his passion for what he was doing and wasn’t about to change his approach, his attitude or his jeans-and-shaggy-haired look for anyone.”
And it was during those Maverick Golf Design years, 1994-2005, that all Strantz’ life experiences — a love for the courses he found across the pond while on a visit to Scotland with Danny Young of Legends Golf Group, his work running heavy equipment for Fazio and that rare artistic talent he used to communicate exactly what he wanted out of each whimsical golf layout he sketched — merged into a singular focus and heightened drive for perfection.
“Being the artist that he was, he was able to envision different ideas and concepts and then put that to paper — and that paper gave us his eyes, his vision,” Fezler says.
“He showed us these three-dimensional drawings, exactly what he wanted the golf hole to look like: a tree here, a rock over there, this is the horizon line, the look of the bunker.”
And his pictures truly were worth a thousand words — maybe more — because there was no room for debate or interpretation, which eliminated any possible confusion. “Mike created every single hole — every dogleg point, every tee shot, every drawing of every shot to the green. And we were able to create that look to the Nth degree. And he wouldn’t vary from them. He would tell us, ‘If I’ve got it down on paper, it’s gonna work.’”
It’s a mind-boggling concept, and quite a picture, to imagine this hippy cowboy of sorts — long hair, droopy mustache, yet a kind man, a spiritual man, a family man — riding his horse across the raw countryside, conjuring fairways and greens, sketching each thought down to the finest detail, knowing that one day those drawings would become a modern golf course.
“Mike would say, ‘If I tell you guys to do this or do that, you might do exactly what I tell you to and it still might not look very good. That’s why I do the drawings.’”
• • •
The results were impressive, both visually and viscerally. But not all golfers agree. In fact, Strantz’ work — with the exception of the Monterey Peninsula improvements — is among the most polarizing in the golf, something Heidi says was perplexing to her husband.
“Mike was very complicated, and he enjoyed the visual taunting,” she says. “But he thought golf should be an experience and you shouldn’t just go out there to play the scorecard. He always shook his head at people who would fuss at him and say things like This is gonna be too hard to play. He saw golf 100 percent as a game, and something where you needed to take risks and do some thinking to work the puzzle. And he just didn’t understand the people who only saw it as trying to come in with a low score.
“He knew what he wanted and had confidence in that vision. And there are so many people who love his courses that it’s a little easier to drown out the negativity. It still hurt because he put his soul into those golf courses, but he was able to ride through it.”
Among the fans of Strantz’ work is Hootie and the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker, a founding member at Bulls Bay in Charleston. “If I was going to play golf in one place for the rest of my life and it couldn’t be Augusta, it would be Bulls Bay,” the musician told Fairways + Greens’ Mitch Laurance earlier this year. “It’s an amazing course. I love going out there every day.” And he’s far from the only fan — we hear much more praise than criticism from golfers who have teed it up at the four Carolina courses open to public play.
Fezler agrees that beauty is in the eye of the person swinging the club: “Everyone has a different opinion of Picasso or this guy or that guy, and that’s OK. Mike said, ‘That’s fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion — some people are going to like it, some aren’t going to like it.’ But how many stories have you heard about somebody playing St. Andrews for the first time? Some of these pros go out there and say, ‘I’ll never come back here again — this is the worst course I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And then pretty soon you understand it and say, ‘Hmmm, this is a damn good golf course.’ At Tobacco Road, True Blue, Caledonia and Tot Hill Farm — after you play one time, you want to go back and play again because you realize it wasn’t as difficult as you made it out to be.”
That’s a sentiment shared by the leader of a foursome found braving uncharacteristically cold and rainy weather at North Carolina’s Tot Hill Farm back in late October:
“I didn’t know what to think about this place the first time I was here, but after making it around the course once, I realized it takes some finesse to play here. Now I love it — that’s why I try to bring new friends out to play whenever possible. Even in weather like this, it’s great. And when the sun shines like it usually does, there’s no better place to be.”
One oft-controversial element of the Strantz approach is found in his gigantic rollercoaster putting surfaces, where birdies are earned and two-putts seldom guaranteed. “There’s a green at Stonehouse in Virginia that’s 102 yards deep,” Fezler says. “At Royal New Kent, you’ve got one 112 yards — it’s like three greens in one,
a 6-iron to the front, 3-wood to the back.”
But it’s all part of a master plan.
“You gotta have movement to make the chip shots and putts interesting,” Fezler says, “and that also gives you big greens to hit. And Mike created different looks all the time — there isn’t one green or bunker setup anywhere that he has duplicated. Some of the best greens I’ve ever played are at Pasatiempo in Santa Cruz, Calif., by Alister MacKenzie. Best greens complexes I’d ever seen. And Mike has surpassed those on every course he’s done. They are so much fun and interesting that you say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this. Where’s the pin going to be today? I hope it’s over here or I hope it’s over there.’ Because you want a challenge and to play all those shots to the different positions.”
• • •
For Love of the Game is a phrase that gets thrown about far too much these days, especially in the world of golf.
They are words that often ring hollow — until you hear the story of Mike Strantz’ final days. Diagnosed with oral cancer as he was finishing up the Bulls Bay project, Mike began a four-year battle with the disease yet never stopped working, just as he’d promised Forrest Fezler a decade earlier. “He told me he was gonna work until he couldn’t work anymore. ‘Don’t worry, Forrest,’ he said, ‘I’m never gonna retire — I enjoy what I’m doing too much to ever retire.’” Meanwhile, new opportunities had taken him farther from home, sometimes resulting in chemotherapy on both coasts as he first worked on Silver Creek and then moved his talents and team to famed 17-Mile Drive.
“Monterey Peninsula was always a dream,” Heidi says. “There were rumors they wanted the Shore Course redone and were looking at designers, but, you know, the bigwigs were in line, so it just didn’t seem possible. So when it happened, it was very exciting for Mike. And a no-brainer for him to travel about as far across the country from Charleston as you can get.”
Through it all, Strantz tended to every last detail at Monterey Peninsula, just as he had on every hole of every design that preceded it in the Maverick Golf history.
“The last course he ever did — the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula — he was sick as a dog, taking chemo, been in bed for three or four days, then coming out there to walk the fairways and doing his markings,” Fezler remembers fondly. “It kept him alive. It was amazing how much he loved what he did. He could have said, ‘Forrest, you go ahead and do it now, I’m just not up to par.’ But no, never ever did he complain about his cancer, his illness, poor me, nothing. He just put his heart and soul into Monterey Peninsula, and it shows — the pros absolutely adore that golf course [where the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am is now played, along with legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links and Spyglass Hill].
“He was diagnosed and still did the drill,” Heidi recalls. “It was amazing — still gives me shivers to think about it. Brutal to watch, but he did it. There are ladies at Monterey who still talk about it with tears in their eyes because he was thin as a green bean with no hair and a stocking cap on, and out there on that golf course working, his clothes hanging off of him because he didn’t have any weight. He was just an amazing strong-willed man with the power to keep going and complete his dream.”
Michael J. Strantz died on June 10, 2005, at the age of 50.
Today, Strantz’ adventurous spirit lives on through the wild and wonderful challenges he created, even if few golfers have heard his story. Yet those who knew Strantz best — friends, loved ones and fellow designers — will never forget his passion and drive. And still they wonder what he might have achieved had life not been cut short.
“He’d just gotten started,” says Fezler, whose company has carved out a niche in recent years working on courses for such fellow former Tour pros as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lanny Wadkins, John Fought and Johnny Miller. “He only did nine courses, with Monterey being his last one, which was the best natural-looking site he had. And I know that would have opened doors and who knows what we could have done. I just thank God every day that Mike had the opportunity to do a golf course in Monterey.
“(Shapers) Mike and Jeff Jones and I — we talk about Mike every day on the course. What do you think Mike would be doing here? Mike wouldn’t be doing this. It would be so much easier if we were doing Mike’s stuff. It was a lot of fun, and like Mike, we’ve enjoyed it all.”