Heroic artistry: the life and works of Michael Strantz

Heroic artistry: the life and works of Michael Strantz
By Robin Hiseman

In a follow-up to our Architects’ Choice course rankings, Robin Hiseman explains why Maverick architect Mike Strantz is his design hero

“He didn’t make a good first impression,” recounts Danny Young, once of the Legends Club in Myrtle Beach. Having parted company with the original architect of the new Parkland Course, Danny was looking for some expert help to finish off the bunkers. A friend told him about this guy who was raking bunkers down at Dunes West, near Charleston, who used to work for Tom Fazio. Maybe he could help.

“So, we’re out on the eleventh green when this big guy turns up in his station wagon. He’s got hair down his back, a big bushy moustache and is wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and jeans. It wasn’t an impressive entrance! So we ask him to show us what he can do and he tells us he’ll be out here a little while. When we come back he’s painted these bizarre bunker lines all over the place. So I ask if he wants to come and work for us”. ‘When?’, he asks me. ‘Now,’ I tell him. ‘How much do you want to do the job?’ ‘Pay me what I’m worth,’ he says. And he started with us that very day,” Danny Young concludes.

So began the second coming of Michael Strantz as a golf architect. Between 1993-2005, his star would shine so very brightly, with a succession of inspirational, exciting and controversial designs that drew widespread acclaim and awards. Caledonia, Stonehouse, Royal New Kent, True Blue, Tobacco Road, Tot Hill Farm, Bulls Bay. The portfolio of original Strantz designs reads like the tracklist of one of his favourite jazz albums. Golf World awarded Strantz the accolade of ‘Architect of the Year’, in 1999, and Golfweek named him as one of the top ten greatest designers of all time. He made a meteoric impact on the landscape of golf design, but if it hadn’t been for an act of catastrophic divine intervention, it might never have happened at all.

The first part of Strantz’s career was spent working for Tom Fazio, who plucked him from the ground crew of Strantz’s hometown course, Inverness Country Club in Toledo, after he made a good impression during preparatory works for the 1979 US Open. For eight years, Strantz worked on a succession of high profile Fazio projects across the southern states, before quitting when the pressures of being away from home for long periods threatened to tear his family apart. He walked away from golf construction and settled down in Charleston with his wife Heidi and two young daughters and pursued a career as a commercial artist. For all intents and purposes, golf and Mike Strantz had parted company.

The precise moment when fate decreed that Michael Strantz and golf design would be reacquainted can be pinpointed to midnight on 22 September 1989. At this moment, the eye wall of the devastating Hurricane Hugo made landfall on the Isle of Palms, just to the east of Charleston. Directly in Hugo’s path was the highly acclaimed Wild Dunes course, which Strantz had built for Fazio. The hurricane virtually wiped Wild Dunes off the face of the Earth. Strantz was called out of his career hiatus to help repair the damage and with the blessing of Tom Fazio, he almost single-handedly reconstructed the course. After this he settled down to work on the grounds crew at Dunes West, as well as continuing with his artistic work. Until, that is, the day Danny Young came knocking.

Despite the accolades, Michael Strantz remains relatively unknown outside of a small group of industry aficionados and a devoted fan base who love the extreme challenge and stunning aesthetics of Strantz designs. This is largely due to the fact that all of his seven original designs are located in either the Carolinas or Virginia. He had pledged to Heidi that he would only work within easy commuting distance of home until his daughters achieved graduation age. His final two projects are located in California, including his majestic remodelling of the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. This was Strantz’s breakout project, the one that would announce him on a wider stage. His daughters had graduated and Strantz was ready to go travelling again. Tragically, it instead proved to his final curtain call, for in 2005, at the cruelly tender age of 50, Michael Strantz passed away after a long and brutal battle with cancer.

Strantz deserves to be celebrated, not only for the flamboyant courses he created, but for the unique manner in which he did so. Nobody has ever built courses the way Strantz did, because Strantz had a talent that virtually nobody possessed. He used his prodigious skill as a freehand artist to draw detailed renderings of proposed holes. He would stand stock still in the field and let the images form in his mind, before releasing them onto the page. The drawings would then be handed to his shapers and pinned up in the cab, in lieu of formal plans and levels. Entire courses were designed this way.

Kenny Ohlinger, superintendent at Strantz’s Bulls Bay sums his unique talent up perfectly. “His drawings were picture-perfect. If you could blow the drawing up big enough and lay it over the hole, it would match perfectly. Every tee top, every fairway cut, every bunker face, Mike painted them out line-by-line. Every median you see in the cart trails, Mike Strantz painted out by hand.”

That he was able to transfer his drawings to the ground was largely due to him being on site throughout construction and only working on one project at a time. If you hired Strantz, you hired an architect devoted to perfecting every detail and strategic nuance in person, from start to finish. He could operate every piece of construction equipment with expertise and would often be seen riding around project sites on horseback, cowboy hat perched atop his head. With his physical similarity to Wyatt Earp, the unconformity of both his designs and the construction methods, it is little wonder that he became known as the ‘Maverick,’ a title that he enjoyed so much that he christened his business Maverick Golf Design.

The Maverick team was a close knit bunch, formed of Strantz, his good friend and golf professional Forrest Fezler as his project supervisor, plus the shaping talents of Jeff and Mike Jones. This tight unit knew what Strantz wanted and were able to work quickly and efficiently to minimise construction timeframes and costs. There is no better way for an architect to work and the proof of this is with the touching reverence with which Strantz’s memory is preserved at each of his courses. Strantz’s image, plans and press cuttings adorn the walls. Club rooms are named after him, tournaments held in his honour and every golfer leaves the first tee fully aware that they are about to tackle a ‘Mike Strantz’ design. His clients loved him because he gave them his all. 

Despite the artistry of his designs, the enormous width of the mown areas, spectacular bunkering, vast greens and the impression that gargantuan quantities of earth were shifted, Strantz was able to bring his projects in at a reasonable cost, which was essential given that all bar two of his original designs are daily fee operations. Strantz prided himself in trying to create a private club experience for the public golfer. He loved that they might show up, look around and exclaim, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m getting to play on a place like this!’

Strantz was a devoted fan of Alister MacKenzie and his design philosophy was rooted in the principles laid down in MacKenzie’s writings. He often quoted MacKenzie and he particularly emphasised the philosophy that a golf hole should look much more difficult than it really is. He was quite comfortable with being controversial, which was just as well, because his was a style that you either love or hate with a passion. There is no middle ground. He harked back to classic design principles, with courses full of quirky, seemingly random features and severely defined margins between fair ground and desperate purgatory. This isn’t a style to please all comers, but Strantz would defend his rationale with the oft-repeated MacKenzie quote that ‘the best holes give rise to the most bitter controversy.’

With Tobacco Road, he unleashed all of his MacKenzie inspired imagination and created the most exciting golf course I have ever seen. If you only see one Mike Strantz course, it should be ‘The Road.’ It embodies everything he stood for. The strategic choices are that much more stark, the changing angles of play that much more pronounced, the bunkers that bit closer to the best line and the blind shots, well, that bit more blind! It is Pine Valley for the public golfer and it is a masterpiece; the most courageous of designs. Strantz was so very brave to commit to the more extreme elements of the design. The thirteenth green, almost completely hidden in a dell between tall, shaggy mounds, is a personal favourite of mine. It is bizarre, unfair and totally unforgettable. Strantz is quoted in the course guide. ‘We feel that rewarding accomplishments are seldom easily gained, but pulled off with the odds seemingly against you. We can’t promise you your best score...’ A disclaimer to prepare you for a roughing up, but there are plenty of opportunities to make a score. Strantz championed many and varied tee positions and those golfers who choke down on their ego and move forward a tee will likely have a great time.

Tobacco Road was an immediate hit, but it was also the project where, in 1997, Strantz first became aware of a constant pain in his tongue that just wouldn’t go away. He chose to ignore it. He was too busy. This was a mistake.

Despite the nagging mouth pain, Mike’s life and career were going great. Things got especially good when he was commissioned to design his first private course, literally on his doorstep, with Bulls Bay, just outside of Charleston.

After the extravagant Pine Valley motifs of his designs for Tobacco Road and True Blue, plus the rocky, mountain oddities of the very unusual Tot Hill Farm, Strantz was under pressure to come up with something original for Bulls Bay. The flat site, a former tomato plantation, didn’t offer much inspiration, but a trip to Long Island with Bulls Bay developer Joe Rice unlocked the concept he sought so eagerly. Both loved the sweeping vistas from Shinnecock Hills’ clubhouse. This was what they wanted for Bulls Bay; the only problem was there was no hill. The solution was to excavate 60 acres of lakes and spend 18 months hauling the muck out to create a 75-foot high ‘super-dune’ upon which the clubhouse and six holes would be centred. Strantz kept building it higher and higher until he could see the ocean over the trees. Then he set about making it look as if it had always been there, succeeding magnificently. Nobody could tell that this massive structure wasn’t entirely natural. The course marked a maturing of the Strantz style. Whilst intensely dramatic in places, the design is less frenetic than its predecessors, upholding the Strantz constants of phenomenal fairway widths, strongly diagonal lines of play and risk and reward options in abundance.

Around this time, Fezler took a call from a friend who was a member of Monterey Peninsula Country Club, inviting him and Strantz to take a look at the course. The club was midway through the planning of a big renovation, led by the Palmer Design Company, but were not wholly satisfied with the direction the work was taking. Strantz evaded requests to critique Palmer’s design, but when another member briefed Strantz on the tight constraints imposed on the site that had led the head of Palmer’s design team to state that ‘you can’t build a course under those conditions,’ Strantz replied, after some thought. “Well, I can.”

Before long, the prestigious project was his, but any elation was severely tainted by the diagnosis that the pain in his tongue was cancerous. It was rare for a man who didn’t smoke or chew tobacco to get this type of cancer, but the situation became so bad that surgeons recommended the removal of much of his tongue and jaw in order to stop it spreading. Strantz repeatedly turned down these recommendations in order to pursue his quest at Monterey. Simultaneously, Strantz devoted himself to the transformation of the Shore Course, whilst undertaking repeated courses of chemotherapy. Twice he was given the all clear, but it came back a third time. Finally, he underwent surgery. 90 per cent of his tongue and a large part of his jaw were cut out and despite reconstructive surgery, he would never speak clearly again. The cancer had a devastating physical impact, stripping him of his hair and 80 pounds in weight, whilst adding decades to his appearance. Through it all Strantz kept working at Monterey, determined to finish the job and do the best work of his life.

One autumn day in 2003, MPCC member Hank Mauz was leading a group of more than 30 members in golf carts on a tour of the renovation when he spotted the frail and gaunt figure of Mike Strantz standing in the distant dirt. He led the group over towards Strantz, who waved a silent hello. Stepping forward, Mauz simply announced to the group: “This is Michael Strantz, the architect,” before falling silent. Strantz’s physical plight was well known to the membership, as was his heroic determination to see the job through. Without prompting, the group stood to give Strantz a full, spontaneous ovation. Standing on a hillside nearby, Fezler fought back the tears.

Strantz knew he was losing the battle. Standing on the tee of what would become the eleventh, the most beautiful par three on the course, Strantz turned to Forest Fezler and whispered prophetically. “This is our last hole.” Just months after completing the renovation and moving into his beautiful new house adjoining Bulls Bay, Mike Strantz passed away at home with his family by his side, just four weeks into his 51st year.

There will be no more Michael Strantz courses, but there will be golf holes and courses inspired by his creativity. There are several golf architects, myself included, who look to Mike’s work for inspiration and through our endeavours, the Maverick spirit lives on. His loss is a true tragedy for all who knew and loved him. He was denied a full life, but he certainly lived one. One can only speculate as to how his career would have developed, but with the renovation of the Shore Course, he had stepped up to the big league, beyond the parochial comfort of his home turf. He was going to be a big fish in the big pond.

The final word belongs to Heidi, his college sweetheart and wife of 26 years. Speaking shortly before his death she said. “(Mike) is a man who likes to dream big and then construct those dreams.” We can all learn from that.

This article first appeared in issue 34 of Golf Course Architecture, published October 2013. Robin Hiseman is a golf course architect with European Golf Design, and is currently working on the authorised biography of Mike Strantz.

Art reproductions are available at mikestrantzdesign.com. All works are © Mike Strantz 2001.

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