Bernard Darwin once observed that better golf architects shared a fundamental principle. When they designed courses, the British sage wrote, they kept in mind that the game "at its best . . . is a perpetual adventure. It consists in investing not in gilt-edged securities but in comparatively speculative stock. It ought to be a risky business."
Bernard Darwin would have liked Mike Strantz.
"That's why I design golf courses— risk and adventure," Strantz wrote recently in an e-mail. "If you don't have risks, fun and adventure, why play golf?Go fishing instead."
Unless you're a golf architecture buff or a player in the Middle Atlantic area, you may not have heard of Strantz. He's designed only seven courses, all in the Carolinas and Virginia, and remodeled two. It's an open question whether he will design more, because he is currently battling a vicious oral cancer. But the courses in Strantz's portfolio abound in risky business. They thrust risk in the golfer's face.
Strantz's company is called Maverick Golf Course Design, and it's an apt name. In a profession whose members would generally fit in well at a reunion weekend at Princeton, Strantz, 49, is an anomaly. He doesn't own a blue blazer and he loathes cocktail parties. He drives a red 1997 Chevy pickup truck and likes to let his hair grow long and scraggly. "He's really a latent hippie," said his wife, Heidi.
Strantz started in the golf business as a kid, working on course maintenance crews around his native Toledo, Ohio. He studied art at Miami University of Ohio for two years before graduating from Michigan State in turf grass management, and for a long time he wasn't sure if he wanted to make his living as an artist or as a golf course designer. He met Tom Fazio while Fazio was retooling Inverness for the 1979 U.S. Open and worked for him for nine years. But the job required lots of traveling, and the Strantzes had two young daughters. So Strantz quit and painted for a while, his subjects ranging from golf holes to Civil War battle sites. He got back into golf, again on a maintenance crew, and in 1994 he was given a chance by Myrtle Beach developer Danny Young to design a course.
Strantz set to work with a sketch pad and Young's construction equipment on 120 acres of land in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. He did not work the way some celebrity architects do, laying out a plan on a topographic map, then going back to his office while subordinates built the course. Strantz was on the site every day. Sometimes he would sit for hours in the middle of a future fairway, sketching and resketching a green complex.
In six months, he produced Caledonia Golf & Fish Club. It's a course that looks like it was done by a painter. Each hole is an elegant composition. Risk only gradually becomes evident, imposed through the placement of sand and water near preferred lines of play. The course was an instant hit, pulling in an average of 50,000 golfers a year and becoming a perennial on the lists of best public courses.
To celebrate, Young took Strantz to Ireland and introduced him to two of his favorite courses, Royal County D own and B allybunion. When Strantz returned, inspired by what he'd seen abroad, he designed the Tradition Golf Clubs at Royal New Kent and Stonehouse in the corridor between Richmond and Williamsburg, Virginia. He built a couple of courses in North Carolina, Tobacco Road and Tot Hill Farm, as well as True Blue across the road from Caledonia.
All these courses make the word "bold" seem tepid and inadequate. Strantz hid greens down in glens and atop sandhills. He built bunkers with thirty-foot walls and holes with blind carries over creeks. At his most recent design, a private course called Bulls Bay Golf Club near Charleston, South Carolina, he took a flat tomato farm and built a seventy-foot mini mountain in the center of the property, which he used as a clubhouse site and a locus for tees and greens.
Strantz's output has been limited because he insists on doing every course as he did his first. Joe Gay, the director of golf at Tobacco Road, recalls visiting the site during construction. The developers pointed to a crew of construction workers perched on a trackhoe, eating lunch: "They said, 'Which one do you think is Mike Strantz?' I said, 'None of them.' They were all too dirty to be a golf course architect. Then they pointed out this tall long-haired guy covered in dirt from ear to ear. It was Mike. He was out there six days a week, sunup to sunset."
Tobacco Road, built on an old sand quarry and tobacco farm twenty miles north of Pinehurst, is the archetypal Strantz design. On the first tee, he confronts players with towering sandhills reminiscent of the natural dunes at Ireland's Waterville or Tralee. The tee shot plays over the breast of one sandhill to a partly visible fairway. The second shot must be threaded between two more sandhills to set up the pitch to a green full of waves and ruffles. And that's just the opener. Before the round is done, the golfer will face blind tee shots and blind approaches. (The course has several "player assistants" whose job includes helping first-time visitors figure out where to aim.) He'll have decisions to make about going for par fives across lakes or sandy wastes; he'll see yawning bunkers and greens where he must hit the correct level or forget about twoputting. What he won't see is a routine hole, or a boring hole.
Strantz holes look fearsome. But they often reach for and achieve an effect that one of his architectural heroes, Alister MacKenzie, described many years ago. "It is important in golf to make holes look much more difficult than they really are," MacKenzie wrote. "People get more pleasure out of doing a hole which looks almost impossible." Beyond his bunkers and sandhills, Strantz builds huge fairways, often as wide as seventy-five yards. A golfer who selects the appropriate tee will find a Strantz hole quite playable.