“Art to me is very much a spiritual thing. It is a thing of feeling, it’s a thing of beauty and it touches a part of the human soul that I don’t think other things do. And that’s the way I tend to look at golf course architecture.” – Mike Strantz
How do you see a golf course? Standing at that First tee, or clubhouse, or whatever fairway; what is it? A distance to the pin? A hazard to avoid? A nice view of the sky? Does it some times look like you could just reach out and with a broad stroke of a paint brush and liven things up a bit? Make that hill more tempestuous, make the green balancing on the line of tumbling, or make that fairway heaving, almost like the earth itself is on its side, an infinite inhale? In the great wide open, natural expanse before us, what. reaches. you.
Our friend Mike is relaxed in his chair, a canvas before him. He thinks before proceeding, wants to do this the right way. Perhaps it takes hours, or days, or minutes, this land wants to connect to us. He wants to show us how. He wonders if it will come to him. Slowly, or quickly, it starts. He starts. The canvas fills.
Mike Strantz had an intense, riveting and tragically too short affair with golf course design. His approach was his own, his courses unlike anything before. Artistry was a big part of it but to stop there would only be half the story. Visually stunning, Strantz did not merely strive for unique visual appearance. He understood one interacted with the land; interacted with the art. Like the rower in an angry sea, or David looking at Goliath, smirking, Strantz was intent on capturing that deep connection between man and nature, golf its catalyst. Thought, desperation, rage, joy. Man climbed the mountain because it was there. There’s a connection between us and the terrain and it’s beautiful. Like us, it feels and expresses. Elevating this connection through the intrinsic and profound expression of art related course design, Strantz sought to explore this divine relationship fervently.
The stormy ocean, a still lake at dawn, a wind howling through leafy woods in all its whipping and cracking, a majestic hill rising forth and resting with the sky beyond. Nature is meditative and artful in how it soothes us. Golf touches on this. Strantz understood this and tapped into it. The game uniquely interacts with the terrain and setting, which opens up a relationship that’s tough to explain. It’s what drew me to the game and what I love about it. There are times out there you can sense the mood of the ground beneath you and the whims of the wind and every sound comes as it should. At these times, you’re one with nature, unified in a spiritual existence. When I used to surf, there would be times out on the ocean you would feel its waves and movement and almost anticipate them, like a conversation. And trail running, the ground reveals itself as each foot looks for its next landing spot, a path showing you the way, all of it suddenly so effortless. Yet with golf, that sense remains and evolves much longer, with a calm vividness that instills deeper. Strantz certainly recognized this and sought to capture it through his work.
Officially, Strantz designed seven courses from scratch – starting with Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, which opened in 1994 – and performed two major renovations. Each of those courses stand out in golfers’ minds as unique playing experiences. Some of them have sparked controversy and love/hate relationships with certain players due to some unusual shaping and severe features, but the overwhelming majority of golfers who play one Strantz course find themselves wanting to play the others.
While his designs were unique, bold and outlandish even, the visuals had purpose. The structures of play are so strategic, fluid and versatile that the visual play into this, meant to evoke intimidation or daring, skewing even the most level headed golfer in their effect. These features were not, however, garish, gimmicky or out of place. The designs were all brilliantly tied in together evoking a fascinating, natural appearance. When one gets down to it, the functionality and fluidness of the designs are even more impressive considering the degree of art and visuals built into them. Beauty, yet with incredible function. In terms of someone moving course design forward progressively in new directions, Strantz was the poster boy.
Strantz has always intrigued me, mainly because I’ve wondered how I’d actually feel about the courses. I’m drawn to boldness and designs that distinguish themselves but only in the right way. Quirk is fine but there’s a line where it could become simply for the sake of attention. I was curious where Strantz would fall on this for me and while a few have asked why I had not yet written about him, it was because I needed to play his courses personally first. I had to have that connection for perspective. What would stick out to me and would it be anything worth mentioning anyways?
Chronologically, Strantz’s portfolio:
- Caledonia Golf & Fish Club (1994)
- Royal New Kent (1996)
- Stonehouse (1996)
- True Blue Golf Club (1998)
- Tobacco Golf Club (1998)
- Tot Hill Farm (2000)
- Bull’s Bay (2000)
- Silver Creek Valley Country Club (remodel, 2002)
- Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Shore Course (restoration, 2004)
At age 14, Strantz worked on a golf course maintenance crew, ultimately earning a degree in turf grass management from Michigan State. He started working with Tom Fazio in 1979, with whom he worked until 1987, at which point he started out on his own. After re-working a number of his courses, he gained more national regard with his rebuilding of the Links Course at the Wild Dunes Resort near Charleston, South Carolina after it was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. This led to Caledonia, and so on. He would draw each hole, after the land was mostly cleared. He would start with the horizon lines, then go from there. These were as close to formal plans as he would get.
Most courses are based in the area near where Strantz lived. And most all are public. Both were intentional, as he prioritized his home life with family and he believed in courses and designs that the public at large could appreciate and access. He felt strongly about the team that built the courses with him and wanted them to get as much credit as him, emphasizing just how much the course was the result of a collective effort. This included Strantz’s design partner, Forrest Fezler. They started working together during construction of Royal New Kent. The two were close friends, the courses a product of that team effort and friendship. The course is not just him and it was important for him for others to understand that. In all, Strantz sounds like a good man. Focusing on family and his fellow man as he was able to excel with his passion, the world began to take notice.
The drawings come to life.
Indeed, playing his courses gives one appropriate perspective. While the visuals are always intriguing, the structure of play and what lies underneath is just as important, as well as what one feels and responds to during the round. So I focus on the courses of his I played and how that formed my impression of him and his work. As I play more of his courses, I’m sure that impression and understanding will change, but what’s important is how each course develops a distinct interpretation.
I have played three of Strantz’s courses; Royal New Kent, Stonehouse and Tobacco Road. I loved them all, for different reasons yet there’s a common thread amongst them. The first was Royal New Kent, and less than 24 hours later, Tobacco Road. At Royal New Kent, the dunes and hills flummoxed in how they’d hide the path of play, then part altogether, yielding incredible vistas of other hills and meadows, all of it a brilliant hue of green and auburn. Visually mesmerizing yes, but very much in the style of Irish links in appearance and in play, as intended. The bunkering and slopes would suddenly pop before you while others would slowly rise to impressive heights and shapes. It was apparent that every feature; bunker, ridge, hill, spot of fescue; was placed carefully and deliberately. It was a strategic explosion navigating all of it and of course, while it seemed as if everything had been in place like this for centuries, the site was mostly built up. Yet out on the course, with the land, it was an adventure. The movement, how the terrain revealed itself and the decisions I had to make, all of it inspired and reached to the more expressive side of golf. If you’re lucky, you come away from a round of golf a little bit wiser, a little bit more relaxed than when you started. I certainly did here. A much better play even than the accolades it receives, there were layers to how impressed I was. The only thing to do was play another of his courses right away and as the sun was setting as I finished up at the Eighteenth at Royal New Kent, I was on the first tee at Tobacco Road the next day as the sun rose again.
Probably his most famous course, it is also the most distinct. There is polarization when it comes to Tobacco Road. Some find all the twisting and jutting and steepness and sharp edges and scruffiness all too much for one reason or another. Yet the course has found a growing popularity through the years and is now a hot ticket. It certainly seems to evoke a strong reaction from the golfer either way. At the clubhouse after the round, it is just as easy to find those in bliss reminiscing about the splendor they were able to experience as those likely right next to them, seething – criticizing one hole or the other or perhaps the entire lot as a bunch of nonsense. Encouraged from Royal New Kent that I could be in the former group, I stood on that First tee gazing at the gigantic mounds that guarded the rest of the hole, wondering just where I should hit.
There’s an overwhelming of senses as the golfer makes his way around Tobacco Road. The visuals give rise to beauty, inspiration, confusion, intimidation, daring and perhaps a throttling back to sensibility as one tries to think through the strategy. There are a number of paths and ways to each green, lots of it secretive and known only to those who are better friends with the course. Those who find it too much, however, should look to several courses in the UK that follow the same unbridled individualism we see here, or even Pine Valley, as there are certainly aspects of that course that were modeled here, especially the Eighteenth. As I marveled at the dynamic character of each hole, I realized there is ample strategy lurking solidly underneath it all. Despite the visuals, this is where one must trust his swing and resolve above all else. Swing true and commit because despite seeing those gigantic guardian mounds on the First tee signaling the task at hand, there is a fairway on the other side, wide and receptive.
This provides the course a very underrated function that I was taken with, yet Strantz also focused on bringing out the beauty of the surroundings artistically. Vibrant and vivid, he wanted the landscape to come alive. The towering cliffside bunkers occasionally menacingly above you, ready to envelop your shot; the twisting and rippling fairways branching off to areas unknown; the veering, leering steering greens, a vortex of various energies taking the ball in unaccountable directions. All of it against a backdrop of sky and pine, it’s certainly a genius expression of art, nature and man in their symbiotic existence.
While the course is very well tied in and does not feel contrived, there’s an intention here in not just trying to leave it minimal or naturalistic. The artistic is on purpose and goes beyond allowing the beauty of nature to flourish. Man, in all his complicated brilliance, is distinct from nature so is inherently a separate expression. That’s the imparting of artistic expression into the natural surroundings, just as much a part of the beauty. That triumvirate led Strantz to accomplish such a strong design, forming an intricate structure of play for that interaction with the artistic and natural, forming a unified expression that emphasizes the finer spiritual aura this game holds.
Strantz felt strongly about enhancing the peculiar characteristics of the land to accentuate the sense of place. He wanted the course to belong to that specific land and place, anchored to it. He accomplished this at Tobacco Road tremendously. A Jazz enthusiast as well, Strantz believed in instilling his own individual take on the land instead of trying to have it simply speak for itself. He wanted to add drama, or inspiration, or deceit, or tragedy. As man interacts with the land during the round, the design of the course is an important interaction as well.
Like most art, there’s far more meaning than what one sees at first blush. What feelings or thoughts associated with perceiving it matter just as much, as well as how that changes over time, thought and experience. Tobacco Road captures that beautifully. Likewise, it will never play the same twice, and is fantastic fun. How the course played was much more intriguing to me. The visuals were splendid and served their purpose of evoking an array of emotional responses, as well as adding to the strategic gameplay. It’s an altar to the individualism of golf in the U.S., which harkens back to a much earlier era in the U.K. while using its own modern riff on that model. Everyone should play it at least twice.
Twenty minutes from Royal New Kent is Stonehouse Golf Club. The two courses both opened in 1996 yet the contrast between them is telling. Hills and valleys form the backbone of the design, where broad sweeping strokes interlace with smaller, finer, intricate features. It’s a flow from one side to the other throughout the round, the pulse of those hills rhythmically expanding and contracting. The landscape is sculptured, giant hands coming down from the sky and massaging, smoothing, kneading the hills to its will. Rising and falling, always one or the other, the hills and meadows and woods are the art, again showing us how spectacular that triumvirate of man, nature and art can be. As the third course of his I played, it showed a layer of versatility and a restrained daring. While Tobacco Road is full of above ground grandiose and elaborate bunkering with an emphasis on sand, Stonehouse is a much more low profile affair, focusing on the ground and molding it in every direction. It’s more subdued here, a lazy cadence that occasionally funnels its focus as the terrain dictates.
The surge of artistic brilliance that Strantz, Fezler and their team gave us was over tragically too soon. Battling cancer during their last project at Monterey Peninsula, Strantz looked over to Fezler and told him, “this is our last hole.” Strantz died on June 10, 2005. Fezler continued his design career until he too left us in 2018.
Strantz had a vision that he shared with his team, whom believed in it and helped him carry it out. That vision involved beauty and nature and all of it a spiritual connection if you let it. Beneath that vision was a perfectionist who cared just as much about structure and function as anything else. Every shot was planned out, in terms of what the golfer saw, what his decisions were, what he would perhaps feel. Strantz knew it was an experience, the round a journey in and of itself. The impression he made on golf course design in such a limited amount of time and courses speaks volumes. Like anything different, what he was doing was not always universally applauded, but the realization that his work was special has certainly grown over the years, and as his work was always limited to a handful of places, is now permanently set. Indeed, both Royal New Kent and Stonehouse have been in danger of closing for good in the past. Yet the appreciation has grown and those of dissent have mostly given away to assent, acknowledging the significance or at least, the uniqueness of character worthy of preservation.
“I just get out there and feel things. It’s real difficult to explain how and why you do it.” – Mike Strantz
A prolific course architect is like any other artist or writer. It’s one thing to tell the story or paint the picture, but what often sets apart greatness are the feel and intangibles. Strantz said once that you can teach technical fundamentals, but a great artist has something intrinsically which cannot be taught. It’s within you. It’s not enough to have it; you have to be able to express it to others at that same intangible level so it resonates. Strantz was able to do this proficiently; with his intrinsic sense of artistic vision, his deliberate attention to detail and emphasis on a collective all contributing to something special and memorable.
My connection with these courses and the land and the artistry, along with reading and listening to Strantz, makes me realize I know him well, even though we never met. I seek out that spiritual connection with the land through this game. The sense of place that Strantz emphasized is one of the more important elements to course design in my opinion. The game is much more than a game for many of us, which Strantz understood and elevated that concept through his work.
Strantz and Fezler would often ride horseback on the sites, discussing ideas, pointing out features and native vegetation and rocks that topographic maps don’t show. Two friends sharing laughs, creating, feeding off one another’s imaginations and concepts. There’s no question those moments were special and certainly resulted in a lot of the greatness we’re still able to experience. Those moments had to have resonated with them both. I wonder if and hope that they continue, some how and some where, for all of us to see, one of these days.