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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

2005 Jazzy Awards - Architect of the Year: MIke Strantz, Best Re-Design: Monterey Peninsula C.C. - Shore Course

When he was President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, Dan Maples once observed at their annual meeting “Each year we try for twelve months to beat each others brains in but I can’t think of a better group of people I would rather spend my lifetime working among.”

Indeed, the collegiality of this august body is inspiring, but this year even though minimalist genius Tom Doak traded blows with heavyweights Tom Fazio and Pete Dye and even though Jim Engh is rewriting the awards record books with accolade after accolade while Brian Silva keeps doing his best C.B.Macdonald impression, one man’s monumental achievement, accomplished in the face of the ultimate adversity – a fight with cancer - resulted in his rightfully becoming immortal. The golf gods smiled on Mike Strantz to afford him a chance to join the pantheon of the game’s greatest designers (including his idol, Alistair Mackenzie), and etch his unique, vibrant vision on the most sacred plot of land save only St. Andrews.

Monterey Peninsula is the epicenter of golf in the New World. With its rugged coastline, fantastic weather and storied history, its legend grows with each passing day. The architects of American golf’s sacred shrines – Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and the other resort courses read like a who’s who in the golf world; Jack Neville, Alistair Mackenzie and Robert Trent Jones.

With such celebrated courses on the doorstep, many people never even heard of Monterey Peninsula Country Club, even though it shares the same coastline and property as its better known sisters. Both of the country club’s courses, the Shore Course and the Dunes course were marked for redesign at the turn of the millennium. Rees Jones got the more sedate plot at the Dunes Course, but the members knew that the Shore Course lay on a piece of coastline the equal of Cypress and Pebble. The biggest names were in the mix for the job.

Arnold Palmer was the front runner, but after turning in proposed routings two issues became apparent. First, Palmer was clearly handcuffed in drafting his routing plans by the sites environmental restrictions. This led to a second, equally sticky problem. It became clear Palmer’s routings had a further flaw; they failed to make optimum use of the natural wonders on the site. “His holes kept running away from the coastline” said one observer. The resulting designs made merely mundane usage of a world-class site.

The redesign committee then took a brave gamble. They contacted “The Maverick.”

Strantz had built a career and loyal following by being dramatic and bold. Yes, his courses are larger than life, but he never traded visuals for great strategy. He demanded both. His holes are frequently so wide that there are as many as five different angles of attack which can cater to every caliber of play. Yet teeboxes have a cloak and dagger claustrophobia which can terrify even the most seasoned player. The book on Strantz had always been “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

It seemed like an odd match; on one hand the wild, unapologetic, rugged, self styled and described “Maverick” and the reserved, well-heeled Monterey private club. Yet the committee recognized and embraced two critical factors in picking Strantz. First, they came to a realization that too few country clubs and developers recognize. Just like a great microbrew is always superior to a mass produced beer, the new generation of preeminent “small company” golf course design firms have a vastly superior understanding of great golf design than either touring professionals or mega-design companies. Rather than a banal, insipid penal design, chances were they would get something original, something unique, something passionate. Second, they knew Strantz’s idol was Mackenzie. With Cypress, Mackenzie’s masterpiece right next door, Strantz would be inspired.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Yet Strantz was the consummate professional. He told the committee he would not criticize the work of a colleague. When they informed him Palmer had told the committee he could not take the job with the environmental restrictions he found as an impasse, Strantz replied, “Well I can build the course for you even with those restrictions.”

It should have been a fairy tale ending, a coming out party on the biggest of stages for a vibrant individual, a devoted family man, and a gifted designer in the prime of life. Fate had other cruel plans. Just as the Strantz family celebrated perhaps their greatest achievement, Mike was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue.

On Friday: Strantz does his best Mackenzie imitation and creates a course eerily similar in design to Alistair's work at Cypress Point.