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Friday, February 10, 2006

The Mike Strantz Nobody Knew (part 1)

Just keep going until you can’t go any further. Then go further, because the moves you make then – when you’ve run out of steam and you’re totally on subconscious and not even thinking about the mechanics - the moves you make then are incredible. - Jeff Buckley

Musician Jeff Buckley was talking about himself, but he was speaking for any true artist, any true trailblazer, any true maverick. Yes, even a golf course architect. And like Jeff Buckley, we lost Mike Strantz, (1955-2005), far too soon.

Mike Strantz called himself The Maverick and he backed it up. He talked the talk, he walked the walk, and he did it all with not just style, but grace and class. Devoted husband and father, cancer battler, sensitive artist, jazz aficionado, gourmet chef and yes, a cowboy, Mike Strantz was so much more than just a great golf course designer.

Golfers live vicariously through the designer. Except for Pete Dye, no architect was more inseparable, more indelible from his own designs than Mike Strantz. His courses look and play differently than anything else anyone has ever designed (or even seen for that matter). Maybe that’s one reason he is not yet a household name. Because Strantz took us so far so quickly, he outran the mainstream golf media, the eight hundred or so five handicappers that are raters, and most casual players. The golf cogniscenti speak of him in holy whispers, but to people with only a mainstream or casual knowledge of the game, he is merely an interesting footnote, perhaps even a polarizing one.

Happily, the holy whisperers are right. (Two words for doubters – Tobacco Road.) Besides, when a professional artist is trying to create, the last thing he wants is to be worrying about or considering the industry’s side of the equation. That destroys any chance at free expression. That is what it means to be The Maverick. Yes, Strantz was not just a maverick, but The Maverick – the definitive article as it were; The Maverick with an unparalleled golf spirit. Sadly, in June of 2005, oral cancer claimed his life at 50.


Strantz’s career began with a colorful moment in golf history. Perhaps it was an omen, a microcosm. He was working at Inverness Country Club in Ohio when the 1979 U.S. Open came to town. Tom Fazio was renovating the course for the U.S.G.A. A glitch in set up would provide the impetus for Strantz’s brief, but luminescent career.

On the first day, journeyman pro Lon Hinkle came to the par-5 eighth tee already out of contention. The seventeenth fairway runs parallel to the left, separated by a string of tall trees. Hinkle, feeling a bit puckish and having nothing to lose, noticed a gap about twenty-five feet wide about two hundred yards away from the teebox. “Take down the gallery ropes. Tell the guys on seventeen I’m playing through” he quipped.

Hinkle smashed his drive well into the seventeenth fairway, leaving a mere eight-iron back over the trees to the green. Word spread like wildfire and - surprise! - everyone else followed suit.

Late that night, U.S.G.A. officials had a secret meeting on the eighth tee. Comments were made about the “integrity of the hole” and “playing the right way” and such. Steps were paced off, arms were waved, comments were snarled and discussions ended with soon to be short lived smugness.

The next morning when the patrons arrived at the eighth tee, they were greeted by a strange sight. About twenty-five feet away from the teebox stood a short, droopy, frumpy looking newly planted Douglas Fir. A sign hung from one patchy, spindly arm – “A Hinkle Tree.”

Strantz was elated when asked about it. “I planted that tree!” he shouted gleefully. “I backed in the trucks! I tried to tell them to move it a little bit, buuuuuut…” he trails off with a mischievous grin. The gap was not truly plugged, just reduced to about eight feet.

Strantz’s protestations proved prophetic. Hinkle arrived on the tee later that day with a huge gallery. “Trees sure grow fast in Ohio” he joked. Then without missing a beat he drawled “Take down the gallery ropes.”

There was thunderous applause.

The gap through which to hit was still 200 yards away, but the Hinkle tree, looking as pathetic than the tree in “A Charlie Brown Christmas Special” never had a chance. Hinkle easily carried deep into the seventeenth fairway.

There was even more thunderous applause. He again hit the par-5 in two.


Strantz so impressed Fazio, that Tom whisked him away immediately upon conclusion of the Open. Mike may have worked for many years with Tom Fazio, (from ’79 to ’87), but after a three year hiatus as an artist, when Strantz hung his own shingle as a designer, his work more closely followed Pete Dye.

Strantz embraced and continued the paradigm shift in golf course design Dye began from narrow, flat, prefabricated parkland courses to courses which harken back to the games roots of architectural strategy and which naturally follow the lay of the land. Like Dye, he loved blind and semi-blind shots. After all, it’s only blind the first time you play it. Strantz also used Mackenzie’s philosophy of the “line of charm” as his central theme in building golf holes.

Strantz’s artistic background served two important purposes. First, his drawings became his blueprints. He drew detailed watercolor sketches of his proposed holes, not the more formal choice – detailed contour drawings. It took a superlative team to translate this less formal method into a three-dimensional canvas, so Strantz surrounded himself with the best shapers, landscaping teams and a kindred spirit in design partner Forrest “Fuzzy” Fezler,

Second, using his artistic creative freedom, Strantz expanded on Mackenzie and Dye by building contours and hazards that were larger than life. Bigger, bolder, holes resulted and the scale of his designs (and hazards) commanded attention. Except for Caledonia, Strantz courses are enormous. Your group feels and looks like a bunch of Hobbits scrambling around the surreal landscape of Middle Earth.

“Tough hazards and arresting visuals accomplish two goals” Mike said. “First, the amateur loves trying and pulling off an impossible shot. Second, if an expert gets in a tough place, he may try an impossible shot and make matters worse for himself. Dr. Mackenzie wrote in his book The Spirit of St. Andrews, ‘People get more pleasure in playing a hole which looks almost impossible, but is not so difficult as it appears.’ My holes look much more fierce than they play. But it’s an optical illusion. The fairways are actually wide. Once you get over the hill in front of the tee box, you get out and say ‘Hey there’s a lot of room out here.’” Another of Strantz’s great optical illusions was to raise bunker lips so that the hazard looked closer to the green than it was. He would also raise green entries so that they appeared smaller than they really were. Besides,” Strantz says in defense of his design features, “golf would be boring if all the hazards and shots were standardized.”

He’s right. Strategy is the lifeblood of the game. Sadly, too many five and under handicappers are too concerned with their score and what they see on TV to understand this concept. The optical illusions still confound first time players and closed minds. Mistaking size, severity and illusion for quirks and flaws, some less imaginative critics view his semi-blind shots and visual pranks as a negative, but adventurous golfers and hardcore connoisseurs know better. What looks at first to be hyperbole is, upon deeper reflection, a most faithful and accurate rendition of all the ancient and revered elements of golf design. Just like Pete Dye.

Because of these solid, bedrock foundational elements, even naysayers must admit that Strantz mastered every genre he attempted. Parkland masterpiece at Caledonia, links recreation at RNK, a public Pine Valley meets Ireland at The Road, Strantz never failed to seize attention and create challenging holes. Sometimes cracking the code of a Strantz hole can be as difficult as a New York Times Sunday Crossword. Some holes are a primal scream and the golfer must always keep himself on high alert, but that is what makes for a wonderful golf adventure.

Despite the severity of greenside trouble, fearsome larger than life playing fields and contours Mackenzie himself would have envied, and a vocal minority of unimaginative critics, course for course, Strantz has the strongest resume of any architect. With only seven original designs and two redesigns (six public, three private), Strantz claimed three top new public course awards in four years. His best course, Tobacco Road did not win the year it opened, but recently was voted the most adventurous course in America by Golf Magazine editors and readers. His final work, the redesign of Monterey Peninsula (Shore Course) is masterpiece in Pebble Beach, California which holds its own with Cypress Point and the resort courses admirably. Several golf insiders say it will host a major as soon as the members will permit one.

Strantz recalled these formative years of his career enthusiastically and gave much credit to Fuzzy Fezler, for the creativity and scale of his projects. Fuzzy is the perfect compliment to me. We are brothers in arms. I saw that Fu Manchu moustache and I knew I had my man.” Together, they let it roll as high as it would go, creating scorching, towering golf adventures without being contrived or campy. “Forrest is especially good at making sure I don’t get carried away” he says emphatically. “He will look at me and say ‘Mike, how is my mom going to play that hole?’ His mom is in her 80’s.” Sometimes dialing it down a notch is a good idea. Even Fezler hints that one green that generated such a discussion, the 9th at Tobacco Road, could have been much more severe.

However at other times, Strantz merely employed his penchant for optical illusion to make it appear as though he moved a lot of earth. Yes, Royal New Kent really was that hurly-burly a topographic site before Strantz built the course – he merely added a little earth to the higher areas, cut the low areas a little lower and gave the impression of moving millions of cubic yards of earth. Yes, those green settings at Stonehouse, nestled cozily in their own little amphitheatres, were natural, not manufactured. “I let the lay of the land dictate the holes and I try to use as many natural fairways and green sites that I can find” he says. What critics mistake for “contrived” is really an excellent, innovative use of the site’s best natural features.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Jay for such a wonderful description of Mike and his work. Every time I played on one of his and Forrest's art works, yes, their designs are works of art, I couldn't wait to see and play the next hole....each one so unique. Still remember what I call the canyon hole at Royal New Kent near Williamsburg, Virginia. Mike was a talented artist, but most precious to remember is that he was a gentle man; gentle to his family, gentle to his horses, gentle to all who crossed his path. He added beauty to this earth for all to enjoy. He did make it a better place while he was here and when you play any of his memorable golf courses you will know that he still does.

6:40 PM  

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