Courses and Travel

Mike Strantz the Golf Course Designer

Mike Strantz at his home at the Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw, SC, Feb. 2005 <span class="picturesource">John Loomis</span>

In the fall of 2003, Mike Strantz stood stone still in the dirt of what would become the 10th fairway of the Shore Course at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club, lost in the fugue state that he falls into when a hole is taking shape in his mind. That January, Strantz had been commissioned to redesign the course, and now, in his mind, Strantz could see the graceful right-to-left arc of the second shot on the short par 5, and, farther on, the green, framed by the blue California sky and the shimmering Pacific. A bold player might choose to go for the green in two, but he would have to carry a scruffy expanse of rocks and tall, golden grass, as well as a couple of gnarly bunkers that Strantz would place...right...about...there, on the far edge of the fairway, just before the run-up to the green. The safe shot, a lay-up, would skirt the trouble and tumble onto an ample expanse of fairway.

There was nothing there, but Strantz saw it. For 15 minutes, he stood frozen in the act of creation. Later he would render what he saw in vivid watercolors that his construction crew would use as a blueprint to sculpt the hole into the Monterey landscape. Strantz's course-building process is unlike any in golf today--or perhaps ever. It is a throwback to the low-tech days of his idol Alister MacKenzie, whose masterpieces include Augusta National and Cypress Point. The latter, opened in 1920, is within view of Monterey Peninsula Country Club, and was now inspiring Strantz to do the best work of his life.

The rumble of golf-cart tires against the ground broke Strantz's trance. Hank Mauz, a club member, led a motorcade of more than 30 members in golf carts toward the designer. Mauz, a retired four-star admiral who saw action along the Mekong in Vietnam and later took command of the Atlantic Fleet, knows a thing or two about courage--and about golf, too: He's a longtime member not only of Monterey Peninsula, but also of Cypress Point. Thanks to Mauz, and a handful of other influential Monterey Peninsula members, Strantz had replaced Arnold Palmer's design firm after the latter declared the job impossible due to local environmental laws that prohibited topsoil from being trucked in. Strantz had also beaten out many of golf's brightest architectural stars, including Tom Doak and David Kidd.

The Mike Strantz who Mauz saw on this cool autumn day was a different man than the one who had signed on for the job. The other Mike Strantz, the healthy one, stood 6-foot-2, weighed 235 pounds and looked like Wyatt Earp, with a thick mane of dark hair and a long, bushy mustache. At home in South Carolina, Strantz was often on horseback, and he named his firm Maverick Golf Course Design, in part for his love of the animals, but also as an indication that he did things his own way.

The Strantz who Mauz and his group approached had been attacked by a cancer in his mouth that clamped down on the soft flesh of his tongue like a vise grip. Strantz fought back: Doctors cut out part of his tongue to eradicate the tumor and opened up his neck to remove his lymph nodes. And he fought it with radiation and chemotherapy, undergoing treatments both back home in South Carolina, and in Monterey, so he could continue work on the Peninsula project. The Mike Strantz standing in the dirt that day was gaunt and bald; his wife, Heidi, had shaved his head months earlier, removing the clumps that hadn't already fallen out. Strantz was a wasted-looking 150 pounds.

The phalanx of golf carts came to a halt, forming a semicircle around Strantz. He waved hello--the cancer treatments had reduced his voice to a whisper--and the group responded in kind. Mauz said loudly enough for everyone to hear: "This is Michael Strantz, the architect," and said no more. They'd all heard about the man who was fighting for his life while he lovingly re-imagined and refurbished their golf course. At first, there was a smattering of applause, and that grew into a full-fledged ovation.

On a hill 50 yards away, Forrest Fezler, the former PGA Tour player who is now Strantz's right-hand man, watched the scene unfold and felt tears well up inside him. The members thanked Strantz, and he nodded in response. Mauz, flush with pride and emotion, waved good-bye and led them away.

He should have done something about the cancer sooner. "That's why they call it 'early detection,' " Heidi Strantz says sarcastically, her voice betraying frustration and anger with her husband.

Mike first felt the pain in his tongue when he was building Tobacco Road, in 1997. "I had a sore spot on the side of my tongue," he says. "It wasn't that bad. It never bled. It never got worse. It was just there." The Tobacco site, an old sand quarry in Sanford, North Carolina, is an hour's drive from the neatly manicured courses of the Pinehurst Resort--but it might as well be on the moon. In what most would have seen as a wasteland, Strantz saw a rich canvas, and upon it he painted huge mounds that rose up like hairy, golden monsters alongside fairways that in some cases were 100 yards wide. Greens took on odd dimensions and shapes: One was shaped like a smile, 80 yards wide and, at its narrowest point, just 12 feet deep.

When Tobacco Road opened in 1998, it was Strantz's fifth creation since leaving a job with Tom Fazio's firm five years earlier. Strantz was named architect of the year by Golf World, which a year later also cited him as the most in-demand course designer in the U.S. In 2000, the praise reached a crescendo when GolfWeek named him among its "Top 10 Greatest Golf Architects of All Time."

The pain in his tongue was there all along.

In the spring of 2001, Arnold Palmer's design team had been working for several months creating a routing plan for a big renovation of the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Built in 1959 for a mere $100,000, the Shore Course was tired. Its sprinkler system was crumbling, and the drainage was so bad that the course was unplayable for most of December and January. But in golf as in real estate, location is everything, and in the U.S. there is arguably no better location than the fabled peninsula in Monterey. The decision to refurbish the Shore Course was a no-brainer, but the Monterey members felt that the suggested plans of Palmer's group didn't quite match the site's potential. One day Fezler received a call from Bill Dekind, an old friend he grew up with in San Francisco and a Monterey member, inviting him and Strantz to have a look around.

Strantz was bowled over by the Shore Course, one of America's most stealthy, yet somehow off the radar despite its conspicuous address. During dinner at Mauz's house, vivid images of the course flashed through Strantz's head. The members showed him and Fezler the routing plan from Palmer's team, and they prodded Strantz for a critique.

Strantz sidestepped. "I'm not in a position to say anything," Fezler recalls Strantz saying. "You've hired Palmer, and I don't want to criticize his work."

Bill Cusack, another member, spoke up, gently pressing Strantz for an opinion. Because of environmental laws, Cusack said, no soil could be brought in and excavation would have to be minimal. "The head of Palmer's design team had said, 'Well, you can't build a course under those conditions,' " Cusack recalls telling Strantz.

After some deliberation, Strantz said, "Well, I can."

Shortly after a second visit to Monterey in the fall of 2001, but before he officially had the job, Strantz decided to see his family doctor. "He took one look in my mouth," said Strantz, "and all he said was, 'Oh.' He sent me to see an ENT doc. They took a biopsy. The next day..."

"The next day, we found out [it was cancer]," Heidi says.

Now, a few days before Thanksgiving, 2004, Mike and Heidi Strantz are sitting in the living room of their new home at the Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw, South Carolina, 14 miles northeast of Charleston. Strantz, who turns 50 this May, was just finishing up his third course of radiation and chemotherapy in a fight for his life that continues to this day. Twice, he had been declared cancer-free. Twice, the disease had come back. He is emaciated, his throat bloated and red from the treatments. He struggles to speak, stopping often to cough and swallow hard. His words are mangled, barely decipherable but perfectly understandable to Heidi, who acts as his translator, articulating every word he says and motioning with her hands for emphasis. She trains her blue eyes intently on him as the sounds spill out of his mouth, and she turns the sounds into words and sentences. The intimacy between them is arresting; they are two people communicating as one. Heidi is a pretty blonde, 49, with the strong hands and arms of a person who rides horses, and together they are recalling the moment when he knew the Shore Course job was his.

"I just went in there, totally opposite of what Palmer wanted to do," Strantz says. "They weren't taking advantage of the vistas. Too many of their holes ran away from the ocean, instead of embracing it."

"The views. They weren't taking advantage of them!" Heidi chimes in.

The craggy peninsula and sea air inspired Strantz. He says he could literally feel the energy of the place entering his feet and coursing through his body. When Strantz was done, Hank Mauz, who has played nearly every great American course except Oakmont, reckoned that the Shore Course was "one of the top-10 courses in the country. Could it host a major? The club probably wouldn't allow it, but I think it would be a very good test for a championship." The debut of the redesign in June 2004 was marked by two plaques dedicated to Strantz: one at the first tee and another on a rock outcropping near the 15th green, where Strantz had the epiphany to turn the majority of the holes around so that they faced the ocean.

"Thy thwt I ws nuhs," Strantz mumbles about the presentation of his design for the Shore Course.

"They thought he was nuts," Heidi translates.

"Buh thn thy stuh-ted looking," he says.

"Yes, when they started looking at the holes he had drawn, they were like, 'Damn!' "

"The sigh was, uh -- " He stops, thinks. "Eee was awmose...spiwitwal."

"The site was spiritual," Heidi says, her voice a barely audible whisper heavy with emotion.

"I love whuh I do. Ih hepped me kee gowin."

"It helped keep him going."

"It kepped me-wihv."

"It kept him alive."

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