Mike Strantz the Golf Course Designer

Mike Strantz at his home at the Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw, SC, Feb. 2005 John Loomis
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.

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