Feature Interview with Mike Strantz
June 2000

No architect of recent times has polarized golfers’ opinions as Mike Strantz’s work has done. Indeed, a review of the Tobacco Road thread on this site’s discussion group will provide views from players who love the course and those who will never play it again.

After spending much of the 1980s working with Tom Fazio, Mike Strantz took a job as a commercial artist away from golf before returning on his own with Caledonia near Myrtle Beach. That critical success was followed by two heroic (and more controversial) projects in Virginia at Royal New Kent and Stonehouse. He then returned to the Myrtle Beach area for True Blue, across the street from Caledonia. His last two projects, Tobacco Road and Tot Hill Farm, are in North Carolina.

Perhaps the two best adjectives for describing Mike’s work are ‘bold’ and ‘artistic.’ A common comment heard from someone playing his first Strantz course is ‘I have never seen anything like this before.’ While visually-intimidating, the courses typically give the player more than ample to room to play, but the penalty for missing the playing field can be severe.

While his work has received a good amount of attention, there have been precious few interviews/quotations from Mike Strantz. For that reason GolfClubAtlas is particularly pleased to bring you this interview offering a better glimpse into the designer’s mind.

1. Which three architects’ (living or dead) work has influenced you the most and how?

#1a) Dr. Alister Mackenzie

Outspoken, opinionated, self-confident in the face of criticism, a master of incorporating natural features into the area of play, oh hell, just read The Spirit of St. Andrews (several times) and you’ll probably see why this guy is my all time hero. The first time I read his book, I couldn’t help but feel he was answering some of the critical barbs being thrown at my work.

I offer the following quotes from The Spirit of St. Andrews by Dr. Alister Mackenzie.

‘A first class hole must have the subtleties and strategic problems which are difficult to understand, and are therefore extremely likely to be condemned at first sight even by the best of players.’

‘I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that beauty means a great deal on a golf course; even a man who emphatically states that he does not care a hang for beauty is subconsciously influenced by his surroundings.’

‘A good golf course is like good music or good anything else: it is not necessarily a course which appeals the first time one plays over it, but one which grows on a player the more frequently he visits it.’

‘It is an important thing in golf to make holes look much more difficult than they really are. People get more pleasure out of doing a hole which looks almost impossible and yet is not so difficult as it appears.’

‘It frequently happens the best holes give rise to the most bitter controversy. It is largely a question of the spirit in which the problem is approached, depending on the player. Whether he looks at it from the ‘card and pencil’ point of view and condemns anything that disturbs his steady series of 3’s or 4’s, or whether he approaches it in the ‘spirit of adventure.’

‘The difficulties that make a hole really interesting are usually those in which a great advantage can be gained in successfully accomplishing heroic carries over hazards of an impressive appearance, or in taking great risks to place a shot so as to gain a big advantage for the next. Successfully carrying or skirting a bunker of an alarming or impressive appearance is always a source of satisfaction to the golfer, and yet it is hazards of this description which so often give rise to criticism by the unsuccessful player. At first sight he looks upon it as grossly unfair that two shots within a few inches of each, the one shall be hopelessly buried in a bunker and the other should be in an ideal position.

If, however, he will give it further consideration he will realize that this is the chief consideration of all good golf holes.’

I think that Tom Doak hit the nail on the head when he described in his book The Confidential Guide Mackenzie’s ‘penchant for designing holes on the borderline of par, where strokes can slip away so easily or be regained so dramatically.’

To me, that’s what golf is all about.

The first at Crystal Downs is a fine example of MacKenzies appreciation of borderline par holes

The first at Crystal Downs is a fine example of MacKenzie’s appreciation of borderline par holes

#1b) Pete Dye

Pete took what was becoming a trend toward cookie cutter sameness in ‘modern’ golf course architecture and turned it on its ear by pushing it to the very edge. To me, when Pete separated himself from the pack in the 70’s, it was like a breath of fresh air. He forced people to start looking at golf course design with a whole new perspective. He believed in what he was doing and persevered despite a firestorm of criticism and controversy.

His work was so bold and so different, that I think people failed to grasp the basic fundamentals of design philosophy it contained. I think that Pete is probably the best in the business at setting up the angles and diagonals of play. Go play any of his courses and you’ll see what I mean when you look at them in that context.

The 15th at Whistling Straits offers interesting playing angles.

The 15th at Whistling Straits offers interesting playing angles.

It’s not often that a person comes along and has the kind of impact that Pete had on an entire profession, and whether you love his work or hate it, there is no denying that he had that kind of impact.

#1c) Tom Fazio

Some people may criticize his work, but you would have to look pretty damn hard to find someone who dislikes Tommy as a person. He is a kind, humble, caring individual; a genuinely nice person.

I learned so much about dealing with and interacting with different people and personalities from him, more than I’m sure he realizes.

Architecturally, I think the most important thing I soaked up from Tommy was the attention to and respect for the native environment of each site, and how to maximize its effect to give each project its own identity.

The fourth at Fazios Pine Barrens course at World Woods.

The fourth at Fazio’s Pine Barrens course at World Woods.

2. What is the most dirt you have ever moved on a project? What is the least?

The most earth we will have ever moved for a project happens to be the one we are working on now, Bull’s Bay, outside of Charleston. We’re anticipating moving approximately a million to a million and a half cubic yards of materials.

The least is probably Caledonia Golf and Fish Club, located in Pawley’s Island, SC. We (myself, Larry and Danny Young) didn’t really keep track there, but I doubt if we got close to 100,000 cubic yards.

I do think people have a huge misconception of the amount of dirt we have moved on projects. This is especially true in the case of the Virginia courses.

There was not nearly as much dirt moved at Royal New Kent as people tend to assume. There was a fair amount of natural contour on that site and what we tended to do was to cut the low points even lower and add that material to what were already the high spots, thereby creating the illusion of twice of the relief and the false belief that we had moved millions of yards of material.

At Stonehouse, I have always been proud of the dirt we didn’t move. That was a site filled with bold, abrupt contours, steep ravines, and natural drainage basins, all of which we tried to leave alone as much as possible, weaving golf holes over, around, and through them so as to keep earth moving to a minimum.

3. Your work has been confined to Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Are you considering taking on projects outside the southeastern U.S.?

I almost certainly will at some point in the future. When I got back into this business in 1992, I made a promise to Heidi, my wife, and to myself that I would only take on projects relatively close to home until such a time when our two daughters, Dana and Andrea, had both graduated from high school and were not living full time at home anymore.

I do one project at a time and I give that particular site my full attention. I like to be on site at least four days a week; that’s minimum; often it’s for the entire week, so if a site is situated where Heidi and the kids or myself can’t jump in the car and either drive to the site or drive home in 3 to 4 hours, it’s just not going to work. If I can’t hop on a plane and be home in an hour or so for band concerts, football games, awards banquets, proms, etc., it’s just not going to work.

When the girls no longer depend on us living at home everyday and when I can take Heidi and we can experience all a particular site may have to offer for a week or two at a time together, I will venture out of the Southeast.

4. Your five courses to date are all daily-fee operations. When a private club commissions you to build a course for limited play, will your approach differ? If so, how?

Interestingly enough, when I first got involved with our current project, Bull’s Bay (then called Seewee Bay), it was a private, equity club situation. With the design process well underway, the ownership changed and the golf course then became public. The only adjustment we made was to switch from bent grass to bermuda grass on the putting surfaces, to accommodate the increased number of rounds in heat and humidity of the American Southeast. Details such as grass types, amount and types of cartpaths, traffic flows (both cars and golf carts), types and sizes of clubhouses, etc., I think have to be considered when comparing private versus public use, but I doubt I would ever alter my design approach based solely on that criteria.

First of all, my client, be it a group who wants to build a private club, or an individual who wants to construct a public course for profit, deserves and should expect the absolute best product that I can put on his or her particular piece of property, period.

Secondly, the golfer who is going to play that product, in my mind, deserves the ultimate in beauty, with plenty of opportunities to use the above challenges set before him and that chance to feel his spirit soar when he successfully overcomes them, regardless of where he or she happens to reside on the socio-economic ladder.

We (Forrest Fezler and myself) pride ourselves in trying to offer the public player a private club experience, to go out onto the golf course, look around, and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m getting to play on a place like this.’

Tobacco Road doesnt insult the public golfers intelligence; it requires thought and imigination to play the course properly.

Tobacco Road doesn’t insult the public golfer’s intelligence; it requires thought and imigination to play the course properly.

Think of how many more great golf courses we might have in our possession if designers didn’t approach a project with the attitude “ ‘Well, it’s just a daily fee course, so let’s start backing off right from the word go; we’ll save our best effort for the next private club with a big budget that we do.’

Hell, the public player doesn’t deserve any less thought or effort on the part of the golf course designer than the private club member!

The client most certainly doesn’t!

5. What is your favorite short par three (under 140 yards), par four (under 340 yards) and par five (under 500 yards) that you did not design?

Pretty tough to list just one “ so I won’t —

Par 3 under 140 yards

  • #7 Pebble Beach
  • #10 Pine Valley
  • #8 Olympic Club
  • #6 National Golf Links
  • #15 Cypress Point
  • #7 Royal County Down

Par 4 under 340 yards

In my opinion the two best short par 4’s in golf are on the same course and play in succession ¦ #8 and #9 at Cypress Point.

Par 5 under 500 yards

#9 Royal County Down (Try to tell me you can stand on the tee and not feel something stir deep inside you “ it touches all of the senses”).

6. What is the biggest misconception about your work?

Here is a short list.

Misconception #1 — That I am this weird, unconventional guy that is putting products out there just to uphold my reputation as a weird, unconventional guy.

I don’t run around this entire country like a chicken with my head cut off dealing with 4, 5, 15, 20 jobs at one time. I love to sleep in my own bed more than two nights a week, and any off time I have, you will probably find me on a farm with my horses versus being on the golf course. I would much rather check out the progress on the job from horseback than from the front seat of an SUV with the AC blasting. Weird? Unconventional?

Look, the product may look a little different when compared with a lot of work that has been done in this country in the last 20-30 years because it contains many of the elements and principles used by the men who practiced this profession before ‘modern’ times. I see our work (myself, Forrest, and my crew) and our methods as a throw back and a tribute to these men.

Misconception #2 “ I tend to look at a golf course as a work of art and let golf take a back seat.

I do think the golf course should surround a person with as much visual stimulation as possible, so did Mackenzie (go back to question #1 and reread Dr. Mackenzie’s second quote).

At the same time, I don’t think that anyone in this business puts more thought into golf strategies and play options on every golf hole than we do. I’m not saying that other people or firms don’t put as much thought into it as we do, but I don’t think anyone puts in more.

It seems to me that the great golf courses are a marriage of both and we wouldn’t approach it any differently.

Misconception #3 “ Our golf courses are overblown and expensive to construct.

First, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Second, this really rubs me the wrong way because it is a myth being perpetuated by people in my profession with ready access to the print media who are coming to this conclusion without benefit of possessing the first fact to back it up. I know I haven’t been approached by anyone regarding relative costs of my projects for publication and I’m damn sure my clients are not releasing any detailed information for such.

Look, maybe I should take it as a compliment that people, seeing the finished product, assume it costs twice more than it actually did, but when it gets into print and gets passed around the country as fact, instead of someone’s opinion, it has a potential effect on my occupational future and that is not going to make me happy.

The facts are our projects are running approximately half the price of other public upscale courses being constructed today. Not possible? There’s no secret; we do it by working our tails off “ every day from start to finish. I have a very talented, dedicated bunch of guys from shapers to laborers who work with me job after job, who know what I expect and are willing, on their own, to take it beyond those expectations. If I am not on site every day, Forrest is, so the guys always have direction which amounts to very little wasted time.

I know what I want the holes to look like and do detailed eye level drawings of the look we’re trying to get from tees, doglegs, etc. These are great ways to communicate with the guys and it insures that we make a minimum amount of attempts to get it right. Remember the old saying that ‘Time is money’?

Misconception #4 — Your courses are too hard.

It would probably be more accurate to say that more often than not a golfer makes our courses too hard by succumbing to one or several of the following:

  • Becomes ‘visually intimidated’ by what sits before him. Remember Mackenzie’s fourth quote in answer to question #1. ‘It is important to make the golf hole look more difficult than it really is. That is almost always the case on our courses, but if your mind convinces you that it really is a difficult shot, you’re beat before you even take the club back.
  • Fails to observe the multiple options to attack any golf hole. Who says you have to go at every pin no matter its location, or hit every green in regulation to have a good score? Or a good time? For most players, the direct line to the hole is fraught with frustration and failure. Access your strengths and your limitations and use all the hole offers to you to maximize your effort.
  • Tries to play outside of his ability. How may times have you seen it? A 20 handicapper is ankle high in rough with 200 yards to the pin over a lake. With plenty of fairway curving around the lake to his right, he can barely see the top of his ball as he addresses it. Where will he set up? You got it! Right at the pin! What are this guy’s chances? About the same as you and me winning the $325 million Georgia lottery! Now, I’m all for the guy going for it if that’s his decision. The lake is there so he is forced to make that decision. But if he chooses poorly and dumps it in the lake (as the odds dictate he probably will) when there are all kinds of ways to play around the hazard and still make par “ at worst bogey on the hole, don’t come to me and say ‘that hole is too hard.’ The player made a bad decision when he had other options that suited his game better and he paid for it “ that’s golf.
  • Plays the wrong set of tees. The easiest mistake to correct before you ever stick the first tee into the ground. Also, the most common mistake made day in and day out on our golf courses (or any courses for that matter). Swallow a little pride, step up to the next set of tees and you have a hell of a better chance to enjoy your day. Forget about looking at only the total yardage. If you cannot carry the ball to the turning points on dog legs or are consistently hitting into bunkers that are well short of the landing area, chances are you’re on the wrong set of tees.

Misconception #5 “ Your courses are expensive to maintain. Please go to question #14.

(A quick note on width. As I understand, it was a topic of discussion a couple of months back and my name got linked to it because of our practice of constructing wide fairways.

WIDTH IS KEY! When you start reducing width (and I mean air space as well as fairway width) you begin to reduce the number of options for players of various skill levels, thereby reducing the total number of players who can successfully navigate their way around the course. I guess that’s fine if we only want scratch to 10 handicaps playing golf.

The comment about wide fairways presenting no challenge to the good player is pretty weak, at least on our courses. Go check out any of our fairways and it becomes apparent that you must be in certain spots to gain an advantage on the next shot or approach to the green.

7. Many people who prefer match play thrive on playing your courses because of all the options. Do you personally prefer match play?

Great! Now all we have to do is convince the golfers who prefer medal play that there are just as many options open to them.

While I wouldn’t go as far as Mackenzie and say that Americans ‘have ruined golf with medal play,’ I do feel that we in the U.S. put far too much emphasis on medal play. I think it gives us less than a full appreciation for the game and immediately steers us toward the ‘scorecard and pencil mentality’ that Dr. Mackenzie talks about and loathes in The Spirit of St. Andrews. Whenever we head in that direction, we risk not approaching golf or the golf course with ‘the spirit of adventure,’ as he puts it, and that is what I’m sure separates the great game of golf from other athletic endeavors.

I do like match play, but no more than I like a scrambles format, which I like no more that a modified best ball game, which I like no more than the famous 2 ½, 2 ½, 2 ½ alternate shot game played at Muirfield, which I like no more than any other conceivable way this game can be enjoyed among fellow golfers.

I believe the golf course should be designed to accommodate any and all of these variations and more.

So I think the most important point to be made answering this question is not whether I prefer match play over medal play or vice-versa, but that we take great pains on every golf hole to provide those options to every golfer regardless of his ability or the format under which he chooses to play.

8. Are you satisfied with the final version of the 18th at Royal New Kent?

Yes. I think it’s a very good golf hole; a tremendous finish. This hole takes somewhat of a beating because it doesn’t fit with the rest of the course. There were several key factors that contributed to the final version of this hole and would explain why it doesn’t look like all the other holes. First, there had to be an irrigation storage lake so that we could water the golf course. Due to about a dozen non-negotiable reasons, this was the only location. Even this location was not a big enough area, thus the section that was pulled in front of the green. Then there’s the waterfall “ the much debated and maligned waterfall. The source for filling this lake was a well some 3,000 feet form the lake. After paying to lay 8 inch pipe all the way to the lake (which wasn’t cheap), Danny Young and I decided, hell as long as we’ve brought it this far, we might as well let people enjoy seeing water fall into the lake. I always thought it showed a lot more imagination than running a pipe dead into the lake and letting it bubble up from there.

9.Were the long walks between holes at Royal New Kent and Stonehouse unavoidable?

In short, yes. It must be remembered that both Royal New Kent and Stonehouse are real estate development golf courses and that when combined with the existing contours at both sites, it was pretty much a given that we would not have short distances between all the golf holes.

10. Please tell us about your two latest courses, the recently opened Tot Hill Fram in North Carolina and the one under construction near Charleston, South Carolina.

They are as different as two courses can be. Tot Hill Farm in Asheboro, NC has very much the look of a mountain course “ 250 feet of elevation difference over the site, extensive use of rocks and boulders, meandering streams, natural waterfalls, etc. Probably one of the best pieces of land I have been given to work with up until now.

At Bull’s Bay near Charleston, the vista is everything. Two and a half miles of pristine salt marsh span all the way to the intracoastal waterway, after which come the barrier islands and the Atlantic Ocean. The site is situated in the area hit hardest by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 so a large portion (200 acres) is either farmland or very weak, storm-ravaged vegetation. The idea here is to excavate 60 acres of lakes and fill the entire site, with the clubhouse situated 50-60 feet above existing elevation, so it has a view of the marsh, creeks, waterway, islands, ocean in the distance, and it has a view of almost every golf hole.

11. Stonehouse and Royal New Kent are originals by any definition. What was the origin(s) for these unique courses?

At Stonehouse, we (Larry and Danny Young, the owners, and myself) let the dramatic contours and the large scale of the site dictate the design. Essentially, we used the same approach that would have been taken by those before us who didn’t possess the technology to move large quantities of earth. As I stated earlier we routed golf holes over, around, and through as many undisturbed contours as possible, incorporating them as golf features and giving the course it’s very unique and bold look. So the origin for the look at Stonehouse was the very land itself.

The look at Royal New Kent was inspired by our golf experiences in Northern Ireland and Ireland, particularly Royal County Down and Ballybunion. A couple of years before this project we had formed a friendship with some of the staff and members at Royal County Down. We would go over there and play matches with and against them, then they would come to the U.S. and we would do the same, spending the non-golfing hours in various pubs, bars, restaurants, inns, whatever, having a great time.

Strantzs experiences at County Down influenced his work at Royal New Kent.

Strantz’s experiences at County Down influenced his work at Royal New Kent.

While looking at property in Virginia, we came upon a couple hundred acres of rolling land that had had every tree removed from it. Danny looked at me, I looked at him, and we both said, ‘Stop! This is it!’ The contours reminded us so much of some of the things we had seen over there that we thought it would be a perfect place to pay tribute to our friends and the golf courses of their land.
Note: If I have to read one more article by a golf writer stating that this is not a ‘true links course’ and alluding to the fact that I do not know what constitutes a ‘true links course,’ I am going to throw up! I know it’s not a ‘true links course,’ the writer knows it, the golfer knows it, hell, my wife knows it ¦ it’s in the middle of Virginia, for God’s sake. It was done to honor our friends and their country’s courses and to allow the people of this country to have a different golf experience “ and I think it does both “ successfully.

12. Please describe your business relationship with Forrest Fezzler, the former PGA Tour player. How helpful is it to work with a player of his skill?

Forrest is my right hand man. He is largely responsible for making sure I don’t go absolutely nuts. Seriously, he handles a lot of the details that would make this job a living hell. He deals with the contractors and subcontractors along with their assorted problems, handles all of the personnel issues, lines up equipment rentals, sets up fuel accounts, makes sure all appropriate paperwork gets to the accountants, hands out checks, acts as a guidance counselor to the crew, plus has to listen to me rant and rave when things aren’t going just right “ and they rarely are.

I cannot imagine how much more difficult this job would be without him. He is the hardest working man I have ever met. He understands my vision and has the ability to enhance it with his attention to detail and his expectations of nothing less than perfection from everyone.

To be able to discuss design and golf strategy with a player of his skill and experience level is something that is always educational and an invaluable tool.

13. What influence has working for Tom Fazio had on you?

Without as doubt the biggest influence Tommy had on me was the way he handled himself and how he dealt with any person he came in contact with. I would just shut up and watch and hoped some of it would soak in.

Here’s a guy who worked hard to get where he’s at and with all the success he’s had, he is still a humble person. He’s the real deal; what you see is what you get. Tom is going to be the same person in from of a multi-millionaire owner as he is in front of the common laborer, laying sod on this guy’s course. I wish more ‘big name’ people were like that. I just hope after all of those years of observation, a little bit rubbed off.

Architecturally, I’m sure there are a lot of things that I do that make Tommy cringe. I’m also sure he is not losing any sleep over it and understands that’s just the way I am; that we are different in that respect, and it leads to a bigger variety of courses for the golfer to play ¦ everybody wins.

14. People assume that a Strantz course must be expensive to maintain, given its spectacular bunkering, wide fairways and sweeping greens. How would the maintenance budget vary between the more traditional Caledonia and the dramatic Tobacco Road?

Let’s set the record straight here too. Without revealing figures, which I won’t do, the annual maintenance budgets at Caledonia and Tobacco Road are virtually identical. As a matter of fact, with landscape costs factored in, Caledonia’s budget is higher. Tot Hill Farm’s budget will be less that either of these and the last time I checked the courses in Virginia, they each had five people on the maintenance crews, hardly an excessive number. True Blue probably tops the list due to the fact that labor costs increase dramatically trying to keep bentgrass alive through the South Carolina summer while still pushing 48,000+ rounds over top of them per year (that’s another story!).

There is not much to maintain from the tee to the start of the fairway on the 18th hole at Tobacco Road.

There is not much to maintain from the tee to the start of the fairway on the 18th hole at Tobacco Road.

15. If time and expense weren’t issues, which five courses in the word you most like to see for the first time?

Fishers Island is always a treat.

Fishers Island is always a treat.

  1. Fishers Island, NY
  2. Westward Ho! (Royal North Devon)
  3. St. Georges Hill
  4. Rye
  5. Crystal Downs
Less has changed at Westward Ho! than any other course in the past 80 years.

Less has changed at Westward Ho! than any other course in the past 80 years.

16. Which five holes (from different courses) do you wish you could claim as your own?

  1. #11 Ballybunion
  2. #10 Pine Valley
  3. #9 Royal County Down
  4. #14 Shinnecock Hills
  5. #8 – #17 at Cypress Point (Sorry, I couldn’t pick just one.)
Inspiring golf at its finest - the 9th at County Down.

Inspiring golf at its finest – the 9th at County Down.

17. How do you think history will treat the perception of your courses?

I hope that they stand the test of time, that people keep coming back to play them because they are challenging and offer the possibility of continual discovery “ discovery of all of the subtle nuances and options contained within each golf hole and the continual re-discovery of the ‘spirit of adventure’ that resides in each of us.

Trying to get the tee shot just right on the downhill 14th is but one reason why Tobacco Road is always fun to play.

Trying to get the tee shot ‘just right’ on the downhill 14th is but one reason why Tobacco Road is always fun to play.

18. You are a very good golfer. From the middle tees, which of your courses do you score the best on? The worst on?

I score fairly consistently on all of the courses that I’ve done. I can play just as good or just as bad on any of them. Just because I designed them, that doesn’t make me immune to the fickle nature of the game of golf. There are going to be some days, even on my own courses, when things just are not going to go worth a damn. Every year I find that easier to accept so I’m enjoying my time on the golf course more and I am discovering a much deeper appreciation for the game of golf than just ‘What did you shoot?’

The End