Last weekend's U.S. Open created a ton of buzz from players and media, especially related to the host venue, Erin Hills.
For a course that is not even a dozen years old, Erin Hills has quite the long and complicated history, with a lot of important golf figures influencing its development.
One of those figures, whom you may not have heard about, is Mike Strantz, the celebrated and sometimes controversial golf course architect who passed away 12 years and 10 days ago.
Strantz's connection to Erin Hills comes through one of the course's co-designers, Dana Fry, whom Strantz first taught to drive a bulldozer while both men were working on Tom Fazio's team in the 1980s. Fry's own design style, while unique in its own right, echoes Strantz's in certain ways.
In similar fashion, Strantz, whose life was cut short in 2005 at the age of 50 by cancer that spread from his jaw, had a hand in the design and construction of dozens of golf courses, including some that you may have never known about and which might be closer to you than you think.
Officially, Strantz designed seven courses from scratch - starting with Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, which opened in 1994 - and performed two major renovations. Each of those courses stand out in golfers minds as unique playing experiences. Some of them have sparked controversy and love/hate relationships with certain players due to some unusual shaping and severe features, but the overwhelming majority of golfers who play one Strantz course find themselves wanting to play the others.
Which is why we wanted to talk not just about those courses, but about all the layouts on which Mike Strantz had design and/or construction influence.
And again, it includes significantly more courses than you might have otherwise thought, and they may be closer to you than you realized.
Strantz's brief but fascinating career took place in four stages:
Strantz's career, like most architects', began in the employ of another designer. He spent more than a decade assisting in the design, shaping and construction of a number of courses for the prolific Tom Fazio, whose work appears more prominently on top-100 lists than any other living architect.
Strantz's pre-Caledonia résumé includes a baker's dozen projects where he was the main shaper and on-site designer for Fazio's firm. Just as the executive chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants don't do all the cooking, the big-name designers tend to have varying levels of involvement in their different projects. Fazio may have developed and approved the plans, but in 13 cases, Mike Strantz was responsible with executing Fazio's vision, developing his own unique bunker-, fairway- and green-shaping style all the while.
Strantz had graduated from Michigan State's Turf Grass Management program in 1978 before first connecting with Fazio at Inverness Club in Ohio, where Strantz was working as the course prepared for the 1979 U.S. Open.
From there, Strantz worked as a key member of Fazio's team at these courses:
1980: Moss Creek Golf Club (North) - Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Moss Creek's original South Course was designed by Tom Fazio's uncle, George. Tom returned to the Lowcountry to design and build the North Course, with Strantz a part of his crew. Moss Creek is private, but like many golf communities in the area, offers "Discovery Packages" for those potentially in the market for a home on a golf course.
Located just north of Charleston, Wild Dunes has 36 holes of Fazio golf, executed with significant input by Strantz, The Links is the headliner here, starting inland and winding along wetlands before finishing along the ocean. It was the first course on which Fazio would receive solo design credit. Beach erosion has forced recent redesign of the closing holes, but Strantz's shaping, which tends to be a little bolder and more abrupt than other Fazio work, is on full display. The shorter, sportier Harbor Course heads inland along the Intracoastal Waterway and opened in 1985.
1982: The Golf Club Of Oklahoma - Broken Arrow, Okla.
This private club southeast of Tulsa represents some of Fazio's (with assistance from Strantz) more striking early work.
1984: Callawassie Island Club - Okatie, S.C.
Located about a half hour from Hilton Head, Callawassie sits on its own island, with 27 holes designed by Fazio. The bunkering here is particularly distinctive - a little wilder and bolder than you might find at other Fazio courses - a key characteristic of Strantz's style. Another private residential club, Callawassie is well worth seeking out if you're in the area.
1984: The Vintage Club (Desert Course) - Indian Wells, Calif.
Both courses at this private, residential club in the Southern California desert region are attributed to Tom Fazio, though a 2015 renovation of the longer Mountain Course may mean Strantz's hand is less evident there than at the shorter Desert layout.
1985: Wachesaw Plantation Club - Murrells Inlet, S.C.
This course located between Pawleys Island and Myrtle Beach proper flies under the radar because it's private, but it may be accessible via a pro-to-pro call at certain times of the year. If you find yourself in the area and playing Caledonia and True Blue, Strantz's nearby solo designs, Wachesaw makes a perfect addition.
1986: Golden Eagle Country Club - Tallahassee, Fla.
Another private club that may be accessible for members of other private clubs on a reciprocal basis, Golden Eagle is highlighted by holes that play along the shores of two large lakes.
1987: Black Diamond Ranch (Quarry) - Lecanto, Fla.
Black Diamond Ranch is home to two courses, the Quarry and Ranch layouts. The Quarry is the more famous of the two (but don't sleep on the Ranch), due to its group of namesake holes, which rival most any inland stretch I've seen anywhere for visual intrigue. Once again, some sharp and fascinating mounding and bunkering, as well as sweeping green contours, suggest Strantz's strong influence here.
1987: Lake Nona Golf Club - Orlando, Fla.
This club, long beloved of pros for its stern test and proximity to the Orlando airport, has been touched up over the years, but still occupies a prominent line in Mike Strantz's résumé as well as Tom Fazio's.
1987: Wade Hampton Golf Club - Cashiers, N.C.
Many courses have been built in the tony North Carolina mountain communities in the last 30 years, but Wade Hampton still reigns supreme. One of the most private clubs in America, an invitation to play here should be accepted enthusiastically.
1988: Kiawah Island Golf Resort (Osprey Point) - Kiawah Island, S.C.
The world-renowned resort just south of Charleston is known best for its Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course, but the Fazio-designed Osprey Point is well-liked in its own right. A 2014 renovation focused mostly on re-grassing the course with Paspalum.
1988: The Farm Golf Club - Rocky Face, Ga.
This exclusive club is known for being kept in such immaculate shape that holes have been cut into tee boxes so that players can practice their putting before teeing off on a given hole.
2. Branching Out
Strantz's tenure with Fazio's firm ended in 1987, with the years between then and the design and construction of Caledonia in 1993 and 1994 including the following:
1987-1990: Wild Dunes Resort - Isle of Palms, S.C.
Strantz did more work at Wild Dunes in this period, especially in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, which devastated parts of the South Carolina coastline around Charleston in 1989.
1990-1991: Dunes West Golf Club - Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
Arthur Hills gets the design credit for this fine semi-private track just north of Charleston, but Strantz served as the on-site construction supervisor while the course was being built, and likely had some influence over the finished product. The course does have a subtly different aesthetic than many other Arthur Hills layouts.
1993: Legends Resort (Parkland Course) - Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Unbeknownst even to many students of golf course design, the Parkland Course at Legends has a fascinating architectural background. Tom Doak (who designed the resort's Heathland layout) began work on this course, with then-apprentices Gil Hanse and Mike DeVries having on-the-ground influence, but a change in direction led to Mike Strantz becoming involved, particularly with the bold and distinctive bunkering on the course (Note: a recent renovation at Parkland focused on the bunkers, likely stripping the course of some of its Strantz character).
1993: Heritage Club - Pawleys Island, S.C.
While building Caledonia, Strantz and Danny Young, son of owner Larry Young, redesigned all of the bunkering and green complexes here. As a result, this course rivals full-Strantz neighbors Caledonia and True Blue, despite being overlooked by many visiting golfers. The greens are massive, undulating and tons of fun.
3. The Courses of Mike Strantz and Maverick Golf Design
As mentioned before, Strantz designed just seven golf courses, but they are a noteworthy group:
1994: Caledonia Golf & Fish Club - Pawleys Island, S.C.
Caledonia is Strantz's most beloved layout, justifiably regarded as one of the top few dozen public-accessible golf courses in the United States. Golf Digest ranks it #85 on its "100 Greatest Public Courses," GOLF Magazine has it at #29 on its "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" list and Golfweek's raters have it at #27 on the "Golfweek's Best: Resort Courses" list.
1996: Royal New Kent Golf Club - Providence Forge, Va.
Drawing inspiration from prominent Irish courses like Ballybunion, Strantz fashioned a wild, undulating layout on a huge scale, with an unmarked set of super-challenging "Invicta" tees stretching the course to 7,300-plus yards. The green of the par-3 12th hole measures more than 80 yards from front to back.
1996: The Tradition Golf Club at Stonehouse - Toano, Va.
Stonehouse has much in common with Royal New Kent, just a few miles up I-64, although it is much more of a parkland-style layout. That said, undulating greens and huge fairways are a main feature. The course has endured through the economic downturn and makes another good option for golfers in the Williamsburg area.
1998: True Blue Golf Club - Pawleys Island, S.C.
Caledonia's younger, wild-eyed sibling had to be softened a couple years after opening, but now ranks right up with the elder Strantz layout for supremacy in Pawleys Island. A counterpoint to its tree-lined neighbor, True Blue has wide fairways, huge greens and almost no formal rough; off these fairways lie huge sandy waste areas. But like Caledonia, the 18th hole plays right up to the doorstep of the clubhouse, so be prepared for a few spectators peering over at your approach shot.
1998: Tobacco Road Golf Club - Sanford, N.C.
This out-of-this-world layout just north of Pinehurst probably edges out Caledonia as Strantz's most famous course. Its location in an already golf-rich area emboldened Strantz to stretch the boundaries of what most people consider "normal" golf, with huge fairways, near-surreal shaping of greens and bunkers and a slew of death-or-glory propositions. The result is a course that has a cult-like following, as well as its share of haters. It lends itself better - perfectly, actually - to match play, because there are some spots that can cause most golfers to take an X on a hole. I absolutely love it.
2000: Tot Hill Farm Golf Club - Asheboro, N.C.
Located about an hour west of Tobacco Road, Tot Hill Farm has similarly bold featured, but has an almost mountain feel at times, meaning large-scale elevation changes come into play here. Holes like the plunging first and the peninsula-green 12th need to be seen to be believed, and as at Tobacco Road, it helps to bring your sense of humor to this one-of-a-kind course.
2002: Bulls Bay Golf Club - Awendaw, S.C.
The lone private club in Strantz's portfolio was developed by prominent Charleston attorney Joe Rice, and takes its inspiration from Shinnecock Hills, with the clubhouse situated atop a manmade, 70 foot high hill in the middle of the course (15 holes are visible from the building). Strantz trademarks abound: huge, heaving greens, gnarly bunkering and a perpetual sense of mischief characterize Bulls Bay. If you get an invite, you will relish the opportunity to play here.
2002: Silver Creek Valley Country Club - San Jose, Calif.
This early-90s Ted Robinson design wasn't standing out from the crowd as much as the membership hoped, so they recruited Strantz to infuse the course with more strategy and give it a more distinctive look.
2005: Monterey Peninsula Country Club (Shore Course) - Pebble Beach, Calif.
Strantz completely overhauled this venerable club's Shore layout, which has hosted early rounds of the PGA Tour's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am for the better part of the last decade. Strantz toned things down somewhat for the benefit of the membership, but the result is no less striking, thanks in large part to views of crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean from a number of holes. Sadly, he passed away before the reopening of the course.
5. The Legacy of Mike Strantz
Mike Strantz has been gone a dozen years now, but in his too-brief life and career, he left an indelible mark on golf in the form of some of the most intriguing courses built in the last half-century.
And from the list above, it is clear that there are more places to appreciate his artistry than you may have have ever believed.
Furthermore, Strantz's unique perspective on golf course design endures through his influence on designers working today.
If you spent any time watching this past weekend's U.S. Open from Erin Hills, you may have found yourself being reminded of Strantz's work by some of the course's features.
That's no coincidence - Erin Hills co-designer Dana Fry cites Mike Strantz as one of his mentors. Fry worked for years with Dr. Michael Hurdzan (including on Erin Hills), and has partnered with Jason Straka since 2012. The pair are currently hard at work planning the second course at heralded Arcadia Bluffs in Michigan, as well as an exciting new project in Brazil.
Then there's Forrest Fezler, a former PGA Tour player who found a calling in golf course design and construction through his partnership with Strantz, which began when Fezler hired Tom Fazio and Strantz to build Golden Eagle in Tallahassee.
Fezler's company, Fezler Golf Services, seeks to carry on Strantz's legacy through their own construction and design work. Projects they have been involved in include Black Jack's Crossing in Texas, Sand Hollow in Utah and the renovation of Valley Country Club in Centennial, Colorado. Keep an eye out for their future projects, because Mike Strantz continues to serve as their inspiration.
And as long as Mike Strantz golf courses exist, he will continue to challenge, confound and inspire golfers everywhere.
Share your thoughts on Mike Strantz and his golf courses in the comments below!