This interview with Mike Strantz took place less than two months before he succumbed to cancer on June 10, 2005. It's adapted from the forthcoming book "Golf Charms of Charleston" by Joel Zuckerman (Saron Press LTD.) to be released in autumn, 2005.
The Awendaw, South Carolina home of Mike and Heidi Strantz is spectacular. It's like a Soho loft in a forest clearing, like an industrial warehouse on stilts, set somewhat discordantly but majestically upon the Ponderosa.
It lords imperiously amid the woods and pastures of this quiet horse-farm property, perhaps 15 miles northeast of downtown Charleston and little more than a mile from Bulls Bay Golf Club, one of Mike Strantz's most highly regarded golf designs. The dwelling - airy, spare, filled with brickwork, big windows and even bigger views of miles of marshland - is an attention-getter. It's not unlike the architect's courses, which can be loved or loathed, depending on the golfer, but are impossible to ignore.
Strantz's golf course concepts might be controversial, but the outpouring of affection and concern for the terribly ill architect is universal. The tongue cancer he's been battling for years has rendered him virtually speechless. He communicates mostly with his eyes, by nodding, shaking his head, smiling, shrugging or writing on a whiteboard.
The fact that Strantz is unable to speak is almost ironic, because his arresting golf course designs speak volumes. They are bold, imaginative and striking, like their dream home, which they first occupied late in 2004.
"I love the way the house turned out," Heidi said, chuckling. "But I don't think I would've been as brave in the design."
Brave is the operative word, and not just because Strantz is unafraid to pepper his iconoclastic designs with curious features rarely seen in modern architecture. He's been known to tuck greens down in glens and atop sand hills, or build them exponentially wider than they are deep. He's constructed them in such close proximity to rock features that a poor approach will go rocketing off the granite into oblivion. He's built bunkers with 30-foot walls and putting surfaces that roiled and shimmied to the point that walking on them, never mind putting on them, was a chore.
But in this case, brave means battling an insidious and sinister disease, an "old man's disease," in the words of his attentive wife, that struck him like a lightning bolt in his mid-40s. Brave is setting up coast-to-coast chemotherapy sessions so he could fight back against the cancer both at home in Charleston and in California, where he willed himself to work on renovation projects in San Jose and on the Monterey Peninsula .
A writer once commented that Strantz, who loved to tour potential golf course sites on horseback, bore a strong resemblance to Wyatt Earp. But his towering frame is now stooped just a bit, his '60s-era hippie haircut, formerly scraggly and well below the shoulders, chopped much shorter. A bandana around the neck looks sporty, but is actually in place to mask a tracheotomy tube.
About six months prior to moving into their new home, Mike underwent a full glossectomy. After removing all the tissue from his lower mouth, surgeons took portions of his scapula to reconstruct his jawbone and muscle from one of his shoulders to reconstruct his tongue.
Despite his grave health, there are developers in the United States and abroad clamoring for his services, wanting an iconoclastic Strantz design sure to raise ire, admiration and undoubtedly attention. Well-known course architect Art Hills has known his fellow Toledo, Ohio, native for more than 20 years.
"He's got so much talent, he's a wonderful artist and is uniquely adept at putting that art on the ground," said Hills, who's been in the business for 40 years. "His courses are very artistic."
Strantz is comfortable with the term "modern antiquities" in describing his courses. He agrees that many of them are more conducive to match-play situations than the typical American emphasis on medal score. He wrote, "They may not be 'fair', at least from the perspective of typical resort or real-estate-development players."
What's left unsaid is that a traveling golfer, a discriminating student of the game who's experienced the great old courses of the British Isles and Ireland, "gets it." Those who have been lucky enough to experience firsthand the game in all its wild glory across the globe can appreciate the eccentricities, blind shots and extreme risk-reward elements this maverick (and principal of Maverick Course Design) puts into his work.
He once said, "Some of the things we are doing today are tame in comparison to what was done at some of the great golf courses. If I built the Road Hole at St. Andrews today, people would say it was way too difficult. But that hole has been hailed over the years, so people don't have a problem with it. Time and tradition are great equalizers."
To date, the architect has only seven solo designs. His best-known works are probably Caledonia Golf & Fish Club and True Blue Plantation, both on Pawleys Island near Myrtle Beach, and North Carolina's Tobacco Road and Tot Hill Farm.
Questioned delicately about his legacy, his desire to further his mark in the field, the visions of holes, layouts and courses he has yet to realize, Strantz writes a simple answer on the whiteboard. "I would love to do more work. But I don't have much control over that. And I have to be satisfied with what I've done, which I am."
There might yet be outrageous designs he can transfer from his imagination to a green grass landscape. Someday he might confound or outrage his critics with a radical new design, intrigue a newcomer who quickly becomes a diehard proponent or expand his cult following.
He looks out over the expansive marsh stretching endlessly beyond his showpiece home, perhaps contemplating his uncertain future. It's hard to say because the shadows fall across his ravaged face in the gathering dusk. Then he turns, and with a firm handshake, an appreciative nod and a warm smile, he soundlessly bids a visitor goodbye.
June 16, 2005