Friday, May 18, 2007

Top 25 Golf Course Architects - #25 - Mike Strantz

The opening shot at Tobacco Road -intimidation at its best - there's lots of room beyond the dunes

Best Course: Monterey Peninsula GC (Shore Course), 44th in Golfweek’s modern list

Other notable work: Tobacco Road, Royal New Kent, Caledonia Golf & Fishing Club, Tot Hill Farm, Stonehouse, True Blue

Overview: Mike Strantz’s inclusion in my list might raise a few eyebrows. He’s still not well accepted as an architect - even today – which surprises me since I think he will be better appreciated over time. The people that really like his work actively seek out all his courses and interestingly enough many are the younger architects in the ASGCA. He embodies the idea that the line between genius and madman is razor thin – often stepping on both sides with delightful results. No matter what you think of his work, there is no denying his superior talent, and his guts to push golf course architecture to its very limits.

Praise for the work:
I have never seen an architect combine intimidation and opportunity so masterfully. His architecture is as frustrating as it is exciting but once you finish you can’t wait to play it again. As an architect I admire his audacity to build something so different and so controversial that you knew it couldn’t be embraced by critics or the public at large.

He believes that you get a bigger thrill when you make a great shot that seemingly overcomes impossible odds – he does this by making his work look overwhelming at times but in reality is a lot easier than it appears. While most would point to the intentional blindness and very wild greens to say that his work is over the top, they have missed his use of width to create playability and alternative (safer) routes. People seem to be focused on the dangerous short cuts that encourage a risky style of play and often don’t play the course enough to find the safer alternatives of each hole. It’s too easy to condemn his work on first play.

Caledonia Golf and Fishing Club


His architecture is said to be too severe to have any playability with the chief complaint being how tough the courses are for the weaker player. The bunkers are severe; there are massive expanses of sand everywhere, you can putt off greens due the severe shelves, he uses cross hazards, and some shots are all or nothing with no options. The biggest complaint has to be the intentional use of blindness that most feel is not only unfair but dangerous. They think his architecture is akin to the high school bully who pushes them around and intimidates them until they go home. His work is either loved or hated – and they hate it.

Great Quotes:
“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.”

A sketch of the 6th at Moneterey Peninsula Shore Course with the seeping fairways.

My favourite:
Monterey Peninsula GC (Shore Course) If fits the space so well with massive horizontal movement in the fairways to help fill the wide open space of the site. The more restrained and subdued architecture at MPCC, with a few little flash points here and there, gives you more time to enjoy the setting.

Future Movement on the List:

What I take from him: A superior playing experience is not only brought through the freedom to choose, but also through the joy of overcoming difficulty.

Mike has taught me to take risks with my architecture and to say to hell with convention and criticism – it’s all about great holes.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Architects that Didn’t Make My List

The 13th at Addington by Abercromby

The 25 architects on my list span from golf architecture’s origins to very recent times. I made the decision that I would not include active architects, since that could lead to hurt feelings, and this would avoid the fact that their status may rise and fall with a single project. My list of architects vary from men with hundreds of projects to their credit through to architect’s with a single course. I decided that it was best to include everyone regardless of the amount of work they did, and to not combine architects that worked together. I wanted to judge them separately where possible. As I write this I still do not have the list in a final order and likely won’t until the day I write each piece!

When I knocked the list down to 25 architects, I was quite surprised at the quality of architects that didn’t make my top 25. Consider the following names and the work that they did and you’ll see why:

J.F. Abercromby
John Low
Deverault Emmett
Tom Bendelow
George Combe
C.K. Hotchkins
Horace Hutcheson
William Frownes
Charles Banks
Chandler Egan
Robert Hunter
Walter Hatch
James MCGovern
Kinja Fujita
Wayne Stiles
Vernon Macan
Billy Bell
Mackenzie Ross
Alex Russell
Fred Hawtree
Red Lawrence
William Gordon
Dick Wilson
Eddie hackett

The 1st green at Paraparaumu Beach by Russell

So why did the above list of architects not make the list? Many simply have too limited a body of work without that significant project that sets them apart. Other architects were famous from one very important course but they were not the only one involved, even if they were a key figure. A few of the architects worked in partnership with a more significant architect and their own solo work was not strong enough to warrant inclusion. The best example of a tough choice is William Frownes. Nobody can argue against the quality of the course that he built at Oakmont, but Oakmont has not had the same influence over the future of golf course architecture that other courses have – when you combine this with one great course – it was not enough. When I have struggled, I have often turned to influence to help draw the line.

The more interesting debate for me came with some high profile architects who have dominated the periods they practiced in. I’m not a believer in popularity or quantity as a measure of greatness, in fact quantity is often a source of my criticism since it breeds mediocrity - but I did find it hard to exclude all their influence and to recognize the quality found in some of their projects.

Enjoy the list as a source of fun – make your comments and offer your criticisms too – just remember this is not intended as a definitive list.

First Architect:

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Do I dare do produce a list of the Top 25 Greatest Architects of all Time?

“This list is so horrible I don't know to begin so I won't because there's too much to talk about.”
One of the first comments on the 50 Greatest Fighter List

I have enjoyed reading the 50 Greatest Boxers of all Time – a feature presented on – written by Kieran Mulvaney. The link is here for the curious:

The list is highly controversial - and heavily criticized – but compelling all the same. The film clips presented with the article must be seen. I’m not a boxing aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, but even I was nostalgic watching the clips of fighters like Roberto Duran and Muhammad Ali.

This got me thinking that there must be a list of the top 10 or 25 greatest or influential golf course architects. Apparently there was something in Golf Week that mentions Mike Strantz – since he had mentioned it on his web site - but I was unable to come up with that list. I couldn’t find anything and it had me wondering could I dare come up with an actual list. I like lists – hell everyone likes lists – but this one seemed a tall order. I think the idea of one person putting together a list of the greatest architects of all time is kind of silly since none of us could possibly have the knowledge to really do this by ourselves and we all bring specific bias that will shape the list to suit out tastes.

The next problem is familiarity, since most people have a closer association to one or two particular architects and will have very limited exposure to work by others due to geography or time. This is where their reputations and the written opinion of others will end up shaping the list more than one person’s experience could. To do this you would need to go out on a limb at times - Kieran certainly did – but it would open you up to criticism for even trying.

I was able to put together a quick tentative list of my personal top ten architects, but that seemed to be too few. I then decided to list all the architects who did something that shaped golf course architecture and I found I was quickly up to 35. I ended up with an arbitrary list of 25, since that seemed to include all the really great architects in history and a few worthy of mention for their contributions to the art form. After I formed my initial list of 25, it wasn’t who made the list that drew my attention, but rather the quality of architects left off.

The next question was where to place people single course architects with one incredibly great course to their credit? Would that be fair to compare them to an architect who built 100 courses with only one that was considered the equal of the greatest - but the rest of his work was clearly not?

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