How many architects today produce fresh and original material?
Most modern designers seem to fall into one of two categories: those who claim to be following in the footsteps of the ‘classic’ architects and those who are simply a factory, stamping out one similar course after another. What is odd is that the former group tends to be regarded as revolutionary, when in fact they are merely applying the concepts of others from long ago. Their work is unique only by comparison to the work done in the past fifty years.
Mike Strantz is one architect whose work stands out as fresh – sometimes shockingly so. ‘I have never seen anything like this before’ is the standard clichÃƒ© uttered after playing your first Strantz course. His courses are stereotyped as being on a tremendous scale: some fairways are 80 yards wide, some greens 60 yards deep, other greens 60 yards wide, bunkers that are25 feet deep and abrupt five-foot elevation changes in greens. While Strantz does indeed build the widest courses today, he does so for a purpose: to re-introduce options and strategy into the game, the very thing that architecture has in general lacked since World War II.
Of course, too much width can be excessive but at Tobacco Road, the fairways and greens tie together well. Take the dramatic two shot 7th hole as an example. Some people complain about its severe green, with the significantly lower front-left section and the flat but shallow back-right portion that is bunkered front and back. Finding that back-right hole location, they say, is almost impossible as there is so little room to stop a ball there. That is true – if you approach the hole from the right half of the fairway. The fairway is 70 yards wide so the player has plenty of room to drive down the left side to open up that back-right hole location.
Wide fairways might typically suggest a big maintenance budget. Such is not the case at Tobacco Road because the total square area of maintained surfaces is less than one third that of the course property, thanks to the liberal use of sandy areas throughout the course. There is little rough – you are ever on a prepared surface or you’re in the scruffy stuff.
Some critics sniff at such patently bold and innovative designs where so much earth may be moved. These critics only treat minimalist courses seriously but in doing so, they miss the point altogether. Innovation and variety within architecture are crucial for the overall development of the profession and the game. Most importantly, Strantz courses get you thinking on several different levels, something several big ‘name’ architects fail to do at present.
In fact, part of the problem with the work of someone who takes such risks is that his more conventional features go unnoticed. For instance, the graceful sweep of the 10th green took real talent. Same with the false front on the 5th green or the 12th green with its front to back pitch. Such classic features are overshadowed by the more dramatic aspects found elsewhere on the course.
Holes to Note:
4th hole, 535 yards: A very finehalf-par hole where its length is misleading. After the tee shot, the hole bends so sharply to the left around a sandy area that the effective length for those who hug the left side off the tee is only some 460 yards. Those who go for the green with their second face an heroic shot over 180 yards of sand and scrub, but the green is slightly sunken from the right, allowing the player to bounce the ball onto the green off the front-right slope. The hole remains enjoyable for the high handicapper as there is heaps of fairway for him to circumnavigate the trouble. However, the farther right he plays his second (away from the sand), the more difficult angle he will have for his third. This style hole is a favorite of Strantz’s for good reason and he employs it elsewhere.
5th hole, 335 yards: Somewhat reminiscent of the 15th at World Woods (Pine Barrens) with its alternate routes to the green, the 5th offers a more testing second shot. After playing safely to the right fairway, the player has a pitch to a shallow plateau green that is crowned and offers no help in stopping the ball. Any pitch hit slightly short will likely land near the false front and roll a good twenty yards back into the fairway, which is an awkward distance from which to pitch close. The player who boldly finds the left strip of fairway off the tee but does not quite make it up the hill to the green is left with a short pitch from a tight lie to a shallow green. In either case, the approach tests both the skill and nerve of the player. Try as the good player might on a hole of this length, a birdie is far from a certainty.
6th hole, 150 yards: This hole is situated in a finger of the club’s property with out of bounds on three sides. So what did Strantz do? He built a hole with five different teeing areas across a 70 yard wide expanse and coupled that with a very wide green. From the far left set of tees, the green is 23 yards deep and 48 yards wide, creating a shallow target for a 7-iron among the sea of sandy scrub. From far right set of tees, almost at right angles to the first, the green is 48 yards deep and 23 yards wide. With the latter set-up, though, the hole is usually positioned on the front of the green, leaving the player a shot of some 120 yards to a part of the green which, from this angle, look suspiciously like the 13th at Merion. The hole plays well each way, and a player playing the hole on consecutive days with the tee-markers on the different locations will scarcely recognize the hole. Conventional? No. Does it work? Yes.