Last June I wrote this piece for PGATour.com’s Voices on Golf, a series that disappeared soon afterward. A year later Mike Strantz is gone.
June 10, 2004
By Robert Thompson
Mike Strantz has seen more than his share of highs and lows this year.
The 49-year-old golf course architect recently completed a spectacular renovation of Monterey Peninsula Country Club, utilizing his artistic touch to create a course full of drama on a majestic ocean setting.
At the same time, Strantz has been fighting a battle against a particularly nasty cancer that crept into his jaw and tongue. It was an unusual type of cancer for a man who never smoked regularly and didn’t chew tobacco.
The situation was so bad that cancer specialists suggested removing much of Strantz’s tongue and jaw to save his life, surgery the golf designer initially turned down.
All the while Strantz continued to work on Monterey, even while taking chemotherapy.
To those who haven’t tackled one of his courses, like True Blue and Caledonia in Myrtle Beach, Strantz is perhaps the most inventive — and often controversial — architect currently working in the business. His ability to draw his vision on paper and then convert the images to reality is among the best. He’s a maverick, and seems to have fun with that notion, giving his design company that moniker.
While working for Tom Fazio, Strantz oversaw such courses as Pine Barrens in Florida, arguably Fazio’s best work.
Strantz has a unique take on golf courses that falls outside the norm, and after leaving Fazio, he developed tracks like Tobacco Road in North Carolina that feature unusual blind shots, fascinating bunker work and difficult greens. While Tobacco Road, like much of Strantz’s work, has both its proponents and detractors, everyone who has teed it up at a Strantz course remembers it. His controversial work garnered the attention of his peers, and Golf World named him architect of the year in 1998.
Though Strantz fought the cancer for the past two years, he eventually had to make a decision on whether to follow his doctor’s advice and go ahead with surgery that was both invasive and life altering.
“Mike changed his mind,” says his wife, Heidi. “He knew he would have to have the surgery to survive, but he tried to fight against it. It was a huge decision for him.”
The surgery was remarkable and horrifying. Doctors would remove 90% of his tongue and a significant portion of his jaw. It would leave Strantz unable to eat solid food for the rest of his life and regaining his speech would not be guaranteed. With significant questions about his quality of life following the surgery, it is easy to see why the architect reluctantly proceeded.
As part of the surgery, doctors would construct a flap of muscle from his shoulder to function as a tongue and would reconstruct his jaw. Strantz underwent the procedure in early March.
The doctors declared the surgery a success on all fronts, removing all of the cancer and reconstructing much of Strantz’s mouth. He fought hard to return to something as near to normal as he could in as short a period of time as possible, typical of Strantz, a man who is at home on a bulldozer and manages the construction of the courses he designs.
“He was so determined to get better and not to lose any of his strength,” says Heidi. “He’s light years ahead of where anyone expected him to be.”
Speaking is still difficult for Strantz, Heidi admits, but the designer is insistent on making himself understood, refusing to use pen and paper to communicate.
Strantz had intended to take the rest of the year off to recover from the surgery, but his associates, including former PGA TOUR veterean Forrest Fezler, have already been searching for new projects. In a tight market, new course work is hard to come by, but Heidi says she won’t be surprised to see her husband back at work far sooner than anticipated.
“He is a man who likes to dream big and then construct those dreams,” Strantz’s wife says. “He’s just been so remarkable through all of this.”