Course Review: Monterey Peninsula (Shore Course)
Architect: Mike Strantz
The story of Monterey Peninsula’s Shore Course is likely only known to those that are interested in golf design, and the even smaller group that were intrigued by the unfortunately short career of maverick golf designer Mike Strantz. After all, it was the Shore Course which would be Strantz’s last work, an almost complete renovation of the existing course undertaken while he was battling cancer, a fight he’d lose in 2005. Those who recognize his work understand that Strantz was an artist willing to take risks, and create courses that some would embrace, while others would adore (see Tobacco Road near Pinehurst, NC as an example). Those extreme impulses are tempered somewhat at the Shore Course, but that doesn’t mean it is anything less than fascinating.
This week the general public will get a look at this exclusive course when it becomes part of the rotation for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, taking the sport of the much maligned Poppy Hills. For a look at the other courses being played this week, see my reviews of Spyglass Hill and Pebble Beach. Hopefully someone will talk about Strantz’s work at the course, which is fascinating and often overlooked given its remarkable surrounding neighbours.
The course doesn’t really wow anyone with the first three holes. The opener is significantly downhill and shows Strantz’s love of expansive sand areas, and has an intriguing green, but the second is hemmed in on the left by houses and the third is simply a nice short par-3. It isn’t until the course opens up on the fourth that one witnesses the ocean — a dominate visual element for most of the next dozen holes. The other interesting factor is that the land is relatively flat. In the hands of a less talented designer, it would surely have been filled with mounding for increased separation, making it appear unnatural and ruining a terrific opportunity. Fortunately that’s not what Strantz did.
Instead, Strantz used sweeping fairways on a massive scale to create interest and movement on land that has limited elevation changes. Designer Ian Andrew documented this feature in a blog post you can find here. That means the fairways are wide, but that doesn’t make the holes easy. One still has optimal ways to approach the hole, and the hazards are designed to match the large scale canvas that Strantz was working with. This is highlighted on the 6th hole, a three-shot hole where everything is large, especially the fairways and bunkering.
While the ocean is present, it is never in play, unlike Pebble Beach or Cypress Point. The sea is across the road from the course, though the routing skirts along the road following the intriguing drop-shot par-3 11th. Like many designers from the neo-classical school of design (Tom Doak, Bill Coore, Gil Hanse), Strantz liked options. In many of his designs (those that have seen True Blue in Myrtle Beach or Tobacco Road will understand), Strantz’s artistic flair could almost overwhelm the design. That’s tempered at MPCC, meaning the holes remain playable, with greens often on-grade, and ever-present chipping hollows allow for recovery.
The truth is the course isn’t a complete success. While the middle of the course — holes four through 16 are almost entirely terrific — the final holes, including the awkward uphill 18th, leave the player yearning for Strantz’s earlier work. The routing has to head back towards the clubhouse and so the final holes climb, but they lack all of the qualities that make the earlier holes so delightful.
Those holes are likely to be tweaked by Hanse, who has been hired by the club, but thankfully it isn’t those holes that are Strantz’s legacy. Instead, the renovation of the course demonstrates Strantz was one of the most remarkable design talents the game has seen in recent decades. Sadly, just as he was finding a way to merge his artistic abilities with elements that made his courses both strategic and playable, he was felled by a insidious disease. Thankfully MPCC’s Shore Course is a testament to a designer a the height of his abilities.