Mike Strantz was more an artist than he was an architect. His art was his passion. It was what he intended to study when he first went to school, yet somehow he graduated with a degree in turf grass management. After years of success working with renowned golf course architect Tom Fazio, Strantz ran back to his art. He wanted to settle down, to devote himself more to life as a family man. He wanted to be a commercial artist, opening Mike Strantz Studios in Charleston, SC, in the late 1980s.
But golf kept calling him to create on a larger canvas ... not with pencils and paints, but with sand and dirt and water and grass. He was simply destined to be a golf course architect. That he died so young, at just 50, and that he solely designed only seven courses in a life and career cut short by cancer, leaves those of us who love the game to wonder what might have been and to appreciate all the more what he left behind.
Many others have written about Strantz and his influence on golf course architecture in the last 30-plus years. And I think NBC GolfPass writer Tim Gavrich got it right when he wrote that, "By the time of his death in 2005, he (Strantz) had made a bigger impact on the game of golf with his seven original course designs than most architects with ten times as many courses can claim."
I became a fan of Mike Strantz in the late 1990s, when I first played his Stonehouse design outside Williamsburg, Virginia, and then Tobacco Road in Sanford, N.C. -- both of which are fantastic adventures in elevation, with giant yet elusive fairways, dynamic green complexes, and monstrous bunkers that feel at times as if they may be reaching out to swallow both the golf ball and the golfer. Years later, I played Royal New Kent -- another Williamsburg-area course that Strantz designed that looks completely different from his other works but still feels like it could only have been imagined by the same artist who created those other terrific courses.
So, it was a special treat on a recent trip to Myrtle Beach when I finally got to play two Strantz designs I've been looking forward to for decades: Caledonia Golf & Fish Club and True Blue, both on Pawley's Island, just south of Myrtle Beach. I'm going to write here about my experience at Caledonia, ranked No. 77, 84 and 65, repectively, on the current Top 100 public course rankings of Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golfweek. And I'll share pictures and thoughts from True Blue in another upcoming blog post.
The first thing I'll say about Caledonia is that the place is beautiful. It's also a bit quirky. Built on a parcel of land that was perhaps a bit too small to contain the vision of its creator, Caledonia Golf & Fish Club is one of the few Myrtle Beach courses you'll find -- certainly at it's price point -- that doesn't offer an on-site driving range. For that, you need to head over to True Blue, just a short drive away. Still, the property is gorgeous, with its lakes and flowerbeds and golf holes lined with what appear to be ancient Spanish Moss trees gnarled by ocean winds that have swept over the South Carolina Low Country for centuries. Driving in from the main road, I could not wait to get to the first tee.
We teed off on the tenth hole the day I played. In order to allow players to get out as early in the morning as possible, Caledonia sends foursomes off both the first and tenth tees for the first couple of hours each morning. In theory, the system should work well, but in practice -- at least on the day I played there -- it led to a terrible backup on the back nine that destroyed our pace of play -- 2 hours on our first nine, and then nearly 3-1/2 hours on our second nine. For the purposes of this blog, I'm going to try to ignore the frustration that caused for my fellow competitors and I, but be forewarned if you head there to play that you, too, could run into the same situation. I'm also going to present my photos and observations about the course in the order the holes appear on the scorecard rather than the order in which we played them.
The course stretches to 6,526 yards from the Pintail tees -- the tips -- with a par of 70. That may not sound especially long, but the ball doesn't travel nearly as far at sea level. We played Caledonia from the Mallard tees, which play to a 6,121-yard, and it felt plenty long. All yardages presented in the blog will be from the Mallard tees.
The first hole is a straightaway par-4, measuring 350 yards. Avoid the bunkers down the left side of the fairway, and you should be left into with a wedge or short iron into one of the flattest greens on the course. It feels like a hole that designed to lull you into a false sense that this round is going to be a walk in the park.
The second hole is a challenging par-5. Its length -- at 553 yards -- calls for a big drive. But dense trees line the entire length of the hole, and the fairway pinches in at about 250 yards off the tee. For all but the biggest big-ball hitters, accuracy is going to be more important than distance off the tee. Whether you're in the fairway or the rough (or the trees!), you're going to have a long way left to play on this par-5. Better to swing a little easier or take less club and make sure you're playing your second shot from the short grass.
The fairway pinches in again as it approaches the putting surface, making for a challenging shot into the green. Running a ball up and onto the dance floor may be difficult for a shot that strays the least bit offline. If you can layup your second shot to a distance that allows you to fly a wedge or short iron all the way to the green, that may give you your best chance to birdie or even par this hole.
Hole No. 3 ... 175 yards to a slightly elevated green and a sea of sand between your tee and the safety of a long, narrow green. This hole demands a precise tee shot if you hope to score well. That said, there is more room to the right than there appears from the tee. So, a stray ball in that direction will likely find sand but may be recoverable to scrambe for a par or escape with a bogey. A ball pulled left into the sand or, worse, the trees could make for a much more difficult up and down.
The 4th hole at Caledonia is another tough driving holewith a narrow landing strip of a fairway and sand that runs down the entire right side. The hole also turns to the right and anything longer than about a 250-yard tee shot runs the risk of running out of fairway and into tree trouble. At just 357 yards, though, it's safest to lay up off the tee and leave yourself a short- or mid-iron into this green. Right and long on the approach are relatively safe. Left is a huge, deep greenside bunker in which I seem to recall one of our players setting up a beach chair and an umbrella because he knew he was going to be there all day.
The 5th hole is one of my favorites -- tough but fair and a solid opportunity to make a birdie if you find the green on your approach. The 387-yard par-4 calls for a gentle draw off the tee. Aim it at the fairway bunkers down the right side and turn it just a bit from right to left to put yourself in ideal position with a 150-yard or so shot into a wide green that shouldn't be as easy to miss as I made it seem when I yanked my 9-iron wide left. Too far left runs the risk your ball may find a pond hidden beyond the trees down the left-hand side of this hole. But there are no greenside bunkers, so virtually any other bail-out offers an opportunity to at least scramble for par if you're unable to find the green in regulation on this one.
Hole No. 6 is a fantastic, fun par-3. Listed on the card at 135 yards, the 50-yard-long green means it can play as short as about 110 or as long as about 155.
Think about that for a moment ... this narrow green is half the length of a professional football (NFL, not soccer) field. The bunkers on the left can be round killers -- deep with no room to play out to on this very narrow green.
No. 7 is an absolutely beautiful hole. Just one word of advice off the tee ... don't go left. At all. With water and sand and trees and maybe even some gators over there, no good can come from a ball hit left off of this tee. That said, there isn't a lot of room to the right, either! The one saving grace is that it's a short hole at just 346 yards. So, a 3-wood, hybrid or long-iron off the tee to keep the ball in play may be the safe bet and may still offer up a chance at birdie.
There can be a bit of tree trouble from the right side of the fairway when the flag is tucked on the right side of the hole, as I discovered. But it's still better than left. And if you can get the ball up in the air with a wedge or short iron, the tree becomes more of a visual obstruction than a real barrier.
If you squint, you can see my ball about 5 feet short of the flag. I really took this picture for the beauty of the Spanish Moss trees beyond the green, but it doesn't hurt knowing I made the putt for birdie, too!
The eighth hole is a 512-yard par-5 that forces you to either aim left to avoid the bunkers or go really big off the tee if you want to carry them. A drive of 250+, uphill, will do the trick. But left is plenty safe if your plan is to lay it up with your second shot.
And laying it up may relaly be the safe play, considering that any ball in the fairway is likely to have a downhill lie into a green fronted by water. You cannot be short on your approach, and I watched all three of my playing partners hit beautiful-looking second shots that were doomed to drown before any of those guys even swung their clubs. The lie and the elevation just made it nearly impossible that any second shot from 225 or more yards wold make it to the green. And one after the other, they didn't. I laid up to about 120 yards, hit a wedge into the middle of the green and was very happy to walk away with a par.
It always feels awkward to me to end on a par-3, so playing the front nine as our second nine this day, left me feeling a bit unfulfilled. I've always found it a bit unsatisfying when the final hole of a round takes driver out of your hand. And, at just 110 yards, this hole definitely took driver out of my hands. So, even though I parred this hole, it left me feeling a little bit dissatisfied. However, thinking about the proper sequencing of the holes, I do think it makes a really cool 9th hole.
There is so much sand on No. 9. It's everywhere short of the green. It's right of the green, left of the green and long of the green. And the green itself is wide -- 50 yards wide, in fact -- but from front to back, at it's narrowest point, it's only about 30 feet. So, distance control is a must. It's also the genius of Mike Strantz. A pin front-left on this hole can play about 95 yards. While a pin back-right can play about 130 yards.
As much as I may not have loved finishing on a par-3, I absolutely loved opening my round on the par-5 10th hole. The sunrise made for dramatic shadows on this gorgeous day that really enhanced the excitement of teeing off on a top-ranked course I've wanted to play for so many years.
The 10th hole measures 531 yards. It's all right there in front of you -- long and straight for about 475 yards, and then turning sharply to the right, requiring either a long carry for your second shot to have any chance of finding the green ... or two good shots down the fairway to set up a wedge or short iron approach.
Finding the green with your approach can be tricky as it sits a bit below the fairway with a couple of deep bunkers on the left. Reach the putting surface in regulation, though, and a birdie becomes a very real possibility.
Possibly my favorite hole on the course, I love the par-3 11th. With a small stream that runs the length of the hole and cuts across the front and to the left of this green, the hole is beautiful and demanding. The narrow green stretches at an angle from front right to back left. And at 153 yards to the center, it calls for a precise mid-iron shot -- accurate in both direction and distance. There is room right and long to bail out, which may be the wise play if you've just watched the seemingly innoccuous stream gobble up one or two of your playing partners' balls.
The tee shot on No. 12 requires a carry over water and sand to reach a tight fairway on this 395-yard. There is more room left than it appears from the tee, but as the hole bends back and to the right, anything left will make for a long second shot.
The approach to the green on No. 12 is relatively trouble-free for anything but a shot hit far wide to the left or right. The green does get very narrow toward the back, however. So the smart shot may be to the front of the putting surface regardless of pin position.
No. 13 is a 380-yard, dogleg-left par-4 that requires a long tee shot to reach the dogleg in order to open up an angle to the green. But be straight! A tee shot right into or right of the large fairway bunker will make it very difficult to reach the green in two. And a tee shot left into the trees is likely to make it impossible to go for the green even from a short distance.
The last hundred yards or so of fairway leading into the green is barely more than a strip of land the width of a two-lane road with deep waste areas right, left and long. The design of the approach puts a premium on both the quality of your tee shot and the accuracy of your iron game. The longer you are from the green off the tee, the smaller the target becomes and the harder it is to hold the surface with a mid- or long-iron. The closer you are to the green off the tee, the more opportunity you have to avoid the sand and score well if you can hit a precise, high short-iron or wedge into the small green.
With water and sand down the entire left side, the 363-yard 14th hole requires a long, well-placed tee shot up the right side of the fairway. A shorter drive or a drive on the left side of the fairway risks being blocked out by a large tree just left of the fairway about 100 yards from the hole.
A well placed drive on 14 opens up a terrific birdie opportunity as you play a wedge or short-iron into a relatively flat green. There's sand trouble front-right and water left, but with a wedge or perhaps a 9-iron in your hands, golfers of average ability should be able to come away with a par or better on this hole more often than not.
At 441 yards, the 15th hole is the longest par-4 at Caledonia. And it is a beast. From the tee, the sand between yourself and the fairway can be intimidating. The design and subtlety of the elevation change from the tee box to the fairway creates the illusion that the waste area is much larger than it is and that the carry is much longer. In fact, a 175-yard shot from the tee will carry the waste area here. That said, you want to drive the ball much longer than that if you're going to challenge par on this hole.
Even a well-struck tee shot on 15 can leave you a long way from the green. The more you aim your drive right to avoid the waste area left of the fairway off the tee, the longer your approach becomes as this hole bends around to the left.
Two bunkers short right and left of the green make it dangerous to try to hit a long-iron or hybrid into this green from 200+ yards. If you can't fly the front of the green on your approach, the smart play may be a layup short of the bunkers with hopes of an up-and-down from the fairway for par.
The 16th hole is a terrific par-4. At 400 yards with an approach that has to carry over a pond to reach the green ... with sand on both sides off the tee and densely packed trees just beyond ... this hole has everything. Hit a good drive, and there might be a birdie in the cards. But anything less than a great tee ball, and things can go wrong fast. I won't recount my hole stroke by stroke, but let's just say I did not hit a great tee ball.
The approach to 16 is made much more difficult by the fact that the last 50 yards or so of the shot must carry over the pond in order to reach the green. There is no option to run a shot into this putting surface. If you can't carry the ball to the green, the only options are to lay up short of the water or play left and pitch into the green with a third shot.
The 17th hole is a fantastic little par-3. 156 yards and sand everywhere. A huge waste area stretches from the teeing area all the way to and around the green. The elevated green offers a relatively large landing area for your tee shot, but miss it at your peril. From the waste area, getting up and down is almost entirely dependent upon your angle to the flag and how much steel you can muster in your nerves to go at it without fear of finding the sand on the other side of the hole. To make the hole just a bit more of a challenge, a deep pot bunker front-center forces you to make sure you take enough club from the tee or suffer the consequences. I really like this hole.
The 18th hole at Caledonia feels a bit more like Pete Dye than Mike Strantz. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Part of the brilliance of Strantz's work -- of all great course designers' work, really -- is their ability to be influenced by other greats and to interpret those influences in their own unique ways.
The tee shot may be Dye ... forcing the golfer to hit a drive to down a narrow fairway to the left even with the flag in view to the right and then requiring a turn back to the right with a forced carry over water to the green. But the green is straight-up Strantz with its length; undulations; angling; and irregular shape -- almost like a ping-pong paddle, the front-left long and narrow and the back-right wide and round. The hole is far more challenging than its 377 yards might indicate. And par at the finish is a very, very good score.
I can't say enough good things about Caledonia. In many ways, it's entirely different from Strantz's other works. Less bold and dramatic, it almost charms you even as it challenges you. Had it not been for the pace of play issues we experienced on the second nine, I'd have absolutely no complaints -- and that's despite the fact that the course was still drying out in spots after some heavy, heavy rain in the days prior to my round and the cart-paths-only requirement (resulting from the rain) that kept us hiking back and fourth across the course on what turned out to be one of the hottest, most-humid days of the summer.
I first considered playing Caledonia when I visited Myrtle Beach for the first time in 1999. At that time, the course was still relatively new, and people were raving about it. More than 20 years later, people are still raving about it, and it's easy now to understand why.
Have you played Caledonia? Are you a fan of Mike Strantz and his work? Just want to tell me how much you loved this blog? Leave a comment below or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you!