No. 13 at True Blue Golf Club

Mike Strantz, fine art and Myrtle Beach
Yardage Book True Blue 13 No. 25
Yardage Book True Blue 13 No. 25

There’s nothing blue about it. It’s green and grows in unassuming clumps. If you found it sprouting in your garden, you’d rip it out and toss it, unaware of the long, lucrative history that brought indigo from India to America, this former South Carolina cash crop that can be soaked and fermented and pressed into precious blue powder. The plant hides in plain sight, but blend it with knowledge and skill and green turns to blue; a shrub turns to gold. They used to grow long rows of it here, but now it’s golf holes that do the hiding. 

“From the tee, the banking along the left makes you feel like you’re below the fairway when you’re actually not,” says Bob Seganti of the 13th hole at True Blue Golf Club in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. In the late 1990s, he worked across the street at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club while True Blue was being built on a former indigo plantation. Today, he manages both properties. “You can see the green in the distance, and it looks narrow, but it’s clearly not. It’s a super-wide fairway up there. If you drew a straight line from the back tee, the hole is dead straight [from] tee to green. But that banking to the left gives you the impression that the hole plays to the right. It’s this great visual deception that makes you really think about what you’re trying to do. It’s Mike Strantz at [his] best.” 

Yardage Book True Blue 13 No. 25
Upon the course’s opening, architect Mike Strantz told a local newspaper, “[True Blue] is however intimidating you want to let it get.”

What might have been a plain par 4 on a stretch of subpar Carolina soil (“I told [the owners] this place was terrible” was the architect’s initial impression) is transformed by a simple ridge of elevated earth obscuring a deep fairway. It presents challenge without punishment, as does another trompe l’oeil in front of the green where bunkers placed well short of it combine with a punchbowl-obscured pin to turn a pitching-wedge approach into a crisis. 

“Inevitably, you come up 5 to 8 yards short there,” says Seganti. “I can’t explain it to you. It’s a little atmospheric thing: You don’t feel the wind coming up over the hill behind the green, and you’re generally on an upslope and maybe get a little up-shoot out of that fairway. Every person who’s ever played there will tell you that. You’re always 5 yards short of what you think it is.” 

Mike Strantz wasn’t an architect known for playing tricks—as in trompe l’oeil, to trick the eye, a painting technique he would have known as a trained fine artist—but he wanted to engage every skill level and understood how visuals could accomplish that. In a 1998 preview of his new course, he told the Myrtle Beach Sun News: “[True Blue] is how ever intimidating you want to let it get. It’s strictly up to the individual….This golf course is very playable. There is a lot of width out here, a lot of air space and a lot of room for different playing calibers…but there is also some very unique and difficult looks built into it. That was the intention.” 

Yardage Book True Blue 13 No. 25

—Fateful Design 

At whichever chapter you pick up the Mike Strantz story—there are several, and each compelling—his love of the look of things is a through line. He went to school to be a painter before turning to turf maintenance, then returned to art again and again. The job-site drawings he’d sketch for his crew were collectible in quality, and he didn’t stake out holes but rather sprayed lines as he went, literally painting a golf course in the dirt. 

When uncommon talents pass in their prime—Strantz died at age 50 after battling cancer—their untimely death often overtakes their story. But Strantz’s life was not about the bad hand he caught in the end; rather, it was about the happy turns of fate that led him and his family on a path they couldn’t have designed. And no turn was more fateful than the 1979 U.S. Open coming to Inverness, where Strantz was fresh from college and working on the grounds crew. 

“We lived in Toledo and Mike said, ‘This is an opportunity I will never have again, to get ready for a U.S. Open [at] our back door,’” explains his wife of 27 years, Heidi Strantz Mortimer. Tom Fazio had been hired by the USGA to prepare the golf course for the tournament, and Strantz impressed him in short time. “Mike had a great work ethic and he knew how to use heavy equipment from working in his dad’s building-supply warehouse,” Strantz Mortimer continues. “He knew grass. He knew all kinds of stuff. He was the right guy in the right place at the right time. Fazio talked to Mike for probably 15 minutes and said, ‘Fine, come work for me.’ Quite frankly, I had married a golf course superintendent. But the design business was just a whole new idea, and he loved it.” 

Shaping courses for Fazio took Strantz and his new family from Ohio to Florida to Hilton Head to Oklahoma and back to Florida. “When Mike was tasked to work on [Fazio’s] Wild Dunes, we came to Charleston,” explains Strantz Mortimer, “and I finally said, ‘I’m staying here.’ And we did.” The Strantz timeline often reads as if he moved directly from working for Fazio to building his own courses, but such a summary omits an intervening four years during which he abandoned course construction entirely. 

“He left Fazio because the travel and stress got to be too much. We had two kids and Mike just said, ‘I can’t do it.’ And that was it. I told him, ‘If you can’t do it, you can’t do it,’” says Strantz Mortimer. “And he was determined to get back into art. There was a golf book coming out about Arthur Hills, and Mike drew the courses for the cover. And he worked at the golf course at Wild Dunes. He was grounds crew. He’d get up early, then come home and take care of the little one. And I went back to school. He did art and worked at the golf course. We made it work. I’m not sure how, but we did.” 

The job-site drawings he’d sketch for his crew were collectible in quality, and he didn’t stake out holes but rather sprayed lines as he went, literally painting a golf course in the dirt. 

And then another turn. When father-and-son course developers Larry and Danny Young fired one of their designers at Legends Resort in Myrtle Beach, Charleston didn’t feel all that far away. 

“They were desperate to find someone nearby who could finish the work. They said, ‘We just need these bunkers done,’ and so they talked to one of our friends, who told them, ‘The only guy I know is Mike Strantz and he left the business, but he’s in Charleston,’” explains Strantz Mortimer. “Mike did not want to go back to golf course building, but Danny talked him into it. And soon they had a chance to build another course and asked Mike if he wanted to do it. Pawleys Island was only two hours or so up the road from us, so it just felt like everything was right. He had a beautiful canvas to work with at Caledonia, and as a family we were excited. We got to watch Mike put all these things he had learned his whole life into designing a golf course.” 

Caledonia Golf & Fish Club opened to rave reviews and top rankings and has held a spot on all the best-you-can-play lists since its debut in 1994. Built on a former Waccamaw River rice plantation, its name dates to the 18th century, when Scottish owner Dr. Robert Nesbit gave it the Roman name for his homeland. The Nesbit family maintained full ownership until 1940, when a small group of hunters and fishermen bought a parcel and built their own lodges around the property, including a fish shed where they met and cooked their catch every Thursday. As golf exploded in neighboring Myrtle Beach, those fishermen partnered with the Youngs and jumped into the business. Their group was headed by a Pawleys Island legend named Doc Lachicotte, and when he met his long-haired architect, he welcomed Strantz with a new nickname. 

Yardage Book True Blue 13 No. 25
From Tobacco Road to Monterey Peninsula CC, Strantz had a gift for creating holes that are difficult to fully explain. Players at True Blue swear they always come up a few yards short on No. 13.

“Doc would see Mike and say, ‘Hello, Samson,’ and Mike just loved that,” says Strantz Mortimer. Strantz suggested they keep Fish Club in the name, and the shed remained at the heart of the property; some of the original families still meet there for Thursday supper. It sits near the ninth green, not far from where a cauldron of bubbling chowder awaits golfers making the turn. 

Oaks draped with moss frame the drive leading to a white-walled clubhouse beside a slow-moving branch of the Waccamaw River; it’s all so South Carolina postcard that you’ll find photographers wandering with hand-holding couples, snapping prom and engagement pictures at golden hour. And while the club is thick with charm and the course ticks every box on a golfer’s Lowcountry list (for a relatively tight parcel, Caledonia’s routing works some shot-variety magic), it also feels as if Tom Fazio could have built it. It’s no slight to compare a newcomer’s first course to the work of a Hall of Famer, but if Strantz’s Caledonia lacks anything, it’s missing a little, well, Strantz, or at least the brand of Strantz brass that his devotees have come to associate with Bulls Bay and Monterey Peninsula and Tobacco Road. It needs the innovator, the artist and the label that stuck with him beyond his untimely death in 2005: the Maverick. 

To meet that Mike Strantz, you have to go across the street. 

—The Home of (Package) Golf 

As golfers blaze new trails for Nebraska and set alarm clocks for Bandon tee times and clamor for news about Cabot’s progress in Florida, one should pause and send a solemn nod toward South Carolina. As a mass of tweeting golf travelers hunt for exotic tee times on courses with 13 1⁄2 holes crafted according to templates borrowed from Dr. Charles B. Mactemplate, let us not turn our backs on Myrtle Beach. Let us not forget where the American golf buddy trip began, and may we recall that cool golf is fleeting, while cheap golf endures. Your favorite podcast might suggest otherwise, but Myrtle Beach still matters. 

The numbers make the case: 3 million rounds spread over 90 courses in 2022, plus the World Amateur Championship featuring 3,200 players flighted by handicap. If you consider your game too refined for the golfing hordes, allow Myrtle Beach to appeal to your taste for golf history: Its original course, Pine Lakes Country Club (1927), was designed by the first president of the PGA, Robert White, while its second course, Dunes Golf and Beach Club, was routed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Its bygone Golf Writers Tournament saw the best in sports writing visiting its fairways every year on an annual pre-Masters pilgrimage, and in 1954, when the publisher of Time magazine sent a group of executives on a retreat to Pine Lake to come up with ideas for a new sports magazine, they came back with Sports Illustrated. It’s an impressive golf legacy for any beach town, but when you consider its most enduring innovation, the above rank as mere footnotes. The metal wood and Haskell Ball only wish they could have made as mighty an impact as the Golf-O-Tel. 

Decades before Keiser or Cowan-Dewar, George “Buster” Bryan built the Dunes Club with his brother and a small team of investors. Buster also owned the nearby Caravelle Hotel and hatched a plan to fill both. He pulled in seven more motels and launched his Golf-O-Tel promotion in 1966: room, board and golf for one price. According to Barbara Stokes’ Myrtle Beach: A History, golf packages were soon contributing more than $300 million a year to the local economy, and Myrtle Beach was suddenly reborn as a four-season destination. 

It’s true that some of Myrtle Beach’s golf offerings have landed at that awkward in-between age, the same sort that afflicts 1980s subdivisions and Chevrolet Berettas— too old to be contemporary, too young to be classic—but exceptional courses manage to grab a piece of both, and that’s what one feels at Caledonia and True Blue, where Strantz found notes that feel like golf ’s yesterday and tomorrow. Separated by a few hundred yards, their styles are acres apart—Caledonia, a tight target course, cleverly plotted around a modest parcel of rich South Carolina soil, and True Blue, its brawny sibling, which Strantz and his team had to wrestle into existence, battling the water table and slogging through wet clay. (“That stuff was slicker than cat poop,” recalls Strantz Mortimer.) Together, they stand as bastions against the snobbery of the golfing elites, anchoring the Myrtle Beach golf scene in quality, value and significance. To understand how a holiday golf course gains import, it helps to get to know True Blue’s 13th. 

Yardage Book True Blue 13 No. 25
Yardage Book True Blue 13 No. 25
Myrtle Beach remains a force in American golf. In 2022 alone, the region hosted 3 million rounds spread over 90 courses, plus the World Amateur Championship featuring 3,200 players flighted by handicap.

—The Shed Hole 

Seganti refers to it as the Hill Hole for the ascent that backs the green (only in the Lowcountry does this bump of earth rank as a hill), while his director of golf, Bart Romano, calls No. 13 the Shed Hole for the low, curious structure by the tee. 

“I don’t know what the original purpose of that building was, but it has bathrooms and a fireplace,” says Romano. “I don’t know if it was meant to be a fish shed like at Caledonia. It looks like it’s been there for 100 years, and just sticks in my head when I get to the tee box.” 

Once you’re done peering through the shed’s dark windows, Romano recommends a 3-wood off the tee. “There’s enough room for driver, but you don’t need it,” he says. “And if you get a ball going right, the waste area over there isn’t stopping it, and then you’ve got no shot to the green. Three-wood is going to leave me 130, 140. Then I’ve always found that green is one of the toughest to putt, maybe because there aren’t any obvious swings in it. The breaks are all super subtle, and they tend to break back toward the creek.” 

Seganti is even more dialed in. “Your line off the tee should be the third mound from the right behind the green,” he says. “If you pull it, you have plenty of room to the left, and you still have room even if you cut it. You can’t see the bottom of the stick from anywhere, but as long as you’re in the fairway, you’re not out of position. Everything funnels in. There’s plenty of room to play; it’s a huge green. It’s like a lot of Mike’s designs. If you miss the fairway, you’re like, ‘How is this even possible?’ If you get the ball airborne, you should not miss that fairway. But by the look from the tee, it looks narrow. I wouldn’t say it’s daunting. But it’s fun.” 

It’s also proof that some life and experience passed between the two builds. You can see a new confidence in that raised ridge on No. 13—same for the obscured flagstick guarded by not-quite-greenside bunkers. Together they turn flat, muddy lowland into a moment from Royal County Down. Blind shots abound, but they aren’t here to hide treachery; rather, they’re obscuring the benevolence just around the bend. At True Blue, Strantz seems to be asking golfers to trust. It’s a bold request, and one you might not make with your first design. (Indeed, Caledonia is a more conspicuous golf course.) 

But it’s these moments that show Strantz coming into his own, pushing earth to offer a unique, sometimes intimidating, aesthetic that confronts players’ psyches and asks them: Will you let yourself see past the trouble? Or is the trouble all you see? 

The confidence to push boundaries didn’t come without a cost. “There was a lot of criticism of True Blue,” Strantz Mortimer recalls. “It was harder, it was longer and you’ve got all the blind shots, which Mike thinks are great fun. He’d always say, ‘I’m giving you fairway here, folks. You’ve got places you can put the ball and just play your game.’” 

Yardage Book True Blue 25
In the four years between working with Tom Fazio and going out on his own, Strantz devoted himself to his true passion: art. Even when he did get back into course design, he still continued to paint.

Strantz foresaw the objections that would come from building a course that diverged dramatically from the already beloved Caledonia next door, and in a 1998 course preview story in The Sun News, seven years prior to his passing, he addressed not just the critics, but the attitude many of us too often take to the course. Listen closely and you’ll find someone asking us to think instead of react; to investigate instead of infer; to question our assumptions and try to live beyond them: 

People tell you the golf course is too hard sometimes, but they don’t realize they make it harder themselves….If the pin is over there on the left-hand side and you get a guy out here and he knows there is no way he’s going to make it…he’s going to try to go for it. He’s going to take three shots to get out [of the bunker] and then he says the golf course is too hard….People just get lazy and don’t think sometimes, and then immediately blame it on the golf course….I just don’t buy that. Take a golf vacation to Ireland or Scotland. It’s a different way to play golf. You have to be very patient and you have to think about it. We as Americans are real aggressive and we have this attitude in everything we do, and it carries over in golf. Hit it in the rough over there [in Scotland or Ireland] sometimes and you cannot advance it. The best thing for you to do is flip it 15 yards out in the fairway and start all over….But you would be amazed how many people that would be difficult for them to do. That’s our weakness, our mentality. We’ve got to go for it.

While the designs of True Blue (left) and Caledonia (right) are different, they’re both still all Lowcountry.