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Overview of Bulls Bay Golf Club

By: Jay Flemma


Editor's Note: Associate editor Jay Flemma recently completed his stint at Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw, S.C., host site of the Hootie at Bulls Bay invitational college tournament. Here's the first of Jay's reports.

Charles Dickens wrote in his classic novel "A Tale of Two Cities":

"Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away."

Dickens was wrong. There is one thing sadder; the sun setting upon a man at the height of his power who was loved, admired, and an inspiration to everyone around him. The death of Mike Strantz at 50, as he was reaching greater and greater heights as a golf course architect, was a crushing loss to all of golf, not just his friends, family and fans.

There is however, a shining silver lining. His home - Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw, S.C., host of this week's Hootie at Bulls Bay invitational college tournament - is a shrine to his memory, a living museum of sorts where those who revere both great golf course architecture and a genial, collegial private club membership gather to carry on his legacy and celebrate their love of the game. What was once an old tomato field with one foot of elevation over 200 acres is now a hurly-burly, heaving tour de force which will confound and infuriate golfers that are careless, prideful, ham-fisted or unprepared.

Just like "Titleist," the giant bull brought in to stand sentinel near the 18th fairway and serve as the tournament mascot, the course bucks wildly and unpredictably. Vicious wild-looking bunkering reminiscent of the heaths of the U.K., fiendishly contoured greens with enormous swales and a treeless landscape open to the fickle, and swirling winds make the course play differently everyday. You could play Bulls Bay your whole life and never get bored. Just minutes from downtown Charleston, the course eschews the tired and boring "doctrine of symmetry," where each nine must have two par-3s and two par-5s and read 36-36-72. Instead, Strantz built five par-5s and five par-3s with an asymmetric 37-35 routing. "It's what the land dictated," he noted when interviewed in 2004.

For the long-hitting college players riding the bull this week, the course's main defense is the wind and its green contours. While pros love flat greens so they can make many putts, players here will have difficulty figuring how many feet - not "cups" or "balls" or "inches" - to play their ball outside the hole. Moreover, with open fronts to many greens and shaved chipping areas around the green complexes a la Pinehurst, there are a wide variety of greenside options. Putt from 60 yards, bump-and-run, pitch-and-check, lob it to the hole - all are options and players may confuse themselves in the clutch as to which shot is the right one to select. Even the same shot will play differently from day to day. Nevertheless, right at the stick is almost never the play.

Mark Bryan, guitar and mandolin player for Hootie and the Blowfish, loves the greenside options, especially with his putter. "Shoot, I'll putt from 40 yards out and love it," he says eagerly. "It keeps it out of the wind," he adds, smashing a 320-yard drive straight down the middle with his Titleist 905 R driver. He plays to a 13 handicap, but today he looks as though he's really half that. "I started playing as a teen, but only got serious at age 28 when the band started playing golf regularly together. Puggy Blackmon, coach of U. South Carolina taught me. We all joined Bulls Bay and we couldn't be happier. It's a unique design and everyone here is so supportive of each other. It's a truly wonderful sense of community with no stuffiness."

The course plays its part beautifully. Without a doubt, the first at Bulls Bay is Strantz's easiest starting hole. Strantz normally likes to scare the pants off you on the first tee, but not here. The first at Bulls Bay is a warm-hug hello and a welcome mat. "Yeah, it's certainly not as hard as the first at Royal New Kent or Tobacco Road," said Strantz's long-time design partner and former touring pro, Forrest Fezler, with a grin. "It's a fairly short par-4, just don't be right because we left that large specimen tree to block your direct route to the green. If you're left off the tee, remember the green is 10 yards behind the bunker, it's an optical illusion."

It's game on at No. 2, though. The intimidation and multiple options that Strantz made hallmarks of his designs burst forth impishly at this horseshoe-shaped, dogleg-left par-5 which wraps around a lake. A true three-shotter, for anyone but the absolute longest hitters, deep bunkers guard the right of this deep green while the water guards the front and left.

The short par-3 third looks like a pushover from the tee, but as course owner Joe Rice notes, "with sharp fall-offs and swales around the green, it's a much tougher par than it looks if you miss your target." He pauses to take a puff off his Montecristo No. 8 cigar and adjusts the volume on the stereo in his golf cart which finished blaring Hootie and Blowfish's "Hold My Hand" and continues on to a Rod Stewart tune.

"It's the number 17 handicap hole on the course, but it played harder than any other hole on the golf course in the tourney last year," he notes with a knowing smile. Member Jamie Hollingsgworth echoes that sentiment. "It's those devilish chipping swales. Short is the miss, then it's an easy two-putt because it's the only flat part of the hole. But people who miss right or left play hockey back and forth across the green all the time and take five or worse. I hate that hole," he laments, smiling through gritted teeth.

Your author's personal favorite on the front is the par-5 sixth. Strantz loved Pete Dye's design features, and alternate shot patterns are a staple of both Dye and Strantz holes because they keep players from getting into a groove hitting the same shot over and over. To hit the green in two here, draw off the tee, fade into the green is the play. But a mere mortal like member, Claude "Buck" Clark, says, "the tee shot is like South Carolina politics, you can't go too far right." A long, wide-waisted figure-8 green sits near the sharp, left-leaning slope off a huge hill. If you are right of the green, there is no way to stop chip on the putting surface.

The par-3 seventh may be the prettiest of the one-shotters. With wood planks buttressing the green, a lake guards the left side, a waste bunker with a gorgeous specimen tree sits well to the right. But those fearing the water often end up in the trap and have to play their next towards the water. The front ends with a great par-4 playing to a green elevated three clubs above the fairway. Severe slope from left to right with a gargantuan swerving swale kick every ball towards the clubhouse.

The 560-yard par-5 10th hole was recently changed after college kids with Nike Sasquatches hit 400-yard drives and played it driver, six-iron. "We extended the bunker at the shortcut 30 yards left and 40 yards longer and a few feet deeper," says Fezler. I watched the discussions on the hole last year and was most heartened by one exchange in particular. After six or seven design associates offered suggestions, Fezler said reverently, "Let's go with this idea. I think it's what Mike would have done."

The 11th green is a modified semi-Biarritz with more curves than Anna Nicole Smith and more twists and turns than Laguna Seca Speedway. Again, if you are on the wrong section of the green, there is no chance to two-putt. "That's the story of this course," notes Bryan after he three-putts from 100 feet. His approach found the wrong tier.

Then, of course there is the 12th hole. My girlfriend once said, "When it comes to relationships, nobody's perfect, and if they are, then that's their flaw." Similarly, even Bulls Bay, supermodel of a golf course that it is, has a beauty mark and it is No. 12. This puny, bratty, smarmy little bawdy-winking, mascara-wearing harlot of a par-3 is responsible for more snarled expletives than you'll hear at an Eagles-Giants football game. With its heaving sea of sand and serene pond running around the bunkers, it's pretty all right, pretty until you hit in a hazard and then becomes a gnarled little grinning garden gnome giving you the finger. "It's a punk-ass, son-of-a-you-know-what," said one member. "It's a filthy, slimy, mangy polecat," echoed another, David Kennedy, as he putted out for 6. Shorter than Joe Pesci, but just as in-your-face, it's a pint-sized card-wrecker.

Oh well, the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows either and no one complains. As author Geoff Shackelford expounded in his book, "Grounds for Golf," every architect sometimes shows his sense of humor and plays a joke. Boy, does that describe Strantz. He excels at busting chops. No. 12 is Mike's joke at Bulls Bay where he tweaks our nose, yells during your backswing, ties your shoelaces together and slaps the "kick-me" sign on your back all at once.

For those that need soothing after the excitement of 12, tough noogies, because 13 is the best and toughest hole on the course. It's another horseshoe par-5 that you're not hitting in two. "It's one of the most remarkable and unique holes I have ever seen anywhere," Bryan says admiringly. "I know you can say that about a lot of holes out here, but this one is especially tough, one of the hardest. And I respect that. It requires your three best shots and then, after all that, the adventure is not over since the green has an enormous cant from one section to the other, breaking hard back to the water, maybe 10 feet or more. If you're on the wrong sector, you're guaranteed a three-putt."

Jamie Hollingsworth respectfully disagrees. "My favorite hole is 14. You're hitting uphill to that par-3 with the amphitheatre green. There's a great backstop to spin the ball close to the hole and the contours of this green filter the ball to the left half of the green," he says as he goes through his pre-shot routine. "I love the hole so much. I keep the print over my desk in my office." It shows. He puts his tee ball to 1 foot from the cup, sending the gallery surrounding the back of the putting surface into orbit and waving as he walks up.

"I like 17 more," Bryan says by way of rejoinder as he tells Joe Rice to change the CD in the cart. "I got my only hole-in-one on this short par-3. I give up drinking every Lent and I'm the only guy in the group not having a beer. Well, when that ball dropped in and the place erupted - I mean we fell apart screaming - my friend TJ hands me a Heineken. I said you know what, the hole-in-one was a gift from God, so I can have one. I think the good Lord was smiling on me and sending me a sign."

Eighteen is, like any great finisher, a summation of all that has come before. On this long par-4 your best drive of the day is followed by a severely uphill approach to a green set in the amphitheatre set directly below the clubhouse. Even on ordinary days, players congregate and cheer each others' approaches on 18, but for the Hootie, the veranda, rocking chairs and amphitheatre are crowded with well-wishers.

It's nice to see a musician invoke the name of God kindly. But Bryan is genuinely grateful for all his good fortune as do all the kind-hearted Bulls Bay members. It's also a family place. Bryan's children, Maddy, 3, Kenny B, 7, and Marley, 9, proudly follow their daddy around the golf course laughing gleefully. Marley and Kenny even play the par-3 course with him. "This is a great place to grow old with great people to pass my life with." Darius Rucker similarly said, I love it so much and play so often, we all decided to join." As for challenging other bands to a golf match, "Let's go! Bowling For Soup, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Fat Mike, whoever. We'll take on anybody. We love the game and love sharing the course with all our musical friends. Rock on!"

Rock on . . . that's a great sentiment for Bulls Bay. Less intimidating than Tobacco Road or Royal New Kent, but equally unique and exciting, the members can be proud they belong not only to Strantz's only private design, but his home as well. They proudly carry on his mantle of friendliness, hard-work and dedication to the community and each other. They also can be proud of a unique course with a one-of-a-kind, fun-loving idiom.

Mark Bryan counts an old 1980 era Lynx 60 degree L wedge given to him by Fred Couples during a round at Preston Hills in Dallas as one of his prized possessions. "I was chipping past the cup every hole when Fred and I were playing together. It was frustrating. I couldn't get the ball to stop close to the cup. So Freddy told me I needed this lob wedge. I call it my 'Fredge' - get it Fred Wedge, Fredge?"

Yeah, we get it . . . that works. But practice up, Mark. Word is Bowling for Soup and a few other bands are going to come calling soon for a different type of Hootie Golf Challenge in the near future.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.