Bulls Bay Golf Club lies along the tidal salt marshes to the north of Charleston and, at the tail end of the 1990s, the owner, Joe Rice, was suitably inspired to invite architect Mike Strantz to lay out the golf course in this coastal wetland region.
Known for his bold and somewhat idiosyncratic style, Strantz set about creating some movement in the lowcountry landscape by trucking in an estimated two million cubic yards of earth, much of which was used to elevate the clubhouse and several of the greens.
The remaining soil was then spread around the site to fashion the fairways in such a manner that only once in the entire routing, at the 4th and 5th, do consecutive holes run in the same direction.
Taking into account the ever-changing coastal wind conditions, fairways are wide and green sites generously proportioned, allowing golfers a wide variety of approach play.
Tragically, the life of architect Mike Strantz came to an end far too soon at the age of 50. The talented designer was just getting started in bringing to life a series of courses that truly resonated in so many ways. In total he created nine (9) courses -- arguably, the most impressive is located in the greater Charleston area -- Bulls Bay.
The genius of Strantz was not being constrained by conventional thinking -- demonstrating a supremely gifted artistic flair and knowing how to link that with the need for solid shotmaking makes for a powerful synergy of forces when playing Bulls Bay.
Located in the famed low country of South Carolina Strantz bucked convention in getting a man-made 60-foot hill created in the middle of the course -- a location where the clubhouse towers over the sprawling layout.
The routing of Bulls Bay is exemplary. Constant changes of direction -- players must have dexterity in "working the ball" on command when called upon. There are avenues provided for aggressive play and ample rewards when pulling off the shots as needed. Conversely, those unable to summon both the mental and physical acumen will quickly see the mounting evidence on one's scorecard.
Bulls Bay is not about emphasizing muscle golf alone -- where sheer power alone rules the roost. Precision and placement are no less a major part of the overall storyline.
The attributes of the course start immediately with the 1st. Playing from an elevated tee the 467-yard par-4 is a brilliant opener. The architect misleads players in believing the accessible left side if the place to be. Wrong. The more left you go the more likely you'll face a daunting approach over trees to a delicious green angled excellently to thwart such attempts.
Playing Bull's Bay is a continual chess match. Players need to not only see the immediate shot but realizing how the connecting shots influence the subsequent play of any hole. Strantz wants players to think critically -- assessing probabilities -- being steadfast in one's convictions and executions.
The par-5 2nd hole ratchets up the level with more key decisions to be made. The hole works left around a large pond with an immense sand bunker on that same side. For those who go for the green it requires a carry over that same pond. Strantz again angles the putting surface in a stellar manner. If you go for the green in two the green is narrow and long but at least in a straight ahead manner. For those opting to play the hole by approaching with their third shot -- the green is angled differently so the approach must be well gauged.
What makes Bull's Bay so much fun is that ample width is provided at all times -- but the best angle to the hole is often the one which requires the greater skill level. The aesthetics of the course also work in tandem. Bunkers are shaped in all forms -- and sizes. The juxtaposition of trees needs to be accounted for when playing. The course is well conditioned -- tees cut tight and level -- greens putt true and the turf provides sufficient bounce which must be carefully calculated when hitting off the tee.
Strantz intuitively has created greens which, in a number of instances, are often long and narrow. Getting to a rear pin location requires the steadiest of nerves because the slightest pull or push will then result in a challenging recovery.
The other brilliant decision is the desire to create fairways that eschew predictability. At Bull's Bay you get fairways that bottleneck - others swerving in one direction and then moving completely in the opposite manner as you near a hole There are no straight razor-cut looks at Bull's Bay.
If there's one glaring weakness at Bull's Bay is the relative sameness yardage wise with the five (5) par-3 holes. Four of them are less than 180 yards and only one -- the 14th plays a max of 191 yards. It would have been a real plus to have a hole which is especially short -- and at least one which requires a hefty hit in excess of 200 yards.
On the inward nine you'll always remember the par-5 13th -- a real do-or-die hole. Strantz forces the players who can hit a fairly long and accurate tee shot to decide if going for the green on the 600+ hole is worth the risk. The green hugs a protective fronting canal with woods lurking on the nearby right. Those getting home in two will need divine providence on their side. Failure, needless to say, is dealt with total swiftness and utter certainty.
As good as the outward nine is the back is loaded with one quality hole after the other.
The 16th is another top tier par-4 hole. At the tee you see water guarding the right side. There's plenty of room left but the approach angle from that side encounters another angled green that's quite shallow. Those taking on the water on the right side and are able to make the carry are left with a far easier approach.
The 18th brings the round to a fitting climax. The 454-yard par-4 turns left in the drive zone. Staying as close as possible to that side shortens the approach and provides an easier angle -- just be sure to avoid the plethora of bunkers on that sider. The green is elevated above the fairway and gauging the appropriate distance and trajectory for the shot is a must.
Many people who come to Charleston naturally make it a point to head to nearby Kiawah Island the famed Ocean Course. But, if you can gain access -- be sure to stop by Bull's Bay which is a private club. How this course escapes attention outside of the Palmetto State baffles me to no end. Mike Strantz left his mark - albeit with a small portfolio of courses -- and his work here is a shining testament to his clear gifts as an architect. Bull's Bay is tour de force golf -- the only issue you'll have after playing 18 holes is when the second round begins. Grand stuff indeed.
by M. James Ward