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.
The Lowcountry. When one considers this geographic descriptor bestowed on the coastal plains of South Carolina, a towering and broad-shouldered hill that climbs 75-feet above sea level is not the first thing to pop into mind. But Bulls Bay Golf Club, whose stately clubhouse and several teeing grounds sit just that high above their surrounds, is not a course that aligns with rational expectations.
With a few notable exceptions, South Carolina golf requires an aerial approach. Bump and runs, overly aggressive tee shots skidding through fairways, and approach shots that must be aimed according to undulations in the greens, not pin placements – these are things you might find on Texas hardpan, the dolomite bedrock of the upper Midwest, or the distant shores of Scotland’s wind-battered linksland. But there they are, fully on display at Bulls Bay, complete with golden autumn hues more reminiscent of Shinnecock Hills on Long Island than Long Cove on Hilton Head.
Mike Strantz’ masterpiece (yes, it’s better than Tobacco Road… though slightly less dramatic) is perhaps the most creative 18 holes within spitting distance of the South Carolina coastline. To be sure, there are “better” courses in the state (Palmetto, Ocean Course, among others), but you’d be hard pressed to find one that requires more imagination and produces more enjoyment than Bulls Bay.
Despite stretching 7200+ yards from the tips, Bulls Bay is exceptionally playable from its more reasonable teeing grounds. Its spacious and undulating fairways allow balls to release, especially on several holes where hillocks and sloping collars guide and funnel running shots to the putting surface. The greens range in size and character. Under the direction of Alan Black, each putting surface maintains consistent speed and challenges a player to consider breaks from every angle, even when you’ve got a wedge in your hand, not a putter.
Bulls Bay isn’t perfect. There are some quirks that many a modern golfer will find infuriating or unfair: blind approaches, visual deception and plenty of unknowable hazards for players visiting for the first time or two. And for the more traditional architecture nut, the number of forced carries over water may seem excessive, particularly on a couple par 3s that present narrow landing strips perpendicular to the angle of the tee ball (for a low-ball hitter, the only thing more difficult getting over the water is being able to stop your ball before it barrels over the green or into some bunker).
But the variety of golf shots required – or better stated, the variety of golf shots available to the imaginative golfer – make Bulls Bay a course that never plays the same way. The beauty of the grounds also benefits from diversity. The routing bends through marshland, thin forests and dramatic elevation changes, presenting magnificent and expansive views of ruggedly shaped waste areas and a number of bending bodies of water.
In short, Bulls Bay is one of golf’s best kept secrets. Though its renown has grown in recent years, the vision of founder/owner Joe Rice and the late Mike Strantz has been given a much-deserved facelift by Alan Black and his grounds crew, and the result is truly something to behold.
The late Mike Strantz designed some fascinating golf courses before he passed away at an early age. Many of his courses are heavily debated such as Tobacco Road outside of Pinehurst. “Do you like it?” “Why don’t you like it?” “Why didn’t you like that hole?” “I loved that hole, did you?” “What did you think of that dead tree popping into the edge of the fairway?” “Why did he use so much scrub inside of the bunkers? “ “Why was that green perched high and hidden while being so small?”
If those questions are what an architect strives for, then Mr. Strantz succeeded. Fifty years from now we might be questioning the brilliance of the “minimalist” movement with very wide fairways, no trees, no real rough, large greens and undulating greens as either too easy or lacking in strategy. Courses such as Bulls Bay will not be questioned in fifty years because they are questioned now. I would stress, however, that his golf courses will stand the test of time, unless golf technology continues to make existing defenses irrelevant in the future such as what has happened to many courses lacking in length such as Maidstone.
Bulls Bay plays at 7246/6740/6283. It does not have a combo tee although it should. It does have five tees in total.
As mentioned in the overview and the two previous reviews, Mr. Strantz moved a lot of earth to create this golf course. Whether the clubhouse sits 60 feet high or 80 feet high, it does not matter. It sits as the highest point in Charleston County and affords a tremendous view over the property and golf course. This manufactured hill was not created solely for the wonderful view, it is also to provide many holes with elevated tee shots, tiered greens, and steep uphill approach shots.
I read the comment about nine and eighteen being similar holes but I did not get a similar feeling. Nine is 366/355 and a slight dogleg left while eighteen is 454/420/395 and a sharp dogleg left. Nine has grasses along the sides of its fairways as its primary defense for the tee shot while eighteen has bunkers down the entire left side of the fairway. Finally, the green on nine is sloped back to front for its entirety while eighteen has a fall-off at the front but is not as steeply sloped back to front. I hit a 6 iron onto nine while my 3 hybrid could not quite account for the extra yardage from the uphill on the eighteenth.
On the day we were able to play the course twice in a cart. If I had a “complaint” about the course it would be that it is a primarily “cart” course due to having to walk up that hill three times as well as down it. There are also four long walks from green to the next tee. However, there were two singles, one with a trolley and one carrying, who did walk the course. It would be an excellent workout.
There are two other criticisms I would have regarding the course with one of them being solved by having combo tees. The fourth hole is a par 5 requiring a carry over marsh/water of about 170 yards from the silver tees (6283) and makes this par 5 only 449 yards in length. While the green is relatively narrow, in today’s world that is way too short for a par 5. The silver tees on this hole should be at the 518 tee box with the back tee remaining at 540 to this double dogleg hole.
The final critique is the twelfth, a par 3 of 170/148/130 over water to a green fronted by a bunker and then mounds, The left side of the green is either sand or water as well. It is a nice hole but as you take the long walk/drive from the eleventh green to the tee, you pass the silver/white tees for the thirteen and from the back of that tee box you look at the twelfth green and it presents a much more interesting and heroic shot. Yes, the back two sets of tees would have balls flying over anyone teeing off from there, but surely that could have been worked out for alternate play.
The front nine is varied and fun. The first hole is a long downhill par 4 with a green that can be tucked behind a big bunker on the left side and the green runs away from you. The second is a very long par 5 of 601/555/540 going around a pond in a half circle with trees blocking the left side of anyone entertaining thoughts of cutting the corner. A tee shot hit too long and straight can run through the fairway. The green has the pond on its left.
The third hole, a par 3 has alternate greens of approximately 35 yards longer/shorter.
Six is another long par 5 of 608/552/530 and has one of the better greens.
Seven is a par 3 with another pond down the left side and a green sloping right to left to provide a good line at the pin.
I did not see as many strategic decisions on the front nine as I did on the back nine which is why I slightly favored the back nine.
The long downhill tenth par 5 of 613/582/565 requires some thought about the lines you want to take for the tee shot and second shot. The eleventh presents an opportunity to get closer to the hole on a tee shot carrying more of the pond to your right. I did love the big, long, and mounded green on eleven.
Thirteen asks the question of how much of the sharp dogleg do you want to take on to get closer to the green for the third shot, or for the long hitters, how high and how far can they carry their second shot as there is water fronting this green. I chose to carry the corner of the trees with a hybrid both times leaving 80 yards the first round and 96 the second round, but both shots were off a slightly downhill lie.
Fourteen is a somewhat blind uphill par 3 to a tiered green sitting in a bit of a bowl, except it is not really a bowl as you cannot land right and have it track to the middle of the green due to a swale on the right side.
Fifteen presents an optical illusion of two trees making it appear that the entrance to the green from the fairway is very narrow. In fact, they are far apart. Yet, the better approach to this green is to get as close as you can to the water on the right side and the tree does not influence the approach shot.
Sixteen is a lovely short par 4 with a narrow, but long green sitting in a bowl.
Seventeen, a short par 3 is likely the least memorable hole on the entire golf course but it is instantly forgotten after playing the hard eighteenth.
I liked Bulls Bay. It is visually different than nearly any course you might play (except for Tobacco Road!). It has five sets of tees to test your game. You are required to use nearly every club. The greens are not overly done but have adequate slope and contouring. There are flat holes, raised holes, uphill shots, downhill shots, shots to cut doglegs, heroic shots, sensible shots, etc. It really does offer everything. All six of us who played it very much enjoyed it.
This was a fun course to play and a great challenge as well. Mike Stranz designed a number of interesting courses and Bull's Bay may be the best of the bunch. An extraordinary amount of dirt was moved to create flow and perspective over what was probably a pretty flat and bland piece of land.
The clubhouse sits on top of an 80 foot mound and the golf cart ride from the clubhouse down to the practice area is downright treacherous. The hill however allows for elevated tee shots off 1, 10 and 15 which gives you a dramatic start to the front and back nines. The fairways are quite generous but it is fairly obvious that there is usually a preferred line off the tee to best attack the hole.
Stranz designed a number of excellent par 5 holes on his other courses and he does a great job with the long holes here as well. 2 is a sterling example of strategy and skill as the architect begs you to drive it as close as you can to the lake around which the 555 yard hole winds. A well placed drive gives the option of going for the green and if the drive is played too safe away from the water the layup for the second shot is no bargain. The 10th plays downhill and away to the right and once again the tight line down the right needs to avoid a waste area but opens up the second shot. There are five par 3's and all of them are less than 200 yards from the back tees. I loved the short third with a double green. We played to the right green during our round which was essentially an island surround by sand. 14 playerduphill to a plateau green and a massive deep bunker to the left. The par 4's all showed great variability in flow. I especially liked both 11 and 15 on the back. 11 is dominated by a lake down the right side with an approach to a fiendishly mounded green. 15 is dominated by a tree that's probably 120 yards or so from the green. The wide fairway allows the hole to be played to either side and is probably one of the neatest examples of a centerline tree hazard I've every played. One of my few disappointments were the uphill 9th and 18th holes which seemed to be almost identical holes up the steep slope to the clubhouse.
Overall this was a great experience. The course was in beautiful condition though the fairways and the greens were well maintained as well. There was a lot of variety in the green contours and seemingly no limit to possible pin locations on many of the holes. This would be a fantastic course to me a member of. The course can be easily walked although it's a bit of a hike up nine and eighteen. Variety in wind, tee placements and pin positions give an endless possibility of playing options. I would rate this course third in the Charleston area behind The Ocean course at Kiawah and Yeaman's Hall. All in all an excellent course and experience.
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