Tobacco Road may have been built on the mined out pits of a North Carolina sand quarry but it has a distinctively western flavor – from its animal skull logo to its rustic clubhouse (which burned down once), to its wild ruffian of a golf course. The earthy Tobacco Road logos, a dear skull with antlers and a tobacco leaf, were hand drawn by Mike Strantz himself to reflect the history of the property and add to the rugged, outlaw feel of the entire experience. Further adding to the ambiance, old tobacco ploughs bear the signs and yardage markers for each hole. Different forms of blades for cultivating are the four different tee markers – “Ripper” for the pros, “Disc” as the regulation tees, “Plow” for seniors and higher handicappers, and “Cultivator” for the forward tees. Indeed, everything about The Road envelopes the golfer with a sense of adventure.
There are two distinct design features at Tobacco Road – expansive sandy waste areas with traditional white sand and heaving dunes filled with red loam. Specifically, most of the front nine and holes ten through twelve are reminiscent of Pine Valley/World Woods with their expansive sandy waste areas. In fact several of the holes on the front side are remarkably similar to World Woods. Most notably the par five fourth, a short hole with an expansive and deep waste are running from tee to green, looks a mirror image of the fourth at World Woods, also a short par five guarded tee to green by a massive, scrub choked sandy waste area. Interestingly, although there are many similarities to World Woods, which was designed by Strantz’ long-time employer Tom Fazio while Strantz worked for him, Strantz actually never worked on World Woods at all. In contrast, holes one, nine, and the final six are in the style of Prestwick and Ballybunion and play through (and around) an almost other-worldly dunescape. Perhaps in a nod to Old Tom Morris, to aid player’s facing blind shots, in certain places (13 and 15) the fairway contains a board with the shape of the green carved in wood and a tee which marks the day’s pin placement. Frequently, these enormous mountains of sand are covered by the region’s ubiquitous tall pines. Thus the sand dunes are not just a tough lie, but the direct route to the hole will be blocked.
There are no warm up holes here and, as usual with Strantz, the first hole is one of the course’s most demanding and intimidating. The first hole is a three-shot 550 yard par five which requires not one, but two shots threaded between towering, rough-covered dunes. Like two of the massive rock triptychs of the Giant’s Causeway which loom out of the mist and guarding the entrance to Northern Ireland, these two mighty, monolithic mounds guard the entrance to Tobacco Road. They are two great monstrous ball eaters, exacting a one or two stroke tax on those unlucky enough to hit into them. They are as large and ominous as gathering storm clouds. Favor the right side of the fairway off the tee, as failing to “cut the corner” could trigger an opening hole disaster which could haunt the scorecard and psyche all day. Finally, the approach is no less demanding as three enormous, deep bunkers guard the right side of the green. These bunkers feature a collective raised lip which causes the back portion of the green to run away from the player. Approach the green from the left side for the best angle to almost all hole locations.
The second hole begins the “scrub and waste area” part of the course. This short par four features a carry over a waste area which runs uphill and then descends down a hill so that the fairway can barely be soon over the rise. A deep, penal pot bunker sits directly in front of the green.
The fourth is a par five where risk reward options abound. A reachable dogleg left with a question mark shaped fairway, the second shot must carry the deep and expansive waste bunker. Similar to the strategic decision posed by Strantz’s second hole at Royal New Kent, players choosing to try for the green in two must play the tee shot close to the edge of the waste area. However if they chicken out and wish to lay up, they have a tougher angle to the safe part of the fairway than players who played to the right hand side of the fairway. Shots that fail to reach the green will be lodged at the bottom of the bunker easily as deep and big as its counterpart at the fourth hole at World Woods. The par four fifth hole presents a similar challenge. At a scant 321 yards, it can be driven by longer hitters, but the scrub-choked sandy wasteland can mete out a stiff penalty to errant shots. Safe plays to the right will have anywhere from a 120 to160 yard approach in to a shallow green. Again, the bunker is deep and penal and guards both the front and right of the green. To further complicate the approach, the hole also features a false front green.
Strantz gives out a break at the par threes at Tobacco Road. None of them is longer than 178 yards from the regulation tees and 194 yards from the tips and the majority average merely 150 yards from the regular tees and 170 yards from the tips. Mid to short irons are a welcome relief. Nevertheless, Strantz found a fascinating way to add an ingenious strategic design characteristic to these short holes. The sixth is a perfect example. Instead of runway tees or tees merely staggered by distance, Strantz built five different teeing grounds scattered laterally. The green, which features three distinct tiers, appears very wide but shallow from some tee boxes, but sits deep and narrow from the others. Therefore from one set of tees, the hole tests accuracy and from the other tees, tests distance control.
The seventh is a refreshing change of pace from the scrub and pines look. As usual, the drive will disappear over a rise in the fairway and will carry a long way downhill. The second shot must carry a grassy wasteland very similar to that found on the eighteenth at Stonehouse. The seventh green also features a severe false front and is completely surrounded by bunkers as well as the wetlands.
The par four ninth hole brings the front side to a close with a dramatic flourish. On the teebox, huge tree covered mounds pinch the partially obscured fairway to what appears to be a spandex-tight opening. Once out in this arrowhead shaped fairway, the approach on this 412 yard dog leg left is severely uphill. The green is also dangerously narrow, guarded by enormous bunkers short and deep collection areas on either side. Accuracy is a must. Hit a draw off tee for best angle into the green, then hit a fade into green as its natural contours will feed the ball to right side hole locations. No less an expert than fellow critically acclaimed architect Brian Silva called this the best hole on the course. Strantz originally had designed an even more severe approach and more penal collection areas greenside. He decided on a somewhat more subdued design after being reminded by design partner Forrest Fezler that “Mike, my mom has to play this hole too.” Fezler nevertheless believes that the hole is more intimidating than demanding. When I shared my thoughts on the topic by asking, “OK…then how does your mom play that hole” he smiled and replied “From the Forward Tees…”
Strantz serves up another world-class risk reward par five at the eleventh. Although the hole is short (531 from the tips, 511 from the second box and 486 from the third), another cavernous, scrub-choked waste bunker extends from tee to green. The bunker gets deeper as it approached greenside. Finally, the green is dangerously shallow, especially at the back right. Interestingly, of all the tremendous holes Strantz has designed, he believes this hole would provide the greatest challenge to touring professionals, as the depth of the bunker combined with a tough back right pin placement would wreak havoc with depth perception and mete out severe punishment for errant shots.
The finish is thrilling and demanding. At the thirteenth tee, all bets are off and Strantz ratchets up the intensity several notches. Another long, straight drive is a prerequisite to even having a chance to reach this gargantuan par five in regulation. Here is a prime example of how it is easy to lose perspective. The fairway again disappears behind a massive 40-foot sand dune. More enormous dunes and trees block the direct approach to the green making it nearly impossible to reach in two. The second shot must be played semi-blind to a tight landing area to have even an approach shot to the green, which again, is guarded by two massive 40-foot sand dunes and is fully obscured. Near the cart path on the right side of the fairway, stands a wood-carving peg board of this very shallow, wide, severely elevated green. Balls hit one club long will be in or over the road and, therefore, out of bounds. Left and only a high lofted shot can reach the green. Right and you have the bump and run option. Leave a full shot to green as it calls for height and spin.
The fourteenth is a gorgeous par three which plays to a green set directly at the back of the clubhouse. A large lake guards the entire front and right hand side of the green beginning at the tee box. The hole plays one to clubs shorter.
Interestingly, this is another design feature Tobacco Road shares with World Woods – both courses feature only one water hazard on the entire golf course and on each course, the hazard appears on a par three and runs from tee to green.
Another massive waste bunker rises in front of the fifteenth tee box on this short dog leg right. In fact, on the last three tee shots, fifteen, sixteen and eighteen, all you see from the tee box is a massive waste area. Wooden stakes, or chimney flues, are provided as targets off the tee. The green is a unique u-shape and features hole locations on each of the two distinct sections – it is almost two green in one. Since the sides of the fairway are peppered with the now familiar sand dunes, the approach is semi blind. Be on the left side of the fairway of the tee to attack right side hole locations. Play to the right side of the fairway for the best angle into right side hole locations. After negotiating this same type of terrifying tee shot on number sixteen, the hole doglegs to the left, severely uphill, to a gorgeously framed green complex with waste area bunker rimmed by giant mounds.
The eighteenth is a brutal and unforgettable finish. A long uphill dog-leg right, it is easily Strantz’ most demanding final hole to date. Standing on the teebox, the only thing the player sees is a massive 180 yard long scrub-filled fairway bunker which runs uphill and disappears over a rise. A black flue at the end of the bunker serves as the player’s target line. The hole admirably emulates Pine valley’s famous “Hell’s Half Acre” bunker. “200 yards of hell” commented one of my playing partners. Even if the player finds the fairway off the tee, the approach will be semi-blind over tree covered mounds from the left side. The green opens up from the right, so a fade off the tee is the play to have a clear approach. The front pin placement is difficult as the green is only ten paces across and slopes off into correction areas or into more deep waste bunkers. Back pin placements offer more room for error. If you need a birdie for whatever reason, pray hard. Some say, the eighteenth at Tobacco Road is reminiscent of the twelfth at Gleneagles Kings course in Scotland.
CHIP SHOTS AND TAP-INS
A stunning, one after another thrill ride, Tobacco Road may be the coolest golf course on the planet. It is certainly one of the most unique. Part artistic triumph and part strategic masterpiece, The Road is like a book you can’t put down – each hole is a different chapter that unfolds irresistibly before you. In particular, the par fives are all showstoppers. Two offer heroic risk reward shot options for those brave enough to try to reach in two, while the others are true three-shotters calling for patience and precision to escape with par. The par threes are not only all postcard pretty, but feature variable distances and shot angles, making them play completely different from day to day. Finally, the par fours are imaginative and diverse designs testing all facets of a golfer’s game.
Further, as Strantz’ idol Alistair Mackenzie believed, great courses are meant to be replayed over and over and that is when they reveal their secrets. Strantz’ magnum opus to date, Tobacco Road is a treasure trove of strategic shot options and deserves to be played over and over again to truly savor the richness of its intricacies. Unless you have been to Scotland or Ireland to play Prestwick or Lahinch or Ballybunion, you have never seen anything like it before. Hopefully, Strantz will give us many more like it to come. Although some pundits begrudge the layout’s bold and daring design, failure to include Tobacco Road on any list of the country’s greatest courses is a colossal blunder.
The Road is a difficult golf course but not an unfair or overly penal one. Accuracy, not length is the primary concern. Tee shots must be carefully planned and flawlessly executed to have optimum approaches to the greens. Approaches must also be accurate to avoid the devilish chipping areas. Visually intimidating, the blind shots will frustrate inexperienced players. The blind shots are not only tough because they are blind but because the player is disoriented by being on a topsy-turvy fairway, where he may or may not have anything to aim for. A couple of 20-foot pins would not go amiss so that players at least have a flag to shoot at on thirteen and fifteen. The course may be best suited for match play as the finish is exciting and unpredictable. The ball can and often will bounce any crazy way.
Of the three sets of Strantz pairs, as a tandem, Tobacco Road and nearby sister course Tot Hill Farm are the toughest duo. Those who have difficulty with the rugged, links feel of Royal New Kent can turn the intensity down a notch at the slightly more familiar feeling Stonehouse. Those who have a difficult day at True Blue, will revel in the beauty and comfort of Caledonia. In North Carolina, whether you play Tot Hill Farm or Tobacco Road, precision and patience are the order of the day and the blind shots are more gut wrenching then at their northern or southern counterparts.
Although only 40 minutes from Pinehurst, one of the world’s greatest golf destinations, Tobacco Road has impressed enough critics to be put on the short list of courses to play in the area and competes admirably with such storied company. Exacting, exciting, and extraordinary, everyone must play Tobacco Road once in their life. The course can be played frequently for $60 or less during much of the year, and with stay and play packages starting as low as $133, it is as quintessential a golf value as Bethpage or Bandon Dunes.