Architect Mike Strantz started out as a member of Tom Fazio’s construction crew before setting up his own company at the end of the 1980s. Known for his daring and unconventional style, Strantz loved to push the design boundaries and the nine solo projects that he completed before his untimely death in 2005 bear testament to his adventurous golfing philosophies.
“Pine Valley on steroids” is how Tobacco Road is billed. Cut through an old sand quarry, it’s also been described as “golf’s rock and roll thrill ride,” where the architect moved a fair amount of earth to shape the roller coaster fairways and form the dramatic greensites. Due to all the risk taking by the architect, if ever there was a course built to put the fun back into the game then this is it.
Notable holes include the 525-yard 4th (where the fairway veers sharply left around a massive sandy waste area), the 531-yard 11th (which swings to the right, around a 40 foot deep sand pit), the 194-yard 14th (played to a kidney-shaped lakeside green that slopes down to the water) and the 432-yard closer, requiring a long, testing tee shot out of the quarry to a blind fairway landing area.
All eighteen greens at Tobacco Road were converted from bent grass to Bermuda during the summer of 2014, a process that took just over two months to complete.
The following article was written by lawyer and sports writer Jay Flemma and is an edited extract from Volume Four of Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective. Reproduced with kind permission. To obtain a copy of the book, email Paul Daley at [email protected]
In his book Grounds for Golf (2003), Geoff Shackleford compared great golf courses to epic films. The analogy has merit. For example, he called Pine Valley “The Godfather” and he called National Links of America “Citizen Kane”. To continue the exploration, it’s clear Mike Strantz’s tour de force at Tobacco Road is akin to Quentin Tarantino’s celebrated, polarising, avante garde neo-classic, “Pulp Fiction”.
Combining his profound gift for designing great strategic holes with his limitless palette for artistic flair, Strantz wove wide, yet elusive fairways and well-protected greens amid heaving, expansive waste areas and hurly-burly North Carolina sand hills. The results are awe-inspiring. Part Pine Valley for its vast sandy waste areas and part Prestwick for its numerous blind drives and approaches, the result is a dazzling and powerful synergy flawlessly executed to produce a course rich in risk-reward options on a breathtaking canvas.
Years of target golf on parkland-style layouts and the acceptance of ‘stick the pin’ designs as the norm has led some to opine that many of Tobacco Road’s ancient design concepts – blind shots and shots threaded through towering rough-covered dunes – were anachronistic or contrived. Moreover, the course consistently requires shaped shots, a smooth, trusty swing to deal with the intimidating green settings and, most of all, patience bordering on the robotic.
Far too often, blind shots are seen as a nuisance and unusual looking designs are quickly dismissed as gimmicky. Some unimaginative and disgruntled players unfairly brand “The Road” with such a stigma. As the design elements they dismiss so high-handedly are derived from some of the most storied courses in the world, these detractors are wrong. Nobody has a problem with the blind shots at Prestwick or Lahinch, but import them to the United States and a designer better have earplugs or a bulletproof ego.
The difficulty of the course is derived from three factors. Firstly, nobody was better than Strantz at creating optical illusion, and nowhere do his optical illusions invoke more trepidation, confusion, or frustration in golfers than at Tobacco Road. Some of the holes look claustrophobic from the tee (but) fears from the tee are misplaced: the fairways are actually quite wide. The optical illusions lead to uncertainty and uncertainty frequently becomes fear. The fear-factor is the second and overriding factor in the course’s difficulty. Nervous, uncertain swings lead to disastrous results. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, you must play the right set of tees for your skill level. Players who insist on playing a set of tees beyond their skill level will fail to reach doglegs or forced carries off the tee.
Sadly, we lost Mike Strantz (1955-2005) to oral cancer far too soon, in the height of his ascension. Like “Pulp Fiction” many knew “The Road” was destined for greatness right from its opening, even in the face of vocal opposition. Just as “Pulp Fiction” stirred bitter controversy at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so too did Tobacco Road stir controversy with its fearless courage in demanding blind or semi-blind shots to devilishly positioned greens. Strantz turned convention on its ear and seemingly said: look how much further we can reach when we suspend expectations and take some chances. Only now are we beginning to appreciate just how visionary he was.
This is quite the golf course and an experience you will surely remember. The setting is dramatic and each shot seems to confront the golfer with a unique and intimidating hazard in the form of massive waster bunkers. Water only comes into play on the beautiful downhill par 3 fourteenth. However despite the obvious visual intimidation the course is actually quite playable and in general there is much more room than first appears. The course is only 6,500 yards from the back tees but the slope rating of 144 shows how difficult this course is for the average golfer. I think a few holes went over the top but overall this is a fun and exhilarating ride that you probably should go for if you are in the area. Tom Doak rates this as a “gourmet’s choice”in his updated book, but I think that is a little over extravagant praise. However I did enjoy the course and would love to give it another go in the future.
Read my full story: The Sandhills – high-class designs outside Pinehurst
My first ever visit to Tobacco Road was perhaps the wettest day I’ve ever seen on a golf course. I was out first thing in the morning in the first group and by the time I was half way through the front 9 they had shut the course down, there were literally streams running everywhere. Being the fanatic I am, I still finished and loved the place.
This time the Golf Gods were very kind and provided me with the perfect day and perfect weather. I had been on a bit of a run hitting them well and managed for the first time in my life to break 70. Ok, good for me right and since this is about the course naturally I’m going to love it with a round like that. Thing is, I already loved the course from the disastrous day I had the first time around.
The slope of the back tees is something like 146, which makes this course on paper extremely hard, and I’d tend to agree with that if you hit yourself out of position. It’s an easy course to run up a large score on pretty much any hole with a miscue. There is also a lot of visual intimidation, but Strantz also built in plenty of width and several opportunities to score. For example a solid drive on the first par 5 that rolls past the tree line on the left side of the fairway allows you to cut the corner of the dogleg with as little as a 6 to 8 iron. The very next par 4 is drivable with an exacting shot up the hill over the waste area. It may require a carry of like 250 yards but it’s definitely doable and another scoring hole.
The 11this another scoring opportunity as a solid drive up the right side taking on the canyon will render this par 5 reachable in two as well. The 13this another opportunity and a lay up will leave a short iron or even pitch that’s semi blind into a punchbowl green. Get the distance and line even close and you will have a decent birdie chance.
Tobacco Road is many things, fun, quirky, challenging, spectacular and always provides a great day out.
I was invited to play Tobacco Road today. This was not my first experience playing a Mike Strantz golf course as I have now played 6 of his 9 courses. I will say that Tobacco Road is my new Favorite. In fact it is my new favorite modern golf design as well (1960-Present). C.B. McDonald is my favorite designer of all time with National Golf Links of America being my number one course to date. Mike Strantz was the closest thing to C.B. we had in modern times, “IMO". He incorporated many of the template holes, considered by the great designers to be the play book for challenging a golfer’s ability throughout a round. From the opening tee shot you realize this is not going to be golf as you know it. Many have said this course creates a love hate relationship with most golfers and I think this is very unfair. I have yet to meet a golfer who has said that NGLA is a bad course and its every bit as challenging or “tricked up" as Tobacco Road. The difference is that at NGLA you must take a caddie where as at Tobacco Road this is not the case. I was fortunate enough to have something better than a caddie. I was afforded the guidance of the head professional Martha Hudson. As we played together, Martha shared her knowledge and history of the course as she saw it progress from its earliest development. This knowledge and direction makes the course and its subtly come to life in a way you just can’t get riding in a cart looking at a yardage book. If you play here you need a caddie Period!!! This course also would be ranked higher if it were private. The general public has far too many choices in the Pinehurst area which means most will only play this course once on their trip. Playing this course once with a cart leads to poor reviews as most golfers not familiar with golf architecture will not appreciate what they are seeing. This course needs multiple rounds to truly learn all the different options available on any one hole. Members would never grow tired of this visual, mental and visceral experience. Make no mistake about it, this course offers 18 different holes all of which would be a signature hole at any other golf club. Bethpage Black was the closest thing to 18 perfectly different holes I had seen, with the first hole being the one weakness on the course. Tobacco road has no such weak hole that I was able to see. Skip the rest and see the best Tobacco Road!
I find the fact Tobacco Road to be rated as "poor" by some and "excellent" by others to be a big compliment to Mr. Strantz. To me, I now consider it to be the best golf course I have ever played. I like it more than I do Pinehurst #2. The simplest way to explain why is that while Tobacco Road is visually terrifying, and extremely intimidating, it is without a doubt fair, and extremely possible to play well. If you're experiencing it the first time and don't have someone with you who's played it before, that saying goes down the drain. However, if you do have that luxury, as I did, you'll find nothing is impossible here.
If you execute the proper shots, there's no reason why a golfer can't have a reasonable birdie look on every hole. Poor execution or psyching yourself out is the only explanation for not doing well on a given hole, in my opinion. There are places for the golfer to bail out and manage a par from, and times where you can attack and fire right at the stick.
Ultimately what Tobacco Road does so well is offer something new on each hole. There are 18 different golf holes and all have a feature that you won't see on any of the other holes on property. My personal favorite is #13, with its double dogleg and amazing green surroundings. A great example of being intimidating, but absolutely a possible birdie if the ball is placed in the right spots.
One thing I'll add is that the margin for error off the tee is massive. The only "bad" tee shots here that'll put you in "bad" spots are those that are utterly massive hooks or slices. You have to be more precise hitting into the greens than you do onto the fairways, but it's gotta be a massive screwup to have something like that happen. Stay cool, calm, and collected... that stuff won't happen.
Final thought: driving into this place, you would think that it was an abandoned mining site or old farm. It's got a very rustic feel and is quite unassuming. Then the course blows your mind right out of the gate. I love it. Tobacco Road is something every golfer should experience.
Even though I caught it during a major storm, one that saw me playing in the hardest rain I’ve ever experienced and the course being shut down by 10:00 am I managed to finish my round and even in spite of the horrible conditions what a joy it was. I will absolutely return.
Again this is another course with so many great and interesting holes. I’ll focus only on a couple. The 11th hole is a really tricky risk/reward par 5 that doglegs right up the hill to the green. All along the right side is a sizeable canyon that serves as quite the hazard. Flirting with the canyon on the drive allows a very risky go for broke shot to reach the green in two. There is plenty of space to play safe. To the left but it’s tough to ignore the temptation of taking the short cut.
The closing stretch is quite the wild ride. The 13th is another par 5 where the approach plays into a green that’s totally hidden in a near circle of a high built up mound. The flag pole might be 15 ft tall and most approaches are totally blind. It’s like having to fly the ball into a large bowl. It has to be one of the quirkier green surrounds I’ve run into but in the end it’s great fun, different and it works. Not to mention the fact that it leaves something of great interest to talk about.
The 14th is a also a spectacular hole. A 194 yd par 3 that plays from high up on a ridge over water all the way to an excellent green complex that runs diagonal from left to right away from the target line. With the wind up and the rain pounding down this was as challenging a shot as you’ll find. The 15th is another very interesting medium length par 4 that plays down hill in stages, the first over intricately laid out waster area to a lay up that again plays over waste area to the green. Requiring two well placed shots to be on the dance floor.
The 16th a short par 4 that requires a solid drive over a raised waste area to a semi blind landing area. It’s kind of all or nothing shot if you go for it but there is an opportunity for shorter hitters to lay up and play it as a 3 shot hole. The approach is steep up a hill to a two tiered bowl shaped green. 17 is yet another great drop shot par 3 requiring only a short iron but is basically all carry over wasteland to the green. Very easy to misjudge this one. Finally the 18th is another cracker of a hole with a blind shot over a quarry that looks as if it’s a really long carry, however I’d be surprised if this actually exceeds 200 yds from the back tees. A nice drive will still leave a mid to long iron into a green that is tucked semi-blind behind a swale.
As far as I’m concerned, Tobacco Road is a must see course for any trip to the Pinehurst area.
This golf course doesn’t look or feel like any of the old classics. In fact, every shot feels like a trick-shot, which is a fantastic amount of fun. The anticipation to see the next hole, or hit the next shot is truly amazing. One thing is for sure, you won’t forget this place in a hurry! Good value for the Public, great fun and an easy drive up from the folly of Pinehurst.