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 on land once cultivated by tobacco farmers, 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.
Dive into any golf architecture forum and you will be hard pressed to find a more polarizing architect than Mike Strantz. Tobacco Road is certainly one of his more controversial designs. Regardless of where you fall on the opinion spectrum, there is no doubt that this property is one-of-a-kind. If you love golf architecture, you must visit this site.
As I reflected on my own history with Tobacco Road, as well as the many analyses I have read over the years, I decided to depart from my typical review structure and instead examine why the course is so divisive. My hope is to provide helpful recommendations for those who have never played Tobacco Road, and some bi-partisan critique on this devilish masterpiece.
First and most importantly, I feel strongly that no golfer should ever formulate their opinion (let alone publish it) after just one round at Tobacco Road. When reviewing evaluations that claim Tobacco Road is too challenging, it is frequently obvious that most of those writers have only experienced the course a single time. This is evident especially when people complain about the numerous blind shots. The combination of those remarks is completely unfair, in my opinion. A golf hole is only truly ‘blind’ the first time you play it, and beyond the dunes and ridges at this property are some of the widest fairways you will ever encounter. While one may be discouraged by a disappointing result from a well-struck shot on their first go-around, it is highly unlikely they would ever make the same mistake again. Furthermore, the green sizes at Tobacco Road tend to reflect the length of the approach – you usually have a pretty short club in hand to attack the smaller greens, which I believe is a wise and reasonable design aspect.
The other reason that it is critical to play the course multiple times before judgment is due to the unpredictability of condition. My first round at Tobacco Road was in 2010, and I left feeling so let-down. When I finally gave Tobacco Road another shot in 2017 (and other times since), I immediately realized why my previous round was so disappointing. Because the course was wet from rain the night prior, roll and bounces off interesting contours had been muted. Additionally, the maintenance of the property has improved on every one of my visits. Shaggy fairways dulled the impact of the rumpled corridors during my first experience.
While some players complain that Tobacco Road is too challenging, I have also seen other reviewers criticize the course for being too easy. My gut reaction to those is to wonder when difficulty became the bar for determining architectural merit? Specifically for Tobacco Road, though, I also feel that ‘too easy’ is unfair descriptor which does not capture the full scoring context. Personally, I believe many of those reviewers actually just lack an imaginative spirit. On most holes at Tobacco Road, par is very achievable by playing conservatively – straight, high, and long down each wide fairway. If a strong player has this mindset, I could easily see why they might get bored. What the ‘too easy’ commentary does not encapsulate is that on many holes, birdies are hard to come by without creativity. Depending on pin locations, the only route to go low might be running a ball over a knob, by cutting off a waste area’s corner, or by taking the longer route to the hole with a superior angle. Additionally, saying the course is ‘too easy,’ does not acknowledge that virtually any out-of-place shot can quickly multiply into a big number.
Finally, before you consider where you stand on Tobacco Road, realize that like me, your opinion may change over time and that…*gasp*…you may even have extremely polarized views from one hole to the next. The course has that much depth to its variety. For instance:
• #1: My favorite opener of 215+ courses played, this daunting tee shot is actually quite manageable once you realize there is a massive landing area beyond the dunes. The second shot provides endless options. You can lay-up conservatively before the splitting ridge, but then will have to navigate another blind shot. An aggressive metal sweeping left-to-right can run up to this green, though any shot missed right will face a difficult, shallow up-and-down.
• #2: This hole may not jump off the page during your first visit, but the bowled nature of the extremely wide fairway is a blast to experience. It is a great birdie opportunity if and only if you angle your approach appropriately.
• #4: The second of two stellar three-shotters on the front, the approach at the 4th is beyond fantastic. Players can make an easy five here by lengthening the hole from the right with a better angle. The aggressive play over a massive waste area must be exacting, or the player will be left with an awkward sand shot yardage. Both players can bounce a ball into the green using the slope front right.
• #5: This particular par four, despite being so unique, does not resonate with me. There are essentially two routes to the green, and quite frankly, neither is desirable. You can play safe to the fairway right, but that lengthens the hole considerably and adds a blind approach with a mid/long iron. One can instead attempt to drive the green, but even a tiny miss is almost surely leading to a bogey. Even if the aggressive tee shot catches the miniscule patch of fairway short, the chip is very difficult to almost any pin. Every option feels lose-lose.
• #9: Another hole where I struggle to discern best strategy, the tiny nature of the 9th green does not fit well with the grand scale of the uphill approach. The best angle is from the left side, but your shot can easily be blocked out by tree limbs. If anything, the only real option here are two long, straight, high shots – unfitting on a hole with such an interestingly wide fairway and beautifully perched putting surface.
• #10: Like the 2nd, the turn at Tobacco Road grows on me every round. With the opportunity to run up a shot using a bank on the left, I find the approach to be captivating.
• #11: The approach shot on the 11th brings forth untamable internal temptation. Par (and maybe even birdie) on this hole is so easy if one simply lays-up to the wide area left of the green, but going for the putting surface over the deep crater always seems to be just in reach.
• #13: I am still lost as to the appeal on this hole. Unless one can both hit a massive slice (lefty hook) and control their yardage like a video game, the only real option from the tee is a long-iron or metal. I cannot fathom going for this punchbowl green in two, leaving the only real approach route as a pretty bland lay-up. For such a photographed, applauded hole, I have yet to step off the green feeling stimulated.
• #18: The harrowing tee shot over the mine remnants at the finishing hole stirs the soul. Seeing this feature when entering and exiting may be one of the most genius ‘architectural’ aspects for course marketing in the game. That view gets my heart racing upon arrival and leaves me salivating upon departure.
Tobacco Road may have features that cause polarizing viewpoints, but that does not mean that one’s overall review must be so extreme. There is room for gray. Playing the course more than once, in different conditions, and with some imaginative shots will ultimately reveal the options and splendor present on this very special routing. With virtually no comparable counterpart, any architecture lover must visit Tobacco Road. Keep an open mind as you navigate this superb golf adventure.
I have played a lot of the great courses in the world and Tobacco Road is now my favorite. I played it on 22/4/20 in perfect conditions. EVERY hole is interesting and fun to play. This course pushed Royal County Down into the number 2 spot in my favorite courses I’ve played. I can understand that people who like plain and minimalistic may not be as keen on this course as I am.
MIke Strantz was known for his bold and creative design features. He was a true artist, but sometimes a mad genius. This course has some of the most creative holes you'll ever play, a true architectural masterpiece. It's a course I want to play many more times.
Absolutely correct Michael - genius course by a genius architect. Have you played Tot Hill Farm ? Maybe a couple of holes there are too extreme.
Much has been written about Mike Strantz’s imaginative work here. I always make it a practice to stop by on the way between Pinehurst and RDU airport. I’m always charmed by the abundance of the line of charm: the risk/reward decision to drive close to trouble to set up an advantageous next shot. On only three tee shots (1, 7 and 18) is the player not confronted with this challenge…and the same goes for the second shot on three of the par 5s (4, 11 and 13). Strantz’s wildly contoured greens add to the fun.
But it’s not all fun and games here. The aerial approach option is rare as over and over the player is faced with a forced carry to the green. And if you’re hoping for a walk in the park experience, you won’t find it here. It’s far more like a forced march, particularly on the back nine, where there are long (at least 100 yard) slogs to get to the tee at 10, 11, 13, 15, and 18. Despite these qualifications, Tobacco Road is a golf experience not to be missed.
This is a hard course to put in a box, if you did the box might have Wolf Creek and Cruden Bay in it.
A brutal yet playful design, over and over again you are challenged to pull out the hero shot, all the while knowing you should make the conservative play.
The first tee shot is the most intimidating shot on the course a semi blind drive reveals a roomy fairway, not what it seemed from the tee (this is a recurring theme all the way through the course).
Five is an amazing risk reward hole, the ironic thing about is that if you pull off the big a shot it will most likely bounce over the green anyway - but still the challenges call you to take the risk.
Nine reminds me of a hole at Barnbougle, maybe the 8th? A tough drive to an elevated green above and to the left - what a hole just stunning!
13 has elements of royal Melbourne from the tee with some real craziness at the green - which is still pretty fair as long as the pin is on the right.
15 is a lovely par 3, cottage behind, set on the lake, the setting is stunning and the hole magnificent. Precision is required along with nerves of steel for a right pin.
The tee shot on 18 is something to behold, use your imagination here. The green is rolling and the approach is difficult, a fitting finale.
Mike Strantz was one of golf architecture’s greatest geniuses. Prior to my day at Tobacco Road I had never played one of his courses, but had been salivating at the thought of doing so for some time. Tobacco Road certainly did not disappoint.
The view from the first tee was like nothing I had seen on a golf course before. The massive sand mounds bordering the notched fairway were striking, but the hole played easier than expected because longer hitters could simply hit the ball over them into the fairway beyond, which was wide and extremely forgiving. That characteristic proved to be a theme – on nearly every par four or five, there was some sort of particularly wide/forgiving path to play the hole, which jives with a couple of other reviewers saying that the course is quite playable provided you know where to hit shots. I can’t even begin to imagine playing this course without the $10 yardage book or a range finder; doing so would be akin to throwing darts blindfolded.
There are so many great holes on this course that I can’t name every one I loved because that list represents quite literally almost every hole. The only one I didn’t particularly care for was #16, which felt like the the only true forced layup on the course – and even at that I loved its green complex.
In my Google review for Tobacco Road, I stated: “This course is psychotic and I loved every minute of it.” I don’t think there’s any better way to sum up this golf course. Go play it.
Played July 9, 2018
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.