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.
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.