If Tobacco Road is not THE “It” course in America right now, it’s damn near the top.
While this Mike Strantz charmer in the Carolina sandhills may have taken some time to grow in stature and notoriety, it’s arrived. Very few, if any, courses in the country possess the cache it is so thickly steeped in these days, and the playing experience more than backs it up.
Talk with folks in the area and they’ll tell you Strantz was a mad genius. He balked at conventional golf course architecture in favor of doing things the old-fashioned way – spending weeks on the ground before dirt was moved or plans were made, always living on-site at his projects (of which he’d take on only one at a time to give it his full attention) so he could be hands-on throughout the design/build process, artfully painting and drawing meticulously detailed hole designs and then executing on them to the final, beautiful stroke.
A former hockey and football athlete who stood 6’4″, he was a gentle giant with a deep soul, and he poured that soul into his family, friends and associates, and – fortunately for us golf enthusiasts – his timeless golf course designs.
Tobacco Road is unlike any golf course I’d ever played. The layout is imaginative with blind shots and long, demanding carries, massive putting surfaces on built-up green complexes, vast sand blowouts, steep false fronts and mind-blowing earth movement… It’s an incredibly challenging golf course, and one you need to know two things about before taking on:
- You’re going to face some unfair challenges – consider setting a local rule that these can be assuaged (eg: If your ball is in one of the bushes between the 9th green and its greenside trap, shown below)
- You’re going to have a lot of fun playing it
Clearly ahead of his time, Strantz was named by GolfWeek in 2000 as one of the “Top 10 Greatest Golf Architects of All Time,” despite a portfolio of “solo” (not as part of another’s firm) designs that includes just nine total projects (7 new builds and 2 renovations). The quality of those courses is mind-boggling, though, including:
- Tobacco Road (NC)
- Caledonia Golf & Fish (SC)
- True Blue (SC)
- Bulls Bay (SC)
- Tot Hill Farm (NC)
- Royal New Kent (VA)
- Stonehouse (VA)
- Silver Creek Valley (CA – renovation)
- Monterey Peninsula CC – Shore (CA – renovation)
While the world lost Strantz in 2005 to cancer far too early at the age of 50, his design work, influence and legacy will endure for generations. The Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, Tobacco Road and True Blue are all perennial inhabitants on top 100 public lists, and the Shore course (Monterey Peninsula), Bulls Bay and Tot Hill Farm can all be found on the top overall lists of major publications.
His work was artistic and intentionally rough around the edges – kicking straight lines to the curve for perfectly un-straight ones… Aesthetics that take on an “It’s been here for 100 years” look right out of the gates.
While the trend during his time was toward minimalistic golf where everything’s in front of the player, Strantz went the other way. He incorporated heroic carries, blind shots and intimidating views (remind you of another late architect who’s being more appreciated posthumously?), driving some players nuts while invigorating others. The latter is the crowd I identify with. They are not easy courses to play your first time around, and not always fair, but they are lovable and ooze character.
As Tobacco Road echoes in their Instagram post following our trip, Tobacco Road is a soulful golf course. That indelible Soul, omnipresent in this neck of the woods, belongs to Mike Strantz.
Situated roughly half-way between the Raleigh-Durham Airport and the Pinehurst/Southern Pines area in Sanford, North Carolina, Tobacco Road embodies everything people say about Strantz as a person: Full of character, creative, larger than life, fun, maybe a little rough around the edges… And it’s exactly what I expected in a premium-level course with a greens fee approaching $200 a round.
Tobacco Road starts with one of the most iconic opening holes in all of golf: A long par five that tees off between gargantuan mounds. It’s not the tee shot that’s challenging about this hole, though, but the green area. Anything laid up short-right will need to fly a grouping of three green-side bunkers to get home. I had a delicate 25-yard flip wedge over one of these traps, myself, and being early in the round did exactly what you’d expect: Hit it fat into the bunker.
The first at Tobacco Road is as memorable a golf hole as you will find anywhere in the Pinehurst area and maybe the world.Read more: Tobacco Road: The Most Magnificent Mike Strantz Mayhem
Strantz plays with golfers’ minds early on at Tobacco Road, with a short par four at two that’s slightly hidden by the mounding of the 11th tees.
A good line here seems to be the large tree in the distance, though you’ll want to make sure not to hit too far through it. My tee shot was on the third hole tee box, for example, playing directly over a tree. Usually this would be a tough break, but I managed to clip my 52-degree wedge clean, cleared the tree and stuck the approach to about eight feet. Facing a gnarly side-hill putt I was happy to walk away with par.
The first par three on the course, the third is short but with plenty of bite. A ribbon-like green complex that’s long from front to back, anything short, left, right or long will be played next from the beach.
My one mark against the course while we visited is that the par threes were being played off artificial turf mats. Being in peak off-season form, myself, I honestly did not mind as it made clean strikes easier, but it can detract from the photos.
Heading to the fourth hole tee box we were admittedly a bit confused. The GPS showed around 400 yards (from the disc tees/first set in) while the scorecard told us it’s a par five. Huh?
After teeing off we figured it out pretty quickly. As the crow flies this is not a long hole, but getting to its green in two would require two incredibly accurate, and long shots. To start, you’d need to hit driver to the left side of the fairway off the tee. From there, you’ll still need a 200-plus yard carry over deep sand. It certainly wasn’t in the cards for any of us that day.
In many ways, the fourth at Tobacco Road reminded me of the fourth at Strantz’s True Blue in Pawley’s Island, South Carolina. Both are long, semi-circular par fives that bend right-to-left around a great hazard – in TRG’s case sand, and in True Blue’s an inland lake.
Strantz incorporated a number of risk/reward opportunities into the design of Tobacco Road, and while the fourth is the first on the course maybe the most in-your-face of them all is the par four fifth.
While the safe route off the tee is a low-to-mid-iron to the right side fairway, a heroic opportunity is provided straight toward the green. Feel like you can carry a driver 250+ yards [and straight] off the tee? Then go for it!
Brian, Sam and I all took the more responsible route on five, while Troy went at the green. Dead into the wind he came up a couple feet short but still managed to scramble for par on this wild back-to-front green complex.
Short from back to front yet wide from left to right, the green on the par three sixth is what makes this little one-shotter diabolical. Like the third hole, sand is everywhere on six, and the green is subdivided by a multitude of hard contours that make two-putting anything but a formality.
A downhill par four, the seventh has a wide open fairway that is not totally visible from the tee. It’s all about positioning here as the approach shot needs to carry a wetlands area before one of the most heavily sloped greens on the front nine.
A long par three, the eighth is a downhill par three that would play incredibly differently depending on the pin position. It was back-left for us during our round, and I managed to hit a perfect 6-iron and walk away with an easy birdie. There weren’t many of those that day!
The ninth at Tobacco Road is insane. It’s tough to tell off the tee where to hit, to start, but rest assured it’s right of the cluster of trees. The second shot is then one of the most challenging approaches I’ve played in my entire life, well uphill to a narrow green that’s perched above a waste bunker that’s next to impossible to play out of.
I hit a perfect drive on nine, leaving myself a 9-iron in. I hit that a little thin and caught the top of the hill, which rejected it back down the slope and into a bush in the waste area. I should have taken an unplayable lie but tried hacking it out, eventually picking up for a max double.
The back nine begins with an elevated tee shot to a wide, left-to-right fairway on the tenth. Whatever you do stay away from the waste area on your second shot.
The eleventh tees off uphill and to one of the widest fairways on the course before bending straight right toward one of the craziest green surrounds I’ve seen in a while. Again, avoid going right at all costs here as anything in this chasm will be a tremendous challenge to recover from.
With a big, sweeping right-to-left dogleg, the twelfth requires players to take on as much of the bend in the fairway as they can while still carrying the massive left-side waste area.
I hit a perfect drive on twelve, putting me in great position to get a couple points back in our game. I then chunked my 52-degree wedge about five yards. The next shot (with the same wedge) fortunately rolled out to within a foot of the hole, so I managed par but didn’t get to experience as much of this green as I’d have liked. It looked to have a lot of character built into it with an elevated front end (not like a standard, elevated green complex, but that the front of it is risen slightly at the green’s highest point before falling to hide much of the putting surface from the fairway), plenty of internal slopes and a steep drop-off on the right side.
Especially with a very famous par five due up next, I can see the twelfth being the kind of hole that’s often overlooked but shouldn’t be. It’s a gem.
One of the most oft-photographed holes on the entire property, the thirteenth at Tobacco Road puts the mayhem in Strantz design.
From elevated tee boxes behind the twelfth green, players tee off to a laterally running fairway that lengthens the tee shot the farther right (and closer to the green) you aim. It honestly doesn’t matter much which part of the fairway you hit, though, as I can’t imagine anyone can get home in two on this hole.
The second shot is merely a setup, and is best played toward the right side of the fairway to leave the shortest approach possible.
From here, the green is almost completely shrouded by huge mounds and backdropped by the industrial buildings across the road. The actual green is just a strip of putting surface maybe ten yards deep, at most, that runs about 40-50 yards from left-to-right.
A tall flag gives the hole location.
“Gimmicky?” “Mickey Mouse?” “Where’s the clown’s mouth?” I don’t care, it’s glorious. I didn’t come to Tobacco Road to fire my all-time low round; I came to be entertained and have a golf experience I can’t have anywhere else. The thirteenth provides it.
Thirteen is, to me, all-world and tremendously memorable. I’d love to experience it a thousand more times.
Fourteen is another of the most visually captured holes on the course, and for good reason as it’s quite photogenic and one of the only holes with water.
Played over the pond, the green is a long ribbon that abuts the water and can play to drastically different lengths (and degrees of difficulty) depending on the hole location.
With a front pin it played as a fairly rudimentary par three, but anything near the back would take on a whole lot of water and likely be a completely different ballgame.
Tobacco Road offers stay-and-play packages with Stewart Cabin as the lodging, by the way, and from their social media posts expects guests to spend time on the famous par three after the day’s groups have played through.
… And a few [or 17] images:
Featuring a downhill, mostly blind tee shot, the fifteenth was another fairly confusing hole at Tobacco Road, but once we got down to where our drives ended up was awesome.
There was a starter on the 16th tee to help with direction – we otherwise would have had no idea where to aim. The tee shot here requires around 200 yards to reach the right-to-left bend in the fairway, then heads straight uphill to one of the course’s most extreme green complexes, and for sure its most extreme false front.
Take enough club on the approach to make sure your shot stays on, or else expect to be re-chipping from 50 yards downhill.
The seventeenth is a doozy of a par three!
From a downhill tee shot, the green is laid out as another sliver of putting surface that runs laterally to provide all kinds of versatility. The front-left pin we had during our visit was probably the easiest of its zones to hit, and I’d imagine the right side would be quite devilish.
The 18th at Tobacco Road is a finishing hole for the ages, set up by a tee shot from a low area uphill to a blind fairway and then left towards one of the most tricked-up (I say that in a loving way as it’s the excess that makes Tobacco Road so wonderful) green complexes on the entire course… And, for those purposes, that I’ve ever played.
Favor the right side of the fairway on 18 if you can, as anything toward the left (like my tee shot) may be blocked out by the hillside tree line.
The green on eighteen, as you can see from the pictures, is a large enough surface but has run-offs all over, and steep embankments waiting to penalize errant approach shots.
Imaginative, visually stimulating, intimidating and one-of-a-kind, this is exactly the finish I’d expect at a course like Tobacco Road. It’s the most magnificently Mike Strantz mayhem, and you won’t find anything else like it anywhere.
One thing I wish I would have known prior to our visit is that Tobacco Road has Finn Scooters available for rent. We had way too much photo equipment in tow, but I was jealous of all the players we saw using them.
As you know if you’ve been following WiscoGolfAddict over the past few years, we love the movement toward alternative modes of transportation on the golf course and TRG would be an epic property for that elevated experience.
Everything about Tobacco Road is exactly what I have in mind when I think about a great vacation golf experience. It’s wild and unique, keeping you constantly saying “Whoa!” and “Are you serious!?”
Outside of the temporary mats on par threes the conditions were excellent, and they even dialed up some beautiful, warm and sunny weather for us. We could not have asked for a better March day.
Have you played Tobacco Road? If so, how do you rate it as a golf course? I know I’ve got it firmly in my top 25 courses ever. I absolutely loved it.
For more on our recent WiscoGolfAddict visit to the Sandhills region of North Carolina, check out the Pinehurst destination overview, linked below:
Earlier this month, WiscoGolfAddict.com Contributing Writers Brian, Troy and I headed down to Pinehurst, North Carolina with our buddy Sam for what would be an epic buddies golf trip.