Ten years ago this summer, a billboard went up on U.S. Route 1 south of Sanford, N.C., proclaiming the arrival of something totally different. “Tobacco Road: A Whole New Playing Field,” blared the ad. For those of us used to turning right just beyond the sign to go to Pinehurst, word of architect Mike Strantz’s latest creation was reason enough to have a peek.
The look and feel of the place would prove unlike anything ever seen in golf. If the asphalt plant at the entrance wasn’t enough, there was the rustic cabin behind a green to the right and an overblown shed that looked like a halfway house until you realized it was, in fact, the clubhouse.
But that’s nothing compared to the view from the first tee. Here, the player looks out upon a 558-yard par 5 that weaves and bobs through massive dunes that narrowly pinch the fairway landing area. Most courses shun blind shots entirely. By the looks of things, Tobacco Road had three on the first hole. It’s a good indication of the ensuing walk on the wild side. Make no mistake about it: This is a scholarly golf course, though the esoteric allusions are enhanced by sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. There’s a Biarritz green (No. 3) on LSD. A reverse Redan (No. 8) with the amp juiced to “11.” And a Dell hole green on a par 5 (No. 13) that makes one feel like a Pinball Wizard.
The overall effect is stunning and also hysterically funny. You can toss the book out on all sorts of routing rules – you know, the ones that preach an easy opening tee shot or visible landing areas or well-defined options. In military parlance, the opening tee shot passes through a narrow “defile,” or choke point. When you break through to the other side, you have entered a netherworld of distracting beauty, psychological distortion and cruel teasing. We always knew golf could be hard or demanding, but who knew that a single round could be such an emotional roller-coaster of imagery, texture and sensuality? It’s the golf course you love and hate on alternating shots. And the golf course that made you think everything else in its generation was two-dimensional and black and white.
The late Strantz (1955-2005) was trained as a graphic artist and then honed his skill while working on a maintenance crew. He was a shaper for Tom Fazio, then broke new ground at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, S.C. (No. 100, Golfweek’s Best Modern). His unique blend of artistry and attention to strategic detail make Tobacco Road a maddening joy to play.
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Tobacco Road Golf Club
• 442 Tobacco Road, Sanford, N.C.
• 877-284-3762; 919-775-1940
• Daily-fee course
• 6,532 yards, par 71
• (73.2 rating/150 slope)
• Green fees: $49-134 (optional cart included)
Walking always allowed
1. Routing: 5
Feels slightly cramped at times, with a few switchbacks and the occasional sense of exposure to shots on adjoining holes. If the space between No. 12 green and No. 13 tee had been used for a par 3, it would have eliminated the disappointing short par-3 17th and several problem areas.
2. Quality of shaping: 10
Mike Strantz and his associate/shaper, Forrest Fezler, a former PGA Tour player, have achieved something new in bulldozer work – what Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn has suggested is a surrealist painterly quality.
3. Overall land plan: 9
Half of the 213-acre site was a sand and quarry pit/asphalt-making plant; the other half was farmed for tobacco, soybeans and cotton. Old implements abound and are creatively used for tee markers (rippers, discs, plows and cultivators). The farm/quarry/tobacco theme works fantastically well for the small, cozy clubhouse.
4. Greens and surrounds: 6
The joke on approach shots is that while yardages are available to the center of greens, there’s often no center to play to because many putting surfaces are wafer thin at the middle – or they have such steep fall-offs that the front third or half doesn’t do you much good.
5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: 6
Three of the par 3s play very short; only one requires as much as a mid- or long-iron. At the steeply downhill 17th, 142 yards from the back, the green is 95 yards wide and no more than 12 yards deep.
6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: 6
Great demands on driving, with most of the fairways extremely wide (and strategic). Second shots tend to be visually intimidating, with the emphasis on short approaches to pinpoint landing areas.
7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: 10
Fairways are bewilderingly wide and thus confusing with all of the options. Two of the par 5s are dead 90-degree doglegs. At the right-sweeping 531-yard uphill 11th, Strantz basically took away the bail-out option by making the landing area blind and convex. The message is clear: go for broke over the 30-foot-deep pit of sand and scraped-out dirt.
8. Tree and landscape management: 8
Wide clearances and never anything resembling a straight line.
9. Conditioning: 6
Biggest issue – more design than maintenance – is that golf balls tend to pocket in fairway collection areas, which create torn-up low spots. Also, tees are way too small, especially on par 3s, and the course shows wear and tear. Fescue roughs; hybrid 419 Bermudagrass fairways and tees overseeded with rye; Crenshaw/LP93 bentgrass greens.
10. “Walk in the park” test: 10
A lot shorter to walk than ride despite a trio of long gaps between holes.
Tremendously entertaining. Note: Half of what you see here is fictional and the other half is exaggerated. For all of Strantz’s classicism, the game here is entirely aerial and thus stressful on mid- to higher-handicappers. It belongs on our top-100 list, though it’s perfectly plausible to dismiss it as a monumental joke the first time you play it. It’s much more rational the third or fourth time around.