Tobacco Road

6,317 yards, 143 Slope from the Disc tees

“Here, I got you a cup of ice.” Me: “Oh, thanks….what for?” Him: “I have a bottle of Basil Hayden in my golf bag. We’re all going to finish it before the round is over.” And so it was at Tobacco Road for me. A surreal adventure amidst a breathtaking landscape, with a couple guys I met for the first time whom became fast friends as we set out on one of golf’s formative voyages.

It all started when I checked in and some how got my tee time wrong by about half an hour. Instead of having time to warm up, I was on the tee in 2 minutes. So as one of the first out there, I got to the First tee with about six guys and after a fair amount of sorting out, we let the first group go before us. I was grouped with another first timer and a regular, who ended up acting as our venerable host, and a hell of a guy.

People and places. The place will be spectacular no matter the people but spectacular people certainly helps the spectacularity of a place. That was certainly the case for me at Tobacco Road. I would have loved the course regardless, but the people I played with certainly added to my impression. And the place certainly added to the time we had together. I stay in touch with both to this day.

The story of Tobacco Road is a famous yet simple one. An old sand pit that was used for road building, the family that owned it decided to turn the site into a golf course once it was dug out. They wanted to be unique from the get go and at some point fate likely intervened, leading them to Strantz. While Strantz and his team ultimately delivered on what the Stewart family was looking for, their perseverance in vision is admirable even after opening. A polarizing reception, some would have tried to soften the features to appease the critics, but remaining steadfast in what they had and understanding it’s not a course everyone will want to return to, its regard warmed over the years to the present, where it’s nothing short of a memorial to the artistic spirit of course architecture.

The course challenged the boundaries of what was considered a successful design template at the time. This was intentional. The Stewart family was acutely aware of the number of golf courses in the Pinehurst area that bore a good amount of similarity to one another and had no interest in joining that rank. They wanted to stand out. Alas, they hired Strantz in 1997. Instead of focusing on a mostly singular playing avenue where the placement of bunkers and rough dictated challenge on the way to the green, Tobacco Road challenged the golfer to find the path to the green in the first instance. In some instances, the golfer dictates his own path. For the uninitiated, this gets interesting since the visuals are fascinating and give rise to a multitude of emotions, as well as several blind shots that obscure that path to the green. Many times, these visuals, once properly embraced, can be used to the golfer’s advantage as either aiming points or as contours to influence ball movement.

While the way in which Strantz and his team went about the design was indeed unique in a number of ways, much of these concepts are anchored within links golf in the UK. Creative mounding and bunkering, frequent blind shots and wild greens are traits here that are also among many of the links and heathland courses in the UK. The greens incorporate these traits as well, with Redan, Biarritz and Punchbowl features used throughout. These components give a sense of familiarity but the Strantz team imparted their own style to it in ways that make it different and exciting. There’s sensationalism here. In presentation and play. It’s exciting deciding how to send the golf ball on its journey through it all to get to the hole. The number of ways the golfer can get the ball to move around the hills, over the chasm bunkers and sharply jutting mounds is exciting. Yes the structure of play here is different than most golfers face most of the time but if one starts to think about the best way to get the ball close to the pin instead of thinking hitting right at the pin should be enough, it’s no different than many links and even some of the Pinehurst courses nearby. Course knowledge is indeed rewarded yet the staggering variety ensures the course will never play the same.

The Strantz style reminds me of a bolder and more varied Pete Dye. The Dyes also had their own take on links design concepts which they implemented into their courses. Strantz seems to do the same yet focused a bit more on tying in the land to the design so it appeared seamless and evoked a sense of place. As I wrote in, “The Strantz I Know,” “While the course is very well tied in and does not feel contrived, there’s an intention here in not just trying to leave it minimal or naturalistic. The artistic is on purpose and goes beyond allowing the beauty of nature to flourish. Man, in all his complicated brilliance, is distinct from nature so is inherently a separate expression. That’s the imparting of artistic expression into the natural surroundings, just as much a part of the beauty. That triumvirate led Strantz to accomplish such a strong design, forming an intricate structure of play for that interaction with the artistic and natural, forming a unified expression that emphasizes the finer spiritual aura this game holds. 

Strantz felt strongly about enhancing the peculiar characteristics of the land to accentuate the sense of place. He wanted the course to belong to that specific land and place, anchored to it. He accomplished this at Tobacco Road tremendously. A Jazz enthusiast as well, Strantz believed in instilling his own individual take on the land instead of trying to have it simply speak for itself. He wanted to add drama, or inspiration, or deceit, or tragedy. As man interacts with the land during the round, the design of the course is an important interaction as well. 

Like most art, there’s far more meaning than what one sees at first blush. What feelings or thoughts associated with perceiving it matter just as much, as well as how that changes over time, thought and experience. Tobacco Road captures that beautifully. Likewise, it will never play the same twice, and is fantastic fun. How the course played was much more intriguing to me. The visuals were splendid and served their purpose of evoking an array of emotional responses, as well as adding to the strategic gameplay. It’s an altar to the individualism of golf in the U.S., which harkens back to a much earlier era in the U.K. while using its own modern riff on that model. Everyone should play it at least twice.”

Tobacco Road is a special place. It touches on the deeper side of the game in its unique character, leaving the golfer no choice but to strategize, trust his swing and have fun. You will see things out there you have never seen before and have shots out there you have never had before, or will never have again. Yet the more the golfer bears down and embraces the sense of place, the more the course reveals itself and those paths to the hole start to become a little more evident. In terms of adventure and experience, this is essential play.

Still rubbing the sleep from my eyes and only half understanding who I was playing with and where exactly I was supposed to hit my opening tee shot, I swung away and watched my drive bellow off to the right, into the Tenth fairway. Everyone told me to hit another one, which I did, this one in the fairway but only as a semi grounder, running along and skimming on the morning dew of the fairway. Not the glorious opener I was hoping for but such is golf. It could only get better from here. . . right?

The First is a 547 yard par 5 (from the Disc tees). There are two gargantuan mounds on each side. The fairway is nice, wide and inviting before them then funnels to a much narrower strip between them and that narrowness is all we see beyond. It felt like a gateway to me. Mystery and suspense is on the other side while we are asked to take the jump into the unknown. It all starts with that first shot. Those veterans among us know that the fairway expands quickly, especially to the right, then actually funnels yet again where bunkers are on either side. Beyond this second gateway the fairway widens even more while leading downhill to the green a large entry point on the left side. The pull of the mounds, the undulations on the sides of the fairways and the interior contours give us movement within movement and those who know the course well are more adept at knowing where the ball will move with more speed and in what direction. With the first two shots very likely blind, that course knowledge becomes a distinct advantage from the get go. A wonderful opener for a number of reasons.

The First
Before the gateway mounds
Moving down the fairway after the gateway
Approach shot territory, from the right
Looking back
Looking back from the green

The Second is a 377 yard par 4. The sunrise began to get its legs as we stood at the tee, once again trying to decipher our journey. Really, there are two main options. Off to the right is the safer option but means a much longer and more challenging second shot. Those who are willing to take on the bunker waste land in front of us and carry it to the fairway are rewarded with a much more direct line to the green. The fairway is pretty wide after that wasteland, so belt that tee shot to the rising sun and help it on its way. The fairway then moves downhill to the green and moves left to right. A large bunker is off to the right near the green while a sliver bunker at the front center makes you choose one side or the other if you run your shot up, or carry it altogether. I liked running it up the left side personally.

The Second
The bunkerscape before the fairway
The fairway
The green
Looking back

The Third is a 147 yard par 3. We now have a clean look at the green and its right side is pulled high above the left, very similar to a Redan. Bunkers surround the green on the sides and rear and the green is much deeper than it looks. Going for the right side is ideal but those who stray off to the right and end up in the right bunker will have an interesting time getting on to the green. The dip from front to center also mimics a Biarritz in some ways and then back pin positions will need to clear the swale altogether or try to use it to bounce off of.

The Third

The Fourth is a 507 yard par 5. Some what of a Cape hole, the fairway moves uphill before sweeping to the left, around a desert of a bunker complex, with the green tucked away in the far left corner. Like a Cape, the decisions after the tee shot focus on how much of the desert on the left you want to take on at the second and approach. The longer and more daring may go for the green altogether at the second shot while the more wily will calculate and chart the second closer to the green by using the fairway ever so slightly as it starts to move downhill more and more gradually as you get closer to the green. The downhill gets fairway strong just before the green, so take that into account.

The Fourth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back at the bunker land to the left of the hole

The Fifth is a 322 yard par 4. Similar to the Fourth, a vast expanse of bunkers reside on the left so the tee shot needs to get to the right and figuring out just how much to take on requires some thought. The longer hitters may be able to go directly at the green from the tee. The green is set to the left, which means we’re going back over the bunkers to the green from the fairway. Or hell, just blast way towards the hole form the tee and if you end up in sand, then you end up in sand and could have a manageable bunker shot to the green. As the immortal Joel Goodsen quipped, “Some times you gotta say what the fuck.”

The Fifth
Approach shot territory

The Sixth is a 143 yard par 3. A wide green is on the other side of bunker town and this is the hole to get the distance right. Having played Royal New Kent mere hours before, the variety of tee positions strewn out horizontally reminded me of some of the par 3’s there. The width of the various tees and pin positions means the hole can take on many forms.

The Sixth
From the right side
Looking back

The Seventh is a 401 yard par 4. A downhill fairway gives us another blind tee shot but it’s much wider than the visible front part. The fairway cascades down, eventually ending at a wall of native vegetation, the green on the other side. It’s a large green but so are the bunker areas at its sides.

The Seventh
Approach shot territory
Looking back from the green

The Eighth is a 173 yard par 3. Another forced carry to the green, this one from an elevated tee with a green that dog legs to the right of bunkers on the right side. The green is narrow, twisting and deep and with a back pin position, tempts you to go straight at it even though it gets pretty narrow in the rear, although those more experienced players may opt for the easier shot to the middle of the green where they’ll still need to deal with the swales and various pulling undulations. Again, consider the miss you’re ok with and include that in the pondering. Some times bunker shots may be more manageable.

The Eighth
From the right
Looking back

The Ninth is a 415 yard par 4. The tee is set on a ridge just behind the Eighth, which overlooks the fairway yet the green is obscured by a hillside on the left with all kinds of conifers. The fairway moves from left to right, wide then narrowing with a wide bunker pit on the right, before widening again. Narrowing one more time closer to the green with a lot of sand on the right, the green is uphill on a plateau, blind to the fairway. There’s a lot of room of up there and it’s deep, but don’t go too horizontal or it will be off. Here, the tee shot is vital to get in a position for a feasible approach.

The Ninth
Just before the fairway
Greenside bunker
Looking back

The front nine has a wild routing with the par sequencing 5-4-3-5-4-3-4-3-4 so you face a different par at each consecutive hole. The opening quintet sets a very strong tone for the eclectic strategy and shotmaking you’ll face before the next couple holes fall into a little more traditional tone before ending with the challenging Ninth. I would rank them 1, 4, 2, 3, 9, 5, 6, 8, 7.

The back nine starts with the 421 yard par 4 Tenth. With early morning bourbon in tow (do as the Romans do), we set out for the second set. A dog leg right where you need to get over a large bunker waste land early, to the fairway that stretches out of view. That bunker doesn’t go away at the start of the hole, but moves along the right side and below the fairway, coming back into play on the second shot for any tee shot that ends up towards the right side. Those that favored the left side are rewarded with a clearer approach and the green opens itself up to the fairway on that side. Yet that large bunker on the right sure does have a strong presence and even those safely on the left are still wise to remember it.

The Tenth
Moving down the fairway
Looking back from the green

The Eleventh is a 511 yard par 5. It’s almost as if this hole saw that right side bunker at the Tenth, then said, “hold my beer.” This is another dog leg right with the second half of the hole obscured from view at the tee. The fairway signals to us to favor the left while I suppose the longer hitters might be looking to get to the right as much as possible. As you get to the fairway, the Grand Canyon is on your right. That doesn’t seem right and maybe this Basil Hayden is kicking in early, but after looking at it again, yeah it definitely at least looks like the Grand Canyon. It’s one of the largest and deepest bunker chasms I have come across and unless your tee tee shot is at the extreme left, most will have to deal with it on the second or third shot. Trying to get cute, I of course ended up in it and after ending up just below the wooden planks at the top, had to come out directly sideways and then could finally reach the green. The bunker achieves its effect in its magnificence; you almost want to end up in it for the experience. The smarter play, however, is staying on the left side, left of the lone tree in the fairway, and the fairway runs up to the green on that side.

It’s an impressively imposing hole yet there is plenty of strategy lying underneath the visuals.

The Eleventh
Moving up the fairway
A closer look at the chasm bunker
In the chasm bunker looking up at the green
Approach shot territory
Looking back at the green

The Twelfth is a 412 yard par 4. The fairway is wide early on until bunkers on both sides narrow things a bit. The hole then turns left to the green, with the bunker on the left stretching out past the green. On the right side, the hillside falls off into grass, then sand below, so the green is essentially on a ridge, with various perils below it on either side. The right side struck me as a different kind of price to pay for being off the green than others we have faced. More gradual, more gentle, yet decidedly demanding deftness of touch to get close to the pin amidst the various contours. It’s a completely different look here, or at least the contrast with the prior couple holes struck me enough to notice.

The Twelfth
Off the right side of the green
The green

The Thirteenth is a 536 yard par 5. Embracing the inside of the turn off the tee seems to be a theme on the back nine, while a lot of bail out room is provided further out which in turn results in longer and tougher second shots. As with the other holes on the back thus far, the second half of the hole is hidden from the tee. As we head to the fairway and begin climbing, the view is still obscured as the first half of the fairway bottlenecks between bunkers, but once we get to the second wide fairway and the turn is complete, you are at least able to see, well, more hills and bunkers, with industrial infrastructure beyond. The green is hiding in those hills and as one of the more famous shots of the course, is completely blind. The second shot is all about setting up a comfortable approach shot into the blind affair, although I imagine the longer hitters may be ok belting their second in and dealing with any consequences from the trajectory of a longer club. The green is wide and runs from back to front, which encourages a stronger shot to carry all the terrain, sand and trouble before it. You actually can get a look at the green from the approach if you are right of the fairway enough, so it’s an option, but those who over do it will start flirting with the water on that side. The green is a saddle of sorts; high in the middle and dropping off to the sides. It’s a hole that lived up to its reputation for me, can be played so many different ways and the exciting suspense of the approach is one of those moments in the game where you realize the soul of thrill resides out here.

The Thirteenth
Start of the fairway
Approach shot territory
A bit closer, from the right
The green, from the back left
Looking back from just short of the green

The Fourteenth is a 178 yard par 3. We have still not encountered a consecutive par hole this late in the round. Much more straightforward, this drop shot forced carry par 3 is to a deep green with bunkers about it and water lurking on the right. With the water at an angle from the tee, careful with distance control and going for pins placed at the front.

The Fourteenth
Looking back

The Fifteenth is a 358 yard par 4. We don’t know much from the tee but to get over the sand and maybe even the trees to the direct right. The tree line on the left guides a little, hinting at least that we’re not going that way. On the other side, the fairway widens a lot, mainly to the right, with contours and bumps that propel the ball downhill towards the green. Knowing this hole and what is on the other side, however, makes all the difference. There’s a long sliver of a trench bunker short of the green that runs with the fairway before doglegging to the right. Yes, the bunker dog legs. This essentially divides the fairway into a shorter, more blind to the green left side and a further away, better view right side. Glimpses of the green can be had from here or there, essentially signaling that you need decide on coming in from one side or the other. Knowing the green and how it moves, along with pin position, helps determine which side is more ideal for the approach and this writer simply lacks the playing experience necessary to say one way or another. I was on the right and enjoyed it for the simple fact I could use more of the green for roll out. The green is a diagonal hourglass of sorts, the front right side higher, the rear left side lower, and various undulations and contours in between. It’s a remarkable hole for the sheer amount of options available and variety of movement from the shaping and bunkers. You don’t hear much about this hole amongst the general discussion of Tobacco Road but you should.

The Fifteenth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Sixteenth is a 321 yard par 4. From the Fourteenth to Fifteenth, you get a preview of this hole and how the fairway is configured to the green. It’s a good idea to take a gander, as the tee shot doesn’t give you such information. Uphill all the way and off to the right, the bunkers and grass that are in view must be carried to the fairway beyond. We then head diagonal left and more substantially uphill, yes, to a blind green. I loved how the fairway cascaded down from the green, in terraces, beset by craggy bunkers on either side. The tranquil calm of the smooth and curvy green is beyond as a high above oasis. A ridge cuts through the green, giving it all kinds of different sweeping movements, yet the inspiration of the view from the climb is enough resolve to navigate it to the hole.

The Sixteenth
From the high left, looking back towards the tee
Approach shot territory

The Seventeenth is a 134 yard par 3. Climbing even higher to the tee, the green is below us, a tumultuous sea of copper sand and malachite fescue, mixing and churning, dominating the landscape. The green is the shore of this sea, running alongside it and perpendicular to us. There is freedom of movement from side to side from the tee for the most part, but the fate of those too short or too long is unspeakable.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a 414 yard par 4. The similarities to the Eighteenth at Pine Valley are too coincidental to be unintentional. The road running through, the bunkers and the sheer wall beyond are all characteristics of the approach at Pine Valley’s Eighteenth yet here they are at the tee shot. We must belt away and carry all of it, to yet another unseen and unknown fairway that we trust is on the other side. It is, and wide. This width dissipates as the fairway moves closer to the green where a series of bunkers on either side, the narrow fairway climbing and turning left to the green, also blind. There green has some fun drop offs into short grass areas yet seems to move towards the center in a roundabout way yet this ensures the approach must be sure and true to hold.

I remember walking off the Eighteenth and spying the clubhouse ahead. It was inviting, an outside porch and fire place inside; I wish I had time to hang about, as I knew one round here was simply scratching the surface of this place. There’s lots to learn and take in, which takes time. Time to listen to the land and to the people. All to fully capture that sense of place. It’s special here and all the things that draw me to the game were out there. As with most things in life, however, time is short and matters become pressing, so we parted company and went on our way. The time is gone, the song is over. Thought I’d something more to say.

The Eighteenth
The fairway, green is off to the left
Approach shot territory

The back nine is bolder and grandiose than the front, the starting sequence an array of intimidation before transitioning to a more strategic exploration of some of the most engaging blind shots you can play. I would rank them 13, 15, 11, 12, 18, 16, 17, 10, 14.

Generally, Tobacco Road is a memorial to the artistic individual character of the game while representing the distinct contribution man, nature and place all have in course design. It’s a complex course, full of various styles of play and strategy, much of which is learned through the trial of time. The suspense of the blind shots, intimidation of the chasm bunker at the Eleventh, the gateway mounds at the First; they all intend to stir the emotions and passions of the golfer in various ways, all while an undercurrent of strategy and decisions runs underneath. In many ways, this makes the aerial game every bit as complex and engaging as the ground game, even if it likely takes longer to properly learn the intricacies of the ground. It’s exactly the kind of course you can take a step back from your shot to the green, hiding some where, take a nip of whiskey, and finally decide on one shot or another, using this sideboard or that, then watching it all unfold before the ball disappears.

Tobacco Road is also a testament to how powerful a sense of place can influence play without being minimalist in style. While Coore & Crenshaw and Doak are some of the best at capturing that sense of place through a minimalist approach, Strantz and his team had a different style and ended up manufacturing much of the landscape through shaping, moving dirt, etc. Despite this work, the course feels tied in and flowing, so that it is difficult to tell where the hand of man or nature comes or goes. This naturalism recognizes the very real role of man in course design while enhancing and emphasizing the natural setting and landscape. The degree to which the design evinces involvement of man varies from the architect and their style. Strantz feels similar to Dye in some ways and currently, King & Collins come to mind, all of them incorporating the rich character and zeal of the links game into their designs in one form or another, all of it memorable.

This is a must play if you’re in the area and even if you have the inclination to travel, to get to. It is not enough to play it once. Even if you walk off and declare your hatred, give it another go at least to confirm it. Experience and time with the place are invaluable and chances are your feelings will warm as the course reveals itself more and more. For those of us in admiration, it too is necessary for us to get back out there, for more time, more interaction. That interaction is when the golfer and course are at their happiest, so let us all oblige accordingly.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A log cabin blending in to the landscape, there’s a nice area of pretty cool apparel and an intimate area for drinks by the fire.

Practice area: While I had to skip over it to make my tee time, they have a range, short game area and putting green.

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