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Thursday, December 09, 2004


This course is so fantastic, it will take up two features. Run, don't walk to the Pinehurst/Sandhills region of NC for the greatest golf adventure you have had in ages...in the meantime, tune in next week for a hole by hole breakdown and more photos.

422 Tobacco Road
Sanford, NC

Architect: Mike Strantz
Par - 71
Excitement Level – 11/12
Difficulty – 11/12
Cost – Depending on season, Peak $75-$115,
shoulder seasons $45-$60, see website for latest pricing.
Yearly Memberships - None
Conditioning - Five Stars
Value - Five Stars

Tees Yards Rating Slope

Ripper 6532 73.2 150
Disc 6297 70.8 141
Plow 5886 68.6 131
Cultivator 5094 66.1 115

They shall beat their swords into plough shares and then beat their plough shares into a golf course…and then they shall try to keep score and they shall beat their clubs against their heads.

“I LOVE TOBACCO ROAD MORE THAN I LOVE MY MOM!!!” – anonymous player (shouting…really loudly…)

Tobacco Road’s designer Mike Strantz once quoted Alistair Mackenzie as saying, “The best holes give rise to the most bitter controversy.” To him, as fellow designer Tom Doak once opined also quoting Mackenzie, “golf course design is all about designing holes on the borderline where strokes can slip away so easily or be regained quickly and dramatically.” In this regard, Tobacco Road a triumphant tour de force. Combining his profound gift for designing great strategic holes with his limitless creative palette for artistic flair, Strantz wove wide, yet sinewy and elusive fairways and well protected greens amid heaving, expansive waste areas and hurly-burly sand mounds. The results are awe-inspiring. Perhaps no other public course in America is as thrilling to experience and has as many strategic options and risk-reward decisions. Part Pine Valley (and therefore World Woods) for its vast sandy waste areas and part Prestwick for its numerous blind drives and approaches, the result is a dazzling and unique synergy flawlessly executed to produce a course rich in risk reward options on a breathtaking canvas. It’s easy to see how players find Tobacco Road the most atmospheric and enjoyable four miles of potential triple bogeys ever designed.

But the road to recognition and respect has been as bumpy as the great rumpled course itself. As Strantz correctly anticipated, the dramatic, bold design has polarized some in the golf community and triggered controversy and frustration along with well-deserved acclaim. Years of target golf on parkland style layouts and the acceptance of “stick the pin” designs as “normal” by American professionals and amateurs alike has led some to opine that many of Tobacco Road’s ancient design concepts – blind shots and shots threaded through towering rough covered dunes – are anachronistic or contrived. Worse still, The Road, as it is affectionately called, is unyielding, consistently requiring shaped shots, a smooth, trusty swing to deal with the challenging shot values, and most of all patience.

Patience and creativity are two traits that have suffered of late when it comes to both critics and the playing public. By and large, blind shots are seen as a nuisance and overly difficult golf courses and unconventional designs are often too quickly dismissed as gimmicky. Some unimaginative and disgruntled players unfairly brand The Road with such a stigma. The very design elements they dismiss so high-handedly are derived from some of the most storied courses in the world. Nobody has a problem with the blind shots at Prestwick or Lahinch, but import them to America and a designer better have ear plugs or a bulletproof ego.

The difficulty of the course is derived directly from three factors. First, nobody is better than Strantz at optical illusion and nowhere do his optical illusions invoke more trepidation, confusion or frustration in a player than at Tobacco Road. Holes look cloak-and-dagger claustrophobic from the tee. Since the tee shots are sometimes blind, players and particularly first-time visitors, are uncertain exactly where to place their shot. (Always remember – when teeing off on a Strantz hole, go over the mound in front of you, Strantz’ fairways are behind the mound…) Adding to the illusion, it is difficult to orient oneself on the course as fairways are the furthest thing from straight ribbons from tee to green. Instead they wind around, over, and through the mountainous sand dunes. It’s one thing where Rees Jones creates inkblot shaped bunkers, it’s another where Strantz designs inkblot shaped fairways and greens.

However, in typical Strantz fashion, the fears from the teebox are misplaced as fairways are actually remarkably wide and this concealed width opens up a wealth of shot options for players, making the course eminently playable and enjoyable by all skill levels…if they hit their fairways. Nevertheless, several holes are not only blind off the tee but semi-blind or blind into the green as well. These greens are not merely well-guarded. Some greens curve around enormous sand dunes, others are recessed into the dune’s face, and still others are almost completely obscured by the dunes. These devilish green settings are often far above or below the fairway level and are guarded by exaggerated chipping areas that even Donald Ross would fear. Challenging to club, hard to visualize, severely uphill one minute, severely downhill the next, and severely around-hill after that, Strantz never lets a golfer catch his breath or bearings. The course rides like an angry, bucking steer. But it is that breathless feeling, that continual adrenaline rush one gets while playing The Road that makes it one of the World’s greatest golf thrills.

The ceaseless optical illusions and exacting shot requirements, especially on the approaches, are mentally and physically fatiguing and the course just gets increasingly harder as the round goes on. The optical illusions lead to uncertainty and uncertainty frequently becomes fear, which is the second and overriding factor in the course’s difficulty. Nervous, uncertain swings lead to disastrous results and wayward tee shots stand no chance of offering players a chance to play to the greens in regulation. Golf scores can turn to bowling scores in the span of just a few holes. More than any other course in the country, Tobacco Road demands patience and restraint bordering on the robotic.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, play the right set of tees for your skill level. This is the easiest problem a player can remedy. Par is 71, not 72 so the 6300 yard tees play closer to 6600. Players who insist on playing a set of tees beyond their skill level will fail to reach the knee of doglegs or may not be able to negotiate the forced carries off the tee.

The course is located only a half hour northeast of Pinehurst, yet despite its unyielding difficulty and proximity to such a renowned and revered golf destination, Tobacco Road has built a devout following among golf connoisseurs as one of the most creative, exciting and enjoyable tracks in the country. How can it compete under such seemingly long odds? Easy - affordability and ingenious design. It is also a quintessential match play course as fortunes of the round change from shot to shot, exactly what any truly great course evokes - and the road features such options and potential swings on each and every hole. With every hole not only not memorable, but indelible in its artistry and world-class in its shot values, Tobacco Road, along with Bandon Dunes, is the most important course to open in this country since Sawgrass and is one of the richest golf experiences in the entire World.

“Tobacco Road is easily one of the most intimidating courses you’ll ever set eyes on, but playability-wise it is actually quite easy. The look paralyzes your brain on overload – hence your swing tightens. But once you play it a few times you’ll get your comfort zone. That is what the great courses are all about, they make you think. And when you pull off that impossible shot, you’ll remember it forever. That’s what Mike wants. Where else can you get a thrill like that?” - Forrest Fezler, Mike Strantz design partner and former tour pro.


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