Pure Genius: Tobacco Road

One of the great things about being a golfer is dragging your clubs around the globe to experience all the different types of golf the world offers. Philadelphia golf is an opposite of Florida, which is very different from the deserts of Southern California and Arizona, which is nothing like Scotland. The Getaway section will feature courses outside of the greater Philadelphia area that I’ve been able to play and are worth your visit.

The Warm-Up

My main golfing buddy Wes moved to the Durham/Chapel Hill area a couple winters ago. So despite losing a local playing partner, I gained a golfing destination. The Raleigh area is just a short ride from the Sandhills of North Carolina and Pinehurst, the OG of American golf destinations. Our first trip in 2017 was primarily in Myrtle Beach, but we played an old Donald Ross course near Pinehurst called Southern Pines Country Club on the way down (review coming soon).

Last summer we stayed close to his Chapel Hill home, playing Southern Pines again, another Ross masterpiece in Mid Pines, Coore & Crenshaw’s (then public) Dormie Club and a couple other local courses. I really wanted to play Tobacco Road Golf Club on that trip, but they had aerated earlier that week. Everything I had heard was that it was a course unlike anything I’d ever seen. We stopped by Tobacco Road on the way to Quail Ridge Country Club, which is basically across the street. Seeing the first tee at Tobacco (pictured below), I knew I had to come back ASAP.

TR 1st Tee June 2018
Tobacco Road – 1st Tee (June 2018)

The opportunity arose this winter when my amazing wife kindly suggested I go for a weekend trip to escape the Philadelphia winter and play a few rounds in honor of my 40th birthday. Tickets were purchased and a mid-February trip was arranged. The week of the trip saw two separate snow events in Philadelphia and another on the horizon, so I was very thankful to be going south. After a morning flight, our Friday round would be at the Tom Fazio designed UNC Finley course. On Saturday we’d play Tobacco Road in the morning and then my first round of match-play at Quail Ridge in the afternoon.

My flight from PHL to RDU on Friday was uneventful, which is good for travel in 2019. The weather in Chapel Hill was lovely, 65-degrees and mostly overcast skies. UNC Finley is a very “nice” course in the way that most Fazio courses are. Beautifully set in the pine trees over a good piece of ground, the holes were all good, but nothing stood out as particularly great or memorable. I played well for being dormant for two-plus months, defeating my friend on his home turf. Bermuda grass has always stumped this northerner, so I was pleased and excited for the day ahead. The forecast for Saturday was a high of 54 with periodic, light rain.

UNC 15th Tee
UNC Finley 15th Hole (Feb. 2019)

But alas, the best laid plans… We awoke Saturday morning to a steady rain, which only increased as we drove down route 501. As much as we hoped for it to let up, we were clearly in for a soggy and cold morning round.

Course History

Tobacco Road is the creation of Mike Strantz, his 5th original design in an unfortunately small portfolio. Strantz passed away in 2005, just after his 50th birthday with only nine courses to his name. He began his career in golf working for Fazio in the 1980s before starting his own firm with former pro golfer Forest Feltzer. Strantz’s first original design is the popular and challenging Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, near Myrtle Beach. His next two courses were in the Richmond, VA area with Stonehouse and Royal New Kent, both opening in 1996. (Both of these courses were nearly lost, closing in 2017. Fortunately both are set to reopen in 2019.)

Tobacco Road is Strantz’s boldest creation. Opening in 1998, the course was a stark contrast to the popular Pinehurst resort and the surrounding courses just a few miles to the south. Built on a former tobacco farm turned sand mine, the full value of his genius was allowed to come forth. Visually stunning, wide and undulating, the course was designed to test “a player’s eye, determination, and wits.”

The Takeaway

The perception of Tobacco Road varies greatly depending on who you talk to. Golfers familiar with conservative country club courses built in the mid-20th century may consider it “goofy golf.” Those with more experience on Golden Age or modern courses tend to have more favorable impressions. As I’ve indulged more and more in the study of golf course architecture, my mind has been opened to a wider variety of golf design, so I was fascinated by what I read and saw of Tobacco Road.

I did a fair amount of prep for the trip, studying the Google satellite images and the course App. I immediately saw that Strantz had embraced the principles of strategy and variety from the Golden Age architects combined with an artistic touch of art’s impressionists and abstractionists. There are multiple lines of play for each hole and the art in Stratz’s design was also part of the strategy. The lower you want your score to be, the more of the intimidating features you need to take on. The course is like the the melding of Alister MacKenzie and Pablo Picasso.

For me, the 5th hole stood out as the quintessential example of Strantz’s design philosophy. The hole is a short par 4 with the green straight ahead of the tee but impeded by a large waste area (Hell’s 3 Acres?) with the fairway off to the right. In front of the green, at a 230 yard carry is a 30-yard wide landing area with just 270 to carry to the center of the green (route A). The fairway has ample width and two main landing areas (routes B & C). Your path is easier depending on how much of the waste area and bunkering you want to take on.

Tobacco Road 5th Hole Strategy
Tobacco Road’s 5th Hole

These were the worst conditions I’ve ever played golf in. I was soaked and cold and nearly quit after 11 holes, yet a smile rarely left my face. We weren’t alone. After being the first group to tee off around 8:45, there were another 40 or 50 crazy people behind us. Course conditions were terrific considering how much rain had come down. Aside from some rivers and puddles on the first few holes, the greens were true and quick. But with the weather being what it was, we decided on the first green not to keep score. I hit the ball well all things considered, so I would have scored pretty well. We both made a bunch of pars and a birdie each. But I had to think my way around to do it. (Note: rain gloves really do work and I didn’t lose grip at all despite them being soaked.)

The first thing that the satellite view cannot give you is the scale and beauty of the property. It’s immense and enchanting. Online you can certainly see that the playing corridors are wide, but when combined with the height of the dunes and the movement of the land, it’s both daunting and gorgeous. It’s a startling contrast to most public courses, especially in the Philadelphia region.

The second thing that jumps out is how visually intimidating the course is. Using the 5th as the example, the satellite view could not prepare me for perspective from the tee or tell me that the hole plays uphill. On a normal day I probably would have gone for the heroic shot at the green, but I opted for option B. Wes hit a wipey fade to option C. It didn’t go well for either of us, as we ping-ponged around the green in the bunkers.

TR 5th Tee
Tobacco Road 5th Tee (Feb. 2019)

Aside from the aesthetics and strategy of each hole, I loved the variety from hole to hole. No two holes were remotely alike. The greens are generally large and undulating, with some wide and some narrow, some long and some short. Each green features a number of pin-able locations, so from round to round, the hole could play very different, particularly the wide greens (6, 7, 15 and 17). In order to really score and rack up birdies, you need to be on the green within the green, on the proper tier or section of the putting surface. In the end, it’s a course that rewards strong approach play (which all the best courses do).

Tobacco Road DetailsFrom an experience perspective, we were treated extremely well. The staff was very friendly and especially helpful for first timers. The clubhouse is small but comfortable. Peak prices enter the $200+ realm in the spring and our February online rate was $68, and includes range balls and cart fee.

There are lots of great golfing options in the Pinehurst/Sandhills region, but Tobacco should be near the top of your list. In the weeks since visiting Tobacco Road, I’ve thought about the course every day. I have no doubt that this is a course where Mike Strantz’s genius is revealed a bit more with each round. I cannot wait to get back. Hopefully the sun is shining and the temperature is moderate. But even if it isn’t, I know I’ll still be smiling. Thank you Mike Strantz and thank you Tobacco Road. I’ll be back soon.

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