Tobacco Road Review
Sanford, North Carolina
Teacher’s Comments: Brilliance. Madness. There is a fine line between the two and Tobacco Road teeters on it.
Tobacco Road is one of just nine course designs by Mike Stranz before his untimely death at age 50. It just also might be his most famous. Tobacco Road is always included in the major magazines’ Top 100 lists.
It is hard to describe Tobacco Road, for Stranz bends and breaks so many of the norms of golf course design language and design. I’ve never played anything like it.
Tobacco Road is built on the skeleton of an abandoned sand quarry. Holes are routed between towering shoulders of sand, across vast wastes, past steep craggy faces and through labyrinthine canyons. It is wild and raw.
Stranz’s design is not seaside or prairie raw, though. It is industrial raw. The whole of Tobacco Road has a bit of a post-apocalypse feel. Blasting, bulldozers and dump trucks scarred the landscape. Mike Stranz’s design is a reclamation project in a wasteland. Grass on the fairways and greens feel as though they are hanging on for dear life against encroaching wastes. Where other courses plant tidy flower beds for visual interest, Tobacco Road has rusting farm implements.
If George Miller was scouting a location for a Mad Max movie set on a golf course, he would need look no further than Tobacco Road.
None of this is meant to disparage Tobacco Road in any way. I thought it was wonderful.
The distressed landscape at Tobacco Road gave Stranz the opportunity to create eighteen highly original holes. Not only are no two on the course in any way similar; I doubt any of them has a parallel anywhere else. It isn’t subtle.
Still, Tobacco Road has some consistent themes.
First, there is the sand: vast waste areas sported with natural grasses that come into play on every hole. Often running the entire length of a hole, and frequently interrupting the fairways the wastes are Tobacco Road’s defining characteristic.
The wastes, high dunes and depressions from the mining excavations are visually stunning and often intimidating.
Fairways are in general wide at the landing zones, but pinch in the approach to the green. If you know your target line, there is no real reason to miss the fat part of the fairway. Knowing the target line, however, is the trick.
Finding the line is tough on a first play. Blind shots are everywhere. I did not realize that I could get a forecaddie until it was too late, which left me to study my GPS’ screen intently. It didn’t help much. Get a forecaddie or caddy on the first play at the very least.
Risk and reward is another consistent theme. There seems to be a tempting shot on every hole — a shot that could net a birdie. Or a double bogey. Or just cause you to mark an X and pick up the ball.
Tobacco Road’s signature hole is probably the thirteenth, a dogleg right 575 yard par 5.
The tee shot is downhill, and must clear a waste area of sand and native grasses. From there, it climbs steadily uphill to a green in a crater. There is really no other way to describe the green complex. High mounds of sand guard the front with only a narrow path between; behind is a slope leading up to a road.
The one that haunts my imagination, however, is the par four sixteenth. Part of the outward stretch of fairway on this short dogleg left is sunken below ground level. From the tee, the landing area beyond is completely obscured.
Walking through the path was a bit like passing through a hedge maze.
Once clear of the sunken road, the immense landing zone is revealed. But from there, the battle is less than half won. The second shot is to a green perched at the top of a tall dune.
The tees at Tobacco Road are marked by black wrought iron sculptures, representing various implements used in tobacco farming. It i a neat idea, and one that should have players looking at the yardage rather than just heading to the familiar color. I imagine, though that these will have a habit of disappearing as a memento of a round.
From the tips, Tobacco Road is not particularly long, but that 145 slope warns of much difficulty. With the blind shots, carries and seemingly endless expanses of sand, a bogey golfer would be wise to play it forward.
I visited Tobacco Road in the spring of 2021, but have no idea how to judge the conditions. North Carolina is of course not my usual haunt (this was in fact my first trip to play golf there). I would say, however, that for early spring it seemed quite good. The greens were smooth and when I found the fairway, I had favorable lies.
The Tobacco Road review was published on GolfBlogger.Com on January 13, 2022 from notes and photos taken on a round played in the spring of 2021.
A photo tour of Tobacco Road follows