Tobacco Road Golf Club
North Carolina, United States of America
How many architects produce fresh and original material?
Most modern designers fall into one of two categories: those that claim to be following in the footsteps of the ‘classic’ architects and those stamping out one similar course after another. It’s odd that the former group tends to be regarded as revolutionary, when in fact they are merely applying the time-tested concepts of others. They are unique only by comparison to the work done in the past fifty years.
Mike Strantz stood out as an architect capable of building something fresh and exciting – sometimes shockingly so. ‘I have never seen anything like this before’ is the standard cliché uttered after playing your first Strantz course. Heartbreakingly, Strantz passed away at the early age 50 in 2005, leaving behind nine original designs built between 1993 to 2003. Save for his first solo project at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in 1993, his other courses are on a tremendous scale: fairways are 80 yards wide, greens 60 yards deep or 60 yards wide, huge 25 foot deep bunkers and abrupt five-foot elevation changes on the putting surfaces. Along with Tom Doak, Coore & Crenshaw and a handful of other architects, he mercifully led a return toward wide playing corridors and a greater abundance of short grass. This small but influential group of architects re-introduced options and strategy into the game. Their work was in stark contrast to the unimaginative championship courses bunkered left and right.
Strantz said in his June 2000 Feature Interview,
WIDTH IS KEY! When you start reducing width (and I mean air space as well as fairway width) you begin to reduce the number of options for players of various skill levels, thereby reducing the total number of players who can successfully navigate their way around the course. I guess that’s fine if we only want scratch to 10 handicaps playing golf. The comment about wide fairways presenting no challenge to the good player is pretty weak, at least on our courses. Go check out any of our fairways and it becomes apparent that you must be in certain spots to gain an advantage on the next shot or approach to the green.
We realize now, some 20+ years into this movement, too much width can be excessive but at Tobacco Road, Strantz struck the perfect chord for the fairways and greens to complement one another. Examine the dramatic two shot seventh and its severe green, bunkered front and back with a significantly lower front-left section and a flat but shallow back-right portion. Some golfers bark that back-right hole locations are almost impossible as there is too little room to stop a ball on the plateau. That is true – if you approach the hole from the right but that fairway is 70 yards wide so the player has plenty of room to drive down the left and open up a back-right hole location.
How fortunate the golf world is that Strantz built Tobacco Road and lent a breath of fresh air to central North Carolina. Famously a devoted family man, he was loath to travel outside of his home state of South Carolina and Tobacco Road developers Mark Stewart and A.K. Woodell hadn’t mentioned that they had an abandoned quarry, who knows if Strantz would have even explored the opportunity?! Listen to Stewart’s account of events in 1995:
‘My partner and I wanted to build a ‘golf only’ facility. Our mantra was ‘No Swimming. No Tennis. No Out Of Bounds. Just Golf.’ We owned most of today’s site on Rocky Fork Church Road yet we were quite neutral about it. Although the mining spoils and contours seemed to have a lot of potential, we wanted to build the best course possible, even if that was somewhere else. We were performing due diligence on various architects when someone mentioned ‘the guy who did Caledonia.’ After a week of trying, we finally reached Mike at the Caledonia maintenance building, where he had started to build True Blue. Initially, he wasn’t interested because he wanted to work within an hour of his home in Mount Pleasant. At the end of the call, we threw out that we had an abandoned sand pit as one of several potential sites and said, ‘If you change your mind, please let us know.’ The very next day he called back and said ‘I’ll be there Friday.’
Though Strantz had a flair for the dramatic, his designs are natural extensions of the native terrain. So, at this abandoned sand pit and its mix of clay and sandy loam, he found a myriad of appealing attributes including sandy pits, gnarly vegetation, wetlands, and significant land movement. Stewart continues:
We didn’t know who Mike was or what to expect. When he got out of his truck, he was bigger than life: 6’4″ with long locks like Sampson but quiet and humble. We wandered over the site of Holes 13 – 18 and then spent time where Holes 5 and 6 were eventually built. He seemed convinced that he could do something special here. After we chose Mike, the bank required us to perform a feasibility study, which concluded that we were in no man’s land, too far from Pinehurst and/or Raleigh to be successful. We had our eye on other properties north and south of today’s site but thankfully, Mike stepped in and said ‘Trust me, boys, this is the site you want.’ Between Mike’s confidence and a boatload of collateral, we got the bank to go along and here we are.
Where Strantz moved a lot of dirt, he did so purposefully. He intended to make every square yard of the 140 acres count. For instance, the two big mounds off the first tee enabled the placement of the ninth green, first fairway and tenth fairway in a relatively compact area. Yet, the feeling on first tee is one of spaciousness. In the middle of back nine he built up a hill to wall the property off from a commercial enterprise next door. His magic barricades the outside world to create an oasis of pure golf.
Some critics who sniff at such earthmoving and can only treat minimalist seriously completely miss the point. Innovation and variety within architecture are crucial for the overall development of the profession and the game. More importantly and unlike the typical fare produced by some big design firms, Strantz courses make you think on many different levels. Some golfers embrace this psychological spelunking while others become rattled and lose their composure. What’s quite special is that all golfers react to Tobacco Road, a few with disdain but it engenders one of the most loyal fan bases in golf, something very much appreciated by the owners.
Additionally, the owners delight in how Strantz built a maintenance-friendly course. Wide fairways typically suggest a large budget. Not here, because the total square area of maintained surface is less than one third of the course property, thanks to the liberal use of sandy waste areas. There is little rough – you are on a prepared surface or you’re off in the scruffy stuff. Since opening for play in 1996, there have been no design changes of substance. The most expensive undertaking since the course opened was an upgrade to the latest Bermuda strain in the summer of 2015.
Doc Lachicotte, one of the developers of Caledonia/True Blue, rode up with Strantz for the initial visit. As they stood around the bulkhead on what became the sixth, Lachicotte suggested to the owners that ‘If you do this, build a “1” or a “10”. Don’t build a 4/5/6.’ Let’s see what happened.
Holes to Note
First hole, 560 yards; There are nearly 1,000 golf holes in neighboring Moore County. Many of them are so bland that they are forgotten during the round itself. In stark contrast exists this opener, which is loved by some and loathed by many. Without question, it tells the golfer he is about to experience something different. Much is made about the tee shot played through a “V” in two large hills that Strantz created. It might be the single most polarizing opening tee shot in golf. Get away a good one and the sight of the ball bounding along the fairway on the far side is immensely satisfying. Get caught up on either hillside and the cursing begins! The author chooses to admire the hole not because of the initial 250 yards but for its final 250 yards.
Second hole, 375 yards; Ignoring the par 3s, the golfer is likely to see the flag from the tee only three of thirteen times, at the fifth, seventh and ninth. The flag is blind on the other ten holes for various reasons, including numerous doglegs (e.g. 2, 4, 10, 11, 12 , 13, 16, 18), occasional mounds (e.g. 1, 2, 15), elevation changes or all three contrivance like here at the second. Indeed, there is nothing that approximates a flat hole at Tobacco Road.
Fourth hole, 535 yards; A very fine risk/reward hole of the sort that should exist in droves in Pinehurst/Southern Pines but doesn’t. Its length is misleading because the hole bends sharply left around a sandy area, reducing the effective distance for those who hug the left side to some 470 yards. Reaching the green requires a heroic shot over 180 yards of sand and scrub to a slightly sunken green, allowing the player to bounce the ball home off the front-right slope. The hole remains enjoyable for the high handicapper as there are heaps of fairway that allow him to circumnavigate the trouble. However, the farther right he plays his second (away from the sand), the more difficult angle he creates for his third. This ‘button hook’ style hole was a favorite of Strantz’s for good reason and he employed it at True Blue, Royal New Kent, and Tot Hill Farm.
Fifth hole, 335 yards; Somewhat reminiscent of the fifteenth at Tom Fazio’s stylish World Woods (Pine Barrens) where Strantz worked, a large hazard bisects the tee and green. Despite playing uphill, plenty of golfers take the direct line left and have a slash at driving the green. Should one come up short, the recovery is either brutal (a 60 yard explosion shot) or ticklish (a thirty yard chip from tight grass to an elevated green with a pronounced false front staring at you). For those that play prudently to the right fairway, the resultant pitch, no bargain either, is to a shallow crowned plateau target that sheds balls. While the good player might expect a birdie on a hole of this length, it is far from certain.
Sixth hole, 150 yards; This hole is situated in the northern finger of the club’s property and there’s out of bounds on three sides. So what did Strantz do? He built a hole with five different teeing areas across a 70 yard wide expanse and coupled them to a very wide green. From the far left set of tees the green is 23 yards deep and 48 yards wide, creating a shallow target for a 7-iron across the sea of sandy scrub. From the far right, almost at a right angle to the first, the green becomes 48 yards deep and 23 yards wide. For the latter set-up the hole is usually positioned on the front of the green, leaving the player a shot of some 120 yards resulting in a look suspiciously like the 13th at Merion. It plays well both ways and on consecutive days with the tee-markers in the different locations one will scarcely recognize the hole. Conventional? No. Does it work? Absolutely.
Eighth hole, 180 yards; Strantz worked for Tom Fazio at some of his very best designs including Wade Hampton and the Pine Barren Course at World Woods. He learned much during that association including how to make holes with a ready, visual appeal. Yet, Strantz was his own man and some of his most unique ideas are manifested in the startling greens he built. Just take a look at the eighth below; see how the green rises from the low front to a level greater than the flagstick?! First and foremost, Strantz loved links golf and believed that how the ball interacts with the ground is at the heart of such golf. Strantz, keen to replicate such but was limited by the Southeast’s weather and grasses. Eventually he discovered that the creation of greens like this would thrill golfers, watching balls travel unusual distances along the ground .
Tenth hole, 440 yards; The boldest design risks that Strantz took at Tobacco Road – like the hills at the first, the bath tub green at the thirteenth, the blind tee ball on sixteen – dominate post-round conversations to the exclusion of some highly appealing, albeit conventional features. For instance, the graceful sweep of the tenth fairway and the green itself took real talent. Same with the false front on the fifth green or the twelfth green with its front to back pitch. Such classic features are overshadowed by the more audacious aspects found elsewhere in the design.