Entering Tobacco Road with a sense of expectation developed from the trough of architecture related copy it was apparent that we were in for an experience that was out of the ordinary. If ever there was a polarizing golf course in the United States, Tobacco Road was, well and truly, it.
With a legacy aided by the passing of its creator, Mike Strantz, various awards have been bestowed on Tobacco Road including gongs distinguishing it as one of the leading public courses in these lands.
The success of Tobacco Road as a public golf facility stems from one word. Risk.
Strantz had the testicular character to step aside from his design contempories, bless them, and engage a powerful tool that sits somewhere deep within the mind: Imagination. This golf course can be accused of many things but it will most definitely never be described as a ‘cookie-cutter all-laid-out-before-you’ course akin to many designed by the signature firms through the dark ages of golf course architecture.
Strantz’s imagination results in a course that is definitively distinctive from any other in the Pinehurst region. Blind shots are common and the greens are demented. The adjective ‘quirk’, oft’ overused in the context of golf course architecture is most definitely appropriate.
Upon arrival, we were told that Strantz found inspiration from his trips to the UK and indeed the roots of his design are rarely inspired from neighboring courses (although with sandy waste areas surrounding many holes some commentators have generously uttered Pine Valley in the same breath).
Generally, I am an unabashed fan of the unusual. The so-called rules of golf design, in my book, are akin to those a mother decrees upon a teenager venturing out with his pals. So I anticipated that I would be sitting squarely in the love it camp after our round.
Unfortunately, it seems that on his Irish adventures Mr Strantz may have, like many a local, overindulged in the black stuff to the detriment of Tobacco Road. He’s missed the mark.
There is no excuse for having a routing so spasmodic that the golfer walking down the 18th, feels like he’s walked Everest. Whether the excuse comes from interference from the developer, the greenies or Strantz’s fixation with incorporating specific features of the property, I don’t know. But the routing of the holes is a lemon and this affected my walk. (That the huge majority of golfers take golf carts is noted and I will reserve philosophical comment for another day)
Routing aside, there are some really cool holes and a healthy dose of funk that even Prince would be proud of.
The third green rolls manically from front to back and could have been designed by C B Macdonald as one of his templates had he done his drawings amidst a night on speed. It’s fun.
And then there are the blind shots that challenge the golfer visually and, on a personal level, really get the juices flowing. The elevated 9th with its receptive left banking funneling balls towards a tiny sliver of a green is good. So is the heroic carry from the 18th tee blind across a quarry to the wide fairway beyond.
And then, inspired from the famed fields in Co. Clare is the Dell green on the 13th hole that, without remorse, gives the bird to a conservative golf critic. Actually so too does the short pitch of the 6th hole which can be approached from a variance of about 120 degrees courtesy of an 80 yard wide tee box.
There are also solid golf holes which reward aggressive lines of play such as the mirroring dog leg par fives of the 4th and 11th holes where a huge advantage is gained from skirting close to the bunker on the inside of the hole. The 7th hole too (below) is a great hole with a tee shot across a rise to a hidden fairway that steps towards a green with a massive false front and supreme undulations.
But the course begins awkwardly with the first tee shot (below) that is poorly routed between two dunes 170 yards from the tee, with a similar awkwardness evident when playing to the blind fairway on the 16th hole. Without the wild winds of Ireland, the scale and dimensions of these holes are all wrong and the net effect is target golf amidst the dunes. This would be excusable if the natural circulation of golf holes took play over these features, as is the cause for most blind holes in Britain and Ireland. But on a routing so strained and an apparently minimal hesitation against moving the dirt, these holes disappoint.
Finally there is the matter of the shaping of the green complexes that often clashed with the movement in the fairways. Whilst some greens (like the 15th) are super, on the whole it was far from seamless. See for example the second, pictured below.
At Tobacco Road there are some terrifically fun shots to play (more than can be said about many courses) and I admire Strantz’s risk appetite in the design. The shame is in the execution.