Tobacco Road is the kind of course whose reputation precedes it to the extent that most golfers don't go in without some mental picture of the kind of experience that awaits them, but it's hard to imagine the shock the few who enter into the game blind must feel when presented with the vista from the very first tee box. High on a hillside, the player is confronted by a pair of colossal dunes divided by a wasp-waisted fairway. Never mind that a well-struck driver should comfortably clear these landforms—the effect is one of intimidation, of a bully getting in your face the moment you set foot on the playground. It's a perfect introduction to the themes that define this daily-fee facility in the Carolina Sandhills. Designed by the late Mike Strantz, Tobacco Road opened in 1998 and has since parlayed its unique design and convenient location—midway between Pinehurst and Raleigh-Durham Airport in Sanford, N.C., it's a perfect track to either start or finish a golf trip—into a nice success story. It makes it way on to so many Sandhills itineraries—with green fees at $134, it's either the most affordable of the high-end courses or the big splurge on a value-focused trip—and it should be on yours, too.
"The vital thing about a hole," the great English architect Tom Simpson once said, "is that it should either be more difficult than it looks or look more difficult than it is. It must never be what it looks." If there's a modern golf course that embraces this maxim to the fullest, surely it's Tobacco Road, where nothing is quite as it seems. Some of the most terrifying shots, like the wasteland-crossing drive on the 18th, are revealed to be charades (there's a ton of fairway out there), while innocent looking ones should set off the warning bells. (On the same finishing hole, it's the approach, to a green defended by steep short grass falloffs to either side that are mostly concealed from the fairway, that's the real danger.)
With its fanciful bunkering, wild shaping and greens that are tucked away in dells or atop steep ridges, few courses can match "The Road" for visual fireworks. It's interesting to note that Strantz made his bones in the design shop of Tom Fazio, as his work bears little resemblance to that of his early mentor. Before his life was tragically cut short by cancer, he seemed much more to be heading down the road of a slightly kinder, gentler Pete Dye, the kind of architect who favors presenting heaps of visual information and letting the player try to make sense of it all.
What makes The Road such a fascinating place for a game, though, is how beautifully it plays. Most modern designs that attempt to push the envelope stylistically wind up sacrificing functionality—the course ends up too difficult to maintain, or the results of golf shots seem too arbitrary—not so here. The natural virtues of the site, a sand-rich former tobacco farm studded with pines and scruffy native vegetation, clearly empowered Strantz to "go big." And golfers are encouraged to think big, too. Tobacco Road constantly offers opportunities for heroic shotmaking. The par-four 5th, just 333 yards from the tips, tempts bombers to fly a vast expanse of sandy waste on the direct line to the green, while technicians might prefer to play the hole as a greater-than sign ( > ), tacking well off to the right with an iron and then returning with a wedge approach. The nice, wide fairway of the par-five 11th, for its part, gives everyone the green light to open the shoulders and crack a long drive. Due to the severity of the dogleg approach, those who have found a good angle should face less than two bills. A superb chance, in other words, to get home in two, if (a big if!) one has the courage to take on a punishingly deep, sand-filled quarry.
Tastes have changed somewhat in recent years as architects have embraced what Bill Coore often refers to as "fun and interesting" golf, but there's still a fairly wide set of players who believe (whether through conditioning or instinct it's unclear, which is another story) that holes should play relatively close to their stated par. Robert Trent Jones, Sr.'s famous "hard par, easy bogey" is one of the clearest expressions of this idea. Simply put, Mike Strantz took a sledgehammer to this concept. At Tobacco Road, all too frequently either you get the bear or the bear gets you. Chris Brown, the club's head pro, recalled his first-ever time around the course. Playing with three low-handicappers, he said, "Our group made twenty-four birdies, and yet not one of us broke par. It didn't leave us thinking, 'That was a tough golf course!', but we didn't tear the place up, either. We just came away from it with a lot of fun memories."
If Tobacco Road has a drawback, it might be that the course tends to privilege the aerial game—it's easy to imagine short hitters and high handicappers getting caught up on steep mounds or lost in some of its deeper pits. But for the moderately skilled golfer on up, Chris Brown's experience is likely a representative one. Tobacco Road may be a polarizing design, but it's guaranteed that a round here will never be boring. Golf is so much a game of confidence, and far more than posing simple, cut-and-dried questions of execution, Strantz tests our mental makeup, our willingness to take on blind shots, our poise in dealing with the rub of the green, our ability to fearlessly tackle hazards. The genius of The Road, though, is that these challenges are almost always within our reach—to frame it in Tom Simpson's terms, it's not as tough as it looks. Kind of like a bully, in other words. And we all know the deal with bullies—there's nothing sweeter than giving one his comeuppance.