Review: Tobacco Road Golf Club

Course Name: Tobacco Road Golf Club

Designer: Mike Strantz (1998)

Location: Sanford, North Carolina

History: Tobacco Road is the most famous and arguably the best design from Mike Strantz’s tragically short career. Built on an old sand quarry north of Pinehurst, the course opened in 1998 to mixed reviews. Since then, Tobacco Road has continued to polarize the golf community with golfers either loving or hating it for its unique, bold design full of blind shots.

In the yardage book (a must if you want to score well), the first page contains a quote from Strantz: “I don’t care if people think my courses are too hard.” Tobacco Road is indeed challenging, routinely finding itself on a myriad of most difficult course lists. Other accolades for Tobacco include:

  • #55 Best Public Course in America – Golf Digest (2017)
  • #88 Best Public Course in America – Golf Magazine (2017)
  • #17 Best Course in North Carolina – Golf Digest (2017)
  • #6 Best Public Course in North Carolina – Golf Magazine (2016)
  • #6 Best Public Course in North Carolina – Golfweek (2018)

Conditions: 8/10, After a harsh winter, I was impressed by the conditions at Tobacco Road. The greens were smooth and consistent and ran at about a 12 on the stimpmeter. I can’t imagine they get much faster given the steep contours of these green complexes. Tobacco Road overseeds in the winter, allowing for better conditions than nearby courses in the offseason.

On a curious note, there is neither out of bounds nor rakes for the clay bunkers at Tobacco Road. You can ground your club and improve your lie in every single bunker, even the greenside ones. There’s not much traditional rough here, with sand and dunes lining the fairways.

Value: 8/10, Tobacco Road offers not only the best value in the Pinehurst area (by far), but also one of the best in all of America. Prices range from $49 to $134 for a cart, range balls, and 18 depending on the season and day of the week.

Scorecard:

Tee                Par         Yardage         Rating          Slope

Ripper          71           6557               72.5              145

Disc             71           6317                71.3              143

Plow            71           5886                69.4              132

Points          71          5302                 71.7              136

Cultivator   71          4296                 67.0              118

Hole Descriptions: For the record, I’m not usually a fan of “tricked up” greens (i.e. Streamsong Black) or “target golf” so I was admittedly a bit worried I wouldn’t like the polarizing Tobacco Road Golf Club. Curiosity got the best of me, however, and I felt a golf architecture nut like me needed to see this controversial design. I did as much research as I possibly could before playing, learning the holes in preparation for the blind shots found on almost every hole here.

My immediate impression of Tobacco Road was extremely positive. Yes the course is absolutely insane and it feels like you’re playing golf on Mars at times, but I’ve probably never had as much fun on a course ever. This is the first Strantz design I’ve played and I really appreciate his design philosophy that golf course design is a form of art. Every single bunker on the course is exquisitely sculpted on the rugged terrain to maximize viewing pleasure. Strantz is the master of intimidation and the sensory overload of the bunkers is often more of an illusion than actual hazard. I especially enjoyed the risk-reward nature at Tobacco Road, as there is always a safe bailout area available, but golfers are left with longer or more difficult future shots from this bailout area.

It’s difficult for me to pick out the best or most memorable hole at Tobacco Road because all eighteen holes are incredibly unique and stand out in their own way. I enjoyed the front 9 more than the back as I felt it’s a more cohesive and fair collection of holes. The design on the back 9 is a bit more brazen, resulting in a mixed bag of some of my favorites (11th, 14th, 18th) and least favorites (13th and 16th).

The opening hole at Tobacco Road sets the tone early as you stand on the teebox wondering where the heck the fairway is. At 547 yards, this par 5 is the longest hole on the course and all you can see on the teebox is a sliver of fairway lined by two intimidating mounds. In reality, there’s plenty of room behind the right mound but this requires a drive of 220 yards to carry. The second shot is another demanding one, with more mounds narrowing the fairway about 130 yards short of the green. While not nearly as tall as the earlier ones, these are equally as penal with bunkers and tall grasses. This green plays diagonally left-to-right and slopes the entire way in that direction. A trio of bunkers guard short right of the green.

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The intimidating par 5 1st is a fitting opener for Tobacco Road

The 377 yard 2nd provides yet another confusing and intimidating view from the teebox. This hole is about as wide as it is long, with a narrow, more accessible fairway to the right and wider fairway on the left that requires a carry of about 200 yards over a bunker. You can’t really see much of anything on this teebox besides a giant mound of bunkers on the right spanning from 210 yards almost all the way to the green. Needless to say, this should be avoided. Tobacco Road is often referred to as “Pine Valley on steroids” and while I haven’t played Pine Valley (yet!), it’s not hard to imagine the deep tiny bunker just short of this green is inspired by the infamous “Devil’s Asshole” at the New Jersey masterpiece. This rectangular green is rather flat for Tobacco Road’s standards.

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The blind teeshot on the par 4 2nd
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Approach on the 2nd, complete with the Devil’s Asshole

At just 147 yards, the par 3 3rd is the first of five good but not great one-shotters at Tobacco Road. This short hole is not as easy as the scorecard indicates, with an extremely sloped green surrounded on all four sides by bunkers. If I had to describe this green, I’d call it a pseudo-Biarritz with a back plateau, central depression, and modest front plateau. Proper distance control is imperative here, as I found out the hard way after four-putting from the back plateau.

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The short par 3 3rd

I really enjoyed the 4th hole, one of several fantastic risk-reward par fives at Tobacco Road. At 507 yards, this is a sharp dogleg left that features a drive through a chute of trees to a fairly generous fairway. From here, the golfer is presented two options: Cut the corner over a gigantic waste-bunker that spans 150 yards to the green or bail out to the right. Featuring another rather flat green, this is certainly one of the best birdie opportunities on the course.

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The beautiful view from the 4th teebox
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The dogleg 4th encourages longer hitters to take the shortcut over the bunker

The 5th is another fantastic hole and one of the best, most insane drivable par fours I’ve played. At just 322 yards, this hole plays uphill and again gives the golfer options. Bunkers run about 240 yards between the teebox to just short of the green for those who want to rip driver. As always, there’s a safe bailout option to a wide right fairway, but this leaves a perilous uphill approach to a perched green.

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The gorgeous and thought-provoking view on the par 4 5th
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I was conservative off the tee on the 5th and faced a very challenging approach because of it

The par 3 6th is officially 143 yards on the scorecard, but can play a wide variety of yardages due to three separate teeboxes that span about 100 yards in width. This isn’t a long hole by any means but it is quite intimidating off the tee, as all you can see is a giant waste bunker that runs from the teebox to the green. This hole reminds me a lot of the fantastic 17th at Bethpage Black, another par 3 with an extremely shallow but wide green guarded by bunkers on all sides.

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The view from the 6th teebox

Playing blind and downhill at 401 yards, the 7th is another enjoyable hole. You can’t tell from the teebox, but this fairway is very generous so feel free to grip it and rip it here. There’s a waste area about 290 yards off the tee you’ll have to carry to reach the green. This is one of the most visually appealing approaches at Tobacco Road, with a giant undulating green framed beautifully by three deep bunkers and a lone tree on the back left.

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The fairway opens up after the trees on the par 4 7th
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I couldn’t get enough of the approach on 7

The 8th is the 3rd par 3 on the front 9 and also the most challenging. At 173 yards, this hole plays downhill over a waste area to a boomerang-shaped green with a giant hump in the middle. If the pin is in the front left, this becomes a fairly easy hole, but beware of the wicked back right pin tucked behind a bunker. If you hit it left of this pin, the ball will trundle down a slope towards the hole.

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The downhill par 3 8th

On a course as difficult at Tobacco Road, you’d expect the number 1 handicap hole to be a beast. The 427 yard 9th is hard, but wasn’t quite as bad as expected. This is another visually appealing hole from an elevated teebox over marshland. While bunkers line a narrow fairway at the start, this fairway opens up considerably at about 200 yards. Besides its length, the difficulty on this hole arises from the approach straight uphill to a very narrow green. Any miss here will be problematic especially to the right where a steep bunker awaits.

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The gorgeous view from the 9th teebox at sunset
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The approach on 9th – the approach becomes a lot easier when you drive it to the cart signs

To optimize pace of play, I actually began the day on the 10th, a difficult 421 yard dogleg right par 4. From an elevated teebox, this hole features a generous fairway lined by a bunker on the right the entire length of the hole. This hole contains a challenging approach to C-shaped shallow green sandwiched by bunkers both short and long. A par here will never hurt.

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The 10th from the teebox
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Looking back on the par 4 10th from behind the green

On a course with four noteworthy par fives, the 511 yard was my favorite. This is a tremendous risk-reward dogleg right that begins with a elevated teeshot to a generous fairway. The dogleg begins at about 250 yards, with the fairway taking a sharp turn right. The key feature of this hole is a spacious waste bunker running from the right side of the fairway all the way to the perched, elevated green. This provides golfers an extremely intimidating 2nd shot over the bunker in order to reach this green in two. While the beginning and middle portions of this bunker are rather benign, it becomes extremely steep just short of this green.

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The par 5 11th from the teebox
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The 2nd shot offers golfers the chance to go for glory or bailout left

At 412 yards, the 12th is another dogleg that turns hard to the left at about 240 yards. The fairway here is initially very wide but narrows considerably at about 210 yards with large bunkers on both sides of the dogleg. The left bunker runs all the way to this large narrow green that runs hard right-to-left and front-to-back.

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The 12th from the teebox
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Looking back the 12th green

The 13th is probably the most discussed and unique hole at Tobacco Road, but one of the few holes I didn’t particularly care for. This hole plays 536 yards on the scorecard but honestly yardage doesn’t really matter on this double dogleg par 5 that is prototypical target golf. The target golf begins with the drive from an elevated teebox to a fairway that runs out about 250 yards from the teebox. It’s absolutely possible to run through this fairway into the trees so be cautious hitting driver. The farther right you decide to bite off, the narrower the fairway gets, constricting to almost nothing with a bunker at the most right point. On your second shot, you’ll have to thread your ball through a tight opening to a generous portion of fairway. From here, the hole turns left to a completely blind, extremely wide and shallow green obscured by giant mounds of bunkers. While I disliked the overall design philosophy here, I did appreciate the approach, which is both fun and scenic with old towers in the background.

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The 13th from the elevated teebox
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The signature uphill approach on the 13th
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This side angle shows the extreme nature of the 13th approach

While all eighteen holes stand out in their own way, the 14th is Tobacco’s Road signature hole as a fantastic 178 yard par 3. Playing downhill over water the entire way, this long narrow green is guarded by bunkers left and water on the right.

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The downhill par 3 14th is a tremendous one-shotter

Many golfers strongly dislike the 15th, a medium-length 358 yard par 4 that is completely blind off the teebox. This hole really looks like Pine Valley from the tee with a giant sand waste bunker covering the first 170 yards and completely dominating your view. This fairway starts out very generous but splits about 240 yards off the tee with a mound of rough and bunkers separating fairways. This green is extremely wide and shallow and the hole plays very differently depending on pin position.

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The par 4 15th gives off Pine Valley feels with its bunkering

While I didn’t have a problem with the 15th, I didn’t like the 16th and found it easily to be my least favorite on the course. This is an odd dogleg left 321 yard par 4 that isn’t reachable despite its short length. From this teebox, you have absolutely no view of the fairway due to mounds of fescue and bunkers directly obscuring your view. The actual fairway is indeed shallow, only permitting drives between 200 and 240 yards. If you’re accurate enough to find this fairway, this approach runs straight to the left to an elevated green that runs hard back-to-front with a false front. This is just my opinion, but short par fours should either be reachable with danger or not exist at all. This is another example of pure, unadulterated target golf.

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The confusing view from the 16th teebox
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The view from behind the 16th green provides the best view of the hole

The 17th is the third par 3 at Tobacco Road under 150 yards, but yet another extreme hole that demands all your attention. This hole plays downhill from an elevated teebox over a massive set of waste bunkers. This green is perhaps the most unique on the course as it spans 90 yards wide but only several yards deep at points. Proper distance control is again a must to avoid disaster.

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You can decide for yourself whether the 17th is pure genius or insanity

Just as Tobacco Road starts with a bang, be prepared for a very appropriate ending in the 414 yard 18th. This is easily the most intimidating teeshot on the entire course, as you must carry your drive at least 175 yards over a mountain of waste bunkers through a chute of trees. For those who can control their nerves on the tee, this fairway is yet again rather generous. This approach offers another challenge, as the fairway narrows through a series of bunkers on either side towards a giant two-tiered back-to-front sloped green. Par is a strong score here.

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Confidence with the driver is necessary on the closer

Best Par 3: 14th Hole, 178 yards, 8th handicap. On a course with many complex and blind shots, I really appreciated the downhill 14th. With bunkers to your left and water to the right and short, there’s only one option for the golfer – hit the green. Another cool fact about the 14th is that there’s a cabin behind the green that you can stay in. Apparently Mike Strantz spent his nights here while designing the course.

Best Par 4: 18th Hole, 414 yards, 4th handicap. As you’d expect, the closer at Tobacco Road is an epic dogleg left par 4 that features a terrifying teeshot over a cliff of clay bunkers. A long approach and challenging green full on undulations further complicate one of the most difficult holes on a course notorious for being hard.

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The approach on the par 4 18th

Best Par 5: 11th Hole, 511 yards, 10th handicap. It was a difficult decision to choose my favorite of an awesome collection of par fives, but the 11th is my choice because it combines the very best of Tobacco Road: beautiful aesthetics, dogleg, risk-reward, and extreme bunkering.  This is the most intense bunker on a course.

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Another shot of the “Sahara” like 11th bunker

General Comments: The practice facilities at Tobacco Road are strong and include a full-length grass driving range with complimentary balls and a large practice green between the 1st and 10th tees that plays similarly to the course. The clubhouse here is a giant log cabin shrouded by tall pines and is a perfect fit for the feel of the course. Pace of play was brisk when I played on an April weekday, but I’m not sure this is true at all times.

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The range at Tobacco Road
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The view of the clubhouse from the practice green

Verdict: Tobacco Road Golf Club is as unique a course as you’ll ever play thanks to a dizzying array of risk-reward blind holes sculpted in the sandhills of North Carolina. While a controversial design, I absolutely loved the course and think it’s completely fair if you purchase a yardage book or do your research beforehand. Offering fantastic value, this is one of the most fun rounds you’ll ever experience and is absolutely a must-play to those visiting Pinehurst.


3 thoughts on “Review: Tobacco Road Golf Club

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