Tobacco Road Golf Club -- An acquired taste you'll learn to love

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos by Kevin Gaydosh

SANFORD, NC – It could be said that architect Mike Strantz’s golf courses are an “acquired taste.”

An “acquired taste” is something you may not like the first or second time you try it, but after a while, you become accustomed to it and eventually even like it.

Looking at the view from the 1st tee -- you already know you are at a Mike Strantz-designed golf course.

Strantz’s Tobacco Road Golf Club in Sanford, North Carolina, is an excellent example of what some may consider an acquired taste. Strantz (who passed away in 2005) is known for his extremely visual and slightly quirky designs, and it’s safe to say they’re not for everyone – at least on the first or second go-round.

It should be noted that we loved Tobacco Road the first time we played it, but we’re already comfortable with Strantz’s design style. His courses look incredibly hard – but it’s mostly due to scale. His bunkers are bigger, ravines are deeper and dips and swales just appear harsh.

Looks often deceive, however. Strantz scares all of us at times, but there’s also a gentle side to his courses. The landing areas are generally wide and there’s usually a “safe” option to playing each of his hole creations.

The par three 14th hole can play short or long depending on the location of the pin.

But Strantz definitely takes some getting used to. Chris Brown, Tobacco Road’s Head Golf Professional, provides background on the course. “Tobacco Road is the brainchild of two local businessmen who grew up in Sanford, NC. They were already successful in the paving business, but wanted to branch out into something different.”

It was while on a golf trip to Myrtle Beach that the two had a bad experience at a course and started talking about how they would do things differently if they were in the business for themselves. Their golf idea only intensified once back in Sanford.

“They did their homework and started looking for an architect,” Brown elaborated. “They knew they wanted something distinctive to the area. They were not necessarily searching for a famous designer, but whomever they chose had to come with fresh ideas and be an out-of-the-box thinker.”

Risk-reward all the way for the second shot on the par five 4th hole.

In other words, they were looking for someone just like Mike Strantz.

The land they had in mind for the course was a perfect fit for a “big” thinker like Strantz. Certain tracts had already been excavated for the large deposits of sand the owners needed for their paving company. But the vast majority of the property was still tree covered and had been used as a hunting and private recluse for their families.

For his part, Strantz apparently liked what he saw when he first viewed the topography. He had just finished building True Blue in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as well as Stonehouse and Royal New Kent near Williamsburg in Virginia, all of which were receiving rave reviews for their distinct character.

The green of the par four 15th hole is tough to get at -- and it is very narrow, too.

The new Strantz courses were also deeply polarizing in the golfing community, since they were so big, bold and innovative in terms of use of land. Some considered them over-the-top and too modern.

“From the beginning, Mike knew exactly what was needed and created his vision for Tobacco Road,” Brown said. “Mike never cared about how his courses were perceived, he was an artist first. He saw the land as his canvas and shaped it to HIS vision of a hole. If the land made for a harder hole, but provided his vision, then so be it.”

Strantz was a big fan of Alister MacKenzie and all the great designers of old. He loved the concept of a golfer having his mind play a bigger part of his golfing experience than his physical ability.

Even the Tobacco Road clubhouse embodies its rustic theme.

The mind, indeed. At Tobacco Road, you’ll get plenty of exercise for your brain, starting with the first tee shot. Heck, even the drive onto the property gives you a sense of foreboding.

Brown says it’s meant to be that way. “The biggest challenge for any golfer playing a Mike Strantz design is tackling the question of ‘how aggressive do I want to be?’ For the better player, every hole presents a situation to attack, which can lead to awesome rounds.”

Again, according to Brown, the course still presents the attack option for high handicappers, but Strantz has also incorporated slopes into his designs that allow players to get at tucked pins – and made it so visually intimidating they are forced to play safe.

Arriving at the 10th tee, you know it will not get any easier on the back nine at Tobacco Road.

Here’s where Strantz wants the player’s mind to get just as much work as his wedge.  “Another challenging aspect of playing a Mike Strantz course is a player must know his/her own game,” Brown added. “Many argue it’s the deep bunkers, blind shots and the forced carries on his courses that make them so challenging. But take what the course gives you and many times over you’ll be successful.”

“The player has to fully commit to a shot because Mike introduces doubt in his mind through visual intimidation.”

Yes. Each hole presents a new issue from the tee, especially the back boxes. But as mentioned earlier, the fairways are more than “fair” and the carries look longer than they are in reality. We scoped them with a rangefinder and there weren’t any that I considered unrealistic.

The beautiful par three 8th hole.

So it’s all in your mind… or mostly, that is. And then there are those bailout areas. They may not present the most attractive option for making a score, but they’ll save you from big numbers if you “chicken out” from the tough shots.

Another appealing aspect of Tobacco Road is its location – near Pinehurst in the central part of North Carolina.

Everyone knows Pinehurst is synonymous with Donald Ross and traditional golf design – so Tobacco Road offers something refreshingly different and it’s close enough to mix into your itinerary.

The devilishly tricky par five 13th hole will test all the brainpower you bring to the course that day.

Something Tobacco Road shares in common with many courses in Pinehurst is its recent switch of grasses on the greens to a new type of Bermuda grass.

Brown explains why it was necessary. “The decision to convert the greens was not an easy one. The summer of 2013 was really hard on our greens. We limped through the summer and the greens rebounded well with the cooler fall temperatures. Then the long wet winter provided a perfect opportunity for the Poa Annua that was already present in some of the greens to really take hold. When the spring temps arrived, the Poa Annua just exploded.”

Poa Annua is invasive and once it’s there, it’s extremely hard to control or eradicate.

If you see a sign like this, you better heed its advice.

Brown continues, “The owners understood it would be hard to maintain conditions that we wanted to have going into the heat of the summer with the Poa Annua issue – so the decision was made in April to convert over to Bermuda and we haven’t looked back since.”

The new greens will be better and more consistent year-round, and will actually be easier to maintain. Here’s another tip of the cap to the folks in the lab, developing these new grasses.

Other than the greens, there have been very few changes at Tobacco Road since opening. Brown says the area in front of the fifteenth green was reworked to make for a better approach shot, and there have been a few trees removed here and there.

Do not be short on the approach to the par four 16th hole, or it could roll back about 40 yards.

But why mess with a classic?

The experience begins with the first hole. Brown describes it. “It’s typical Strantz from the start. The first hole is a reachable par five that makes most players take notice from the tee. Hit a straight tee shot and you’re in a very wide fairway behind two very large hills.”

“The second shot once again provides options: The more risky of the two means taking it over two more mounds that will leave a very easy wedge shot or carry onto the green. The easier, lay up for a longer second, but you’ll find yourself with a longer and blind third shot.”

The par four 9th lulls you to sleep on the tee shot, then challenges with a very tough approach shot.

Move forward to one of the most unique holes you’ll see anywhere, the par four ninth. “The ninth has one of the widest fairways off the tee with little to no forced carry, depending on which tees you play.”

“The second shot presents one of the hardest on the course, as the green is elevated and very narrow. Left has love grass and a huge hill leading down to the first fairway. To the right is a large waste area that will generate more bogies and doubles than one can imagine. Typical Strantz -- a hole that will lull you to sleep with the drive, followed by a very demanding approach shot.”

Favorites on the back nine included the par five thirteenth, which is quite frankly one of the most unique holes we’ve ever seen. There’s an extremely wide fairway view greeting you from the tee, but you’ll need to favor the right side (of course, the farther right you go, the more waste bunker you’ll need to carry) to prepare for the latter half of the hole.

Hit a good drive on the par five 11th hole and you get this view. The safe play is to lay up to the left side.

The second shot is a layup for most players and Strantz provides plenty of room to do so.

What’s left is a short-iron or wedge shot to a green almost completely surrounded by large mounds. It’s a narrow green, too, so you better get your distance dialed-in. This hole is definitely one of those love-hate scenarios – you’ll either love it… or not.

The 326-yard, par four sixteenth hole is another one of those love/hate holes. A semi-blind shot from the tee, you’re hitting to a yardage number – which turns out to be, again, a fairly wide target. The second shot is uphill to a tiered green. Don’t be short! Anything short will roll back down the hill. Frustration defined, but a great hole if you play it right.

Looking back from the green of the short par four 5th hole, which literally dares you to go for it.

Those are holes that stand out, but every hole on a Mike Strantz course is a memorable adventure.

Something that would make Tobacco Road even more memorable is walking the course. Brown says there are longish jaunts between the ninth and tenth and fourteenth and fifteenth holes, but overall the course is very walkable.

He says walking the land would allow you to notice the property’s subtle contours and nuances. We agree – and that’s true for most golf courses.

This is what you see on the tee of the par four 18th. Aim for the opening in the trees and trust your driver.

“Whether someone hated or loved the course, most everyone can remember all of the holes for many years to come,” Brown concluded. “You can’t always say that about most courses. And to me, that’s the one factor that gets lost in the discussion of what’s a great golf course.”

True enough. Tobacco Road is certainly an “acquired taste” – but one you’ll likely learn to love.


Tobacco Road Golf Club
442 Tobacco Road
Sanford, NC 27332

Phone: 1-877-284-3762 (Toll free)
1-919-775-1940 (local)


Course Designer: Mike Strantz
Director of Golf:  Joe Gay
Head Golf Professional: Chris Brown, PGA
Director of Maintenance: Perry Payne
Golf Course Superintendent: Morgan Stephenson


Ripper             6532    144/71.7
Disc                 6297    135/70.3
Plow                5886    129/68.6          140/74.7 (L)
Cultivator        4946    126/69.8


Rates are seasonal – it’s best to check the website:  

Specials and packages:

Note: On our trip to Pinehurst, we stayed at Pine Needles/Mid Pines and would highly recommend the excellent accommodations and the two Donald Ross classic golf courses.

Pine Needles/Mid Pines is about a 25 minute drive from Tobacco Road.

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