Tobacco Road Golf Club lies just 20 miles northeast of Pinehurst Resort and is routinely ranked nationally as a top public course. However, many golfers are unfamiliar with this “quirky” course in the sandhills of North Carolina. It has developed this reputation mainly from its signature par-5 13th hole with a green that’s almost hidden from view on approach. But to fully appreciate what this Mike Strantz design has to offer, additional exploration is critical.
Here is my journey as a mid-handicapper playing his second round ever at this gem of a golf course.
The Course Speaks For Itself
The drive up to Tobacco Road is absent the grand entrance of places like TPC Sawgrass or even nearby Pinehurst. There is no magnificent clubhouse or expensive resort hotel or even a fountain. It’s a drive up through narrow pine trees past a clubhouse that looks more like the counselor’s lodge from summer camp than a place that’s about to charge you up to $140 to play golf.
You stop at the bag drop by the cart barn and the first of many warm, friendly staff members greets you and unloads your gear. They direct you where to park and give you a layout of the facilities, all of which you can see from that one spot.
It’s highly recommended that you hire a caddie for your first round and if you’ve done that they will show up about a half hour before your round. I did this for my first round and my caddie Will was a huge help. Unfortunately, a scheduling error on my part led to me playing without a caddie for this second round.
Nervously Excited On the First Tee
There are no words (but several GIFs) to describe my emotional distress in the moments before I teed off. Having gone from the relative security of having a walking caddie to guide me once again through the labyrinth that is Tobacco Road, to now the exposure of riding and playing all on my own was a lot to take in. My opening tee shot on the formidable par-5 1st went nervously left into the backside of a massive, fescue-covered mound. Breakfast ball. I reloaded, took a deep breath with my friendly and encouraging starter as the only spectator, and fired a second tee shot straight down the middle, a healthy 266 yards.
My nerves, however, had yet to subside. My next shot just cleared a bunker and accompanying mound to the right. I went in search of it and was reminded of another feature of this course. If you think your ball has landed in the tall grass off the fairway and is gone forever, you’re not only likely to find it among the thistle and thorns, but oftentimes it makes it through the rough and back out onto a portion of the fairway you were previously unaware existed.
This was the case with my ball which had not only made it through the nasty stuff but had rolled through a spur of the fairway and was up against the next clump of brush. A well-struck wedge and two tentative putts resulted in an unofficial 5, and I was off.
Tobacco Road Is Sandy
A “par” on the first gave me the confidence boost I needed to improve on my 100+ (estimated) score from my first round back in March. However, this course is not designed for birdie runs. The late Mike Strantz was a magician with the sandy terrain here and used it to full advantage. And while the local rules allow you to ground your club in any sand, (as well as drive your golf cart through most of it) you still want to avoid these areas as much as possible.
Even with a double-bogey on No. 5, I made up about 7-8 shots on the front nine over my previous round. Most of that is attributed to staying out of the sand on tee shots but also making sure not to leave me too far short on approach. There are several holes where catching the false front of the green can cause your ball to roll as much as 60 yards off the green (most notably on the par-4 5th and 16th).
While this all might make the course sound brutal and unforgiving, the genius behind this design is that you often have to be accurate (direction-wise) or precise (distance-wise) with your shot, but rarely both.
The fairways and greens are pretty big and receptive, but you’d never guess that from many of the tees because of the way Strantz built up the mounds to hide the landing spots. Having a caddie tell you where to aim and how far to hit and to ignore everything else can make such a big difference. The hide-and-deceive approach also allows for my favorite thing about playing this course: the reveal.
The Signature 13th
Let’s fast forward to the signature par-5 13th, and it’s guarded-on-all-sides “castle green.”
Having hit my screaming worm-burner of a tee shot 2 inches off the ground that once again traveled straight through a bunch of gnarly brush, I struck my layup cleanly to about 130 yards. Much like the 17th at Sawgrass, this is the one shot you want to get right. It is essentially an island green with no water. With a depth of just 12 yards but a width of nearly 40, the green on the 13th demands precision far more than accuracy.
After another deep breath and full swing, I saw my ball heading right for the flag, but my only focus was on whether it would carry the “castle wall” in front. It did, and I knew it was a good shot, but I still had no idea how close it was. I jumped in my cart and drove up and around, the undulating terrain teasing me as I went, but I had to wait until I was about pin high to see my ball on the green, 12 ft from the flag.
The delight of making par on the 13th (after struggling to make double bogey last time out) may have affected my focus as I lined up my 175-yd downhill tee shot on 14. My errant shot found the only water hazard on the course. But I bounced back with a par on the 15th where I had to walk 10 yards to the right of my perfectly-placed tee shot to see the flagstick. Some may find that annoying, but I find it charming.
As I had already done on previous holes, I picked out a tree in the background, walked back to my ball, aimed at the tree, and fired. A few moments later, I drove up and saw that I had another birdie opportunity that I would inevitably spoil. But this style of aim, swing, hope, wait, and see is a lot of fun to me. If that makes me “quirky” along with the course, so be it.
The 16th is perhaps the craziest hole at Tobacco Road (and that’s saying something). So crazy in fact that if you hire a caddie, he’ll direct you to look out at the 16th as you walk up to the tee at 15. From the elevated position, you can easily make out the fairly wide and forgiving fairway. That comes in handy because once you get to the 16th’s tee box, you can’t see any of it…and I mean any of it!
This was another hole where I hit the ball with the bottom of my 17-degree hybrid’s face and line-drove it inches over the front bunker. It still ended up 10 yards deep in the fairway on the other side. Even with a well-struck tee shot, you’re not out of the woods yet on 16. Miss your approach even a foot short and you’ll have left a 50-yard uphill pitch to a double-tiered green.
Variety Like You’ve Never Seen on Par 3s
There are no boring par-3s on this course (all five of them) and the 17th banana-shaped green is no different. 85 yards wide, 6 yards deep at its shallowest point. But this is what makes Tobacco Road so great: on every par-3 on the course (and many other holes), your approach can be as varied as the pin position. With so many possible angles to the flag, you could conceivably play the course 100 times and never have the same yardage or same angle. How cool is that?
The course’s flexibility is one of its strongest attributes and not just from the setup. Whether walking or riding, caddie or no caddie, rain or shine, there are so many variables that you’re likely to have a different experience each time and all of them enjoyable in their own way.
Wrapping It Up: Tobacco Road Is Truly Unique
You really have to have the right mindset to have fun and truly enjoy a round here. You’re not likely to post a score you’re proud of but if you take what the course is giving you and embrace its quirks, you’ll fall in love with it just as I have. As I sent my last tee shot blazing over the sandy cliff on 18 and onto the last hidden fairway, I was reminded how lucky I am to be able to play here a couple times a year. It’s a course that feels a bit like a resort yet could easily be a home course for someone who has the means to do so.
I two-putted 18 to finish with an 84, my second-best score-to-par (+12) ever. My satisfaction in my play was almost immediately replaced with sheer panic when I went to grab the keys to the Mustang I had rented to drive down from my home in Virginia. I had left the golf bag pocket they were in wide open. The keys were gone!
But when things are going well, even the worst-case scenario has a happy ending. The group behind me had found my keys and safeguarded them for about 8 holes. I thanked them profusely and packed up my things and headed home. There’s no other feeling in the world quite like playing your best golf on your favorite course. I hope you experience the same sensation some day. Thanks for letting me share my Tobacco Road experience, now go get playing!