When the Pinehurst/Southern Pines/Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau proclaimed itself the “Home of American Golf” neighboring Lee County wasn’t necessarily in the equation. After all, Sanford was once “The Brick Capital of the World” and very little high-end golf existed.
But if there was ever a game changer it was Tobacco Road, which opened 15 years ago less than five miles over the Moore County line with its blind shots, warning bells, rugged bunkering, rustic cultivating devices as tee markers and an architect with a thick handlebar mustache and a vision that sent the conventional golfing community yelling fore.
“You could tell even before Tobacco Road opened that it was going to be a special golf course, starting with the reputation of Mike Strantz because he had already done some spectacular work,” said Caleb Miles, president and CEO of the Pinehurst/Southern Pines/Aberdeen CVB. “The way we viewed it was visitors don’t see county border lines. Yet I still had to go back and do some convincing in the local market and say, ‘We’ve got two options here; one is to pretend it’s not in the market and the other is to embrace it.’ We really choose to embrace it. It’s nice to be able to say it was the right thing to do because back then you didn’t know.”
Fast forward to the fall of 2013 and Tobacco Road has picked up yet another award, this one maybe as staggering as the layout Strantz carved out of the native sand quarry. In a ranking of the top 100 golf courses in the world as voted on by architects in the July issue of Golf Course Architecture magazine, Tobacco Road was ranked as the 50th best course. Only 41 courses in the United States made the top 100, and Tobacco Road finished ahead of such famed USA layouts as Spyglass Hill, Trump International, Baltrusol and Shadow Creek.
“We really didn’t know what to make of the award, but as we’ve gotten into it it really is overwhelming to be in the same neighborhood, on the same list, as The Old Course and Augusta National,” said Tobacco Road co-owner Mark Stewart. “We’ve come a long way in 15 years and this was never really a goal. Our goal was to hire the best people and do the best we could. Yet this is very gratifying, especially for Mike, for his peers to recognize him and his work. When your peers recognize you like that it’s very flattering.”
Strantz, a former on-site designer for Tom Fazio, passed away from throat cancer at the age of 50 in 2005. Despite just designing nine courses after branching out on his own, Strantz was recently voted as one of the top 10 greatest architects of all time by Golfweek. His extensive 2003 redesign of Monterey Peninsula was his last project, and made the list at No. 80.
Tobacco Road is all natural, with no homes or roads cutting through the relatively short 6,532-yard layout. But don’t let the timid length fool you with a slope rating of 144 from the fittingly named Ripper tees.
Strantz painted quite a picture with the topography that existed, creating steep flash bunkering, risk rewards at seemingly every turn, unconventional green complexes and various tee box angles (especially on the par-3s) to offer a challenge with each round.
“We were looking for someone to produce a unique product,” Stewart said. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves from other products that were available and we felt like Mike had the vision to do that. It was a risk on both ends at the time … but he loved the site and we liked him. We felt like it would give us a niche. Sure, we’ve got a few blind shots but that’s more accepted now. We kind of turned Mike loose and here we are. He was the right person for the right project.”
“It’s just amazing the way the golf course plays differently every day depending on where the tees are and where they put the cup,” added longtime Director of Golf Joe Gay, who has been at the course from day one. “There are so many little nuisances. I have been here 15 years and I have probably played the golf course 250 times and every time I play it I am faced with a little different shot that I never noticed before.”
Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design actually voted Tobacco Road No. 1 in his rankings, saying it was the most entertaining and inspirational course he had ever played.
Gay believes Strantz was ahead of his time, and that his Tobacco Road design is 100 percent proof.
“There was a mindset 15-18 years ago of the media telling the American golfer what was traditional and what was great golf, whether it was lists or articles written,” Gay said. “At that time it was wall-to-wall green grass, tree-lined, no blind shots. Mike, whether he had a vision or it’s just what he liked, saw the future. There is a movement now toward what Mike did, and he was doing it before everybody else was. I don’t know if he saw the future or he saw the past and brought it to the future. He may be responsible for forming that trend.
“Look at what Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are doing. Tom Doak is doing it. This is the product they are coming out with now. Mike’s designs are becoming the standard of what is accepted, the look that people are gravitating to, places like Mid Pines now with its restoration. It’s back to the past to grab some of the natural waste areas and natural foliage.”
For reasons that are sometimes difficult to understand, certain golf courses are like magnets, drawing golfers back for another chip, for that second or third piece of chocolate. At Tobacco Road, Gay says 85 percent of his package business is repeat customers from the previous year.
“A lot of people think they are trying to slay the beast the first time and they may not have their best round but they want another crack at it,” Gay said. “That helps the return business that the course left such an impression on them. People are always saying, ‘Man, I want to go back and get my revenge.’”
Pinehurst No. 2, the site of the 2014 U.S. Opens, placed 15th on the list, and was the only other course from North Carolina.
If No. 2 tops most golfers bucket list that arrive in the Sandhills to tee it up, Tobacco Road is a close second … and has placed Sanford squarely on the golfing map.
Stewart was on a family vacation two years ago in Colorado, riding a chairlift with a total stranger, who asked the golf course owner where he was from. Stewart, not thinking the man would know Sanford, told him somewhere outside of Raleigh. When pressed for the exact location, Stewart sheepishly said Sanford.
“He said ‘I know where Sanford is, I’ve played golf there – Tobacco Road,”’ Stewart said. “This was just a random guy on the chairlift in Steamboat Springs. And I’ve been traveling in a mall or a store and see some guy with a Tobacco Road hat on or a short, or go to a ballgame and see that kind of thing. It is very humbling. It is sort of surreal at times and you just say, ‘Really?’
The recent world ranking is indeed real for a course that 15 years ago seemed a bit unreal, over the top, and golf’s version of a root canal.
A quote from Strantz in what the course calls its “road bible,” a must-have yardage book to navigate all of the golfing landmines, sums things up.
“I don’t care if people think my courses are too hard,” Strantz said.
“We miss Mike,” Gay said. “He only did one golf course a year. I would love to have seen another 20 Mike Strantz golf courses. But hey, we’re blessed to have nine and blessed to have Tobacco Road. We wouldn’t trade it for any of the other 8.”