I am taking a detour from reviewing the courses I played in Ireland to do Tobacco Road while it is fresh in my mind, as I played it only yesterday. Tobacco Road (the 71st best public course in the country) is about 30 minutes from Pinehurst in the Sandhills region of North Carolina. Established in 1998, it was designed by the late Mike Strantz, whose other notable courses include Caledonia Golf and Fish Club in South Carolina and the Shores Course at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club. In 2007, three of his golf courses were ranked in the top 20 based on difficulty-- Tobacco Road was the tenth hardest (for comparison, Oakmont was fifth). This same Golf Digest article described Tobacco Road as "Pine Valley seen through a funhouse mirror." I have not had the privilege of playing Pine Valley, but Tobacco Road and funhouse certainly belong in the same sentence.
This was my second time playing the course (with the first time being three years ago), and I forgot how much I like this golf course. The first time I played it, I had not yet played many great golf courses. Now, with a bit more experience under my belt, I was able to fully appreciate it. I think Tobacco Road is a bit of a love/hate course. I love it. The people I played with enjoyed it too. They said that after playing all the Pinehurst courses, they all started to blend together, but Tobacco Road certainly stood out to them. By contrast, I played with a North Carolina local at Pine Needles a couple days before playing Tobacco Road, and he suggested that I not even bother to play it. He was clearly in the latter camp. To me, a good golf course: 1) rewards good shots and penalizes bad ones; and 2) forces the player to think on every shot. Tobacco Road fits the bill on both counts. Was it like playing Mario Golf at points? Yes, but that is fun. I would not want every course to be like that, but having the option to do it every once in a while is nice.
My takeaway impression is that Tobacco Road is unique. I have never played another course like it and have never seen another course like it (except for maybe Pine Valley where sand is so prominently featured). And, yes, it is hard. In my mind, there are two types of hard. I like to think of the first type of hard as similar to the difficulty created by long rough at the US Open or pot bunkers at the British Open. Hit it a bit wayward and you will have to eat a stroke by chunking it out of the rough or hitting sideways out of a bunker, but it is easy to get out of trouble by sacrificing only one stroke. The second type of hard comes where every hole has the ability to jump out at you and cause you to make a huge number. Tobacco Road is the latter. Any given shot is not terribly hard, but if you miss, you will find yourself in loads of trouble. For example, on the front nine, I did not miss much and shot a 40. On the back, I made three triple bogeys and shot 47. Those were the result of three bad shots, but not terrible shots. On each, I simply hit one shot that was a bit off, found trouble, and then could not get out of trouble. Had Tobacco Road's difficulty come from punishing rough, those bad shots would have only cost me one shot, not two or three.
The greens were another memorable feature of the course. They were enormous, such as the par three 17th where the green is 40 yards wide. If you hit it on the right side of the green and the pin is on the left side, you will not be able to putt it and would need a chip with an insane amount of spin to be anywhere near the stick. Knowing the pin location for the day and how that affects distance is essential for avoiding three putts because not only are the greens huge, but many also have severe undulations. On some holes, if you are on the wrong part of the green, you could find yourself putting to a cup that is five feet above your head.
The number of blind shots do not help matters. The 9th is the hardest on the course with an approach to a green you can barely see (you can only see the flag because the stick is 15 feet tall) and a "bunker" to the right of the green that is approximately 20 feet deep. I put bunker in quotes because there are technically no bunkers on this course, despite there being sand everywhere. All of the sand is considered a waste area where you can ground your club, take practice swings, and improve your lie. It is the variety of sand that makes this course even more difficult. Some sand is fluffy as you typically expect in a bunker. But, much of the sand is extremely firm where an explosion shot is difficult if not impossible to execute. So, you need to be able to hit all different types of sand shots from every distance. You will often find yourself in a greenside bunker where you cannot hit an explosion, but rather need to do something akin to a chip shot due to the exceptionally firm sand. Other times, the greenside bunker will play as if it were wet sand (though it is not) and you have to hit accordingly. The same is true for the fairway bunkers--sometimes fluffy, sometimes firm. Though I had my fair share of well hit sand shots, my big numbers were usually the result of not executing sand shots well.
Overall, my day at Tobacco Road was one of the most enjoyable I have had on a golf course (except for the near 100 degree temperatures). The course was great, I played fairly well, and I was paired with two wonderful playing partners--a couple who have traveled the world playing great golf courses. It was fun to pick their brains to see what they thought of various courses and parts of the world. It made me realize how much work I have to do before I am a truly well traveled golfer--literally if I named a place in the Western Hemisphere they have played there. To my playing partners if they happen to read this--if you are ever in the New York area and need someone to fill out your group, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, let's get on to some individual holes.
The first is a 547 yard par five that requires a 219 yard carry over two sand dunes. The second shot must fly about 200 to clear yet another set of dunes (or you can lay up short of them to have 140 yards into the green). Whichever you choose, the third is into a green protected by a set of three deep bunkers on the right. I guess this course does not believe in easing you into the round.
***On all of my reviews, you can now click on the first image to see a slideshow of all images on the page.
After the monster at the first, the second eases up a bit--a 357 yard par four. As long as you can carry it 190 over the waste area, the fairway is quite wide (though there is a gigantic waste area on the right if you happen to peel it off that way). If you hit the correct part of the fairway, you will have a good look at the green with a wedge in your hand, but be sure to be accurate with that wedge because waste areas encircle the green.
The third is another hole where the theme of Tobacco Road becomes clear. It is a 147 yard par three. Sounds easy and it is if you hit it properly. But, again, the green is entirely surrounded by waste areas. If you are a bit off, instead of chipping like on many courses, you may be staring a large number in the face. Moreover, the green is 60 yards deep with two tiers. Find yourself on the wrong tier and you should be playing for a three putt to guard against a four putt.
The fourth is a wild hole--a 507 yard par five that is as much of a dogleg left as possible without being a horseshoe. The fairway runs out at 265 yards with a waste area on the other side. The second is where the risk/reward comes into play. If you place it perfectly before the waste area, you will have approximately 170 yards to the green because you are able to completely cut the dogleg. However, this shot is entirely over sandy waste land. Hit it 169 yards and you are in trouble. Alternatively, you can lay up with your second to leave a wedge into the green, but it is no easy layup. It requires you to know the exact yardage for the layup--come up short and you are in the sand and long you are in the weeds. Though, the layup club is only a 7/8 iron, so you should be able to execute that shot. If you do indeed layup, you again have a wedge into the green, but if you miss it left, you will be in the same sand that you would be in had you gone for the green in two. Unfortunately, I misjudged the layup distance and hit a 9 iron when I needed an 8 iron. I spent the rest of the hole in the sand.
Second shot on the fourth. You can either try to fly all that waste area and go for the green, or you can go out right for a layup.
The fifth is another one that is no easy bargain despite it being only 322 yards. You have two options with your tee shot. If you are feeling confident, you can aim at the green and try to fly the ball 230 yards over the waste area. Alternatively, you can aim out right to avoid the sand with the ideal yardage for that shot being 210 yards. Though the second option should not bring the sand into play, if you hit it 10 yards to the left, you will indeed be in the sand. I do not see the point of aiming at the green on the first shot. Even if you clear the sand, you will have a 50 yard pitch up a steep face to the green. If you take the safer tee shot, you will be left with a wedge into the green. Granted, that second shot still requires you to go over the waste area, but it should not come into play with a wedge.
Fifth tee. Either go straight towards the green (talk about an intimidating line) or out right to the layup area.
View from layup area on five. The patch of fairway you see short of the green is where you would be trying to land your ball if you took the
aggressive line off the tee.
The sixth is a 143 yard par three. Again, sand everywhere. The green is quite narrow, so if your yardage is off by a bit, you will again find yourself in the dunes.
The seventh is a fairly easy hole--a 401 yard par four with a very wide fairway. Though the yardage appears long on the card, the steeply sloped fairway helps your drive go a long way. Your second shot must go over more sand, but the green is very large, so you should be able to hit it with your 140/150 yard club. The difficulty of this hole comes on the green given its mainly slopes. It is another one where if you are on the wrong tier, then you will certainly three putt.
Approach to seventh green.
The eighth is yet another hard hole-- a 173 yard par three. The pin location can make all the difference. If at the front of the green, then the hole becomes considerably easier because there is no sand protecting that portion of the green. If the pin is in the middle or right side of the green, then it is a very difficult hole. Going at the pin for either of those locations would require perfect yardage off the tee--short is sand and long poses a very difficult ship (I was there). Further, you can't bail out and go for the front of the green because that would require putting up an enormous slope, which you would be lucky to two putt.
The ninth is the hardest hole on the course--a 415 yard par four. The tee shot is not terribly taxing. As long as you can carry the ball 190 yards over the dune, the fairway is wide. The second shot, though, is diabolical. It will be about 150/160 yards uphill to a green you can barely see. But, that is not the hard part. Rather, it is the waste area to the right of the green. Find yourself in there and you will effectively be trying to hit up a cliff to the green. Somehow, I birdied the hole. Hit a nice drive, smartly opted for the longer of the two clubs I was debating, and then benefited from getting the read on the green from one of my playing partners.
Ninth tee with that greenside "bunker" in the distance.
Approach to the ninth green.
Sand to the right of the green (this is about halfway up the face).
After going out in 40, my round came crashing back to earth on ten-- a 420 yard dogleg right par four. The tee shot is easy, but is unfortunately where I messed up. The fairway is wide and simply requires a fairly straight shot. There is not even much of a carry to worry about. The only thing you can't do is go right. Up the entire right side of the hole is a waste area and wetlands. I went right and lost a ball. With a good drive, the second shot is where this hole is difficult. It requires a precise iron shot. Leak it slightly to the right and you will be in that waste area. I only have a picture from the tee because I was too busy making a big number thereafter.
Tenth tee. Tons of fairway left, but of course I go right.
The eleventh is a fun hole--511 yard dogleg right par five. If you play each shot smartly, it should not be difficult. The fairway is very wide, so a decent drive will be just fine. Assuming you are taking this as a three shot hole, the second requires a shot long enough to clear sand but short enough to avoid woods. So, the only difficulty is knowing the yardage. Then, you will be left with a wedge into the green. Again, the green is tiered, so, though a wedge, it will have to be precisely struck (not to mention straight, otherwise....sand).
The twelfth is a tough 412 yard par four. The tee shot is difficult because you can only play a driver if you can hit the ribbon of a fairway. If you stray right or left, you will be in the sand. In order to hit the wide section of the fairway, you have to play a club that will not go more than 220 yards, but that will leave about 200 yards into a green that is protected on both sides by more bunkers and steep faces.
Twelfth tee. Short of the bunker on the right is the wide fairway, but that will leave a long second. Hitting between the bunkers, though, requires a very accurate shot.
This is the area to the right of the twelfth green. My approach shot landed here. The chip is difficult because it has to clear this steep face, but then the green slopes severely away from you. That means you have to try to barley clear the hill, which of course means you run the risk of hitting it a bit short and having the ball roll right back to your feet.
I don't know if the thirteenth is the course's signature hole, but it the most photographed one on the course-- a 536 yard dogleg right par five with a green in a bowl of dunes. The green here reminded me of the par three fifth at Lahinch. As long as you do not try to cut too much of the dogleg, the fairway is quite wide. Then, your second will be your 160/170 yard club to the layup landing area. The third shot will be approximately 100 yards and it will require precision to a narrow green. As you see below, the green is effectively in a bowl of dunes and sand, with a huge bunker protecting the front.
Thirteenth tee. If you go left, there is plenty of fairway, but it lengthens the hole. Going right will shorten the hole, but then your driver will have to go long enough to clear the sand, but short enough to miss the trees.
Second shot on thirteen. Just imagine all the hazards are not there and hit your normal 160 yard shot.
Approach to thirteenth green, which is just over the bunker on the left.
The fourteenth is a picturesque hole--178 yards downhill over a lake (the only water on the course). The green is 45 yards deep with a ridge in the middle, so the pin location will certainly affect club choice.
Unfortunately, I do not have an image of the fifteenth tee or fairway. It is a 358 yard par four. This is another hole where the tee shot has to go far enough to clear sand, but too far runs through the fairway into weeds. Assuming you hit that sweet spot, you will have a wedge into a narrow green completely surrounded by sand. The only image I have is of the ridiculously sloped green.
The sixteenth is the easiest hardest hole I have ever seen. By that I mean the hole does not require you to hit a single hard shot, but the amount of visual intimidation makes it scary (especially for people who only play the course once). It is a 321 yard par four where the tee shot only has to fly 150 to clear dunes and stop short of 200 yards to avoid another dune. So, just hit your 170 yard club. This will leave a 100 yard uphill wedge shot to an unprotected green.
Sixteenth tee shot. Looks scary, but as long as you hit it 152 yards, you will be just fine.
Approach to sixteenth.
The seventeenth is a 134 yard downhill par three. If the pin is on the left side of the green, it is an easy hole because the green is wide there and sloped such that balls will filter towards the hole. But, the green is 41 yards across. If the pin is in the middle of the green, then your tee shot must have the perfect distance to land on that very narrow portion of the green. The right side of the green is a bit narrower than the left, but certainly wider than the middle portion. If the pin is on the left and you hit the right part of the green (or vice versa), then you will not be able to putt it to the hole, and any chip will have to navigate a massive ridge in the middle of the green. Basically, if that happens, a four is the best you will do.
Seventeenth tee with the easy pin location. See how the green snakes all the way around to the right.
We couldn't even find the eighteenth hole because it did not look like a golf hole. The 414 yard par four has a blind tee shot over a waste area. The fairway is quite wide, so it should not be difficult to hit (though, of course, I missed it). The green is yet another with steep slopes on the green itself and false fronts that will cause balls that barely miss to trickle down to a collection area that leaves a testy chip.
Eighteenth green with its sloped green and false front.
As a final thought on the layout of Tobacco Road, it is a course whose terrain and visual elements multiply its difficulty level. If you had magic glasses that blocked out every hazard, pitfall, or place you did not want to hit the ball, it would be an easy course. Often the shots you have to hit are ones that you would execute on other courses without even thinking about it. For example, the signature 13th is easily played by hitting a 230 yard moderately straight drive, a 150 yard iron shot, and then a wedge. Sounds simple. But, when you throw in all the bunkers, dunes, and weeds, the look of the hole starts to scare you. This is true on so many holes at Tobacco Road--the shots themselves are not hard, but the terrain messes with your mind and tricks you into hitting bad shots. This track is as much a mental game as anything else and the more you can visualize the correct shot (as opposed to thinking about what you don't want to do), the better off you will be.
Overall, I love Tobacco Road. When I come back to play Pinehurst, I will certainly stop by for another round. While in the Sandhills, I played Tobacco Road, Dormie Club, and Pine Needles. Pine Needles is by far the worst of the three. Dormie is a true championship course that is wonderfully designed and deserves its lofty ranking among the country's public courses. It is the type of course that you could see hosting a US Open. Tobacco Road will never host a professional tournament because of how unconventional and quirky it is, but that is what makes it a fun course. You can call Tobacco Road a lot of things, but boring is not one of them. Between Tobacco Road and Dormie, if I had to play one course for the rest of my life, it would be Dormie because it is a true, fair test of golf. But, if you wanted to go have a fun round with your friends and experience something different, then Tobacco Road is what you are looking for.