Tobacco Road, hole 14
Tobacco Road, 18th tee
Tobacco Road, hole 13
Tobacco Road, hole 16
I make no claim to it being either the best or most architecturally significant course one could visit, but for me, Michael Strantz's Tobacco Road is the most architecturally influential course I have ever seen. It opened my eyes to a new approach to golf design. One not constrained by generic templates, or weighty concerns of 'fairness'. What I learned from my experiences there have informed everything I have done since and I believe have made me a better, bolder and more courageous golf course architect.
It was love at first sight. During the year 2000, I was working for Royal Dornoch on the extension and redesign of the Struie Course. Being the hometown of Donald Ross, Dornoch has close ties with Pinehurst, North Carolina and so I took time out from the construction works to visit Pinehurst and learn more about Ross. Stopping at a rest area on the drive down from Washington, I picked up a Pinehurst region golf guide. There amongst the many beautiful images of smoothly manicured courses was one captivating photograph of a golf hole the likes of which I had never seen before. Viewed from behind and high above, here was a perilously shallow, semi-blind green wedged between craggy red sand hills smothered with gnarly native grasses. It was jarring, unnerving, aggressive architecture and I absolutely had to see it. The carefully worked out itinerary was binned and I instead made arrangements to visit this hitherto unheralded course, on the strength of one extraordinary image.
The approach along an inconspicuous country road dominated by a smoke-belching asphalt works is hardly auspicious, but once you turn into the discrete entrance drive, a golfing wonderland is immediately unfurled. To the left and right are teasing glimpses of sensational, pine and sand golfing terrain. It is a thrilling trailer to the main feature.
Tobacco Road is hewn from the abandoned sand excavations that once supplied the adjacent asphalt plant. Visually, it reminds one of Pine Valley and Strantz, mindful of the fact that the great majority of golfers shall never experience the exclusive New Jersey course, set out to build a public access 'Pine Valley for the people'.
It is a visually intimidating and psychologically confounding course. There are blind shots, forced carries, deep sand hazards, greens that are both huge and undulating and greens that are skinny and orientated bizarrely. Fairway widths are generally huge, but they twist and turn like angry serpents and occasionally narrow dramatically through tight sand hill constrictions, before exploding with width again on the blind side. It asks questions that many golfers do not have answers for. Plenty leave smitten with a new found love, but many have also left swearing never to return. Strantz wanted people to like his course, but he didn't compromise his daring philosophy to cater for the mundanity of middle-of-the-road thinking. He knew it would be hugely controversial, but he had owners who shared his vision and trusted his talent. Their reward is a course that deserves its place in the pantheon of truly inspirational designs and which is worthy of personal study of anyone with a professional design interest.
Tobacco Road marries stunning aesthetics with sound strategic principles, but presents them in a narrative full of plot twists and surprises. Strantz was a talented artist and knew how to present a vista. He understood that a golfer's psyche is primarily stimulated visually and he created a design which explores the full spectrum of psychological experiences, from excitement, joy and awe to confusion, trepidation and fear. This is about as dramatic as golf design can get and from Tee 1 to Green 18, the golfer is presented with a veritable bounty of unique and unforgettable golfing scenarios.
Rarely have I played a course where I have been so totally invested in the experience and have approached each hole with a child-like excitement to see what the architect has in store for us next. This is perhaps the single most important lesson I have taken from Tobacco Road. Whenever I feel myself becoming mentally stale and falling back on 'generic' design solutions, I think about the way Tobacco Road's architecture thrilled me. This will get me going again on a more creative design path, leading ultimately to golf courses which will hopefully engage the golfer in a similarly satisfying way. Once you have seen Tobacco Road, predictable, 'safe' course architecture no longer has any appeal.