Durham, N.C.

Amid superlative Carolina courses, a golfer stumbles upon Tobacco Road. One swing, and he's in love.

You don't always find genius where you expect it.

The highway to Tobacco Road Golf Club, the masterpiece of maverick golf course architect Mike Strantz, passes used RV lots, the Lady Luck Tattoo parlor and the standard American jumble of fast-food restaurants and gas stations. This dazzling course occupies an abandoned quarry between scraggly cotton fields and an asphalt-manufacturing plant.

When I moved to the Carolinas from California more than a decade ago, I had never heard of Strantz. I hadn't played golf in years. But, as I soon discovered, the Carolinas are one of the world's great golf meccas. This is the land of the sausage biscuit, bass fishing, NASCAR, a church on every block and -- Ben Hogan be praised -- more than 700 golf courses from bargain local layouts to ultra-pricey manicured trophy tracks. It seemed a shame not to make the most of it.

So I took up the game again, and I began making occasional expeditions to new courses recommended on the Internet or, the old-fashioned way, by friends. One trip took me to Pinehurst, the fabled resort in North Carolina's piney sand hills with eight top tracks. It was a treat to play the storied No. 2 course in the footsteps of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, at least until I skulled a ball onto the clubhouse roof on the last hole.

Then, in a quasi-mystical tone, someone mentioned Tobacco Road.

"Forget Pinehurst," he said. Tobacco Road is the "course you have to play."

I drove there a few weekends later and was instantly mesmerized by the way the course zigzagged through the broken red-clay bluffs. Many courses have one especially dramatic signature hole, but at Tobacco Road, it seemed that every hole was spectacular, with blind carries, improbable angles and unexpected hazards.

Golfers will always have a favorite course. I've played at St. Andrews in Scotland, the home of golf, and at such modern American classics as Whistling Straits on Lake Michigan and Pacific Dunes in Oregon, and I put Tobacco Road near the top of my list, and not just because it's only an hour from my new hometown of Durham.

Discovering Tobacco Row felt like having stumbled across the proverbial lost Whistler or Sargent in the attic.

PITY NOT NECESSARY

My California friends pitied me when I left for the Carolinas, as if I'd been banished to Siberia. They warned me that it was a region of in-bred country hicks, Klansmen and wacky, hair-sprayed televangelists, but the reality proved different. Although grits remain on the menu, I also found new arrivals from Latin America and Asia, a strong African American professional class, high-tech industrial parks, top universities and a thriving arts-and-music scene.

I also fell for the charms of the cypress swamps in Congaree National Park and the beach at Ocracoke Island, the mythical lair of the pirate Blackbeard.

Then there were the golf courses.

I credit Strantz for understanding the dynamic character of the region and not trying to turn it into something else. He was an Ohio native who studied art in college while majoring in turf-grass management. He learned to operate heavy machinery and, even after making his name, loved getting dirty with his work crews.

His method was always the same. After days walking the land, Strantz would make a detailed sketch for each hole. These were the cartoons, as the Italian Renaissance masters termed their miniature plans, for the fresco that the course would soon become.

In his late 30s when he first made his mark, Strantz was fast becoming a legend among golf cognoscenti when he died two years ago at age 50. In contrast to the button-down corporate mold of other top golf designers, Strantz had a rock star's shaggy mane and preferred cowboy boots. He took just one project at a time. Five of his nine courses are in the Carolinas; four are open to the public. Serious golfers from as far away as New Zealand, Sweden and South Korea have come to play these Strantz creations.

A student of the so-called golden age of early 20th century course architecture, Strantz admired Alister MacKenzie, the creator of Augusta National and Cypress Point. This Englishman believed that every good hole should look harder than it is. A golf course may be a faux battlefield with a cold one as close as your cart's mini-cooler, but the player still wants a sense of accomplishment, the pride of conquest -- or at least survival.