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Tobacco Road a gem amid the Carolinas’ golf courses

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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.

Strantz understood this. He makes you feel as if you've entered the breach yet allows you the possibility of coming back to the clubhouse with a decent score to your credit.

Strantz's most obvious skill was his mastery of illusion. Take the first hole at Tobacco Road. Your ball must carry between two big, jagged hills to a patch of fairway that looks a mile away. Golfers always secretly fear the public humiliation of shanking, topping or even whiffing the ball on the first tee. Most architects start with a vanilla opening hole just to steady the nerves. To instead demand so intimidating a tee shot as at Tobacco Road seems a mean joke.

But here's the trick: It's really not so hard. Just get your ball by those mounds, and the fairway opens into a generously accommodating bowl-shaped expanse. It's that way all around Tobacco Road. Once beyond scary appearances, the course is short, just 6,554 yards from the back tees, and not impossibly tough. You can go low if you keep your wits about you.

"The average golfer can't handle a Pinehurst No. 2 or an Oakland Hills. They're so long, and the greens are too severe," says Joe Gay, head pro at Tobacco Road and a former college all-American. "Everyone has a chance here."

SPRAWLING COUNTRY

"I let the character of the property dictate the design," Strantz once said, and the more you get out on his Carolina courses, the better you come to understand the character of this country.

Playing Tobacco Road over time, I slowly gained a feel for the sprawling hill country between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachians, the piedmont, as geologists label it. This heartland of the Carolinas juxtaposes the old-time cotton and tobacco farming (hence the course's name) with muddy reservoirs, Ft. Bragg and the gleaming ultramodern downtown of Charlotte.

Another Strantz gem I've played is Tot Hill Farm, which offers a more Appalachian flavor. This course lies an hour west of Tobacco Road and is closer to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, Strantz worked with a palette of deep green forest, gray stone cliffs and glinting brooks, reminiscent of scenes described in the Civil War novel "Cold Mountain."

He drew attention to the woods -- with their black snakes and deer -- by setting many of the greens back against the forest, and rather than dynamiting away the fractured stone outcroppings, he used them as his leitmotif at Tot Hill Farm. Rock extrudes everywhere, sometimes even on tee boxes or close upon the greens.

On first playing Tot Hill Farm, I was a little surprised to discover that the first hole nose-dives down a mountain. Strantz loved making grand opening statements and had his work crew scoop away many tons of dirt, so that a gentle slope became a dramatic plunge. It's pure amplification, the oxymoron of people moving earth to bring out nature's essence, allowing golfers to open their rounds with a madcap moon shot off the summit in the bargain.

Similarly, it took me time to understand the meaning behind the stone fences at Tot Hill. They crisscross several holes on the back nine and would not have been there if Strantz hadn't had them built.

These crude unmortared barriers echo both the Carolina practice of piling loose rocks out of the way at a field's edge and the ancient stone walls bordering venerable 19th century Irish championship links, such as Royal County Down and Ballybunion. It was Strantz's way of evoking local history and hoary old-world golf tradition with a twist all his own.

The barriers also reminded me of Christo's famous "Running Fence," which briefly undulated over the hills of Marin and Sonoma counties. The controversial Bulgarian artist and wife Jeanne-Claude put up 24 miles of 18-foot-high cloth panels across the golden hills down to the Pacific in 1976. He described this "obstructive membrana" as inviting new ways of seeing the land. Strantz accomplished a more permanent version of the same thing at Tot Hill.

Strantz's third course in the vicinity lies east of Tobacco Road toward the coast, just south of the overgrown beach town of Myrtle Beach, S.C., at Pawleys Island.

The Caledonia Golf and Fish Club was Strantz's first design, completed in 1994 on the grounds of an abandoned plantation. Its live oaks draped in Spanish moss are straight from John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," the bestseller about the Low Country and its ghosts (not least, the slaves who toiled there). Strantz incorporated the trees into his design, together with azalea and rhododendron plantings, to frame the park-like fairways. The course is a 21st century golf version of an enchanted manor garden.

In all three designs, Strantz never aspired to create some historical theme park or pristine natural environment. His achievement lay in understanding the nature of that strange, almost schizophrenic creation we call a golf course. He seemed to recognize that although every course is a living green thing, it is also an invention of human hands.

Building a course takes bulldozing hills, laying turf grass bioengineered to the latest specifications and designing drainage more sophisticated than a missile defense system. A golf course belongs to what French philosopher Bruno Latour calls "nature/culture," namely that murky modern border zone between organic and man-made, wild and engineered, natural and artificial. Strantz embraced the unexpected possibilities at all of these intersections. His designs drew inspiration from the particularities of the setting without trying to mimic them.

There's no mistaking the showman in Strantz. Take, for example, his characteristic elongated greens. Many have the odd, elliptical shapes of those iconic clocks in Salvador Dalí's "The Persistence of Memory." In these whimsical designs, Strantz lets us relive that unembarrassed childhood fun of hitting the neon orange golf ball over the dipsy-do, around the loop and through the clown's mouth.

But his surprises don't stop there. Apparently bored by the humdrum of too many par fours, he refused to follow the staid formula of only four par fives and four par threes in every 18 holes. He hung tee boxes on slivers of creek bank, and he perched greens high on hilltops with a wink to those framed ink prints you sometimes see in golf clubhouses of an imaginary Shangri-La course across outsized waterfalls and gorges.

It makes for a unique -- dare I say, postmodern? -- confusion of boundaries, the playful, serious, real, invented, old and new rolled into one. Strantz courses are like the best avant-garde art. They burst borders, yet compel by the power and audacity of their vision.

"At first, people said they were carnival this, Mickey Mouse that," says Alan Martini, the head pro at Tot Hill Farm. "I don't hear that anymore."

THE OLD, NEW

I try to get to Tobacco Road once or twice a year.

The last time down, I played late in the day. With its pale, droughty colors and wild cracked lines in the blood-orange twilight, the course seemed more bewitching than ever. I found myself hitting the ball well by my modest standards, especially nice after a tough workweek. It was one of those moments of wonder and pleasure we seek in travel or even golf.

It's telling that Strantz was an outsider to the region, just as I am. The New South has its downsides with suburban sprawl and forgotten poverty zones, but it's the frisson between the old and new that has powered the region's remarkable reinvention of itself. That an Ohioan should capture the spirit of the Carolinas seems appropriate.

Every Strantz design is an 18-hole lesson in geology and history and a poem to the meaning of change. As much as I miss California sometimes, I'll always feel lucky to be a naturalized Southerner when I'm out at Tobacco Road.

Strantz liked the area so well that he made his home north of Charleston, S.C., with his wife and two daughters. He didn't smoke, so it seems especially cruel that he should have been stricken with a tongue cancer. This big, handsome man was reduced to a whisper at the end.

"It was heartbreaking," says John Adkins, the Tot Hill Farm golf director. "A fantastic guy, so much life."

We're left with his courses.

Orin Starn, an anthropology professor at Duke University, is finishing a book about golf and society and blogs at www.golfpolitics.blogspot.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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