Mike Strantz believed that in order to find great reward, a golfer must first confront great risk. His courses offer the opportunity to create shots players will remember for a lifetime, and none exemplifies that ethos more than Tobacco Road Golf Club. Known for its sweeping sandy vistas, forced carries and blind shots, Tobacco Road remains both beloved and reviled. While opinions of the North Carolina course will always stay sharply divided, many consider it to be Strantz’s seminal work.
And it damn near never happened.
Everything about the creation of Tobacco Road was a long shot. The owners had never been in the golf business. The land was an old sand pit used for asphalt production. It sat just down the road from and squarely in the shadow of Pinehurst Resort. Strantz’s design philosophy stood in stark contrast to the popular trends of the day. Initially, even Strantz wanted no part of the project. Tobacco Road had all the ingredients of a failure, but an unlikely group of rebels, diehards and pioneers bucked the odds and created a genuine cult classic.
Tobacco Road survived poor early reviews, a dangerous clubhouse fire and the ravages of the golf economy to not only remain open, but thrive. Strantz and his right-hand man, Forrest Fezler—known for playing the U.S. Open in shorts—have passed away. But many of the cast of characters who built the course survive.
They recently gathered at the club to share the story of Tobacco Road’s unlikely origins, tell tall tales of working with Strantz in the field and discuss the impact it’s had on their lives. The men and women who lived this story, and the memories they carry with them, are proof of the rewards that can be garnered when one is willing to take a swing.
A rocky start
From the opening tee shot, Tobacco Road divided opinion. Some golf courses never recover from negative reviews, but the team found that patience trumped the name-calling.
Joe Gay (former director of golf, Tobacco Road Golf Club): The comments about windmills and Mickey Mouse golf were kind of painful at first.…I mean, courses didn’t look like this in 1998. Not at all. It was Augusta, tree line with green grass, 4-inch rough. That first year was tough. We had a lot of haters, but we also had a lot of people that came off the course saying, “Man, that was the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
Robbie Wooten (owner, Impact Golf Marketing; close friend of Mike Strantz): The early days, especially that first year, you loved it or you hated it. Had social media been around then, there’s no telling what would have been said online about Tobacco Road. What was so great were the people willing to give it a second chance that hated it the first time. They would come back and say, “I love this place now. I hated it the first time because I thought it was too tricked up.”
Joe Gay: As the first year started rolling forward, the people who really hated it didn’t come back and the people who loved it set their friends up with what to expect and got them pumped about it. Even before they got there, they had some expectation of the blind shot. They knew they were going to have some forced carries and they knew that they weren’t going to be able to hit a driver on every hole. That helped improve the round times, improve the word of mouth and improve the golf-panel comments, which was a big thing.
The rising star
Owners Mark Stewart and Tony Woodell thought they’d found the perfect match for their unique piece of land with up-and-coming architect Mike Strantz. Strantz, however, disagreed.
Mark Stewart (original and current owner, Tobacco Road Golf Club): And are you even a golfer if you don’t want to build a golf course? Are you even a golfer if you don’t think you can run one better than all these other idiots who are running golf courses? Understand, in the ’90s, we had a successful business. It was earth-moving, road building and heavy construction. We were golfers, too. Tiger Woods was coming on the scene; we had the Tiger effect driving the expansion of golf. Our business was doing well. The economy was doing well.…What could go wrong?
Tony Woodell (original and current owner, Tobacco Road Golf Club): We had the land and we had the equipment. Before we even started this process, we would let our guys come in in the evening to hit balls. We would go buy potato sacks of old golf balls, and when they came in at the end of the day, they just went out there and hit them.…They would hit golf balls across what is now 15 tee down through 16. It sparked the process of us thinking and talking.
Mark Stewart: When we were in the road-construction business, we would take a company trip each year. We’d go down to Myrtle Beach in the spring before the busy season and use the time for team building and getting ready. It was right after one of those trips and we got very excited and said, “Why don’t we do that? We should build a golf course.”
We had this piece of property that had been mined over as our sand pit. We thought it was a great piece of property that would yield some interesting golf holes. We started trying to educate ourselves about the business, learning what we could about different architects. We felt like Mike was a rising star. In the ’90s, [Tom] Fazio emerged as the go-to architect of the era. [We were hoping] to get someone who had worked for Fazio, but not at the Fazio price. We thought that was a win-win.
Tony Woodell: We were told [that] if there was any way possible, we needed to get Mike Strantz. He was the new kid on the block.
Mark Stewart: When we first called Mike, he told us, “I don’t really want to leave home right now.” He wanted to stay within an hour of his home [in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina]. He said, “I’m not really interested.” And I told him, “We’ve got this sand pit up here and we want you to build a golf course. If you change your mind, give us a call.”
I guess it was about a week later when he did. Mike came up and looked at it and said, “Hey, I like this. If you’ve got a bunch of land that looks like this, then you can do something special here.” We went under contract I think in February of ’97, and we started construction in August. Sometime in that period, he started working on the routing and the design.
Heidi Strantz Mortimer (widow of Mike Strantz): Mike needed a challenge. I mean, he thought golf should be a challenge, and, you know, no risk, no reward.…It’s just amazing what he could do [even with] a one-dimensional topo map. To many of us, he was a genius in so many ways. He just had so many talents.
Mark Stewart: I remember when Mike got out of the truck. I’ve never seen Mike before and he got out and was 6’4″ with that long hair. I’m like, “OK, this ought to be exciting.” I had no preconceived notions on who Mike was.…He joked about how he was Samson with his long hair. But really [he was] a humble, quiet, contemplative type. He had a lot of quiet confidence.
Joe Gay: [Stewart and Woodell] were taking me around the site and asked if I’d ever met Mike Strantz. I said, “I don’t even know who he is, wouldn’t know what he looked like.” We were riding around the golf course and there’s a few holes that had been grassed, but most of them had not. They were finishing up some shaping. We’re in a Jeep Cherokee. I’m in the backseat just bouncing all around, about to throw up. The crew is over working on No. 4. It was right around lunchtime and there was this crew sitting on the excavator. There’s five or six guys just sitting there, eating brown-bag lunches.
Mark says, “Which one do you think is Mike Strantz?” I looked down [the] line at all six of them and I was like, “None of them?” The guy that’s the dirtiest, the biggest guy with the longest hair, turns out to be the one I would not have guessed to be Mike Strantz. He was the man.
Heidi Strantz Mortimer: People who try to impress you with their clothes or their talk or their bragging, Mike had no time for that. He had to work. His dad started working at 14. His parents said, “You want a car, you got to buy it. You want to go to college, you got to pay for it.” He went to work, and of course when you are a young, strong man, you’re going to do manual labor. One reason he knew how to use large equipment and knew how to run it so well is he worked in his dad’s warehouse.…He hung out with the manual-labor guys and girls. He knew how hard they worked, how good they were. You get someone who’s all dressed up and the hand hasn’t touched the shovel, and he just might not have as much respect for you as the guy and the girl with calluses.
Tony Woodell: You go to these courses with an absent designer’s name on it and they’ll say, “This is the signature hole.” You can’t do that here. [Strantz] put his heart and soul into every one of them.
Joe Gay: You know, I just had no idea. I only had a certain image in my mind of what a golf-course architect was, and that person lived like an executive. I was coming up in the game when all these real-estate-development golf courses were being built. The designers were kind of rock stars. They flew around in private jets and they wore suits and went to big banquets. That’s what I thought an architect was. Mike changed the script completely. He just loved getting in the dirt. If he wanted to make a lot of money, he could have had more projects. He was sought after. He could have had more than one [project] at a time, but I think he just loved the camaraderie of his staff. I don’t think he ever thought of them as working for him; he was working with them.…It was fun to watch.
Building the road
Stewart, Woodell and Strantz saw possibilities in the land. Others, not so much. The challenge was evident: Could Strantz and his team shape it to the vision in his head?
Joe Gay: I got there during construction. When I first went there, I’m like, “This is a golf course?” It looked like the moon.
Heidi Strantz Mortimer: Mike was a very talented artist. He went to Miami University of Ohio to get a studio art degree. He won many awards as a young man, in high school. He also started working at a golf course at a very young age; I think it was 14.…He was an elegant, beautiful golfer.
Mike was just one of those guys who could pick up any sport and do it well. In many ways, he was a Renaissance man. He loved jazz music; he was an audiophile; he was an artist. He could rub elbows with the guys in the field. He could make an impression on the business-suit guys. You combine an artist with someone who knows golf very well…then you put him with Tom Fazio. He learned all the skills that could be learned from [Fazio] as a shaper, which is why Jeff [Jones], Mike [Jones] and Mark [White] all had great respect for him. He could jump on the machines and do their job.
Mike Jones (former shaper, Maverick Golf Design): Mike loved being out here, he loved doing the work and he had such a great vision that he could see past everybody else. It was amazing when he got out here. I’ve sat on a cart with him before and he just drew it up right there, right in front of where a hole would soon be. It’s amazing how good an artist he was, and his imagination was unbelievable.
Jeff Jones (former shaper, Maverick Golf Design): Mike loved designing golf holes more than anybody I know.
Mike Jones: I remember this one guy joined us on the crew. Mike was telling us, “I want you guys to dig as deep as you can and as high as you can.” And that old man—he was probably about 65 years old at the time—says, “I’ve helped build a lot of golf courses, but I’ve never seen nothing like this before in my life. Do you guys really know what you’re doing?”
Mark White (former shaper, Maverick Golf Design): It was very intimidating because he would be sitting there drawing, and then gives it to you to shape in real life. It’s very nerve-wracking, trying to figure out how to build on the spot. You had to really work hard to do it. We figured out that you had to start shaping from where he drew the scene. Wherever he drew, that’s where you needed to go.
Mike Jones: He wasn’t here to make drawings to put up in a house or a museum somewhere. He believed you could actually take a drawing and bring it to life—drawings of golf holes that people can actually play. When I first started working with Mike and looking at those drawings, I tried to go out and build something and it didn’t work. Mike told me not to focus on objects like a bunker here or something there. He said, “Look at your horizon lines. Get all the horizon lines set up and then everything else will fall in place.”
The maverick mentality
Strantz led his merry band of upstart course builders, obsessing over every detail and working to bring his artistic vision to life. Conventional methods were thrown out the window in favor of spray paint—lots of spray paint.
Joe Gay: He was always getting on Morgan [Stephenson] about, “Hey, I need more paint. I need more paint.” Of course, he’s wearing shorts and work boots and socks that are super tall, and they’re basically painted from where he’s marking with the paint gun. The wind’s blown the spray against his legs. Even those boots are painted. He’s got kind of whitish, painted boots on that looked like they had frosting on them, and he’s just standing there and looking at the landscape.
Tony Woodell: I have no clear idea how many cases of spray paint we purchased. It was mind boggling.
Morgan Stephenson (original and current superintendent, Tobacco Road Golf Club): To this day, there have been times when we’ve had projects where we’ve had to replace grass and pulled up sod. You will see the pieces of the paint still intact on the dirt. Mike spent so much time on drawing the lines, and that’s really how everything gets pulled off visually.
Mark Stewart: One thing that Jeff [Jones] told me when he was shaping out here: Shaping a hole should be like a piece of wood. It should look really good in both directions. Mike said to the shapers, “How does the hole look backward? When you’re standing here looking back, how does everything tie together and how does it look?” Now [when I go to other golf courses] I’ll turn, look back and say, “OK, nobody gave any thought to how it looks from here.”
Heidi Strantz Mortimer: That’s one of those perfectionist things. I think like many people, though, [his] name was going on the project and he wanted it right. He knew he had the vision, and he was lucky enough that he could illustrate the vision, but it’s a double-edged sword. It was tough for him sometimes to leave a project because there were just so many things, little touches, that he really wanted to finish up. He was uncompromising in that way.
Jeff Jones: I remember this one time early in the project, he painted out some detailed lines of how he wanted the edges of the hole to be. We moved it and wiped the line out and repainted it a different way. When he came back after the weekend, he said, “Something ain’t right.” He put it back just like he had it to start with. We moved the line maybe a foot or less. He could tell.
Mike Jones: Most golf-course designers use numbers: Every area grades up a grid. Mike hated numbers. He said, “A golf course should not have numbers on it. It should be free flowing just like if nature put it there.” It was different after building all these golf courses with Mike, then you’ve got to work with someone with numbers. You’ve got to set up lasers and it isn’t much fun.
Jeff Jones: He loved the land. He worked it with his hands. He wanted it just like it’s all moved back 200 years ago. He loved nature, and everything he did was trying to improve it and beautify it, to bring nature in with the golf course.
Mike Jones: I was doing a cross tie one time and Mike says, “I want it to look like it’d been here 100 years. Like it all had fell over, and then some guy tried to fix it and put it back.” He said, “I want to make it look like we didn’t come in and put it here. It was here, and all we did was try to make it work.”
Jeff Jones: He was just the most down-to-earth person you ever met in your life.…When we got finished shaping a hole from Mike’s drawings, we’d get back to his tee box and he’d hold the drawing up and look at the horizon lines, and your heart would be beating 100 miles an hour wondering what he’s thinking. He’d put it down and say, “Hey, guys, I guess we got lucky again.”
Mike and Forrest
The visionary designer. The wily old touring pro. A shared addiction to the game. Two cowboys trying to show the world their own vision of how golf should be played.
Mark White: [Strantz and Fezler] would work together all day, and then, at night, they’d drive me crazy because they’d get back at working again. They lived and breathed golf. A lot of the time we all stayed together in the same house, and they’d talk about golf. Mike would be cooking and Forrest was there talking. Just talking about golf until they went to sleep. Next morning, back to golf again.
Robbie Wooten: Mike and Forrest were cut from the same cloth.…Their thought process was different than most. Those two, it was just like they were meant to be together to do what they were doing.
Forrest Fezler (from an interview months before succumbing to cancer in 2018; he was 69): You know how we met, right? Mike was the lead designer at Golden Eagle [Golf & Country Club in Tallahassee, Florida] for [Tom] Fazio, who I hired to design the course. We became great friends through this process. Well, years passed and I was living in Williamsburg [Virginia] at that time and I heard Mike was building a couple of courses there. I was getting my game ready to play the Champions Tour. I met him on No. 8 at Royal New Kent and was blown away. I was with him most of the day and after being overwhelmed with what he was doing, he asked what my future plans were. I told him my goals and the first thing he said to me was, “Why do you want to play the Tour again and beat your head against the wall? Why don’t you join me and we can build courses together the rest of our lives?” Pretty hard to turn that down, so I jumped all over that before he could get the words out of his mouth.
Mike Jones: The first time I met Forrest, [him] being a professional golfer and everything, I thought he was just going to be one of those guys who look around and tell people what to do. He ended up being the hardest worker out there. He was not scared of work at all; he did not mind getting his hands dirty. I thought a lot of Forrest, because he taught us a lot with his ideals and his knowledge of golf.
Mike and Forrest would ride horses, and to me it looked like they were horseback riding. But they were working at the same time, trying to figure out what could make this golf course even better. Using the horses to get around, I think it cleared their mind. If you’re on a buggy or something else that’s got an engine, it’s different. I guess it was more to be with nature.
Mark Stewart: I was here one day and the course was basically constructed. There was no grass. I just happened to know where Forrest was, so I went and found him standing on the fifth tee with a basket of balls, making sure that the design was going to work. I didn’t say a word. I just watched him hit the entire basket—I mean, it was a peach basket—of balls into the green. I guess he needed to see things that way to know they were just right.
Tony Woodell: Standing there in cargo shorts. Just banging balls.
Heidi Strantz Mortimer: Mike always had tremendous respect for Forrest and consulted him a lot about what kind of shots could be done from a certain place. I mean, golf was Forrest. So Forrest was a great partner. They were buddies.
Forrest Fezler: What a great man. Mike had a heart of gold.
From the ashes
They never saw disaster coming.
Joe Gay: We had a big day when the fire started. We were busting through all of our forecast numbers, all feeling good about ourselves. I’m closing with the assistant pro and we have that fireplace in the center of the room; it was a gas fireplace, but it looked real. A lot of people would throw trash in there and sometimes it would smoke up a little bit. The assistant pro and I noticed there was some smoke in the clubhouse rafters and we just figured someone threw some scorecards or something in there and made the place smoky.
It was getting worse and we didn’t know where it was coming from, so we [called Woodell] and he said, “Shoot, call 911.” We called and the fire department came out, looking for the fire. The fire trucks came out and they’re in full gear and they’re looking around in the clubhouse. Finally, somebody looks underneath in the crawlspace and says, “You all got to get out of there, it’s on fire.”…Within 30 minutes, it was gone. It went from no big deal to “Oh shit, this clubhouse is toast.” Some of the wood was 100 years old, from the tobacco barns. It just went up in flames.
Tony Woodell: I’ll never forget it. Joe called and we rushed out here and the clubhouse was still intact, and the firemen were walking around, coming out. You initially saw some potential damage, then, within a few minutes, it’s gone. That was damaging because we knew how important that structure was for our presentation to all the people coming for the 1999 U.S. Open a few weeks later.
Joe Gay: To Mark and Tony’s credit, they built it right back, same as it was.…There was a little catch-all room in the cart barn that was probably 10 feet wide and 15 feet long. We ran our pro shop out of that I think for eight months. It kind of sucked, but people kept coming.
Tony Woodell: From our point of view, we were hit in the face; we were trying to run the club through the fire, to 9/11, to Mike’s passing and then the recession. All these things sequentially happened along the way and somehow we managed to maintain.
Mark Stewart: I think some people would be surprised at how much repeat play we get. We have people that have played us every year we’ve been open. We have people that play us 30 times a year. We have a lot of true believers and diehard fans who come back here and have a great time.
It’s funny if you look at what’s trendy now in food and breweries and whatever: It’s all about the local, the one-of-a-kind, the non-homogenized or the unique. The people want to know where they can go to get something they cannot get anywhere else. Still, today in golf, if you’re not careful, there’s a lot of homogenization and a lot of conformity…and the belief that things have to be a certain way. But really every experience needs to be different. You need to offer something that no one else offers. In that way, the times have caught up with Mike’s design.
The legend lives on
Mike Strantz designed just nine golf courses before losing his battle with cancer in 2005. That list is too small, but the impact he had on the lives of the team at Tobacco Road continues to grow.
Morgan Stephenson: I think about Mike a lot. If you knew Mike and worked out here with him, there’s not a day that goes by that the sun will go down without [you] thinking about Mike. I know that sounds kind of corny, but I’ve felt him here before. The hair stands up on your arm. I come down No. 7, through No. 8 and look up [No.] 9, and I just think, “Mike would like this.”
Mark Stewart: I think that we all feel—and it’s not a burden of responsibility—like we’re stewards of Mike’s legacy. We’re not the only stewards to protect or remember Mike, but I know that even things like cutting a tree down, we’re like, “Mike didn’t cut it down. Why should we cut it down? Mike left it.” We’re not going to reshape the green or fill in a bunker or redesign a hole. We felt like Mike got it right.
Jeff Jones: I most definitely still see Mike here. See where he sat drawing, where he was telling you to look at the hole from. When I come back to do renovation work, I always look up and say, “Help me out here. Help me, Mike.” I want to make sure I’m going to give my best to get it like he wants me to do it.
Mike Jones: I think about the lives he has changed through what he has done. As far as [the] golf business, I know he changed my life forever, because I was doing road construction before I met Mike.
Mark White: Yes, I would be still doing road construction or landscaping construction or something like that if Mike hadn’t got me to do this. He definitely changed my life.
Morgan Stephenson: I’d like to see what he thinks of the golf course. We just miss him.
Heidi Strantz Mortimer: Mike enjoyed doing a public course. So True Blue, Caledonia, Tot Hill, Tobacco Road—he wanted courses available to the regular guy, like he was. He preferred to do a public course where anybody can play, because that’s where he grew up. He didn’t grow up in a country club. He grew up in [a club] where you could be a member, but you could just walk in off the street. That was the beauty of his life: He thought about the everyday person.
Mark Stewart: One thing I think people could learn from playing out here is to take a chance. When you see that sucker pin out there, take a chance, go for it, swing. Have some fun, live your life, go for it. I would hope that would be part of Mike’s legacy. Mike wanted folks to go for it. Golf is fun and he wants you to have fun and come out here and realize that you’re just one swing away from something really exciting happening. So why not take the risk?