I’ve been thinking and reflecting upon my emergency, sanity-restoring one-man golf trip to the Sandhills of North Carolina to visit Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club, Hyland Golf Club, and Tobacco Road Golf Club. Here are my musings on what I experienced and what I learned from walking 36 holes at Mid Pines one Friday afternoon, followed by walking 18 holes at Hyland on Saturday morning, then walking 27 holes at Tobacco Road that Saturday afternoon.
1. The trusting, welcoming golf culture in the Sandhills is remarkable and refreshing. Each golf shop that I visited had a very relaxed, everybody welcome, come as you are vibe that was warm and genuine. It was an atmosphere one might expect to find at a good locals’ golf club back home or in the far flung corners of Scotland. For instance, when I told the pro behind the counter at Mid Pines that I wanted to go around again, and that I was walking, he told me that the course was mine and to have fun. By the time I made it back to the 18th hole the second time, everyone was gone. Pro shop was empty, bar and grill was closed up, the cart barn closed, and the parking lot empty, save for my car and an empty shuttle van. One of the best public golf courses in the America was perfectly happy to let me chase the twilight as long as I wanted and show myself out.
I enjoyed roughly the same experience at Tobacco Road this trip and at The Cradle two years prior, where because there were no carts involved to be put away, it was assumed that I’d take care of the course and leave it the way I found it. That’s something I enjoy about my home courses in Lexington, but blows my mind at these top tier courses. It certainly forged the idea of the Sandhills as my golf home away from home.
2. Tobacco Road is a perfectly walkable golf course. Before this trip I, thought this was true, I believed that it’s true, but I didn’t know that it’s true. Having walked 27 holes in one afternoon, with a rain delay at the turn the on the first time around, now I do know that it can be walked fairly comfortably, which proves counter intuitive to conventional wisdom about the Tobacco Road given its sprawling playing corridors, gigantic dunes, and unrelenting elevation changes.
While carts certainly follow circuitous routes around the course from tee to fairway or green to tee, the walking paths between those same destinations are pleasantly direct at Tobacco Road. There are footpaths worn on direct lines from tee to fairway to green to the next tee for most holes. Our group was never out of position because I was walking the course, and often I was the player pointing out my where my competitors’ shots had come to rest rather than the other way around. Finding out how cool of a golf course Tobacco Road is to walk was certainly one of the weekend’s best surprises.
3. Mid Pines might be the perfect American golf course to walk. It’s a course on the short side, which sports perhaps the best combination of a compact and interesting routing that I’ve ever played. The golf course occupies just under 140 acres filled with intriguing elevation changes tee to green on every hole while keeping the walk comfortable.
The consistently short distances from the greens to the next tee definitely help keep play moving for golfers taking a stroll. While the fairways and playing corridors are surprisingly wide, the tree-lined fairways provide ample shade for walking golfers to enjoy, should they desire to hide from the sun overhead. These same tall pines’ shadows add a stunning layer of texture to the look of the course during the early morning and late afternoon hours, making walking among them an even sweeter treat. Mid Pines certainly isn’t the flattest or easiest walk in golf, but the overall combination of routing, playability, and topography make it one of the best.
4. Both Mid Pines and Tobacco Road are best experienced by walking, rather than riding in a cart. These two courses couldn’t be much more different in terms of their aesthetics, routing, or the way they are designed to be played; they are opposites in almost all respects. However, both courses reveal themselves in similar fashion, unfolding their subtleties and solutions in a like manner when walking the course.
The cart paths are well defined at both, mostly on the sides of holes outside the lines of play or line of sight from the playing corridors. The contouring, framing, and complexities of the green complexes are stunning when they are approached head on. Walking the course means that it’s presented in a continuous, linear loop, from start to finish, which is a wholly different experience from an incongruous journey of a cart. Each semi-blind shot revealed by walking over a hillock or around a dune creates a moment that can’t be recreated from a cart.
Observing how greens are protected by fronting bunkers at Mid Pines, which rendered an entire half of the fairway impotent to attack the flag, made me feel like I might finally be developing some golf architecture chops. Walking around and through the gigantic sand formations, up and down those hills, the scale of Tobacco Road makes a permanent impression on a golfer’s soul. I’ve now played each course walking and riding; walking is infinitely better.
5. I’m finally coming around to accept slaw on my barbecue. Growing up in western Kentucky, sweet sauce on barbecue was a way of life, while vinegar was for cleaning battery terminals or making bubbles with baking soda. Like tea in the south, the sweeter the sauce, the better. Also, until my late teens, I didn’t know that cole slaw could be vinegar based instead of mayonnaise based, and I loathe mayonnaise cole slaw. Thus, the idea of putting slaw on barbecued meat sounded cruel and disgusting, anathema to everything I’d been taught to believe.
However, somewhere along my journey, vinegar started playing a more prominent role in my food preferences. It’s small wonder then that vinegar soaked cabbage slaw slopped on top of tender pork barbecue continues to rise on my list of go-to short order meals. Good barbecue is tough to beat, and embracing vinegar sauces, and now vinegar slaw, has been a revelation.
I’m no honorary Carolinian, yet, but even I can figure out that if you’re playing Tobacco Road, leave enough time for lunch at Stubbs & Sons BBQ on Highway 1 near the course. And don’t leave without trying the banana pudding.
6. Do not take good golf architecture for granted. I included a third golf course to break up my trip, something to cleanse my golf palate between Mid Pines on Friday afternoon and Tobacco Road on Saturday afternoon. A local course was an important way to keep my total golf package costs in a comfortable range, too. Wherever I played, it was always going to be “the other course” on this particular trip, and Hyland Golf Club just happened to be this trip’s new course adventure.
Mid Pines is a brilliant Donald Ross classic, expertly restored and updated by Kyle Franz. It’s full of strategic bemusement and intriguing land that presents golfers with deceptively complicated decisions throughout the round. Tobacco Road is Mike Strantz’s masterpiece, a gigantic carnival ground utilizing visual overload to test the limits of a golfer’s courage and execution. These are golf destinations.
Hyland, on the other hand, is a locals’ course. With a modest greens fee, its parking lot was full on that Saturday morning, and the practice green served a mass of humanity the likes of which I’d not seen on a golf course in some time. The course itself has one large valley providing interesting land forms and topography upon which 12 holes are laid out. I might have made different conceptual decisions to make better use of that interesting land, but that’s always personal preference.
What struck me during my round was how many of the greens were exactly the same shape from the fairway: greens or other hazardous contouring guarding the front of the green on the left and right, and the widest part of the green at the middle and back thirds of the surface. There were variations of this same theme on no less than 11 of the 18 greens. There was a bunker on the inside of every dog leg and fairway landing zone bunkers even on the straight holes without a dogleg.
Architectural preferences are always intensely personal, but I just feel like Hyland provided a stark contrast to the rest of the golf I played on my journey. It didn’t detract from my experience, necessarily, because I so enjoyed the company of the golfers I was paired with. However, it provided a great reminder to be grateful for the well-designed, thoughtfully constructed golf courses that I am privileged to play not only at home but also on my golf travels.
7. I made very few ball marks on the greens of any of the Sandhills’ courses. For all intents and purposes, at home in central Kentucky, our courses are constructed using “northern” greens. Our propensity for damaging deep freezes during the winter and the inefficiency of trying to overseed rye grass in our climate annually has created a landscape of bentgrass greens. They survive our winters in tact, thrive in our spring and fall seasons, but require a ton of water to survive our hot, muggy summers on their clay loam foundations.
The greens (and fairways) in the North Carolina Sandhills, in contrast, are at their firm and fast best during the summer, with the Bermudagrass surfaces thriving on the sandy bases of their green complexes. I hit plenty of greens during my golf marathon, but I was repeatedly surprised by how few ball marks my shots created. I would search the green surface diligently looking for my ball mark, then expand to seek any ball mark to fix, usually to no avail. That sort of firmness creates a wonderful playing and putting surface, once an adjustment is made for how a shot will react.
8. After playing only seven holes at Mid Pines, I finally recognized that I was putting on greens with grain in them. It is this kind of keen observational skill that so wowed my playing companions. “With the grain” or “against the grain” are foreign concepts on bentgrass greens, but they are determinative of almost every chip or putt hit on Bermudagrass greens.
Rolling the ball downgrain on the “shiny” portion of any green was like trying to get a golf ball to stop on a hockey rink. Putting into the grain was like trying to push the ball toward the hole across a velcro carpet. Once I figured out that there was grain to be accounted for…well I still didn’t make any putts, but the speed of my putts was much less embarrassing.
9. Whenever water coolers can return to golf courses will not be soon enough. Walking four and a half rounds of golf in a little more than a summer day’s time is a physical challenge under the best sets of circumstances. Staying hydrated on the journey is crucial to staying healthy and staying engaged in the golf experience. Lugging bottles of water or Gatorade around the course to stay hydrated without water coolers to refill those bottles along the way proved an exercise in planning, logistics, and golf bag weight management.
Most of the amenities removed from pro shops and golf courses for COVID-19 concerns can stay gone, as far as I am concerned. Bunker rakes? Don’t need them. Putting green flag sticks? Pure luxury. Ball washers? Ew, gross! Those things are disgusting unless they’re changed daily. However, I am finding that water coolers are an essential piece of golf course equipment that I dearly miss and hope can return sooner rather than later.
10. Mid Pines and Tobacco Road both invite creative shot making and shot shaping, but for different reasons. At Mid Pines, while there is nominally space to run the ball onto each green, roughly half of the green will be effectively blocked from a direct ground assault due to at least one bunker. A ball lying on the right or left third of the fairway can easily be out of position from which to attack the flag. It’s part of strategy inherent in Donald Ross’s brilliant design. Thus, to play an attacking style of golf at Mid Pines, one must overcome the hazards with creative shot making by going over or around those mounds, bunkers, and kicker slopes found in the elevated greens.
In contrast, Tobacco Road invites creative shot shaping and a variety of ball flights because of the very nature of the larger-than-life scale of the golf course. It is a carnival on grass and sand, a playground for golfers to dream impossible dreams. I made peace with the sensory overload present at Tobacco Road, realizing that the fairways and playing corridors are generally pretty wide and that the sandy waste areas are likely only a one shot penalty, at most. Thus, the risks inherent in trying different shots that I might normally eschew in favor of something more conservative are smaller than I initially thought. Tobacco Road, with its enormous greens, lends license to the golfer to be just as creative in playing as the architect was in creating the course. It’s one of the many reasons I could never tire of playing there.
11. When you walk Tobacco Road Golf Club, people will look at you like you’re crazy. It’s not their fault, they don’t know any better. I’m not saying I was the oldest person playing Tobacco Road on my given Saturday afternoon, but I was at least a decade older than the average age. The Young Turks and Woke Bros that I encountered down from Raleigh or over from Charlotte were there to enjoy the course, drink beer, and chew tobacco (or smoke cigars). That is the golf they have been raised on, and they’re just keeping up with the expected norms of their social circle. I get it; that used to be me (okay, I never wore trucker or rope hats, and I certainly didn’t sports a terrible mustache, ironically or otherwise).
So they can be forgiven for how the sight of a paunchy, middle-aged man with too much grey in his beard hiking around the course behind a push cart jarred their senses. I’m no absolutist about walking the golf course. To each their own, as my wish for everyone is to enjoy themselves, keep pace, and experience the golf course as they see fit. Never mind the quiet, smug pride I take in showing all those whippersnappers what’s possible if there is sufficient preparation and desire.
12. I am incredibly culturally disconnected from the golfers just a few years younger than me. As for formal generational identification, I am one of the last spawn of Generation X, barely old enough to remember the sound metal spikes make on asphalt, but young enough to know Arnold Palmer more for his prodigious salesmanship than his golf game. Observing the swarm of twenty and thirty-somethings at Tobacco Road during my rain delay made me feel older than any fatigue from walking 30 miles of golf in one weekend.
The clothes, the lingo, the music ringing out from the carts, it was all foreign to me, right down to the drinks they ordered in the grill room. I was paired with three other golfers on the first tee, and the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, my attempt to introduce myself to the rest of the group on the first hole might as well have been in broken Gaelic, for the confused looks it generated. There was nothing wrong with their behavior, their conversations, or the way they play the game, it was just …different.
13. Good golf shoes and great socks are essential golf equipment for a walking golfer. There exists no more evergreen advice for all athletes, including golfers, than to take good care of your feet. Being blessed/cursed with high arches on my feet and ankles that seem to suffer a significant sprain at least annually, I am particularly sensitive to the wear and tear that my feet suffer.
Walking 81 holes in 31 hours only accentuated the need for high-quality footwear. I’ve earnestly valued good golf shoes for the past six or seven years, once I began to walk golf courses more often. I buy new waterproof golf cleats each year, keep them for two seasons, repeat.
What I neglected to fully appreciate until recently was the role that proper fitting, high-quality socks play in keeping me on my feet. My Wife recently converted me to a full-fledged advocate for Bombas socks because of their unique fit, feel, and versatility. I changed my socks at lunch before arriving at Tobacco Road, and it was as if I had been granted new feet on which to stand, which made walking the final 27 holes of my Crusade not only possible, but enjoyable.
14. The sandy soil of the Sandhills’ golf courses create a unique challenge for walkers with push carts: friction from sand accumulation. I had never experienced loose, damp sand sprayed from the front wheel of my push cart accumulating on the bottom edge of my golf bag, causing excessive friction with the aforementioned front wheel. They’re not called Sandhills for nothing, and my only remedy proved a continuous adjusting of my bag on the cart to ensure the slightest daylight could pass between it and the front wheel. An annoyance more than a dangerous condition, it was a small price to pay for the ability to traverse my favorite courses on foot.
15. Sunsets are incredible at Tobacco Road. One might presume that the large trees on and around the property, coupled with the gigantic dunes dominating the playing realm, might shrink the Tobacco Road horizon below an impressive level. Those presumptions prove wholly inaccurate, as there are precise locations on the course that provide magnificent views of the setting summer sun.
When twilight falls upon the rural North Carolina sky, it has that look that one only finds in the countryside, where the land falls quiet as diurnal life grows still and gives way to the nocturnal critters and their unique sounds. The bluff where the 16th green, 17th tee, and 18th tees converge provides an ideal spot to take in the last golden rays of a given day, knowing that something special is about to conclude. Likewise, the ridge running from the 9th green, across the 1st tee, to the 10th tee, presents an opportunity to admire not only an immense horizon, but also observe how the shadows that the setting sun creates turn the course’s contours from impressive to magical. It’s as much what I envision when I remember my time at Tobacco Road as any shots I hit or putts I missed.
16. Magic hour on a golf course is truly that. When there are more animals than people present, distractions become scarce, placing the focus on the golf, and how fortunate it is to be playing a game outdoors in those moments. In that dying light, a golf course provides a peacefulness few other terrestrial settings can match. It’s fun to chase a score against the impending darkness if I have a good round going, but more often than not, the importance of my score fades faster than the setting sunlight. Frankly, I don’t know that I would be as avid or enthusiastic of a golfer if I didn’t play a majority of my rounds in the twilight.
I can trace my the love affair with the cusp of darkness straight back through my work life on golf courses as a young adult, forged in my teenage years by outdoor jobs and an avid lake and pond fishing habit best practiced at twilight, all the way back through my adolescence spent on baseball fields and Kentucky lakes, when the moon’s appearance marked the end of a day well spent and the ensuing “good tired” already landing on me. Somehow, as I’ve grown older, that peaceful feeling I’ve always found outside at sunset grows more valuable and more elusive. I’m not confident that I ought to conflate nature’s beauty with genuine religious experiences, but I do find spiritual comfort in the peace of sundown on most any golf course, but especially at Mid Pines and Tobacco Road.
17. I know my body’s limitations much better after my marathon golf weekend. I now know that a few blisters aside (which I’m convinced would eventually become calloused over), I can basically walk forever. It’s just the way I’m made. I walked 45 holes in one day, the final 27 of which were at Tobacco Road, which, for as pleasant as I may have made it sound in this article, remains a significant physical golf accomplishment. It produced the good, hard tired body and mind that I think I was seeking all along.
I don’t think I’m in my midlife crisis. Actually, I know for a fact I got that out a few years ago (it was ugly). However, I recognize that I’m of the age that middle-aged men start taking on new tasks and challenges just to see if they can do it. We take up running half marathons or throw ourselves into fly fishing. Or we engage in crazy golf adventurism that they don’t advertise in the brochures. What I got from my weekend golf endurance test was a sense of accomplishment.
And closure. I had been dreaming about this trip since our Guys’ Golf Getaway trip visited the Pinehurst area in 2018. I was convinced that the drive from Lexington to Southern Pines for a quick turnaround golf visit was not only possible, but a good idea, that the wear and tear of the 500 miles on the road was worth it. But I couldn’t know if it was doable or if it was worth it until I did it. So I did it.
18. Was it worth it, to go so far, just to play golf all day on the summer solstice? Yes. Absolutely. For the Blind Shots Podcast episodes, I styled this trip a sanity-restoring break from the world as 2020 has delivered it. A break from the isolation and quarantine. A break from the daily routine with the same people in the same place. A break from the ugliness of our politics and unrest, for which there is no end in sight.
And it was those things, and so much more. Did I need to go all the way to Southern Pines and Sanford, North Carolina to find the inner peace that I sought? Maybe not. But I knew how much I would enjoy seeing and playing Mid Pines and Tobacco Road again. Just like I knew I needed something to look forward to, some idea to cling to that at some date in the future, I could set aside the world around me and concentrate on golf. And nothing at all.
My blood pressure decreased once I booked the trip. I left North Carolina with much less stress than I arrived with, having left it all out there on my two favorite golf courses. All of the same problems that 2020 hath wrought were still waiting for me once I returned to daily life at home, but now I can approach each day with renewed senses of gratitude and perspective.
Was it worth it? Of course it was, because I’ll do it again, happily.
Postscript. Thanks for traveling along on this journey with me. Maybe this is all simply entertaining or amusing to you; if it is, I’m very grateful for the privilege. But maybe you needed to read this because you’re right on the edge of your sanity. If that’s the case, you’re not alone. Talk to someone. Anyone. Tell them all you need is someone to listen for a moment. They’ll likely be honored that you asked them.
I could not have taken this adventure without the full support of my Wife and children, my mom, and my in-laws. They know me, they know this kind of thing is part of my personality. That I’m a better person having gotten away and returned refreshed. Maybe for you it’s something different, something closer to home, something not tied to golf. Taking care of yourself is not being selfish. These are extraordinary times we are living in, and maybe extraordinary measures are what will get us through.