There’s something about playing a Mike Strantz-designed golf course.
As an 18-hole exercise, the experience for golfers routinely borders on surreal, with one abstract hole after the next. And there’s a rareness, certainly, given that the artistic “Maverick” gifted the golf world just seven original designs before tragically passing away at the age of 50 in 2005. Rarer still, only six of those courses are open to the public.
Tot Hill Farm Golf Club in Asheboro, N.C., is one of the few. Abutting the mountainous Uwharrie National Forest in central North Carolina, “The Hill” is accented by its numerous rocky outcroppings, rolling elevation change, and one-of-a-kind quirks that seem to only exist on Strantz designs. Upon opening in 2000 as his second-to-last solo effort (and final public course) an hour west of its cousin, Tobacco Road, Strantz triumphantly called Tot Hill the best course he’d ever built, “by far.”
However, the passage of time proved tough. Though flourishing in its infancy, attracting locals and luring in travelers seeking a pit stop on their way to Pinehurst or Myrtle Beach, success seemed to stall in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. Years of neglect led to overgrowth of trees and brush that began covering up Strantz’s genius, abandoned teeing areas, patchy greens, and more conditions of disrepair, eventually prompting golfers to believe that Tot Hill was a “Strantz you could skip.”
In late 2022, the course was sold to Pat Barber, owner of both The Links at Stono Ferry and The Plantation Course at Edisto near Charleston, S.C., who recognized the unique opportunity at hand. Quickly, plans were developed to restore Strantz’s diamond in the rough to its original glory.
Less than a year later, on Labor Day, Tot Hill reopened its fairways. Using original drawings and commentary from Strantz, “Phase 1” of a comprehensive restoration project included a regrassing of all greens to Prizm Zoysia grass (upping the property’s total green size from three acres to three and a half); new sand and drainage systems in all bunkers; repaired cart paths; and more than 1,200 trees removed, all with the intent of reinstating the architect’s original plans for the property.
To put it into words—it’s as if the course can breathe again. Visitors (especially those returning) will appreciate the enhanced openness of the course, beginning with the par-four 1st, “Imagination,” which plunges the golfer downhill towards a halfpipe-style fairway where a previously hidden ridge has been revealed. At the 4th and 5th holes, a pair of back-to-back par fives, the extraction of overgrowth has unlocked risk/reward options, giving the holes a “half-par” feel that Strantz loved to implement, and which can be felt throughout other parts of the round.
At the par-four 10th, after players navigate a deceptive rock wall off the tee, they encounter Tot Hill’s most fascinating green site. In Strantz’s original design, the 10th green was connected by a ribbon of turf to the peninsula 12th green (the course’s most picturesque feature); this concept was restored, making the total putting surface a whopping 111 yards in length.
Tot Hill’s five par-three holes may be the best collection in the Carolinas, given their diverse mix of length, strategy, and eccentricity. The set includes the 3rd playing downhill to a green guarded by a stream on three sides and bunker on the fourth; the semi-blind 6th with a kicker slope feeding shots back to the green; the natural island green 11th; the uphill 13th surrounded by rock; and the 15th, where a diagonal green is flanked by a large hill on the left and a waterfall feature has been reintroduced behind the hole.
If, like Strantz and his idol Alister MacKenzie, you prefer the “spirit of adventure” approach to golf versus the “card and pencil” point of view, you’ll love Tot Hill’s closing trio. The 5–4–5 sequence is a match wrecker that begs for brazenness, with both par fives being gettable in two and the 17th playing as the course’s toughest test—a farm version of the Road Hole at St. Andrews with a rock wall barricading the back of the green.
The club did more than just improve its playing fields. A 150-plus-year-old farmhouse was gutted and converted into the new clubhouse and golf shop, complete with changing rooms, lounge areas, a grab-and-go refreshments station, and a screened-in side porch that’s the perfect place to decompress after a round. Outdoor seating and an expanded lawn overlooking the final three holes invite visitors to stick around for more than just their time on the course. And further “Phases” of the restoration project are set to follow, though details about what else is in store for Tot Hill have yet to be announced.
With a modest green fee of $135, a round on the upgraded layout is a value worth the price of admission, and the course firmly back to being a Strantz you can’t miss.
Have you played Tot Hill Farm? Tell us about your experience in the comment section.