ASHEBORO, N.C. – The old adage about not getting a second chance to make a first impression may apply to people, but not necessarily golf courses.
I first played the Mike Strantz-designed Tot Hill Farm Golf Club around 2003, not long after it opened in 2000. I had recalled seeing striking photos of golf holes strewn with rocks in magazines, and after having been energized about golf course design by Strantz’s two South Carolina public courses – Caledonia Golf & Fish Club and True Blue Golf Club, both in Pawleys Island – my father and I were excited to see Strantz’s expression in a setting with more terrain movement.
We enjoyed Tot Hill Farm’s kooky layout, but we both came away a little overwhelmed and a little beaten-down by the golf course. Those rocks in the photos were no joke; some of our errant shots darted off into oblivion a few times. Overall, the course fell a little bit short of our expectations.
I later stopped by Tot Hill Farm during college while passing through the area, just to see how the place was doing. In short: not well. There still was no formal clubhouse – just a decade-old double-wide. And the turf conditions seemed to be deteriorating. The bargain-basement green fees the place was charging were not going to help with the elevated maintenance costs Strantz’s artistic vision demanded.
Fast-forwarding to 2023, it’s as if Tot Hill Farm is a brand-new golf course again, thanks to one of the swiftest but most potent public course renovation/restoration projects of the decade. Under new owner Pat Barber, who also owns the Links at Stono Ferry and the Plantation Course at Edisto in South Carolina, Tot Hill Farm is finally realizing its potential.
The restoration happened over the course of a single summer; Tot Hill Farm closed after play on May 15 and reopened on Labor Day. The mission was twofold: restore the golf course to Strantz’s vision and make it sustainably maintainable for future generations. On the former front, Barber and golf operations manager Greg Wood worked with Dail Agronomic Services to restore Strantz's bunkers, green edges and other mowing lines. On the latter, crews felled more than 1,500 trees across the property, allowing every hole to breathe better than ever before while feeling at home in its own large corridor.
The tree removal has brought a level of drama to Tot Hill Farm that the course never had in its previous iteration. Holes like the downhill par-5 5th, which plunges downhill to the edge of the Uwharrie National Forest, are utterly transformed by the restoration. Any claustrophobia golfers might have felt before has fallen away, and the added sunlight will do wonders for the long-term health of the greens.
Speaking of those putting surfaces, management made the decision to change their grass, from the original bent variety to a relatively new breed of zoysia grass called Prizm, grown in Texas. Tot Hill Farm became just the second course anywhere to use the grass on its greens (others have since signed up), but its shade- and weather-tolerance will be key to keeping the course in consistently excellent shape. With Prizm used for collars and run-up areas on several holes, there should be little if any green shrinkage for the foreseeable future. Zoysia does have a bit of a bedding-in period, so the first year or so, green speeds will remain fairly mild while the grass tightens and bonds to the soil. But over time, the wild contours on and around Tot Hill Farm’s greens will help players steer short and long shots tantalizingly close to several hole locations.
The golf course was not the only part of Tot Hill Farm that received badly-needed TLC. The compound of buildings between the first and 10th tees has been rehabbed under owner Pat Barber’s direction. A 19th century barn that sat in disrepair for decades – even well after the course reopened – has been converted into a rustic clubhouse that fits perfectly with the feel of the property. A room dedicated to Strantz proudly displays the architect’s pencil drawings not just of Tot Hill Farm’s golf holes but early logo ideas, one of which has been used on hole flags and merchandise since the reopening. BlackPowder Smokehouse, a locally beloved barbecue joint, brings fixins for sandwiches up for golfers to enjoy every day. Strantz junkies will be thrilled to pair it with legendary Tobacco Road, less than an hour south. Drive-in Pinehurst visitors should also consider a stop at Tot Hill Farm on their way into the Sandhills.
After a $3 million restoration effort, Tot Hill Farm’s green fees have understandably risen, though at $135 for a round with a cart (walking is basically impossible over the spread-out routing), it represents a solid value, especially to experience a rare Mike Strantz original design at the opening of the most exciting chapter in its history.
TOT HILL FARM G.C.— Tim Gavrich (@TimGavrich) October 16, 2023
Mike Strantz, 2000
After significant, loving investment (new Zoysia greens, 1,500 felled trees +++) by new ownership, Strantz’s most polarizing design has shed years of neglect. Finally, it’s the quirky jewel it was always meant to be. pic.twitter.com/8f9HW62ZWh
Tot Hill Farm joins other recent Strantz revivals
Tot Hill Farm becomes the third of Mike Strantz’s six publicly-accessible designs to be saved from ruin in the last five years. The others: Royal New Kent Golf Club and Stonehouse Golf Club, two burly, exciting layouts 17 miles apart, between Richmond and Williamsburg, Va. Both were shuttered by former owner Traditional Golf Properties at the end of 2017, and both were saved by new owners in 2018.
Wingfield Golf, a Virginia golf course operations company, purchased Royal New Kent in June 2018 for just $1.1 million - a bargain considering the course's name-recognition and potential. The year-long, $2 million restoration effort included resurfacing all of the course's greens from bent to Champion Bermuda grass, as well as updated irrigation and drainage systems, plus more than 2,000 tons of sand to rehabilitate the course's 104 bunkers. Now, Royal New Kent has its Irish-inspired looks back, and while its fairways still had some maturing to do as of May 2023, the course belongs back on any Williamsburg-area or overall East Coast road-trip golf itinerary.
So, too, does Stonehouse, which area construction company owner Joe Sanders saved when he bought it in December of 2018 for just $800,000 (Stonehouse first sold in 1997 for $16.3 million). Though Sanders leveraged his own company's manpower and expertise to rehab the course, the renovation was far from straightforward. Weather and other challenges - including bee and skunk interference - forced the greens to be planted three separate times, but since it reopened, Stonehouse has garnered enthusiastic reviews.