Road Trippin': Strantz's Tot Hill Farm
ASHEBORO, NC. - Send in the clowns. My golf road trip is all but over. About 3,000 miles and 144 holes later, I'm heading home to Pittsburgh. Fortunately, the last stop, the Mike Strantz-designed Tot Hill Farm Golf Club, was certainly a course to remember.
After leaving Branson, Mo., and Tom Fazio's great Branson Creek, I took an unintended break from golfing. I meandered through the hills of Missouri, past the St. Louis Arch and on through Illinois and Indiana to Louisville, Ky. There I spent a few days visiting with my uncle, who had just broken 100 at Valhalla Country Club.
Since Valhalla is a private club, I could not challenge my uncle's score and I moved on down the highway to Nashville, Tenn.. There, in my old Vanderbilt University stomping grounds, I was supposed to play 18 at the Legends Golf Club. Due to poor planning on my part, I arrived the very week that the LPGA decided to pay the Legends Club a visit as well.
Amy Grant and Vince Gill were busy hamming it up with other celebs at "The Vinny" and I was again forced to move on to my next destination.
Asheboro, NC, is situated about 30 minutes south of Greensboro in central North Carolina. It roughly bisects the trip from Raleigh to Charlotte going east/west and from Tobacco Road to Pinehurst going north/south.
Just south and west of downtown Asheboro on the site of the Yates family farm sits the state's newest golf attraction - Tot Hill Farm. As bad as it was in Nashville, my timing couldn't have been more impeccable in Asheboro. I arrived the day before Tot Hill's grand opening event. Taking time to bone up with nine holes at the local private club, Pinewood C.C., I spent the rest of the day perusing the grounds at Tot Hill Farm.
The course is bounded on three sides by the Uwharrie Mountains and is as tranquil as it is intimidating. Rocks the size of log cabins line the fairways and tee boxes, and lakes and streams strut brusquely into the line of play. Since most of the construction of the bordering homes is still in the planning stages, you can really feel all alone on the golf course at times.
While the majority of the course meanders through the Uwharrie wilderness, the last few holes of each nine open up into the rolling hills of a real-life country farm complete with a 200-year-old farm house, making for a beautiful change of scenery. I found myself salivating over the prospect of playing Tot Hill for the next few days.
When it finally came time to try out Tot Hill, I was as impressed with the challenge of the course, as I had been a day earlier with its beauty. There is not a single throw-away hole on the course - 18 carefully crafted and named adventures.
Having just played Fazio's newest course, I was in a wonderful position to compare and contrast. You see, Strantz was Fazio's right-hand man for several years before breaking out on his own. Fazio's influence is evident in Tot Hill's design, but a Strantz course is perhaps best described as an Alice in Wonderland version of a Fazio layout.
Constant elevation changes and humongous, multi-tiered and contoured greens highlight the style. Fairways narrow to impossible widths and then sprawl out over entire hillsides. The holes are not overly long. The course plays to only 6,614 yards from the championship tees (appropriately marked by stallion heads). But the slope of 135 says a lot about what Strantz, and his own right-hand man and former PGA touring pro Forrest Fezzler, have crammed into that length.
The opening hole, "The Wall," is an excellent example. Playing 358 yards straight downhill from the green tees, a good drive should bounce to a rest only a pitching wedge away from the stick. But an ominous "wall" of stone and earth juts out horizontally across three fourths of the fairway, requiring about 200 yards of carry to even think about a safe approach shot.
The second shot is no picnic, either. The two-tiered green is long, narrow and raised. Left or right and you might need to bring along some farm equipment to excavate your ball from the thick rough. Anything long could conceivably wind up on No. 3 green, as the two are connected.
As I've said, every hole at Tot Hill is memorable, but No. 3 may become downright nefarious with time. Named "The Dam Hole," it requires a safe, straight shot over the corner of a wicked chasm off the tee, then turns left and continues downhill to a peninsula green that has a mean right-to-left slant of its own. Although by the grace of God I landed the green all three days I played, I would not be surprised if visiting golfers suggest they change the name to "The Damn Hole" instead.
Because of the Open-worthy rough and the many obstacles and uphill treks at Tot Hill, the course can be a bit demanding for beginning golfers. Fortunately, the forward gold tees allow quite a break in distance at 4,853 yards. Women playing from these tees will find that the course does not demand much carry off the tee, but still requires a good deal of precision and strategy. It's still a lot of fun, too. One of the women playing on Opening Day noted that with all its quirks, Tot Hill feels like a full scale putt-putt course.
"All it's missing is the windmill." Windmill or not, Tot Hill is unlike anything I've ever seen or played before. It's extreme golf without all the running.
As an architect, Strantz hasn't missed yet. He has already received high praise for his designs at Royal New Kent and Stonehouse in Virginia and his twin courses in South Carolina - Caledonia and True Blue - are among the most sought-after tee times in the country. Tobacco Road was the 1998 Golf World Magazine Architect of the Year's first big success in North Carolina. Now all indications point to Tot Hill Farm falling right in line.
All Strantz has to do, it seems, is sit back and wait for the accolades to pour in. So what does a course this spectacular cost? I'm glad you asked, because the answer is "probably not as much as you'd think."
For the 2000 summer season, greens fees are $44-59, with special rates for twilight golf and for juniors as well as senior discounts on Mondays and Thursdays and a Ladies Day special every Thursday.
After November 1, the rates will drop to $34-49.
The clubhouse is still under construction though the snack bar and pro shop are fully operational. Walkers are welcome after 3 p.m.. This is not, however, a course I would recommend walking.