New Tot Hill Farm Golf Club ownership team is attempting to restore architect’s unique canvas in North Carolina’s rolling hills
ASHEBORO, North Carolina — A quick glance at the resume of Mike Strantz shows that it doesn’t approach the volume of the likes of legendary architects such as Tom Fazio, Pete Dye or Rees Jones. Not even close. Strantz designed less than 10 golf courses before he passed away in 2005 at the age of 50.
So what’s the big deal? Why was Strantz listed as one of the top 10 greatest golf architects of all time by Golfweek in 2000, and described as the "most in-demand course designer in the U.S." in 1989 by Golf World?
Pat Barber quickly discovered the genius of Strantz after he purchased Tot Hill Farm Golf Club in December 2022 and embarked on a massive restoration project to revive the layout of the edge of the 51,000-acre Uwharrie National Forest south of Asheboro.
While Strantz-designed Tobacco Road, located north of Pinehurst, has seen huge commercial success over the years, Tot Hill Farm, despite being about the same distance from one of the nation’s top golfing resorts, has never really taken off after it opened in 2000.
Barber has set out to change that equation, now describing Tot Hill Farm as "a destination" that is a one-of-a-kind golfing experience.
"The biggest thing is when you step onto the property it has a really special feel to it," Barber says. "We believe there are 10 signature holes on the golf course, and we think it's a very special place. And the chance to bring back a Strantz design is something we found to be very invigorating and exciting."
Tot Hill Farm certainly has the eye appeal with some of the nation’s most unique holes that includes hitting over a stacked stone wall in the middle of the 10th fairway and tackling massive undulating greens that course general manager Greg Wood jokingly says are measured in acres, not square feet.
"It’s probably the only project where you can redo the greens, cart paths, bridges, cut down trees, renovate the clubhouse, and you're still not done," Barber says. "Because for Mike Strantz, it was like a canvas and it’s a tree line-to-tree line design. He was such a detailed person, so if you really want to capture the essence of him you have to become a detailed person, too."
"Our goal from the very beginning of the project was to look at the early drawings and photographs and videos and put the course back as closely as we could to its original version," adds Wood. "One of the things that makes the course special is the fact that Mike Strantz designed the course. So we certainly weren't trying to play amateur architects out here."
Barber is not a big time golf course operator. In fact, he owns just two courses — The Links at Stono Ferry and The Plantation Course at Edisto — in the Charleston, South Carolina, area. But he perked up when catching wind that a Strantz design was on the market in North Carolina.
He lost out on the first bid to buy the stunning layout that features thousands of rock formations, some larger than SUVs.
"When we lost the bid we thought it went away," Barber says. "And then a few months later they called and said the deal didn't go through and asked if we were still interested. That was sort of a sign to us that maybe this is something we should be doing; we sort of got a second chance at it."
Situated on what was an old cattle farm, the recent renovation included turning an old 1851 farmhouse into the course’s clubhouse, featuring locally supplied North Carolina pitmaster BBQ sandwiches and an historic vibe Strantz would have appreciated.
"On the challenge scale it ranks very high,” Barber says of the renovation. "The course was in some major need of repair and updating. It was a lot of uncovering of the golf course and then renovating a farmhouse presents its own challenges. And then there is converting the greens over from bentgrass to zoysia grass … and then Mike’s design itself."
You get the picture.
Strantz was "discovered" by Fazio, who was working on U.S. Open course adjustments at Inverness Club in Ohio in 1979.
“Mike was on the ground crew as an assistant superintendent and Tom's on the golf course, and they're laying out golf holes,” recalls Tom Marzolf, who has worked with Fazio for four decades. “And Mike spoke up and said, ‘No, you shouldn't do that. Here's what you should do.’ Tom hired him that day because you could see the passion; you could see he was smart; you could see he fought for what he thought was right.”
Marzolf and Strantz became fast friends, and to this day Marzolf, Fazio’s senior design associate, holds Strantz in high regard.
"Mike Strantz was the most talented person I ever met and worked with in my life," Marzolf says. "I was young and just hired by Tom Fazio so I carried Mike’s stakes around. I would get on a golf cart with Mike and I thought I knew how to be a golf architect. And I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut, listen to Mike and learn because Mike had just a super intellect. The thing I remember from Mike is he would always say ‘let’s walk back to the tee.’ He was such a visual guy and we would walk back to the tee and look at our work 10 times a day. But that was Mike Strantz. He was just visually checking our work all the time.
"Mike would tie a ridge line on the right side of the hole, take it across the hole, shape it and tie it into something. He would visually tie down the grades of the hole. Nobody did that better than Mike Strantz. I would place Mike in the hall of fame of golf architects — no doubt."
Which brings us back to Tot Hill Farm, and Barber’s financially aggressive desire to save a Strantz design from tree overgrowth, overall maintenance neglect and general apathy from the golfing public.
Tot Hill Farm has over 250 feet of elevation change and a scorecard that features on unconventional array of five par 3s and five par5s, along with a difficult slope rating of 144 from the back Maverick tees.
Few courses offer as much variety and challenge, considering there are only 24 bunkers scattered across a modestly short 6,713-yard layout from the tips.
"Golfers can feel the thrill of hitting these beautiful tee shots off of high elevation points and approach shots up-and-down, and the creeks and streams show off the property’s natural beauty," Wood says. "If I were playing Tot Hill Farm I would tell people to play it the same way Mike Strantz told you to play it — play it for what it is and take what's there based on your skill level. If you do that you’re going have a great time. When you try to bite it off and get really aggressive, that's when it can bite you back."
In other words, Tot Hill Farm offers golfers the thrill of victory and agony of defeat many times over in true Strantz style.