Hopefully people playing Tot Hill Farm outside of Raleigh know what they’re getting into.
If they do, the disguised and oddly shaped fairways won’t bother them, nor will the curiously oblong or squiggly green shapes, nor the putting surfaces that melt like American cheese over the hilly land. If they don’t, then this stuff will drive them mad.
A famous sign posted at Bethpage warns that the Black course there is extremely difficult and recommended only for “highly skilled” players. The golf courses of Mike Strantz, architect of Tot Hill Farm, should come with signs cautioning this is unordinary golf recommended for players open to new experiences and who appreciate artistic license, ingenuity and no small amount of rub o’ the green.
Two of the nine courses Strantz designed or re-designed before he died in 2005 are in North Carolina: Tot Hill Farm and Tobacco Road. Though they share similar DNA, including the aspects listed above, the courses illustrate how outcomes can vary dramatically based on different projects, properties and budgets.
For all its idiosyncracies, Tobacco Road still looks like the golf courses we often see lustily photographed in magazines: long dune grasses of contrasting textures and colors, choppy blowout bunkers and voluptuous ground movement along with some jarring non-sequiturs. The spacious site, pliable sand soils and healthy construction budget allowed Strantz to mold and massage the course and features like a sculpture in porcelain and clay.
Tot Hill Farm is sculpture too, though in this case done in stone, with hammer and chisel. More monochromatic and rigid, the holes are laid out through heavy forest and several pastures on an incredibly rocky and uneven site straddling the Uwharrie National Forest. It would be difficult to envision golf holes on this dark, rather remote property if they didn’t already exist.
In several places the routing gets stuck, and as a result several holes feel wedged in or “stolen” from the land like the sharply uphill par-4 9th with a blind, narrow green that’s too small for the shot played to it. The routing of holes 10-13 in a low section of the property is awkward and requires some roundabout travels from green to tee, though the par-4 10th is elemental Strantz design.
Driving from an elevated tee, the fairway–what you can make of it–is bifurcated high/low, with the upper level hidden behind a rock wall about 220 yards away before cascading into a massive, multi-level green. The 10th presents first a confrontation–what the hell is this? Can you trust what you see? Then it challenges you to put faith and courage in your tee shot, or play left to the safer, more visible fairway.
Sixteen through 18, playing back and forth across a former pasture cut by Betty McGee’s Creek, are similarly confined to a tight area but because of the openness they don’t feel as restricted. Over less extreme terrain and with enough width, the architecture is more breathable and thus organic.
The 400-yard 17th may be one of the best par-4’s in the state outside of the Pinehurst area. The drive plays over a marsh to a huge, rambling fairway that narrows as it progresses, pinched between the creek left and a road right. The undulating green is a microcosm of the fairway, large and angled above the grassed banks of the creek, narrowing as it deepens, pinched between the hazard and a rock wall. The hole’s movements are reverential to links golf, it feels natural and it demands to be played with with strategy.
Whatever problems exist at Tot Hill Farm, they stem from the property and the mis-rhythms of the routing rather than architectural excess. After all, if you’re playing here you’ve already accepted, or should have already accepted, the unique style of golf presented and the particular shots to be considered.
Fortunately, to balance out the lost holes, there are stunning, engaging holes with outsize space and personality and variability like the 17th, or the uphill 9th and 14th, both mid-range par-4’s with massive fairways and greens that are challenging without asking you to suspend disbelief.
Ultimately we’re out, I think, to play golf, and more specifically to be engaged and entertained if possible. Tot Hill Farms can certainly deliver all of that. Even if you’re not enamored, you certainly won’t be bored. (88)
Architect: Mike Strantz