The sun was shining, but a raw breeze cut across Jeremy Little has he strolled to his golf cart.
He didn’t really notice, however. Little was too focused on playing target golf. Having hit a slight bump-and-run to advance his ball up the fourth fairway at Tot Farm Hill Golf Club – he was already planning his next shot. The low liner he smacked on that par-5 hole wasn’t a sign of him giving up. Instead it was to better position himself for a third shot to an elevated green while also keeping his ball confined within the boundaries of a course that can be as unforgiving as it as beautiful.
It was the smart move. The manager of the new Golfsmith store opening in Charlotte, Little plays to an 8.4 handicap and knows his way around a golf course. But he’s never posted better than an 81 in three visits to Tot Hill Farm and wasn’t considering taking bets on if he could match or best that score on this day.
“I’m playing terrible today, just trying to get loose,” Little said. “But If I don’t turn it around it’s going to get worse than that.”
Little’s words dripped of frustration, though his tone indicated otherwise.
He knew what he was getting into when he prepared to make the 45-minute drive from his home in Concord, to play this Mike Strantz-designed course in Asheboro. Not only had his previous rounds kept his ego in check, but you don’t make Golf Digest’s list of America’s Toughest Golf Courses without having some legitimate teeth, as it first did in 2007. And, as Little will attest, those teeth are sharp.
Tot Hill Farm made that list at No. 7, ahead of big-name tracks such as Whistling Straits (No. 8), Winged Foot-West (No. 9) and TPC-Sawgrass (No. 14). Each of those courses has a style and unique image: Whistling Straits with its waist-high rough and massive dunes, Winged Foot’s tight fairways and punishing greens, and TPC-Sawgrass’ plethora of bunkers and, of course, its notorious par-3 17th hole with the famed island green. Those courses have been deservedly awarded major championship tournaments or, in the case of TPC-Sawgrass, other prestigious events that surely aided their chances of making that top-50 list.
That’s wasn’t the case with Tot Hill Farm, which has bounced around the list during the past six years. This course made the list on the purest of criteria – strictly for its design.
Strantz, who died of cancer in 2005, lived onsite during construction in order to oversee the project start-to-finish. That was likely a good idea, as every effort was made to leverage the natural terrain as much as possible. What resulted is an 18-hole track with momentous elevation changes, sharp angles and undulations from the first tee to the final green. And it’s all framed by rocks and outcroppings of all sizes, streams, thick forest and ponds that come along with being situated on the edge of Uwharrie National Forest.
There is no signature hole here and there doesn’t need to be. Each hole presents a unique challenge that can vary daily depending on weather, season or pin position. And don’t be fooled by the yardage on the scorecard: it reads the course will play 6,543 yards from the tips, but many holes will play at least one club longer. That includes the 371-yard, par-4 ninth hole which has a fairway that rises so steeply first-time visitors may feel they need to bring a rope to help them walk their way to the green.
A great testament to the design can also be found in the fact Tobacco Road – another Strantz design, this one in Sanford – also made that toughest course list, coming in at No. 10. But while all golf courses – and the game in general – are difficult, there’s a big difference between being, at least at one time, considered the seventh-toughest course on Earth.
Earlier in the day, Eddie Cox, Tot Hill Farm’s director of golf, stood above the first tee box while simultaneously soaking in the dramatic views the course offers and the challenges it provides. This course – as well as the 200-year-old house that serves as something of a centerpiece on a piece of property that was once farmland – continues to impress him.
“I didn’t have squat to do with it,” Cox said of the design. “But the first time I saw it – just unbelievable.”
Cox, who commutes daily from Pinehurst, came aboard in 2001 and left in 2005 to pursue another venture. He later returned and has since seen the course evolve into a Paul Bunyan-like figure. He said there hasn’t been any work done to elevate the course’s standing over the years, as its original blueprints have thus far proven more than adequate. A flood a few years ago forced a replacement of the 11th green along with significant work on Nos. 13 and 16. But other than the readjustment of a few tee boxes to aid seniors and ladies, the course is essentially identical to what it was when it opened in 2000. There are also few homes situated around the course, as Cox said there are less than 40 houses onsite and all were built well out of play.
And while it may be a bit off the beaten path, it’s not a considerable distance from interstates and metropolitan areas such as Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. That’s allowed Tot Hill Farm to lure a cross-section of golfers ranging from weekend local hackers to die-hards traveling to golf Meccas such as Pinehurst and Myrtle Beach. The course has formed a partnership with the Fairfield Inn that’s about 10 minutes away in Asheboro, which offers special rates for golfers visiting Tot Hill Farm.
“It is what it is – there’s no way to make this golf course easy. And a lot of people come and play for that reason,” Cox said. “It’s a beauty and beast type of thing – the toughness is matched by the beauty. A lot of people travel through here because they’ve heard about it. Hopefully the legend will continue to grow, the lore will grow, and they’ll keep coming.”
Little said he’ll return and, as always, prepared for what can happen.
He finished that round well over his average with a 94, barely beating playing partner and 13-handicapper Mike McIntyre’s 97. Along with perhaps some bruised ego he sacrificed seven balls to Tot Hill Farm, each of which resulting in a penalty stroke. He and McIntyre packed up their clubs and their high scores to head home.
Ironically, the possibility of repeating the punishment they endured along with the challenge of beating it, had them already planning on coming back.
“We always like it and definitely try to make it about once a year to play it,” Little said. “It’s certainly a challenge – it’s tough. You’ve got the bunkering, the rock outcroppings – it’s just a typical Mike Strantz course and that’s what really draws me. When you come to a course like this, you’ve got to put the ball in the right places or it will eat you alive. But if you shoot a good number you feel good about your game. So it’s worth it.”