The Grand Strantz is an imaginary line roughly drawn along Highway 501 and Interstate 74 — from Myrtle Beach’s Atlantic shoreline to the golden dunes of the Carolina Sandhills. Experts contend that, as imaginary lines go, The Grand Strantz pales in relevance only to the Equator and Time Zones. It is three times longer than Myrtle Beach’s 60-mile “Grand Strand” and possesses four of the world’s most unique and underrated golf experiences. Why have you never heard of it before? That’s a question that merits some serious self-reflection.
GRAND STRANTZ – SOUTH CAROLINA
At the southern tip of both the Grand Strand and the Grand Strantz, Pawley’s Island, South Carolina is home to two Mike Strantz creations — Caledonia Golf & Fish Club and True Blue. Who is Mike Strantz? (Please tell me you know!) Never having met the man (he died in 2005) I know him as a Tom Fazio protégé who left Fazio’s team after a decade to create his own design company. Caledonia was his first solo golf project and, apparently, one heck of a publicity catalyst. Only one year after starting his own company Golf World listed Mike Strantz as “The most in-demand course designer in the United States.” Only a decade later Golfweek crowned Mike as one of the “Ten Greatest Golf Architects of All Time.”
Mike Strantz developed a “mad scientist” reputation for his willingness to push the envelope on golf course playability and personality. Strantz fan and similarly underappreciated modern-day architect, Jeff Brauer — who built his own tribute to Strantz’s Tobacco Road in Minnesota, at Giants Ridge — told me, “Mike loved to have his golf holes get in the golfer’s face and say, “What are you going to do about it?” He was brilliant at giving the golfer a number of ways to deal with each challenge — many of them not obvious the first time around.”
Jeff is right, to appreciate Mike’s ingenuity, you really need to play all of his nine courses, and each of those courses a half-dozen times … maybe even twenty (as my editor, Darin Bunch has done at Tobacco Road). “I’m still only scratching the surface of his brilliance,” Darin claims modestly — more of a Strantz fan and advocate than anyone I know. “People who live in the Carolinas are lucky,” he adds. “Those four courses … sheesh!”
Caledonia Golf & Fish Club
I used to try to experience golf courses like the architect did his first time around — on foot, carrying my clubs. Then Rick Reimers invented the Finn Cycle. Whether or not they remain at Caledonia for eternity, the “golf motorcycles” were there the day we visited — me, my then 17-year-old son (Dylan), and legendary local THE Mitch Laurance. “You’re in for a real treat today,” Mitch smiled, breaking the COVID “laws” to give me a hug, then saddling up on his two-wheeled rocket ship. “Finn Cycles are the best way to social distance (hate those words) on a golf course,” Mitch added. “Literally THE best.” He’d get no argument from us. Dylan and I have ridden them all over the continent — we definitely share Mitch’s passionate endorsement.
The real treat of the day went well beyond the bikes. The former colonial rice plantation and perennial “Top 100 Golf Course” (according to everyone who knows golf) was here for 26 years before I arrived. Took just four hours to steal my heart. The huge and magnificently sculpted greens surrounded by beach-sized bunkers, ponds, marsh and streams wowed with their beauty. And those live oaks swaying — Spanish moss almost shimmering in the sunlight — it all made for an incredibly stunning and photogenic trip.
The 3-par 3rd hole became an instant favorite — a pulse-checker on an otherwise gentle five-hole “warm up” — before hole 6 kicks off a gauntlet of jolts, ramping up the heartbeat, with little to no let up ‘til the end. Setting up for the final approach, across the water to the clubhouse-backed green, I took one last deep breath and thanked God for this opportunity. Man, what a course! Man, what a day! (And I was still almost as grateful after dropping on the other side.)
I’d been looking forward to finally meeting Mitch Laurance’s legendary Hall of Fame spouse, Eva, but apparently the Striking Viking had been warned of my swing and stayed clear. That left my focus to my camera, and racing-chasing Dylan and Mitch (both playing Mitch’s hickories) around the course. Mitch always plays the old school wooden clubs. Dylan wishes he could. “That’s a top five golf experience for me,” my son said. “All time.” I could tell. (The 39 on the back didn’t hurt.)
Playing with Mitch is always a gift. He always knows just what to say and (more importantly) what not to — we could all use more friends like that on the golf course. “When can we come see Mitch again, Dad,” Dylan asked in the car afterwards. I laughed, not because it was funny, but because I knew no answer I gave would be soon enough for him. (Maybe Mitch will come see us next time!)
True Blue Golf Club
1.5 miles south of Caledonia, True Blue Golf Club also had the Finn Cycles, guaranteeing another slick and fun experience. Assumptions are always dangerous, but I made one anyway — counting on True Blue (with the same architect and very similar land) to be Caledonia Part II. Dumb and wrong — very different designs and experiences. While I enjoyed Caledonia more, personally, I left utterly impressed at the diverse 36-hole opportunity the pairing presents.
At True Blue, Strantz doesn’t care if you’re ready to play. You’re in trouble if you’re not. Thankfully the course has a phenomenal practice facility — you really have no excuse but laziness for not being prepared. At True Blue, by hole 5, you’ll already have faced intimidating aquatic challenges three times — two island greens and a daunting peninsula — and (probably) a tough, blind approach on hole 2. The uphill 3-par 7th hole was a front side favorite, but it was too hard to pick favorites on the back. That three-hole stretch from 12-14 was one I immediately wanted to play again, and holes 16 through 18 provided three more shots at grief or glory (over water) to finish.
True Blue is four years newer than Caledonia and was Mike Strantz’s fourth solo project. His goal of bringing flair from some of his personal favorites — Pine Valley and Pinehurst #2 — to the 19th-century rice and indigo plantation was realized in flashes, to the extent it won him “Architect of the Year” in 1998 from Golf World.
Myrtle Beach’s 90+ golf courses provide a broad spectrum of experiences with varying rack rates — easy to mix and match together for a weekend or weeklong vacation. In peak season, March through May, you can play Caledonia for $199, True Blue for $159 or both in one day for $340. December through January you can play them for half of that. Is the golf good in Myrtle Beach in January?
Way better than it is in Minnesota!
Inlet Sports Lodge
Some hotels just scream “golf” even when they’re not on or adjacent to a golf course. They’re designed so perfectly for golf groups, with a pool and private courtyard, restaurant and bar, comfortable accommodations, friendly owners and staff in a safe/quiet setting not far from the beach, other restaurants, family-friendly activities, grocery store and (in this case) a close proximity to — and partnership with — two of a state’s Top 10 golf courses.
There aren’t a lot of places that fit all of that in one bill, but the boutique Inlet Sports Lodge in Murrell’s Inlet — just 10 miles north of True Blue Golf Club — delivers exquisitely to the golfer’s whim and wish. “We’re frequented as a golf getaway,” the friendly desk manager said, “but just as popular for business groups and weddings.” Really? No way golfers leave room for wedding parties! With that incredible courtyard and perfect Atlantic-adjacent location — close enough to, but also far enough away from Ocean Highway 17 — yeah … I’ve little doubt that’s probably true.
Inlet Sports Lodge is 4 miles from The Pier at Garden City, but if you’re looking for less crowded beaches (and shark’s teeth), you’re more likely to find those on Pawley’s Island, between Pawleys Pier and the South Parking lot. Just don’t get stuck out there when the tide rolls in. The roads are hard to see under two feet of water. (Don’t ask me how I know.)
GRAND STRANTZ – NORTH CAROLINA
Tot Hill Farm
“The Home of American Golf” — Pinehurst has been on the golf map since the late 1800’s. I don’t have to tell you about it, or where it is. You know. But, for the sake of geographical delineation, Pinehurst is on “The Grand Strantz,” towards the northern tip. The actual northern tip of the Grand Strantz is 50 miles beyond Pinehurst, (Asheboro, North Carolina) and the reason you should drive to Asheboro on any Carolina golf trip (or 8.6 miles southwest of it, at least) is to play the “East Coast’s Wolf Creek” — Tot Hill Farm.
“Tot Hill doesn’t look like golf on the moon, or golf on Mars, though,” you say. (As Wolf Creek does.)
I’ll concede — in the interest of avoiding hyperbole — that you’re right, but that’s not really important. The comparison to Mesquite, Nevada’s Wolf Creek is made to emphatically endorse Mike Strantz’s Tot Hill Farm as a course unlike any you’ve likely played before — up there with New York’s Pound Ridge and (the described below) Tobacco Road as an entity that’s an overwhelming oddity … an anomaly in the golf architecture world that is somehow vastly overlooked given its remarkable value and easy access to the Golf Mecca of the East Coast.
Golf Digest once listed Tot Hill as the 7th Hardest Course in America. I think that’s a misnomer. They should have called it “The 7th Hardest Looking Course in America.” In reality, so much of the “difficulty” is optical illusion. Strantz learned from Alister Mackenzie, of Cypress Point fame, that great golf holes should look harder than they play. He hammered that philosophy home here. My Mike-Strantz-Fan-Man editor told me before this 11-course East Coast trip Tot Hill Farm was the one he was most interested in my outtake. “I have a feeling, knowing you, that you’ll love it,” he said. That specific wording is seldom assembled as a compliment.
Love It or Leave It?
Love it. Absolutely loved it. I walked off the last hole giddy — euphoric — and not because I’d just chipped in for my only eagle of 2020 (19th of my life). Scale of 1 to 20, Tot Hill Farm was a 20 for FUN — A+. 100%.
In fact … if this isn’t the best value golf experience in the Carolinas, I don’t know what is.
THE Actual Farm
The drive up Tot Hill Farm Road (coming from Hopewell Friends Road) does more than just provide an inkling of what you’re in for. It provides a spanking … no … a face slapping. Miles of stonewall fencing — reminiscent of Ireland — outline and define massive fairways and fields of fescue with creeks dissecting them. Have you ever almost stepped out of a moving car to take a picture? Yeah … (clearing throat) … me neither.
Tot Hill Farm is an actual farm, perched at the top of … well … a hill. You feel like you’re pulling into someone’s driveway and up to their house, because you are. This isn’t a place trying to compete with the glitz and glamour down the road. Tot Hill Farm is a place Mike Strantz with his horses, cowboy boots and dressed-for-comfort appearance would fit right in (an appropriate place for a Strantz museum). This place felt, before I’d even played a single hole, like Mike’s home.
The first hole has an Appalachian Mountain feel, with the tee box at the summit, and the green guarded by water at the base. Except that it wasn’t a mountain originally. Strantz built it — dug it out — manufactured the living crap out of what would have otherwise been an ordinary hill hole. The man had a love for bulldozers that few beyond Jay Leno (and his car collection) could understand, and a Michelangelo-level talent for sculpting with them. (Imagine what he could have done with a Short Course in this era!)
“Nothing that you see is what it ever looked like before the course was here.” That’s the best way I can sum up everything I heard from locals and experienced players leading up to our round. “How would you describe the place,” I asked a playing partner, Ben.
“Damn,” he said.
I laughed, allowing him to consider his response, then realized he’d already given it.
The Course Itself
Honestly — no exaggeration — there are seven “signature” worthy holes on the front nine, and one of the two holes I didn’t like (2 and 9), my son and Ben both liked … so maybe that’s eight. The 3-pars on the front nine are other-worldly — the third a downhill stunner among the prettiest I’ve seen, and the sixth a river-pinched needle-threader WAY back in the woods. I marveled over and over at how Mike had ever even conceived these holes. There was seriously nowhere here to build this course. And yet … here it was.
The back nine plays around a pond and Betty McGee’s Creek. Impossible as it seems — from a beauty standpoint — the back might upstage the front. Holes 10 through 13 are so scenic it’s almost surreal. The struggle to comprehend the creation and existence of this course increases as the playability decreases. There are some incredibly difficult shots on the back side but, hole-for-hole, there are no fewer “signatures” than on the front. “Which side did you like better?” I asked Ben.
“Both,” he replied.
Yeah. Me too.
Tot Hill Farm isn’t Mike Strantz’s most famous or infamous design … nor should it be. That designation fits at Mike’s fifth solo project — Tobacco Road — which opened in 1998, 51 miles southeast of Tot Hill, 24 miles from Pinehurst, 14 miles from Pik N Pig and 8 miles from Yarborough’s Ice Cream.
Cedar Rapids native, Jake Weaver, thought the moon and stars revolved around Wisconsin’s Lawsonia Links until they followed him to Tobacco Road … and stayed there. “I was awestruck,” Jake says. “Shell shocked. It was dark when I arrived, but as the sun came up and cut through the pine trees the place came to life, and I remember thinking … this place is gonna be different. I’d heard so many stories of Tobacco Road, but I wasn’t prepared for the chill vibe off the course or the wildness on it. And, that first tee shot …”
Yeah, the tee shot on that opening 5-par is really something (but then, so many others impress just as much). I’ve heard the intimidating dunes blocking off the first fairway described as breasts (by a woman) and the “Great Wall of Carolina” (by a man) — each appropriate to an extent. Regardless of visualization, your very first shot is an epic tone-setter, and might be THE best “tee box selector” in the game. If you can’t carry those dunes with a decent drive, you’re playing the wrong tees. It’s really that simple.
There’s plenty of fairway beyond those mounds — the optical illusion factor referred to earlier — and that’s the tale of the tape on so many of the holes here … there’s way more safety than meets the eye. I have a thing for blind shots — I HATE them — and Tobacco Road has a plethora of those sucker punchers. But, in all fairness, Strantz pulled the punches from most of those suckers. You are seldom punished unfairly at Tobacco Road when you can’t see where your ball went — especially on your second (and third) go round. “Once you know where the fairway goes,” Jake says, “you know how much room you have to play with. Hard as the course might seem the first time, the second time around is so much easier.” (8 strokes easier for both Jake — a 2.5 handicap — and myself — a 15 handicap)
Par for the Course
The Par-71 course only maxes out at 6557 yards on paper, but tips distance on this scorecard is as relevant to the average golfer as the highest numbers on a speedometer are to the average driver. Just because your car says it can go 200 doesn’t mean you can do so safely, or should ever try. You’re likely to get wrecked. And not enjoy it.
My 17-year old son, Dylan, shot a 78 from the 6,317-yard “Disc” tees (with a 12 on hole 5) as a 5 handicap. I shot an 87 from the 5,886-yard “Plow” tees (with a 12 on hole 11) as a 15. Why share the scores? (Especially mine!) Simply to say that if you play your typical game from the proper tees — and count every stroke — you’re likely to shoot your handicap at Tobacco Road.
Tobacco Road is a collection of Mike Strantz’s “functional artwork,” which is to say ideas he borrowed from Dr. Alistair MacKenzie then injected architectural steroids into. His fairways buck and tumble, edged by sand cliffs based in massive bunkers. His greens dive and pitch, violently, with no two pin positions on any hole considered benign. Beginning to end this is a turbulent ride through the remnants of a sand quarry that is as beautiful as it is mind-boggling. I’d put the collection of 3-pars up against any I’ve played on the entire east coast. The drama, to put it mildly, is relentless.
My least favorite hole on the course is most people’s favorite (the 5-par 13th) and that reveals what so many feel about Tobacco Road — that it doesn’t matter what you love or hate about golf, you’ll find way more to love than hate while golfing here.
I fist-bumped one of the course owners, Mark Stewart, after climbing the hill left of 18 green. My son had just drained a 20-footer for birdie and Mark was applauding him. “That was some finish,” Mark said.
“That was some course,” I replied.
• • •
We were both right.
• • •
More on Mike Strantz Golf in North Carolina:
Brian Oar’s Professional Gallery: Tobacco Road
Brian Oar’s Professional Gallery: Tot Hill Farm
More on Mike Strantz Golf in South Carolina:
Brian Oar’s Professional Gallery: Caledonia
Brian Oar’s Professional Gallery: True Blue
Ryan Ballengee’s South Carolina Experience: Caledonia and True Blue
Talking Golf Getaways South Carolina Podcast (#113): Caledonia, True Blue and Bulls Bay