Earlier this year, I was in Knoxville, TN for a wedding and had the opportunity to check out one of the country’s best courses, Holston Hills Country Club. Holston Hills was designed by Donald Ross in 1927 and is widely recognized as Tennessee’s premier course.
Holston Hills is considered to be the world’s most untouched Donald Ross design. Nearly all of the original bunkers and greens sites remain the same as when Ross designed the course in 1927. Holston Hills is located on the east side of Knoxville and is on the opposite side of town as another Ross course, Cherokee Country Club. Since its opening, Knoxville’s affluent residents began to settle on the town’s west side, leading many to join Cherokee. With its east side location, Holston Hills was never on strong financial footing from the 30’s-80’s when country club green committees often ruined the work of the great architects.
In 1997, Holston Hills had the most substantial work ever done on the course when it hired Tom Doak to do restoration work, focusing primarily on the bunkers.
In the beginning of 2016, Holston Hills was purchased by McConnell Golf, a golf management company whose portfolio is in the Carolinas. With the purchase, McConnell Golf added Holston Hills to an already strong portfolio of courses which includes another Ross gem, Sedgefield Country Club.
Now onto the course...
Hole 1 - 448 yards - par 4
The opener at Holston Hills is a moderately length par 4 that favors a right to left tee shot to setup a mid-iron approach. On the second shot, you have to keep the ball below the flag on the heavily sloping back to front green. The first hole sets the precursor for the course, keep the ball below the flag for the best putts at the hole. Pin high shots will typically have severe slope and being above the pin will leave extremely fast downhill putts.
Hole 2 - 431 yards - par 4
The second hole at Holston Hills is a phenomenal dogleg left cape hole that features a hogs back fairway. Unfortunately, the greatness is covered up by the monster tree that obstructs most players tee shots. This tree needs to be cut down because it only affects the average player and shorter hitters. I was able to take my line left of the tree, leaving a mere flip wedge into the green. Cut down the tree and the hole is great for all players, not just the long hitters.
Hole 3 - 426 yards - par 4
There are so many great holes at Holston Hills, but the third stands out as one of my favorites. The dogleg right medium length par 4 is one that you will see at many Ross courses. At the 3rd, you are faced with a decision, play your drive up the right side to shorten the hole considerably and bring in the risk of the deep fairway bunkers or play it safe down the left side and leave a considerably longer shot into the green. The 3rd also features a beautiful green that Ross routed to sit beautifully up on a natural perch. The green is guarded by one bunker on the left and two deep bunkers on the right and has a lot of back-to-front slope.
Hole 4 - 165 yards - par 3
The beautiful mid-length par 3 requires a shot to a small target that is guarded by a deep front bunker and a pond down the right side. Ross challenges those who bailout to the left with a slick chip as the green slopes from left to right.
Hole 5 - 614 yards - par 5
The 6th is a par 5 that has been lengthened over the years to adapt to modern technology. I would like to see this hole played a little shorter as the back tee diminished a few of its best features. The 6th features a bunker that sits in the middle of the fairway and should come into play on a player’s tee shot. Most are unlikely to get home from the back tees, but if played forward, Ross presents you with a challenge with cross bunkers that sit on the left side of the fairway about 40 yards from the green. If you challenge the green in two and wind up in one of those, you will be faced with as difficult of a 3rd shot as you can find in golf.
Hole 6 - 355 yards - par 4
The 6th hole is one that I will never forget as it stands as one of my favorite short par 4’s anywhere. Off the tee, you can hit driver, 3-wood or an iron, the key to avoid the many deep fairway bunkers. While looking at the hole, the right side of the fairway might be inviting, but this will leave you with a very difficult wedge shot as the tiny plateau green slopes hard from right to left. I think the ideal play is an iron to the left side of the fairway, setting up a wedge shot that hits into the upslope of the green. While this short par 4 looks like a cupcake on the scorecard, big numbers lurk. It’s a terrific short par 4 design by Ross.
Hole 7 - 517 yards - par 5
A cool reachable par 5 that features an uphill tee shot with an alternate fairway. The fairway is split by a ridge and bunkering forcing you to choose between the the left side on top of the ridge and the right side below it. On the second shot, Ross challenges you once again to pull off the shot as the green sits on the ridgeline and any shot a little right will bound further right where tall grass lurks. Meanwhile, bailing left will put a player in a precarious situation as Ross placed some of his signature mounds on the left and the green runs away from you to the right. No easy up and downs for players who miss the green in two.
Hole 8 - 148 yards - par 3
The 8th hole turns back toward the clubhouse and is your traditional “short hole” where players are challenged to hit the short-iron/wedge shot or pay the price. Here, the 8th has several deep bunkers that guard the small pushed up green.
Hole 9 - 417 yards - par 4
A beautiful close to the front 9, the mid-length par-4 9th presents a brutal challenge for players around the green. The green has a severe back to front slope, making the fairway a premium in order to control your distance and spin on the approach to the green. I wound up just over the green after catching a flier in the right rough and learned what most members know...you are dead. I watched helplessly as my chip rolled off the front edge.
Hole 10 - 432 yards - par 4
The back 9 starts with the gentle left to right dogleg 10th. This mid-length par 4 calls for a light fade off the tee to setup your approach to a green complex that slopes from back to front. The day I played, the pin was on the right side which has a mound short of the green that will take shots slightly short and kick them to the middle of the green complex. Again, fairway and angles are important here. If the pin is on the right side, the left side of the fairway is best. Pin on the left, then favor the right.
Hole 11 - 200 yards - par 3
The first of two extremely tough par 3s on the back 9 at Holston Hills is the 11th. Deep bunkers on the right and left guard the green and a bunker short prevents the run up shot. The green has a lot of back to front slope, and a shot just long will catch the back runoff area leaving a treacherous chip shot. The 11th is a par 3 design you will see at many Ross courses, a long iron shot that the best spot to play to is the front part of the green. This hole reminds me of par 3s at a few of Ross’ Chicago designs - Beverly’s 17th and Calumet’s 14th.
Hole 12 - 471 yards - par 4
The 12th has been dubbed by many as “The hardest hole in Tennessee” and it's easy to see why. The stout par 4 requires a long tee shot to get over the rise in the fairway. From there, you are left with a long iron into a green that slopes severely with the natural landscape from left to right and back to front.
Hole 13 - 456 yards - par 4
After the tough 12th, you move to the long and hard par-4 13th, where the first challenge is the blind tee shot. From there, a mid to long-iron is left into the green where you see a beautiful example of Donald Ross’ cross bunkers short of the green which slopes heavily from back to front.
Hole 14 - 212 yards - par 3
Another long and tough par 3, the 14th is a beautiful redan hole that Ross designed to flow effortlessly with the natural landscape. A good tee shot like most redan holes is to the front right corner, allowing the long iron to feed to the middle of the green.
Hole 15 - 380 yards - par 4
After the challenging stretch to open the back 9, the 15th signals the start of the closing run at Holston Hills where birdies can be had. A wise tee shot lays up short of the fairway bunkering and leaves a full wedge shot into the elevated green. Distance and spin control are a must into another heavily sloped green from back to front.
Hole 16 - 304 yards - par 4
Onto what many consider Holston Hills’ signature hole where Ross adapted his usual par 3 template called the “volcano” with the short par 4. The 305 yard par 4 goes straight uphill making it difficult to drive, thus many shots end up with an awkward half wedge shot to a green that is blind. This hole is absolutely spectacular!
Hole 17 - 520 yards - par 5
The first of back to back par 5s to close out the round at Holston Hills is very reachable for longer hitters. A good tee shot will leave a fairway wood or long-iron to a small and severely sloped green. For those who need to layup, Donald Ross places a few cross bunkers to force a smart and thought out layup. On the approach, you have to be very precise as the right side has a subtle runoff that can’t be seen from the fairway.
Hole 18 - 541 yards - par 5
The beautiful closer at Holston Hills again offers long-hitters a chance to go for the par 5 in two shots. I loved how the two trees frame the fairway off of the tee with a good shot threading between them. A good drive leaves a player with a decision, go for the green in two or lay back to a full wedge. The decision is tough because of the small green that is perched on a hill. Miss long and you are left with a delicate downhill shot while a miss short leaves an awkward blind uphill pitch.
As I remember my round at Holston Hills what stands out is how remarkably playable the course was while still being a challenge for a scratch player. There is considerable width off of the tee which keeps beginners in the ballgame. The challenge for the expert player becomes hitting tee shots in the correct spots to leave the ideal angle into the challenging green complexes. Beyond its playability, I was impressed with how well routed the course was and the variety Holston Hills had. No green or tee felt out of place as Ross seemingly picked out all of the best places to situate the 18 holes on the big property. In a variety sense, I never felt like I played a hole similar throughout the round, they were all unique and created interesting challenges on what types of shots to play. While Holston Hills doesn’t have dramatic seaside vistas, I can’t think of many courses that I would rather play on a daily basis.