Holston Hills Country Club

Preservation is the mission at this Donald Ross design that has remained delightfully untouched for nearly eight decades

By: Derek Duncan

Appeared in March 2006 LINKS

Pinehurst No. 2 is often regarded as the quintessential expression of Donald Ross’ architecture. After all, Ross spent nearly his entire career at Pinehurst, living in a house on the third hole and tinkering almost endlessly with his layout.

Yet the brilliant the two-time U.S. Open site is not quite an unblemished Ross. The same applies for other premium Ross designs: Seminole, Oakland Hills, Aronimink, Inverness and others have been taken apart and put back together by committees and other architects.

In fact, few original Ross courses have survived unscathed. One that has is Holston Hills Country Club in Knoxville, Tennessee. A 1937 aerial photograph hanging in the clubhouse shows a course fanning in two collapsed but distinct loops across a wide plateau between the Holston River and the ridge on which the clubhouse sits. Every tee and green is located just as they are now, and virtually every present-day bunker is accounted for in the image. Only the trees have matured.

Chris Dibble, director of operations at Holston Hills since 1992, says preservation of the course has become a unifying cause among the membership. “I think they get an understanding of what Ross has put here,” Dibble says, “and they seem to evolve into the same mindset, that we need to preserve what we have and not let anybody screw it up.”

Certainly, it would be unfortunate to mar Holston Hills’ unique, subtle character in an effort to modernize it. At 7,030 yards, it still has enough bite, evidenced by four Southern Amateurs, eight Tennessee Amateurs, two NCAA Championships, the 2004 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur and a Knoxville Open won by Byron Nelson during his record 18-victory season of 1945.

As with the best Ross designs, the genius is in how he used existing site features to create strategic complexities: the hog-back fairway on the 431-yard, “Cape” 2nd hole, where a large tree remains curiously on the drive’s line of charm; the 355-yard 6th, which has a depressed, left-to-right sloped landing area and a plateau green; and the 494-yard 7th with its high-low alternate fairways.

At the 432-yard 10th, Ross used a strong diagonal contour to bend the hole gradually right, toward a tilting, basin-like green. No. 15 is a unique par 4 that plays across mounds to another convex plateau green, followed by the 304-yard 16th, a precise uphill charge over cross bunkers toward a blind (and again, convex) putting surface.

Those familiar with the club often debate how it managed to remain undoctored over the years, even before the membership made preservation its mission. According to John Stiles, a 25-year member who also serves as treasurer of the Donald Ross Society, the popular explanation is that the club simply could never afford major change.

Founded by members of Knoxville’s prestigious Cherokee Country Club (itself a 1910 Ross design), where overcrowding had become a problem, Holston Hills grew up on the wrong side of town, so to speak. As Knoxville expanded west following the Great Depression, the new club, with its largely working-class membership, was left behind on the east side.

Stiles says that prior to and during World War II, “probably zero work was done on the course. There were no men, there was no money, no gas.” That explains the only real distinction between the current layout and the original: To reduce costs, a number of bunkers were grassed, and remain that way today.

Reclaiming those receded, eroded and grassed bunkers could well be the final piece in solidifying Holston Hills’ authenticity. “Even if this club suddenly became the most wealthy club in the world, I don’t think there would be any desire to go out there and make any changes to the course,” Dibble says. “The golf course has always come first, no matter what. Everybody seems to forfeit themselves to Donald Ross.”

Par: 72
Yardage: 7,030
Year founded: 1927
Architect: Donald Ross


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