Passion for the Course

by Chad Flowers

 Jul 04, 2019 at 4:21 AM

When discussing the golf course at Holston Hills Country Club with Superintendent Ryan Blair, the first word that comes to mind is passion. After serving more than 18 years as the man responsible for keeping the greens and golf course in top condition, Blair enjoys coming to work every day and feels truly blessed to do what he loves as a career.

Ryan began working in the golf course industry as a freshman in high school at this hometown club, Dayton Golf and Country Club in Evensville, Tennessee, about an hour and half southwest of Holston Hills. He played on the golf team in high school and worked on the course each summer.

After high school, Ryan attended Chattanooga State Community College and continued working at private clubs. His work included a stint at the prestigious Honors Course just north of Chattanooga, under the tutelage of David Stone. “It was there that I was introduced to a totally different view of golf courses and the opportunities available to those who were willing to work,” Blair says.

Blair then transferred from Chattanooga State to the University of Tennessee to pursue a four-year degree, and was fortunate enough to begin working under Chris Sykes, then the new superintendent at Cherokee Country Club in Knoxville.

“I had the opportunity to return to the Honors Course, but going to Cherokee and working with Mr. Sykes was one of the best decisions I have made,” says Ryan. “It gave me the opportunity to be involved with every aspect of the course as Sykes and I built a staff from four people and totally changed the course. I was fortunate to be involved in so many aspects of the course while at Cherokee, and that is the experience that paved the way for me to come to Holston Hills.

“While at Cherokee, I had the opportunity to learn about design as they were in the early process of picking an architect to draft a master plan for the course,” according to Blair. “I was so involved with the architects and design side that when I came to Holston I was ready to take on the challenge to restore the course to its traditional architecture design.”

“I also got to be heavily involved in all aspects, not only in turf but also in how the course operated. From budgeting to board meetings, for a guy right out of school, I was pushed right into everything. It was a real crash course,” says Blair. “Sykes was a great mentor and we still talk all the time. I was his first assistant to move into a superintendent position, and I can think of another five or six guys around Knoxville that got their start working with Sykes as well.”

Blair’s favorite thing about not just Holston Hills, but the job in general, is the opportunity to both teach and learn every day.

“Each day is different and there is by no means a guarantee in anything. I always love looking over the course at the end of the day and seeing all the things that we have accomplished. I have seen many sunsets and sunrises over the years and every time I am amazed at the beauty of nature.”

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On the Big Stage

by Casey Griffith

 Jun 21, 2018 at 8:57 PM

Former Holston Hills intern AJ Newell reminisces on her time at the club.

AJ Newell was a little out of breath when I caught up with her for an interview.  

“Sorry,” she says. “We were on the course and got rained out, so I decided to squeeze in a gym workout.”

Such is life for a pro on the LPGA Tour.

But before her current eight-week jaunt on the road, and before joining the ranks of the LPGA, Newell enjoyed a slower-paced period of life as a golf operations intern at Holston Hills Country Club in Knoxville.

“AJ reached out to me shortly after she graduated from the University of Tennessee and was looking to make her way back to Knoxville,” recounts Holston Hills Director of Golf Chris Dibble. “I thought it would be great to have a female golfer on staff and knew that members would gravitate to her as a good player. AJ displayed an incredible work ethic and took time to play with the members whenever she could. In her short time at the club, she made a lasting impression.”

Though she grew up in Tampa, Florida, both of Newell's parents attended UT – her Dad threw shot and discus for the Volunteers. Their eldest daughter however didn’t necessarily have her heart set on attending her parents’ alma mater.

“I’m a bit of a homebody so the idea of going to college so far away from family didn’t appeal to me at first,” she remembers. But that all changed after a campus tour.

“It was fall when I visited and I absolutely fell in love with Knoxville. The beautiful scenery and something about it being football season added an energy to the city. It was an easy decision for me to attend the University of Tennessee.”

A few years later, her younger sister Anna would join Newell to play golf for the Lady Volunteers during Newell’s senior year.

“That year is probably my favorite memory of golf. I was recovering from back surgery so Anna helped me through that, and I in-turn helped her adjust to college during her freshman year. I won my first college tournament that year and we were both All-Americans.”

Supporting and encouraging an interest in golf is important to Newell. “I had so many women that mentored me and helped grow my interest in golf. The game has opened many doors for me and it’s made me a more comfortable person in talking to people and relationship building.”

During her time at Holston Hills, Newell helped with Kid’s Night Out events where she talked up the sport to the club’s youngest members — most of whom hadn’t yet taken an interest.

“It’s so much bigger than just working at a club,” she says. “It’s truly making a difference in someone’s life, and to be able to influence a young person.”

With 12-year-old Anna Claire Gibson, Newell made a lasting connection and to this day sends her postcards from every city she visits on the Tour.

“I happened to be in Hilton Head recently and knew the Gibson family was also in the area,” she says. “I was able to surprise Anna Claire in person. She was so happy that she cried!”

While Newell may have passed through the ranks of McConnell Golf employees rather quickly, the club will always have a place in her heart.

“I miss Holston Hills, it was such a family there. Chris really made me feel like part of the team, and it was an environment that supported me every step of the way. Several staff and members would text me encouragement before tournaments, and I still keep in touch with many of them. I feel like I could stop by any day and it would be like I never left.”

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Home Course Heroes

by Matt McConnell

 Jun 20, 2018 at 9:14 PM

Meet one of McConnell Golf’s top players.

For Holston Hills Country Club Member Todd Burgan, the game of golf is more than just a leisurely way to spend a few hours on the weekend. This 49-year-old pharmacist played for the University of Tennessee before being known as one of the state’s best golfers. What makes Burgan one of the best? He’s a five-time Tennessee Golf Association Champion winner, and was named TGA Player of the Year in 2011. I spoke with Burgan about his passion for the game.

Matt McConnell: When did you learn to play?

Todd Burgan: I was introduced to the game by my stepfather and a friend’s father when I was 11 or 12. There were a
lot of boys around that age in my hometown, and we all kind of fell in love with golf and played for years at a little nine-hole course in LaFollette, Tennessee. It wasn’t uncommon for ten or 12 of us to play up to 36 holes a day in the summer, almost every day all the way through high school.

MM: What’s been your greatest personal victory?

TB: My first individual State Championship in our state match play in 2009 at Legends Club in Nashville. Not only was it special because it was my first state individual title, but the final match was against Danny Green, who is one of the most accomplished players ever in Tennessee. I won in 19 holes by holing a 20-foot birdie putt to win.

MM: What’s your favorite thing about being on the course?

TB: I enjoy the competition of tournament golf the most. I rarely play leisure rounds, but I do enjoy the camaraderie
of being with my friends when I get the chance to play with them either at Holston Hills or on a golf trip.

MM: Is there a favorite Holston Hills moment?

TB: When I won my first Club Championship in 2007. It was a 72-hole event, and I shot 64-66 the last two rounds to
catch Steve Golliher, one of our club’s best players. I won with a birdie on the first playoff hole.

MM: And do you have any favorite Holston Hills memories?

TB: My favorite memory of Holston is, and always will be,sitting up in the old 19th Hole after another great “Friday
game,” talking trash and reliving the round with 16 or so guys. Those guys, some of whom we have lost in the past
few years, and those days, are what I’ll always remember about Holston.

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Ask a Member

by Casey Griffith

 Mar 14, 2018 at 1:29 PM

Not every sport loves you back throughout your life, but golf — as it often does — proves to be the exception. From Juniors first developing their skills to the fine-tuning and frustrations of adulthood and on into the golden years, our clubs teem with enthusiasts of all ages.

Ken Reed, Holston Hills Country Club

Shooting your age just one time is quite a feat. And doing it again? Incredible! So how do you describe someone who has shot their age 363 times? (That’s not a typo!) A member at Holston Hills for 47 years, Reed shot most of these scores on its Donald Ross track. He also has seven aces to his name — so far.

How did it feel the first time you shot your age?

I was sure it was something unique because I’d been trying for some time. I was getting close in May of 2005 and my birthday is in August. I saved that card and still have it. I’ve saved nearly all of them.

What keeps you playing, even after tough days on the course?

Simply my love of the game keeps me playing, and being outside with friends is always enjoyable. At my age it’s a little more difficult, but I’ve managed to do it since I turned 87 last fall.

What advice do you have for aspiring age-shooters? 

Practice and improve your short game!


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The Fabric of Our Family

by Martha-Page Althaus

 Aug 11, 2017 at 8:15 PM

Making memories at Holston Hills Country Club

For the Hayes family - father Tracy, mother Janet, 17-year-old daughter Macy, and 15-year-old son Cooper - Holston Hills is a big part of family life.

“We’re native Knoxvillians, so we’ve always known about Holston Hills,” says Tracy Hayes, vice president and CFO of Pipeline Construction Company. “This Donald Ross course is one of the best in the state.”

The family first became involved with the club on a partial membership when the children were young. Macy joined the swim team at six years old, and Cooper started golfing with the junior program at age seven. 

But when McConnell Golf took over Holston Hills in 2015, the family opted for full club membership.

“When we heard about the upgrades that McConnell was making to the club, it just made sense for us,”

Janet, an attorney, is not a golfer but enjoys the club’s amenities including the fitness center, pool, and dining room. As a busy 17-year-old, Macy no longer competes on the swim team but visits the club often. As for Cooper?

“His second home is Holston Hills,” says Hayes. “He’s still very much involved with junior golf and he’s doing very well. Chris Dibble [director of golf] and ‘Tee-Time’ Tom Seymour [golf shop manager] are so supportive and treat him with such respect as a young golfer. They make an impact on his life every day. Cooper will look back on his time at Holston Hills as some of his best memories growing up.”

For the whole family, Holston Hills is a peaceful escape during a busy season of life. 

“This past Mother’s Day, we had brunch at the club,” says Hayes. “It was a beautiful day. We left church, drove to Holston Hills, and had a terrific meal with great service. It was just very pleasant. And that’s the reason we’re members. It’s more than just golf for us. Holston Hills holds so many memories of our children. It’s a part of the fabric of our family.”


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Experience of a Lifetime

by Tom Seymour

 Jul 01, 2016 at 4:22 PM

Holston Hills Country Club golf shop manager Tom “Tee-time” Seymour recounts a memorable Masters

"One of my Bucket List items was to be at a Sunday round in Augusta. I didn’t know I was going until the Tuesday before the Masters — tickets fell into my hands. Our head golf pro, Chris Dibble, encouraged me and assistant golf pro Jordan Fairbank to go. We stayed about two hours away the night before and drove in on Sunday morning. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, not a wink. I was so excited. I’m 55 years old and I’ve played golf since I was five. It’s always been my passion. I grew up watching Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer at Augusta.

On Sunday, we had been following the crowds all day; but right as Jason Day teed off, I decided to go over to hole 16. I got there five minutes before Shane Lowry knocked his hole-in-one in. He hit it exactly where you need to hit it on Sunday in Augusta. At the time, there were probably only 300-400 people around the hole. It wasn’t super crowded. Of course, by the time Louis Oosthuizen came later, people were going insane.

But first Davis Love came up. When he hit his hole-in-one, he hit it behind the hole. Everybody thought it was going to be 10-15 feet away, but the ball stopped for a second and made a U-turn by the water. Nothing can compare to Louis Oosthuizen hitting his ball off of J.B. Holmes. I almost missed the hole- in-one because after Oosthuizen hit Holmes, I looked over at Jordan to get his reaction. He screamed at me to look back at Oosthuizen and I saw the last six inches of the ball go into the hole. The crowd was going absolutely crazy.

All I wanted was to hear that roar of a crowd on a Sunday at the Masters, and I got to hear it three times. It was incredible. What are the odds on this? They’ve got to be in the billions and trillions that there are three hole-in-ones, on the same hole, and I get to see them all because I’m at the Masters on a Sunday. It was almost a religious experience.

The next day at work in Knoxville, it was all Jordan and I could talk about. I’ve probably told the story to every member at the club. I’ve been there 17 years now, and the people at Holston Hills have become my family: It felt like coming home to tell all my brothers and sisters what had happened.

The only thing that would be better than this is if I actually get to play the course one day, which I know is never going to happen. Although, I never thought I’d get to be at a Sunday round, either — never say never in golf. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. I will definitely try to get down to Augusta again. If I don’t, it’s all good. I just wanted to be there one time for that final round. It was amazing.”

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Connecting the Clubs

by Brad King

 Apr 01, 2016 at 4:34 PM

McConnell Golf’s recent purchases of renowned Holston Hills Country Club in Knoxville and Providence Country Club in Charlotte mark inaugural ventures into a pair of new markets — while also tying together the membership network of 12 private golf club properties in the Carolinas and Tennessee.

In December 2015, McConnell Golf added to its legacy with the purchase of venerable Holston Hills in Knoxville, a 1927 Donald Ross design that marks the first McConnell Golf club located outside the Carolinas. In line with the wellness initiative [read more on page 56], both golf courses are easily walkable, a feature regularly taken advantage of by the membership.

“Our new relationship with McConnell Golf has been wonderful,” says Holston Hills Director of Golf Chris Dibble. “We’ve been truly overwhelmed by the welcome we’ve gotten from every other club in the McConnell Golf family — their entire staffs. Everyone has reached out offering to help in any way. It’s been really nice. We are very excited about the future.”

Donald Ross was the most prolific golf course architect in history, with more than 400 designs bearing his signature. Yet today very few Ross golf courses exist as they were originally designed. Most have been altered through the years and lost much of the genius that Ross characteristically imparted on a course.

One Ross design that has remained nearly untouched through the years is Holston Hills Country Club in Knoxville, which in December 2015 became the first McConnell Golf Course located outside the Carolinas.

Holston Hills opened in 1927. Located just east of Knoxville near the foothills of the Smoky Mountains on 180 open acres of rolling old farmland tucked into a bend in the Holston River, Holston Hills immediately became recognized as the finest course in the state. Accordingly, it hosted every major regional tournament, including a PGA Tour event.

“If someone blindfolded you, you might think you were playing a golf course back in the late ’20s or early ’30s, playing the golf course the way Ross designed it,” McConnell Golf Director of Golf “Boomer” Kittler says. “You don’t find that much these days. You can stand on No. 16 green at Holston Hills and see all the way to the green of the fifth hole. No matter where you are on the golf course, you can see ten-plus holes without batting an eye. It’s pretty cool. The greens remind me of Sedgefield.

“I’m kind of a ‘Ross guy,’” Kittler says, “but I think Holston Hills will be one of McConnell Golf’s best courses, if not the best.”

Founded by members of Knoxville’s prestigious Cherokee Country Club — itself a 1910 Ross design — where overcrowding had become a problem, Holston Hills further bolsters McConnell Golf’s reputation for having the names of the game’s greatest architects attached to its courses. “Holston Hills is the fourth McConnell Golf course designed by Donald Ross,” says McConnell Golf Chief Operating Officer Christian Anastasiadis. “We are particularly excited to be part of the Knoxville community. We look forward to doing in Tennessee what we have done at some of the finest private clubs in the Carolinas.”

Though relatively low-key and unknown, Holston Hills has been ranked among the country’s greatest classical (pre-1960) golf designs in the United States. The co-founder of the Donald Ross Society and noted golf architecture critic Michael J. Fay has said that he would rather play Holston Hills over any other golf course in the South on a consistent basis.

The club’s repertoire of presented tournaments includes the 2004 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, the NCAA Championship in 1955 and 1965, three Tennessee State Opens, and eight Tennessee State Amateur Championships. Holston Hills has played host to numerous U.S. Open qualifiers, and it will do so again on May 18.

Byron Nelson won the Knoxville Open at Holston Hills during his magical run in 1945 — his 15th of 18 PGA Tour victories that season. The previous week, Nelson had lost to Fred Haas in Memphis, ending his streak of 11 consecutive wins. Cary Middlecoff was only 19 years old in 1940 when he won his first Tennessee Amateur at Holston Hills — the first of Middlecoff’s four consecutive Tennessee Amateurs. Among his 40 professional victories, Middlecoff won the U.S. Open in 1949 and again in 1956, as well as the Masters in 1955.

Through the years, the club has also become a favorite getaway for famous entertainers including the late Archie Campbell, rock star Alice Cooper, and professional athletes Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan.

The beloved untouched Ross layout takes on a broad, fan-shaped formation, with both nines returning to the clubhouse sitting on an upslope along the north side of the property. Holston Hills features more than 100 bunkers scattered across the property, with very few houses or other visual distractions taking away from the links-style playing experience.

Perched on a hill with breathtaking views of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Holston Hills clubhouse overlooks the golf course and showcases bay windows, elegant arched doors, and a central ballroom with large cathedral ceilings and exposed wood trusses. An outdoor terrace on the south side of the ballroom offers members a space to relax and take in the view, while a magnificent centerpiece terrace surrounds the clubhouse, with its comfortable Tudor architecture.

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.

Holston Hills Director of Golf Chris Dibble has been at Holston Hills since 1992 and has become one of the most well-respected golf professionals in Tennessee, according to Kittler, as well as being a very accomplished player. Dibble apprenticed for years under the tutelage of John Wylie — the father of Treyburn Director of Golf Tag Wylie — who is now the Holston Hills PGA professional emeritus. “We think Holston Hills is a pretty special place, and we are excited to be a part of the McConnell Golf team,” says Dibble. “Holston Hills is neat because every hole is right in front of you. It’s very fair. There are no tricks or hidden hazards. [Noted golf course architect] Tom Doak says Holston Hills is the closest golf course around to what Ross originally left.”


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