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.”