The story behind those often-overlooked fairway mounds
Built in 1927, Holston Hills Country Club is home to one of the most well-preserved Donald Ross courses in the nation. One of its more striking features can be found at the 380-yard 15th hole, where a series of mounds, affectionately referred to as chocolate drops, appear on the fairway like reverse craters. 

Chocolate drops represent the “Golden Age” era of golf course design, which was from roughly the late 1910s through the early 1940s. Some of the most famous courses in the country were built during this era, but there wasn’t a strong focus on aesthetics from 1900 to 1915 due to limited land availability: The best pieces of land were hard to secure for course construction, resulting in stretches of land filled with debris that needed to be cleared in order to lay down a fairway. Workers would clear rocks and boulders off the fairways as best they could by hand, but without the help of machinery like tractors and trucks, piles of rocks were sometimes left on fairways. Since aesthetics weren’t a priority, the mounds were covered with dirt and left as-is on courses.

Today, the now-grass-covered mounds are those iconic chocolate drops. 

During the Golden Age, course pros utilized the mounds as best they could by touting them as intentional hazards meant to challenge golfers. Indeed, challenge mounds still pop up in modern golf play, but they’re distinct from Ross chocolate drops. “These days, mounds aren’t found in the middle of fairways like chocolate drops,” says Richard Mandel, the architect responsible for the Country Club of Asheville’s reconstruction and an avid Ross historian. “Most mounds are on the sides of fairways or around bunkers. But at Holston Hills, original chocolate drops are in the middle of fairways because it wasn’t possible to put them anywhere else.”

Ross stopped using chocolate drops in the late 1920s, and Holston Hills Country Club was one of his last projects with the trademark chocolate drop design. Within the McConnell Golf portfolio, Holston Hills is the only Ross course with chocolate drops, most likely due to differences in terrain at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro and Country Club of Asheville. While these three courses were all constructed in the mid-1920s, Raleigh Country Club was built twenty years later with more advanced means to remove debris. They’re a unique piece of Ross history that you’ll just have to play to fully appreciate.

Special thanks to Holston Hills member Joe Sponcia for sharing his expertise and the photo included above!