Holston Hills Turns 90 In Style

by Brad King

 Dec 19, 2017 at 4:31 PM


“It immediately reminded me of Shinnecock Hills,” McConnell recalls, referencing the storied eastern Long Island golf club that was a founding member of the USGA and next year will host its fifth U.S. Open Championship.

Acclaimed golf course architect Tom Doak says that of all the Ross-designed courses, Holston Hills comes closest to his original design. This year, Golf Digest ranked the dutifully preserved 1927 course No. 4 in Tennessee, while also including it in its top-100 classic courses nationwide.

“It has some of the best bunker complexes that I have seen on any Ross course,” says McConnell. “I knew when I saw Holston Hills that it would be a great addition to our golf portfolio. It’s a must-play for our members.”

The co-founder of the Donald Ross Society, Michael J. Fay, has said that he would rather play Holston Hills on a consistent basis than any other golf course in the South. If the vision of Ross, horse, and cart culpting the course isn’t enough to give you goosebumps, there are plenty more magical elements to the course. It was here Bryon Nelson won the Knoxville Invitational in 1945, one of his 18 PGA TOUR victories that year.


McConnell Golf purchased Holston Hills in December 2015 and — with a nod to the past and an eye on the future — immediately started to bring renowned architect Charles Barber’s building back to its glory days.

From its hilltop perch, nearly every hole of the golf course is visible, and the clubhouse takes every advantage to show off the view inside with oversized windows. The most popular outdoor area is undoubtedly the new second-story veranda off the Donald Ross dining room, while an original terrace on the south side of the ballroom also offers space to enjoy the view.

Opposite these transfixing vistas, the clubhouse offers subtle hints to its fascinating past. Just to the west of the front entrance, between a row of cypress trees, an unseen door hides in plain sight. And just to the right of the southwest ballroom entrance, exterior steps lead to a seemingly inconspicuous basement door. Except, it doesn’t lead to a basement, per se.

“Decades ago, there was reason to need a secret way to exit the club and make your way back into the neighborhood,” explains clubhouse manager Jim Disney. “The clubhouse was actually built with tunnels and hidden exits from different rooms for this purpose.”

Though all other remnants are now sealed off for safety, one part of the “escape route” is still in use. A wide passage way runs the full length of the terrace and is currently used for storage.

Another historical nugget that’s often overlooked hangs in the southeast entryway of the Donald Ross dining room. Archie Campbell, long-time member and celebrity of Hee Haw and Grand Ole Opry fame, painted the course and clubhouse landscape in the ‘70s. (Yes, he painted!) These limited-edition paintings were sold to raise money for the club’s west wing, which now houses the Holston Room, fitness center, locker room, and kids’ room. 


Bringing a 90-year-old building (and its additions) up to modern times is no small task, but it’s one that McConnell Golf is pleased to unveil. After $1.4 million in capital improvements, Holston Hills now joins its sister properties and “clubs of the future.”

Last year, McConnell Golf added a fitness center and members have since enjoyed extended hours via key fob access seven days a week, giving them the flexibility to customize their workout routines.

The former kitchen was completely gutted; an entirely new restaurant opened called the Donald Ross Room. The room includes a bar, high-top and booth seating, and an outdoor veranda overlooking the 18th hole. It’s where everyone goes after a round.

The club upgraded the Holston Room for private dining and business meetings. This room has maintained the original arched ceilings and offers a stunning view of the course. The men’s locker room underwent a nice facelift as well. One hundred wooden lockers were added, along with a bathroom and card room remodel. The grand ballroom retained its original 1920s feel with wood beam ceilings, but has added new flooring and windows overlooking the terrace on the golf course side of the club with a great view of the Smoky Mountains. This room seats 250-270 for weddings and events.

A relocated golf shop on the east side of the building offers the most current lines in apparel along with the club room that houses fitting carts and all equipment. Members can now enjoy the new portico when arriving at the club. “It also makes the arrival for golf much more service friendly when using the new bag drop area,” says Chris Dibble, director of golf.

And for the kids? The former golf shop has been converted to a dedicated Kids’ Club area with tons of activities. Since last winter, Holston Hills has hosted a monthly, staff-led kids’ program with activities that range from outdoor games to arts and crafts.

The club also added its first summer camps this year, allowing kids to take advantage of all the club’s facilities — from learning golf and tennis fundamentals, to cooling off at the pool.

Adjacent to the pool, the tennis facility has four Rubico clay tennis courts and two hard courts. The courts are professionally maintained and enjoyed during peak season from April through November, with hard courts remaining in play during the off-season as well.

Beyond open play, the club’s growing tennis program features seasonal clinics led by tennis pros Bart Kennedy and Troy Cash. The multi-day clinics help players of all levels sharpen their skills and master the strategy of the doubles or singles format.

“The impact of all these improvements around the club has been tremendous,” says Brian Donaldson, a Holston Hills member since 1988. “One of the many attractions of becoming part of McConnell Golf is

their devotion to family. I am seeing a lot of new faces around the club in the demographic that private clubs have to draw from, which is younger families.”

McConnell sums it up well: “Holston Hills enjoys a proud past and we think that it has a great future as well.”

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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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Straight from the Source

by Martha-Page Althaus

 Aug 08, 2017 at 6:44 PM

Part of McConnell Golf's future-focus is seizing opportunities that benefit the planet, local economies, and member taste buds. We spoke with Executive Chef Patrick Budniewski on how - and why - he incorporates local ingredients into the menu at Holston Hills.

“Farm-to-table” is an overused culinary phrase, but for Patrick Budniewski, it’s the only thing he’s ever known.

“I grew up with a garden in my backyard,” he says. “We canned our own tomato sauce and made our own jams and jellies. I never ate the store-bought stuff. That upbringing was very influential in my career.”

So it’s only natural that Budniewski employs that same practice in the Holston Hills kitchen. The Johnson & Wales grad identifies his culinary style as simplistic: “I use really good ingredients and let them speak for themselves.”

The Ingredients 

Budniewski has a lengthy list of local purveyors. Among the favorites? Sweetwater Valley Farm cheese is a staple on his menu, whether it’s smoked cheddar on the charcuterie board or sharp cheddar in macaroni and cheese. Swaggerty’s Farm sausage is used for biscuits and gravy. Hickory-smoked bacon from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams is another favorite.

“The whole kitchen smells like hickory when we get that bacon in,” says Budniewski. “We get it in slabs, wrapped in old-school deli paper, and cut it ourselves.”

At the Table

This isn’t your typical bacon. Benton’s high-end bacon finds its way into several dishes, from Budniewski’s twist on chicken cordon bleu - pan-seared chicken with Benton’s bacon and a Swiss cheese sauce - to fried-green tomatoes with poblano pepper and bacon jam. You’ll find many of these ingredients on Holston Hills’ daily menus. The club’s spring social featured a big display of Sweetwater Valley Farm cheese - buttermilk cheddar, gouda, and roasted garlic and pepper cheddar.

As for the future? Expect even more events and menus with a local focus. “We’ll keep trying to source the best ingredients, and those are usually found in our own backyard,” says Budniewski.


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New Fitness Facility

by Jessie Ammons

 Dec 12, 2016 at 4:27 PM

In 2016, resourceful planning brought modern improvements to Knoxville's historic Holston Hills Country Club. Thanks to ingenious use of clubhouse spaces, the club now boasts a brand-new fitness center.

One of the first renovations made to the clubhouse under McConnell Golf ownership was transforming an unused space with new flooring, lighting, and equipment. This former dining room is now a state-of-the-art fitness center with wide-ranging strength training and cardio options including Torque series equipment, Intenza Entertainment Bikes and Octane stride ellipticals. 

To the members' delight, the space has opened the door for exciting new programming. Activities Director Katelyn Graham was brought on board to oversee an active group fitness class schedule (yoga, Zumba and more!) and personal training sessions.

"We have a good mix of equipment and programs for everyone,” says Corporate Director of Member Activities and Wellness Natalie Clemens. Clemens was instrumental in the overhaul, but incorporated feedback from the membership to ensure the new facility was a perfect fit. 


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Donald Ross' Chocolate Drops

by Shayla Martin

 Dec 01, 2016 at 4:29 PM

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! 

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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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