Pristine Donald Ross: Holston Hills

An in-depth profile of the Donald Ross designed Holston Hills Country Club


Designed by Donald Ross in 1927, Holston Hills is widely recognized as Tennessee’s premier course. It is considered to be the world’s most untouched Donald Ross design. Nearly all of the original bunkers and greens sites remain the same as when Ross designed the course.

Holston Hills is located on the east side of Knoxville and is on the opposite side of town as another Ross course, Cherokee Country Club. Since its opening, Knoxville’s affluent residents began to settle on the town’s west side, leading many to join Cherokee. With its east side location, Holston Hills was never on strong financial footing from the 30’s-80’s when country club green committees often ruined the work of the great architects.

In 1997, Holston Hills had the most substantial work ever done to the course when it hired Tom Doak to do restoration work, focusing primarily on the bunkers. In the beginning of 2016, it was purchased by McConnell Golf, a golf management company whose portfolio is in the Carolinas. With the purchase, McConnell Golf added Holston Hills to an already strong portfolio of courses which includes another Ross gem, Sedgefield Country Club.

With the course tuned up and in good hands now, it is a must visit for fans of Donald Ross’s work.

HOLE #1 – 448 yards – par 4

The opener at Holston Hills is a moderate length par-4 that favors a right-to-left tee shot to set up a mid-iron approach. On the second shot, keeping the ball below the flag on the heavily sloping green is critical. The first hole sets the tone for the course – keep the ball below the flag for the best putts at the hole. Pin high shots will typically have severe slope and being above the pin will leave extremely fast downhill putts.

HOLE #2 – 431 yards – par 4

The 2nd hole is a phenomenal dogleg left cape hole that features a hogs back fairway. Unfortunately, the greatness is covered up by the monster tree that obstructs the tee shots of average or shorter players. Taking the line left of the tree, leaves a mere flip wedge into the green. Removing the tree would make the hole great for all players, not just the long hitters.

HOLE #3 – 426 yards – par 4 

There are so many great holes at Holston Hills, but the third stands out as one of the best. The dogleg right par-4 is common to many Ross courses. Players are faced with a decision on the tee – play the drive up the right side to shorten the hole considerably and bring in the risk of the deep fairway bunkers, or play it safe down the left side and leave a considerably longer shot into the green. The 3rd also features a beautiful green that Ross sited beautifully up on a natural perch. The green is guarded by one bunker on the left and two deep bunkers on the right and has healthy back-to-front slope.

HOLE #4 – 165 yards – par 3 

The beautiful mid-length par-3 requires a shot to a small target that is guarded by a deep front bunker and a pond down the right side. Ross challenges those who bailout to the left with a slick chip as the green slopes from left to right.

The picturesque 4th

HOLE #5 – 614 yards – par 5

The 6th is a par-5 that has been lengthened over the years to adapt to modern technology. Playing this hole a little shorter would arguably enhance a few of its best features, for example a bunker that sits in the middle of the fairway and should come into play on a player’s tee shot. Most are unlikely to get home from the back tees, but if played forward, Ross creates a challenge with cross bunkers that sit on the left side of the fairway about 40 yards from the green. Challenging the green in two and winding up in one of those bunkers leaves the player with as difficult of a third shot as can be found in golf.

HOLE #6 – 355 yards – par 4

The 6th hole is one that I will never forget as it stands as one of my favorite short par-4s anywhere. Off the tee, players can hit driver, 3-wood or an iron – the key is to avoid the many deep fairway bunkers. While looking at the hole, the right side of the fairway might be inviting, but this will leave a very difficult wedge shot as the tiny plateau green slopes hard from right-to-left. The ideal play is an iron to the left side of the fairway, setting up a wedge shot that hits into the upslope of the green. While this short par-4 looks like a cupcake on the scorecard, big numbers lurk. It’s a terrific design by Ross.

HOLE #7 – 517 yards – par 5

The 7th is a reachable par-5 with an uphill tee shot to a split fairway. The fairway is divided by a ridge and bunkering forcing a choice between the the left side on top of the ridge and the right side below it. On the second shot, Ross similarly challenges players on approach as the green sits on the ridgeline and any shot a little right will bound further right where tall grass lurks. Meanwhile, bailing left will put a player in a precarious situation as Ross placed some of his signature mounds on the left and the green runs away to the right. No easy up and downs for players who miss the green in two.

HOLE #8 – 148 yards – par 3 

The 8th hole turns back toward the clubhouse and is a traditional “short hole” where players are challenged to hit the short-iron/wedge shot or pay the price. Several deep bunkers guard the small pushed up green.

HOLE #9 – 417 yards – par 4

A beautiful close to the front nine, the mid-length par-4 9th presents a brutal challenge for players around the green. The green has a severe back to front slope, making finding the fairway a premium in order to control distance and spin on the approach. Catch a flier in the rough, go long, and the members know…you are dead.

A classic Ross look at the par-4 9th

HOLE #10 – 432 yards – par 4

The back nine starts with a gentle left-to-right dogleg. This four par calls for a light fade off the tee to setup the approach to a green complex that slopes from back-to-front. The right side has a mound short that will take shots slightly short and kick them to the middle of the green. Again, fairway and angles are important here. If the pin is on the right side, the left side of the fairway is best. Pin on the left, then favor the right.

HOLE #11 – 200 yards – par 3

The first of two extremely tough par-3s on the back at Holston Hills is the 11th. Deep bunkers on the right and left guard the green and a bunker short prevents the run up shot. The putting surface has plenty of slope, and a shot just long will catch the back runoff area leaving a treacherous chip shot. The 11th is a par-3 design often used by Ross on his courses, requiring smart long-iron play.

The 11th is simple - hit a good shot

HOLE #12 – 471 yards – par 4 

The 12th has been dubbed by many as “the hardest hole in Tennessee” and it’s easy to see why. This stout par-4 requires a long tee shot to get over the rise in the fairway. From there, players are left with a long iron into a green that slopes severely with the natural landscape from left to right and back to front.

HOLE #13 – 456 yards – par 4 

The tough 12th is followed by another long and hard par-4, where the first challenge is the blind tee shot. From there, a mid to long-iron is left into the green where players see a beautiful example of Donald Ross’s cross bunkers short of the green which slopes heavily from back to front.

HOLE #14 – 212 yards – par 3

Another long and tough par-3, the 14th is a beautiful rendition of the redan that Ross designed to flow effortlessly with the natural landscape. A good tee shot is to the front right corner, allowing the long iron to feed to the middle of the green.

HOLE #15 – 380 yards – par 4

After the challenging stretch to open the back nine, the 15th signals the start of the closing run at Holston Hills where birdies can be had. A wise tee shot lays up short of the fairway bunkering and leaves a full wedge into the elevated green. Distance and spin control are a must into another heavily sloped green from back to front.

HOLE #16 – 304 yards – par 4

Many consider the 16th to be Holston Hills’s signature hole where Ross adapted his usual “volcano” template to a short par-4. The 305 yard hole goes straight uphill making it difficult to drive, thus many shots end up with an awkward half wedge shot to a green that is blind. This hole is absolutely spectacular!

HOLE #17 – 520 yards – par 5 

The first of back-to-back par-5s to close out the round is very much reachable for longer hitters. A good tee shot will leave a fairway wood or long-iron to a small and severely sloped green. For those who need to lay up, Donald Ross places a few cross bunkers to force decision making and execution. On the approach, precision is key as the right side has a subtle runoff that can’t be seen from the fairway.

HOLE #18 – 541 yards – par 5

The beautiful closer at Holston Hills again offers long hitters a chance to go for the green in two. Two trees nicely frame the fairway off of the tee with a good shot threading between them. A good drive leaves a player with a decision – go for the green in two or lay back to a full wedge. The decision is tough because of the small green that is perched on a hill. Miss long and you are left with a delicate downhill shot while a miss short leaves an awkward blind uphill pitch.

As I remember my round at Holston Hills, what stands out is how remarkably playable the course was while still being a challenge for a scratch player. There is considerable width off of the tee which keeps beginners in the ballgame. The challenge for the expert player becomes hitting tee shots in the correct spots to leave the ideal angle into the challenging green complexes. Beyond its playability, I was impressed with how well routed the course was and the variety of holes. No green or tee felt out of place as Ross seemingly picked out all of the best places to situate the 18 holes on the big property. From that standpoint, I never felt like I played a hole similar throughout the round – they were all unique and created interesting challenges on shotmaking. While Holston Hills doesn’t have dramatic seaside vistas, I can’t think of many courses that I would rather play on a daily basis.