My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences

#7, Par 5, 464 Yards

The 517 yard seventh is a classic half par-hole. Good players expect to make four here, and handicap players have little trouble making a score of five. A split fairway offers two routes to the green. The upper or left fairway is an aggressive player’s preference; while the lower or right fairway offers the short hitter a reasonable alternative. The green is protected by a mount at the front left and a run-off area to the right. Out of bounds looms just right of the green. The aforementioned mound comes into play often as players avoid the more serious trouble to the right. Six bunkers along the right side of the upper fairway penalize poor shots, but are easily avoided, and sometimes they actually stop balls from finding worse trouble in the high fescue grass further right. Similarly, along the left side, waist-high grass extends for more than 200 yards nearly to the green. The seventh hole is truly a wonderfully designed hole for all levels of players and has been discussed in numerous books including Golf Has Never Failed Me, the lost commentaries by legendary golf architect Donald Ross; Discovering Donald Ross by Bradley Klein; Golf Architecture in America, by renowned classic architect George Thomas, and by Michael Fay in Golf As It Was Meant to be Played. Fay likes the hole so much, he selected it to grace the cover of his book. 

Holston Hills Country Club

Knoxville, Tennessee

Checked off the Bucket List May 16, 2015

Golf Digest:
#7, Best in the State of Tennessee (2015-2016)

#15, Par 4, 352 Yards

The picturesque fifteenth hole measures only 380 yards from the back tee, and is definitely a scoring opportunity for all players. The fairway is bisected halfway to the green by a series of mounds covered with grass cut to normal rough height. These mounds do not affect well-struck tee shots, but give handicap players fits. These features have been given a litany of colorful names by club members for years, and the list will undoubtedly grow as new generations of golfers walk the storied fairways of Holston Hills. Once the tee shot has found the fairway beyond the mounds, the golfer sees a very receptive green, surrounded by more bunkers than any other on the course. The bunker complex short and left of the green is one of the most visually exquisite designs found anywhere, having four deep grass-faced bunkers. The green itself is bisected by a ridge in the dead center from back to the middle. The green is raised along both sides and at the back helping to keep balls on the green, even funneling them toward the hole, especially from the left edge. The typical open front to this Donald Ross green has a very steep slope, causing balls to run 10 to 20 yards away when not hit far enough up on the putting surface. 

I absolutely loved the next two holes, which highlighted this awesome back nine.  The chocolate drops in the middle of the fairway of #15 were an awesome feature and the approach into the green was lots of fun.

#9, Par 4, 399 Yards

At the 417 yard ninth hole, a generously receptive fairway, bisected by a gentle ridge some 190 yards from the green, awaits the tee shot. Carrying this rise catapults the ball a great distance down the fairway, while not doing so reduces roll to a minimum. The green is cut into the hillside with a pronounced embankment behind it and is protected by a large cross bunker ten yards short of the putting surface. An opening at the front left of the green provides a run-up option, making the left side of the fairway a preferred spot for shorter hitters. Bunkers left and right provide further protection for a very steeply sloped green. A ridge on the left further complicates chipping and putting considerably. For most hole locations, the only manageable position is below the hole on a green having such slope. Hole high is a particularly bad spot for putting to hole locations on the front of the green.

There is generally lots of width at Holston Hills, and the 9th hole is a good example.  There's more than enough room to stray from side to side, but doing so will create an inferior angle into the green in most cases.  

#13, Par 4, 367 Yards

From the back two sets of tees, the thirteenth is Holston Hills’ “sleeping giant”. The tee shot is blind and is best played with a draw by the right-handed player. The fairway is very generous, and approach shots from as far as 190 yards out can be played aggressively to a green unprotected in the front. The green slopes from the back and from the left. Holes cut in the back right quarter of the green produce some of the hardest putts to read on the golf course. Just as is the case on so many holes at Holston Hills, short of the green is the only reasonable place to miss it. At 456 yards from the back tee, this hole demands a well-struck tee shot and good decision-making on the approach. This hole is only as hard as the player makes it for himself. The cross bunkers on the right side only comes into play as the result of a poor shot or a poor decision in club selection. The hole plays downwind, typically, but when the wind turns around its difficulty is doubled. 

When it was time to tee it up, my group elected to tee it up from the Blue Tees, which measured 6,398 yards and had a very playable rating and slope of 70.8 and 126.  Taking a step back to the Orange Tees would have been 6,812 Yards, 72.6 and 128.  Going all the way back to the Black Tees would have stretched the rating and slope to 73.6 and 130 for those 7,037 yards.  In front of the Blue Tees, there are Green and White Tees as well.  I'll quote distances from the Blue Tees.  Since the club's website has some nice hole descriptions, I'll also quote those below, in italics, with my own comments below them.  In many cases, the club's descriptions say it all, so there isn't much for me to add:

#6, Par 4, 330 Yards

The 355 yard sixth requires strategy. There is room to hit a 300 yard drive, but the risk usually outweighs the reward. Approach shots from 100 to 125 yards are easy to manage as they are hit from level to slightly uphill lies to a fully visible green. The center of the green is the aim point from which players can work the ball toward the hole. Five bunkers guard the putting surface and balls tend to feed off the green into two of them when not carried far enough onto the green. A large ridge dominates the left side of the green and curves right along the back of it. Downhill putts are particularly fast here. Aggressive shots must be played with precision on this Donald Ross gem. There are four fairway bunkers but they only come into play for poorly struck or badly misdirected tee shots. The fairway is quite generous. 

While Holston Hills might not a lure for the golfer looking for modern amenities and plush conditioning, to the purist or one who wants to go "Back to the Future," it is an incredible experience.  The preservation of a classic Donald Ross design is a treat for anyone looking to get a feel for what golf was like in decades past.  After our round, we had a beverage in the no-frills snack bar / grill area, before calling it a day and heading off for dinner.  What a treat it was to spend a day at Holston.  I look forward to the day when I can do it again.

#3, Par 4, 380 Yards

The 426 yard third hole usually plays downward. The fairway bends to the right and is heavily bunkered on the inside of the bend. From the tee, the dogleg is not visible because the last 115 yards of the fairway is a huge swale extending all the way to the green. Driving the ball into the swale is possible but not advisable. Shots played from inside 100 yards are blind and there is no visual background to aid perspective. The 150 yard plate or a little closer is the ideal spot from which to attack the green. There are no good bail-out areas except the tree green-side bunkers. The usual Holston Hills option of being short is not available here, due to the severity of the slope. The green itself slopes from back left to front right. There are few straight putts here and they tend to be very fast when putting toward the front of the green. This hole plays harder than most, especially when the wind turns into the players’ faces.

#1, Par 4, 424 Yards

This medium length par four (448 tips) gently dog-legs from left to right and is a firm introduction to what waits ahead in the forthcoming round. The large fairway is bordered by one large bunker on the left inside of the dog-leg and by two bunkers on the right, to catch stray slicing or pushed shots. The green gently slopes from back to front and is two tiered, with ridge dissecting the middle of the green. Two large bunkers guard the left hand approach and one bunker runs the right side of the putting surface.  

#4, Par 3, 151 Yards

The first one-shot hole at Holston requires a carry over a lake and the deep bunker guarding the front of the green. With a maximum yardage of 165 to the center, birdie opportunities abound for players finding the green with their tee shots. The right third of the green must be avoided, however, as it slopes to the right causing balls to feed down the hill to the right of the green. From the tee, the left side appears to be a safe bail-out area, but it isn’t, and bogey is the typical result of missing left. When in doubt, stay below the hole here; downhill putts can get away from the player quickly and over the green is virtually dead. 

#16, Par 4, 288 Yards

At 304 yards maximum length, the sixteenth would seem to be a sure par for all players. After all it is the #18 handicap hole. The green, however, is small and raised with off-sloping shoulders making its size effectively smaller. There are two basic ways to play this hole. One is to hit the tee shot as close to the green as possible. Reaching the green is in the mix for long hitters, but off-line aggressive tee shots may be out of position making hitting the green impossible. The second way is to lay up to a preferred yardage back down the fairway. Either play requires a precisely measured second shot. Two small fairway bunkers twenty yards short of the green complicate the run-up possibilities, and can catch attempts at driving the green as well. Putts are extremely fast here, plus balls simply won’t stay on the front three or four yards of the green, so players must get the approach shot “up” if birdie is to be made. Putts from hole high are particularly treacherous as missed attempts along bold lines sometimes produce comeback putts longer than the one just missed. Players should take notice of the wonderful view of the whole golf course that can be enjoyed from this green. One can see some of every hole except #7 from this high vantage point. It is easy to sense the history of Holston Hills while standing in a spot where the great Byron Nelson experienced the same challenge as you just did when he won the 1945 Knoxville Open as part of his record-setting 18 wins on the PGA tour that year. Some 50 years after his Knoxville Open win, Mr. Nelson commented on the 16th hole at Holston Hills saying “I never could figure out how to stop my ball on that green.” 

#11, Par 3, 167 Yards

At 200 yards and slightly uphill, the eleventh offers players a very receptive green to attack. The bean-shaped putting surface sits at a slight angle to the player’s right and resembles the seat of a saddle. Shots landing near the edge of the green tend to feed toward the center, however, this feature works against recovery shots from the left or right particularly in short-side situations. Greenside bunkers left and right keep slightly off-line shots close, but the difficulty of the bunker shot is often determined by the hole location. The green is guarded in front by a cross bunker some 15 yards short of the surface. The best place to miss the tee shot is just short of the putting surface, especially to a front pin location. A deep swale over the green, wrapping around to the left makes recovery shots difficult when tee shots are too long. 

In Fall of 2015, popular culture focused a lot of attention on the fact that October, 21, 2015 was the date that Marty McFly flew his Delorian into the future in the film Back to the Future Part II.  The media spent of lot of time comparing the predictions that the filmmakers made of the future with real life.  In May of 2015, I experienced a bit of a "Back to the Future" day of my own, while visiting Holston Hills Country Club.

Before I explain the Back to the Future reference, let's take a step back and talk about the club.  Holston Hills, set on 180 acres of land that borders the Holston River, opened for play two years before the infamous stock market crash that began the Great Depression.  Just four years after the club opened, its Donald Ross layout was honored by hosting the Tennesse Amateur in 1931.  This was the first of many tournaments hosted by Holston Hills, including most notably the 1945 Knoxville Invitational, which was part of the stretch of 18 professional tournaments won by Byron Nelson that year.  Through the years, most golf clubs tend to update themselves every now and then, either to keep up with the technology of the day, or to accomplish the wishes of a particular chairman of the greens committee.  Bunkers get moved; greens get rebuilt; and slowly but surely the course loses the look or intent desired by the original architect who built it.  For better or worse (mostly better), this never happened at Holston Hills.  Most say that the reason no major renovations were ever conducted at Holston are because the club is "on the wrong side of the tracks" and never really achieved enough prosperity to attempt such a project.  Financially just getting by, the club would have to live within its means and survive what it had.

With that said, spending a day at Holston Hills is somewhat like going back in time.  What stands today is something of a shrine of untouched Donald Ross beauty.  The course that you can play today is essentially the same as when Ross opened it up on 1927!  For that reason, the course is a destination that many architecture buffs and Ross fans flock to.  Therefore, when I had the chance to play it as part of an event run by The Walking Golfers Society, I jumped at it.  This weekend would include rounds at Holston Hills and Lookout Mountain in the Chattanooga area.  I was lucky enough to be able to secure rounds at The Honors Course and East Lake prior to this event, making a tremendous four-day stretch of golf.  Beyond the golf course, the clubhouse also has a look and feel of days gone by.  The mint green metal lockers exhibit rust in spots.  Other areas of the clubhouse show their age too.  This club is a place where donning a pair of "plus fours" and carrying a bag of hickory golf clubs would not seem out of place at all.

#12, Par 4, 418 Yards

Measuring 471 yards, the twelfth is a world-class par four. Tee shots from the back tee must carry 260 yards to take advantage of the down slope in the fairway beginning at 200 yards from the green. Approach bunkers on the right side of the fairway beginning at about 80 yards out catch any weakly struck shots in that direction. The green is quite large in total area, and has distinct upper and lower tiers which make controlling the approach shot very difficult. A deep greenside bunker on the left guards the upper tier and tends to collect numerous approaches and third shots as well. It is not unusual to have a putt with a 10’ to 12’ break. Expect uphill putts to be slow and downhill putts almost impossible to stop. The right two-thirds of the green is protected only by a slight berm in front which seems to have a magical power to stop balls trying to run up from the fairway, but many shots that cross the berm with a little too much speed roll over the back of the green or hang up on the upper level which is disastrous when the hole is on the front of the putting surface. Keep the ball below the hole, cherish par, accept bogey, and rejoice briefly the illusive birdie.

#2, Par 4, 371 Yards

The most controversial hole at Holston Hills Country Club is the second. The huge Tulip Tree or Yellow Poplar off the front left of the tee is a factor affecting all the tee shots from the back three teeing areas. From the back tee, good players aim left of the tree and cut off a considerable amount of yardage if successful. The 431 yards measured from the back tee is deceiving as a well-placed tee shot shortens the hole, but an errant shot to the right makes it play much longer. Shorter hitters must take the more prudent route and aim right of the tree and try to curve their shots to the left. Many players use less than driver when playing to the right of the tree. The fairway sits at a sharp angle to the left, parallel to the lake bordering the entire length of the rough all the way to the green, beginning at about 220 yards out. The fairway itself slopes to the right, which means tee shots often land on a down slope propelling them into the rough because of the angle to the tee. An unprotected green awaits the player hitting the fairway with a good tee shot. The flat green is very manageable and birdies are not rare. The tee shot sets up a great opportunity on this unique hole, but don’t go long as a steep run-off area awaits over the green. 

I can't believe I left the tee box of the second without taking a picture.  All I have is a picture of the tree shooting backwards.  As it suggest above, this tree has to be one of the most impactful trees of any I've seen.  I think eventually it will be taken down.  Most people I talked with hit iron or fairway wood and aimed to the right off this tee to avoid the tree.

#5, Par 5, 554 Yards

The 614 yard fifth is a true three shot hole requiring two solidly struck shots to set up a third in an attacking mode. The longest of hitters can reach the putting surface in two shots, but only under favorable conditions and a perfectly placed second shot into the opening at the front of the green. Players hitting a poor drive or second shot will have a difficult task simply hitting the green. The forward tees give no reprieve to the handicap player as the three cross bunkers in the geographic center of the hole are visually intimidating and unforgiving when the ball finds one of them. More trouble lurks at the green. Two left-front bunkers and two more extending the full depth of the green, left and right, are very much in play. The green seems easy enough when viewed from the fairway, but it slopes slightly to the left and from the back to front. The prevailing wind is into the player’s face, but often is lessened near the green due to the groves of shrubbery and other trees well behind the hole that block the flow of air. The flag will be limp while there is definitely wind.

Before getting to the review, I gave a lot of thought to whether I should post pictures of Holston Hills or not.  The club was just starting to come out of a nasty winter, and there were spots of winter kill here and there throughout the course.  I'll post the pictures, but please try not to judge the course by any lack of conditioning.  While I haven't had a chance to get back in mid summer, I'm sure this was an anomaly at Holston.  However, from what I hear, the club likes their course maintained firm and fast with limited irrigation, such that it looks and plays like it would have in the 30's and 40's--again, like going back in time!  Therefore, even in July and August, it might be equally likely to see some areas of brown as it is green. 

The clubhouse sits on the top of a hill with nearly every hole and green visible.  Both the 1st and 10th tees are play out away from the clubhouse and 9 and 18 returning home.  The front nine occupies the west half of the property with the back nine having the eastern side.  It is definitely a "Championship Course" with the black tee measuring a hearty 7,037 yards and playing to a par of 72.  The US Open qualifier had been played the week before we arrived.  For the best of the best, 7,037 yards and a par of 72 would seem short, but Holston didn't give up and crazy scores that day.  The course can still bear its teeth from time to time (no 61's no this day--the co-medalists shot 68's).

#17, Par 5, 494 Yards

The 520 yard par five seventeenth is a scoring opportunity for all players. Tee shots need to find the fairway which is one of the narrowest on the course. Avoiding the trees in the rough, especially on the left is essential to attacking the green. Ross did some of his best fairway bunkering on this hole. The first bunker visible from the tee gives players a good aim point to the landing area which is blind. The left bunker at 120 yards from the green catches abruptly hooked shots; the right hand bunker inside of 80 yards from the green similarly attracts shots curving to that side. The bunker ten yards short and left of the green is the destination of over-cooked drawing approach shots seeking eagle possibilities. The great designer sought to penalize poor shots and reward good ones. This principle is superbly exemplified at #17 with bunkering as well as the low berm in front of the green that complicates run-up shots and stops short pitch shots dead in their tracks. Only about half of the putting surface is suitable for a hole location due to the huge mound on the back right extending as a ridge toward the front right of the green. Most hole locations are relatively easy to deal with in terms of speed, however small, subtle breaks are often hard to read. 

#10, Par 4, 406 Yards

The 432 yard par four tenth hole is fully visible from the elevated tee box. Arguable the most scenic hole at Holston Hills with Mount LeConte and the Smoky Mountains in the far distance, players need only to find the fairway, avoiding the huge Red Oak in the right rough to set up a comfortable approach. The putting surface of this punch bowl shaped green cannot be seen from the fairway. A signature Holston Hills berm guarding the front of the green forces players to control the distance on their approach shots. Front hole locations are the hardest to get the ball close, as the berm can stop a ball’s progress or propel it away. High, spinning shots struck from fairway lies that carry the proper distance to the surface are best here, but run-up shots are also an option. The entire front of the green is “open”, despite the berm and handicap players tend to play run-up shots. The two greenside bunkers frame the putting surface more than protect it.

I preferred the second nine to the first nine at Holston Hills.  It's full of great holes, and it all starts here on a tee box with a commanding view of what's below.

#14, Par 3, 178 Yards

The 212 yard fourteenth hole is a beautiful sight to behold from the tee. The green is cut into the side of a hill, and the entire putting surface is visible. Guarded by a bunker on the front left, the green is open on the front right, inviting players to aim at the right half of the green. However, unless the tee shot carries at least six or seven paces onto the green, the false front will repel the ball into the fairway, rough, or front bunker depending on the angle. The green itself is extraordinarily difficult to putt with a pronounced ridge running from the front right toward the back, then curving left along the entire back of the putting surface. A swale borders the entire right and back of the green and collects shots hit off-line or too long. Then, the player has to negotiate the aforementioned ridge without sending the ball too far down the green and possibly into the front bunker or run-off area in front. An alternative to taking the hole on directly, as scratch players tend to do, is to hit a lower shot that lands short, follows the contours, and runs up the false front coming to rest in the middle of the green. Such a shot requires a degree of luck, but the most likely miss ends up short of the green to a manageable position to make par or at least minimize the damage to a bogey. No matter how it is accomplished, the center of the green is always the primary goal to achieve. Uphill putts are “green light specials” just as side hill or downhill putts must be played cautiously.  

The Ross design (Sorry about the reflection...bad photography):

#18, Par 5, 521 Yards

Scoring opportunities near the end of the round of golf at Holston Hills abound and are punctuated with exclamation marks on the 541 yard par five eighteenth hole. Every nuance of “The Holston Hills Experience” is rolled into one magnificent finishing hole. The wide fairway beckons long drives toward the high point in the fairway some 260 yards away from the green. Longer hitters can reach this green in two shots, but the prudent play for most, however, is to lay up in the fairway between 80 and 120 yards of the putting surface. The greenside bunker directly in front of the green guards most of the putting surface. The small, unguarded opening on the right is somewhat illusionary as balls rarely make the trip all the way up the slope, and high, spinning wedge shots that land on the front of the green suffer the same fate and roll back considerable distances into the fairway unless they find the front bunker. This bunker wraps around the left side of the green as well to catch pulled approach shots from any distance. Once on the green, the real challenge of the hole begins. Only about a quarter of the green can be used for hole locations, most of which are on the front. Keeping the ball below the hole without spinning it off the green is so difficult that having to putt from above the hole is a common occurrence. Even more difficult are side hill putts that have huge breaks to complement the extreme speed. Despite all this, birdies are made frequently by good players when the heat is on; yet bogeys or worse can occur quickly if even one shot is not played properly. An abrupt rise behind the green is a bad position for a golf ball, but a wonderful spot for spectators witnessing the timeless drama seen.

#8, Par 3, 134 Yards

The one-shot eighth has the most receptive green on the golf course. At a maximum of 148 yards to the center of the green, it can be played aggressively by players of all abilities. Five greenside bunkers penalize errant tee shots. This green is not particularly difficult to putt as there are few putts with much break; there are no run-off areas. Shots landing on the surface tend to stay and typically move toward many hole locations. About half of the green is not visible from the tee due to the raised apron over the large front bunker, and the front right of it is a narrow silver of grass which requires extreme accuracy when trying to get close to the hole. 

I loved the look of the grass-faced bunkers here: