Marion, Va., is where Scott Ferrell and Jeff Little began forging their lifelong friendship. Among the rolling hills along the Appalachian Trail sits the small town of less than 6,000 people, where fandom for college football and NASCAR reigns.
Southbound on Interstate 81 leads to Bristol Motor Speedway, a concrete coliseum that holds 25 times the population of Marion and is witness to days and nights of stockcar thunder. The opposite direction runs through the college town of Blacksburg, where fall Saturdays are only fulfilled when “Enter Sandman” by Metallica blasts on the football stadium’s speakers. Loyalties lie with either the Virginia Tech Hokies or Tennessee Volunteers, but the common denominator for residents of Marion is golf.
Minutes from the town’s Main Street is Holston Hills Golf Course, a staple of Marion ever since its debut as a 9-hole course in 1946. It is the home club to several state high school championship teams, and the friendly “Leave It To Beaver” atmosphere reminds first-time players of their last family reunion. Everyone from the manager to the starter has a nickname.
When Golf Magazine dropped its 2020-2021 50 best courses in the Southeast rankings nearly a year ago, Holston Hills checked in at No. 28. The positive publicity was serendipity to the locals, but vexing to many golf enthusiasts planning their next bucket list trip. For reference, Streamsong Resort’s Black course in Florida sat at No. 26, while East Lake Golf Club, home of the Tour Championship, checked in at No. 32.
Holston Hills will never be confused as a PGA Tour-caliber course. The fees, including range balls and a cart, will only run your fourball around $120 — combined. The greens are not particularly undulating, scarce bunkering presents minimal challenges and the occasionally rocky cart path might foam up your Budweiser in between shots. Wide open fairways allow amateurs to grip it and rip it on command, and scoring opportunities present themselves at every hole.
This type of golf course where millions first find their love of the game. No one will turn their nose up at you for wearing a hoodie or blasting music that echoes through the hills. But if design elements are the main factor for ranking a course, why did Holston Hills Golf Course receive such a prestigious accolade?
As a result of the 2008 financial crisis, the former country club turned municipal course was in dire straits and destined to close unless someone stepped up. The town of Marion had taken over the note from the Smyth County Community Foundation several years ago to go muni, encouraging play from all walks of life to bolster rounds played. But managing any golf course is not for the faint of heart as the cost to keep conditions in seasonal shape can quickly become a pricey burden.
Prior to the course rankings announcement, the two childhood best friends, Ferrell and Little, were formulating a plan to operate the course they grew up on.
The duo played their first round together at Holston Hills when they were just 7-years-old. Nearly a half-century later, they decided to take a leap of faith to revitalize the place where refuge was found as kids walking in the hot summer sun. Combined with a small tribe of partners experienced in the golf industry and Marion natives, the Foundation gave the new entrepreneurs a lease to operate the club as a semi-private facility starting Jan. 1, 2021.
“Every time I go back to Marion, I will see a familiar face at the hotel or a restaurant,” said Ferrell, who now resides in Greenville, S.C. “They are proactively saying the club has new life and it’s terrific for the town of Marion.”
Ferrell, a golf industry consultant who had stints with the PGA Tour, Gary Player Design and Bobby Jones Links, knew the potential was already in place. They simply improved the course by taking into consideration important design elements constructed by Mother Nature — the gorgeous long-range mountain views and the winding, babbling creek.
Holston Hills is a generational, family affair for Ferrell. His father operated the course for five years in the 1970s and the whole family worked various jobs at the club to help where needed. Little, a PGA professional since the 1980s, also worked during summers at Holston Hills as a cart boy. Both are equally enthusiastic about the leadership position they now hold and the direction the club is headed.
“I think what we have accomplished in our first year is remarkable,” said Ferrell. “We have a long way to go but the course and its offerings compared to a year ago is like night and day.”
The recent golf boom around the world has not only helped admired golf courses and resorts, but also small-town clubs like Holston Hills. Rounds are up significantly from 2020, and member tournaments have been reintroduced into the programming. Their first club champion since 2006 will be crowned next year.
“On a good weekday, we have more than 100 rounds, and on the weekend, we will push up to 140 rounds,” said Little, who manages the day-to-day operations at Holston Hills. “Our members play more than the public right now, but we want to make sure the course is available for everyone in Marion to enjoy.”
Whether it was their permanent connection to Holston Hills or their deep-rooted golf industry experience, the pair earned the trust and respect of the town of Marion and the Smyth County Community Foundation through a lengthy process to take on the endeavor. The lifelong friends are thankful for the opportunity.
“The town of Marion should be commended for taking over the golf course when the country club failed,” Little said. “All anyone wanted to do was keep Holston Hills as a golf course for our community and find the balance between public and private play.”
As for the mysterious ranking by Golf Magazine, that spot was intended for private Holston Hills Country Club in Knoxville, Tenn. The edit was a quick digital fix, but the ranking will live in print forever, nowhere more so than the Holston Hills Golf Course pro shop. Just to the right of the side door leading to the ninth green looking out on the Blue Ridge Mountains, the November-December 2020 issue is framed with “Holston Hills - Marion, Virginia” highlighted in yellow.