Sewanee sings praises of Hanse's mountain revival
SEWANEE, Tenn. – As a retired Episcopal minister, King Oehmig has spent a lifetime delivering a message of salvation.
So when he talks about what architect Gil Hanse’s renovation of the University of the South’s golf course will mean to this 1,500-student liberal-arts school on Monteagle Mountain, Oehmig (pronounced EM-ig) takes on an air of a revivalist.
“It has turned out to be an incredible revamp,” said Oehmig, who earned a doctorate in divinity from the school popularly known as Sewanee after having played golf at Virginia in 1969-73. “It’s one of the great stories not only in golf but in American golf.”
Golf historians might blanch at such fire-and-brimstone praise of an out-of-the-way nine-holer. But Sewanee dreamed big with this renovation, which will open to alumni for a June 7-8 tournament before welcoming public play June 9.
“Sewanee is such a unique fit,” Oehmig said. “It’s like Oxford in Appalachia, kind of out in the middle of nowhere.”
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Nature and religion have nurtured students at the University of the South since the school’s 1857 founding by the Episcopal Church. The 13,000-acre campus, dotted with buildings of locally mined sandstone, serves as a living laboratory for conservation as much as an outdoor theater for contemplation. Sewanee has produced 26 Rhodes scholars on what locals call “The Mountain.” That a golf course could even find a home here is testament to the persuasive skills of the late Albion W. Knight, right reverend of Sewanee, in the early 20th century.
Knight had no experience in golf-course design when he decided to carve nine holes out of woodlands atop Monteagle, set 1,920 feet on the Cumberland Plateau between Nashville and Chattanooga. However, he did have access to a willing labor pool in Sewanee’s football team, which at the time competed against the nation’s best.
Armed with one team of mules and another of athletes in need of some preseason conditioning, Knight scratched out a course amid the native hardwoods and mountain flora. Nearly a century later, Knight’s lone course design, opened in 1915 in an era of hickory shafts, impressed Hanse.
In a providential case of timing, the university retained Hanse to renovate a course that was decades past its prime. This was before Hanse won the job to conceive the track that will herald golf’s return to the Olympics, in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, and to lead Donald Trump’s redo of Doral’s “Blue Monster” in Florida. That Sewanee landed a 21st-century savant of architectural minimalism rates as an upset along the lines of Sewanee’s football team defeating Vanderbilt, which old-timers around here will tell you used to happen on occasion.
“We really liked the land, and we thought that the original routing made good use of the topography,” Hanse wrote in a recent email. “To find a site with such perfect rolls on top of a mountain was really a pleasant surprise. We expected that the course would have more severe elevations, but it has perfect golf contour. Part of our appreciation for the routing was that keeping the routing would re-connect all of the alumni with the golf course that they knew in college. Even though the holes are quite different in design and features, the bones are still the same.”
The $3.5 million project for what will be known as The Course at Sewanee included:
• Lengthening the course, to 6,672 yards for two trips around the nine-hole routing
• Reshaping greens complexes and seeding with T1 Alpha bentgrass
• Seeding Bermudagrass 419 fairways and fescue roughs
• Adding 28 bunkers, bringing the total to 33
• Installing a single-line fairway irrigation
• Removal and thinning of the overgrown tree canopy, with some new plantings
• Constructing a practice facility that includes five target greens, a 6,000-square-foot putting green and two indoor hitting bays.
With the practice facility being built at the north end of the course, club officials decided to change the hole routing for ease of access. The first hole – a 453-yard par 4 on the outward nine and a 545-yard par 5 coming home – will be the former No. 2. The new finishing hole, which was No. 1 in the old routing, plays to a par 5 on the front side and a par 4 on the back.
Rates for walking 18 holes will be $20 (youths and seniors), $25 (faculty, staff, students and alumni) and $31 (all others), with carts an additional $18. Nine-hole rates also will be available.
Nancy Ladd, who has coached the Sewanee women’s team since 1994 and is an associate athletic director, called the new era “an exciting time.”
“The biggest thing is the accessibility,” Ladd said. “As a Division III program, we’ve got a lot of different majors and (academic) courses. To have a bike ride to a course designed by Gil Hanse, it’s a big selling point.”
For Oehmig, whose late father Lew was an eight-time Tennessee Amateur champion and former Walker Cup captain, the memories of his time at Sewanee border on the spiritual. He said that Hanse made a similar connection.
“Gil’s reverence to the tradition of Sewanee and, as a true minimalist, has taken what was there and enhanced it and brought it into what is golf now,” said Oehmig, a co-president of the Seth Raynor Society and student of classic course architecture. “He recognized what was really good about it. His ego wasn’t threatened by building on what someone else already had done. He brought it into the modern world, with the technological advances, where it will be challenging to play, won’t be rote and will always be interesting.”
Oehmig called Sewanee’s new look “a links course on a mountain. You’re going to have plenty of wind, which will make it more demanding and plenty of fun.”
The adjacent Sewanee Inn has been razed and will be replaced with a 40-room inn as a hook to reconnect visiting alumni through golf. The opening is expected in time for spring commencement 2014.
Scott Anderson, Sewanee’s senior development officer, has found a willing alumni audience eager to help sponsor Hanse’s work. Holes, bridges, shelters – if Anderson can hang a shingle from it, he will find a way to sell it and fund the vision.
“I’m really proud of it,” said Anderson, a 1980 graduate who played football at Sewanee, during an offseason walkthrough of the course, “and it’s a great story to tell when I’m on the road.”
Ah, the stories . . . they’re the stuff of mountain lore.
One of the best involves some illegal (but often winked-at) activity off the north side of the golf course during Prohibition.
Head pro Matt Daniels, standing on the par-3 third green (formerly No. 4) with a sweeping view across the valley below, shared the tale of “Shakerag Hollow.” Legend has it that during those thirsty 1920s, a buyer seeking some of the local illicit brew would ascend from the hollow and shake a rag. The proprietor of the nearby still would process the order. Call it the mountain man’s sign language. Later, a bottle of white lightning would be dropped off for a clandestine pickup.
Hanse, with an ear for a good local yarn and a nose for regional sensibilities, brought an international golf tale to life on “The Mountain.”
At the 365-yard par-4 eighth (the old No. 9), Hanse immortalized Knight, the original architect, with a perilous midfairway bunker complex in the spirit of the infamous “Principal’s Nose” at St. Andrews. Three bunkers pinch upward into an imposing mound from which bogey – or worse – will be a likely fate. Oehmig dubbed the reverse rhinoplasty “The Bishop’s Nose.”
“We thought that it would be a great hazard for a short par 4,” Hanse said. “It fits with the overall story of the origin of the course and honoring the traditions of the university.”
Nobody will confuse The Course at Sewanee as Hanse’s magnum opus, which very well could be unfolding in Rio. But as the late Bishop Knight might have preached, some of life’s blessings come in the most unlikely places.