SOUTH PITTSBURG and SEWANEE, Tenn – Rob Collins knew he needed to build something completely different. No pressure or anything, but he had to provide a course that was surprising and fun or possibly watch his new design business perish.
That’s a big ask for any course designer and especially so at Sweetens Cove, the first course designed from the ground up by King-Collins Golf Course Design.
“There are courses out there that are a little weird or a little different just for the sake of being different. We wanted to be a little different but keep it grounded in tradition, so there was an interesting dynamic,” Collins said of Sweetens Cove.
Judging by the honors for Sweetens Cove, which opened in 2014 and jumped into the annual Golfweek’s Best course rankings in 2016, Collins provided all the requisite characteristics, and then some.
And he did it all in just nine holes.
Sweetens Cove is one of two critically acclaimed nine-hole tracks in southeastern Tennessee, the other being The Course at Sewanee, 26 miles via road to the northwest through the Appalachian Mountains. Sweetens Cove and Sewanee are ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the 2018 Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play ranking for Tennessee – the first time that two nine-hole courses have held down the top two spots in any state.
How could two courses lacking back nines grab so much attention? Collins at Sweetens Cove and Gil Hanse at Sewanee put aside any stigma about nine-hole courses and filled the properties with fun yet traditional features that demand more than one loop around each track.
Sweetens Cove moves up to No. 50
Sweetens Cove, which has climbed to No. 50 on Golfweek’s Best rankings of modern courses, is among the mountains but is not a mountain course. Collins described it as an inland links with an emphasis on the ground game. He, business partner Tad King and their team moved about 300,000 cubic yards of dirt and capped the entire property with enough sand to provide plenty of bounces. The once-flat floodplain now features more than 30 feet of elevation change.
The greens are the main attraction, nine distinct thrill rides that rise from and flow into surrounding terrain. The slopes are anything but subtle, sometimes diverting seemingly well-played shots and at others feeding balls to the hole.
From 30 yards out, a player is often faced with a choice between a putter and a lob wedge.
There’s plenty of room to play and multiple ways to tackle each approach shot. As an added bonus, members often play cross-country golf, using mixed and matched tees and greens to create new holes.
What the course does not have is a real clubhouse – greens fees can be paid in a shack, and a plastic outhouse near the parking lot is the only option. There are potential plans to add a clubhouse, cabins and other amenities, but for now it’s all about providing a great golf experience.
“For a nine-hole course, there is more than double the pressure of an 18-hole course, in terms of maintaining variety and having unique and interesting looks,” said Collins, who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., about 35 miles away. “On a nine-hole course, you just can’t have any letdowns at all. … My goal was to put so much variety and detail into it, that it would be impossible to come to terms with all of it in a handful of playings.”
Added pressure is nothing new for Collins. He had worked several years for Gary Player Design, but the financial recession in 2008 was particularly hard on golf architects, and Collins found himself out of work.
After searching for steady design work with little success, Collins in 2010 teamed up with longtime associate and friend King to start a company even as heralded architects struggled to land opportunities. After a few small revamping projects, they earned their first significant gig: turning the former Sequatchie Valley G&CC – known locally by some as “Squishy Valley” because of frequent flooding – into Sweetens Cove. Longtime acquaintance King Oehmig, a legend in Tennessee golf circles and a former golf coach at Sewanee, recommended King-Collins to the course’s owners, Reece Thomas and his family. Construction began in 2011.
“Sweetens Cove was our one shot, and if we didn’t hit a home run there, there wasn’t going to be a No. 2,” Collins said.
Taking inspiration from the late Mike Strantz’s Tobacco Road – a highly ranked yet sometimes polarizing design with bold shaping that pushes several envelopes not far from Pinehurst, N.C. – Collins set out to reshape what a nine-hole course could be.
“Tobacco Road is one of my favorite courses in the world, and I love that he had the guts to build that,” Collins said of Strantz. “You look at some of those features, and you know that he knew it was going to be off-putting to a certain segment. … To his credit, he pulled it off and hit a grand slam there.”
Well-traveled golfers will recognize several traditional hole designs at Sweetens Cove, often with quirky twists. Collins describes the green
at the par-5 first as “a punchbowl with sort of a reverse Redan.” The short, par-4 fifth has a boomerang green with a lion’s-mouth bunker.
The par-4 eighth features a nearly sideways Biarritz green that is 65 yards across. The short par-3 ninth has a Redan green with extreme slopes to the right.
No hole on the property stretches the imagination more than the semi-blind par-3 fourth, a Himalayas-style (taking after the historic par-3 fifth at Prestwick in Scotland) one-shotter with a green featuring 90 yards of humps, bumps, swales and run-offs. The tee shot can demand anything from a wedge to a fairway wood depending on hole placement.
“When we were building it, I just worked very closely with our shaper, Gus (Grantham), and he said to me, ‘Rob, just let me go crazy here. Let me show you something to see what you think,’” Collins said. “We had kind of talked loosely about the things we wanted to achieve there, and Gus built it, and I really like it.”
The course has basked in the admiration of architecture fans, but the business side of Sweetens Cove hasn’t always been easy sledding. Collins said the Thomas family decided to focus on other businesses in 2012 after Sweetens Cove had been grassed but not yet opened, and they offered Collins an opportunity to take over as owner-operator. He and Ari Techner, the founder of golf equipment company Scratch Golf (which has since shut down), joined with several other investors to secure an 80-year lease on the course. Without disclosing earnings, Collins said Sweetens Cove has seen revenues increase 92 percent since 2015. Last year the course had close to 7,000 rounds played, with much of that coming from Nashville and nearby Chattanooga.
“If you’re going to convince people to get in their cars and drive an hour or more out here to play a nine-hole course with no clubhouse, it had better be special,” Collins said.
Course at Sewanee rises to the occasion
The Course at Sewanee (at 1,920 feet in elevation, almost 1,300 feet higher than Sweetens Cove) has the amenities – a comfortable inn, a range, clubhouse, restaurants, locker rooms – missing at Sweetens Cove. The University of the South, an Episcopal college commonly known as Sewanee, has seen to that, and the course is home to the school’s Division III golf teams.
The school hired Hanse – who has since gained acclaim for his Olympic Course in Brazil, a renovation of the Blue Monster at Trump National Doral in Miami and other gems such as Streamsong Black in Central Florida – to rethink the existing course that was built by a priest, a football team and a pack of mules in 1915.
The late Oehmig – who was an ordained Episcopal minister – recommended Hanse to the decision-makers at Sewanee, much as he had done in connecting King and Collins with Sweetens Cove’s original owners. The revamped Course at Sewanee reopened in 2013 and this year climbed from third to second on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play rankings for Tennessee.
Hanse said he approached the project atop Monteagle Mountain with an appreciation for the course and sense of community. He didn’t want to change too much on a course regarded fondly by many former students.
“Part of what makes going back to campus wonderful are all the memories that you have as an alum,” Hanse said. “If you had gone back and it was a completely new golf course, it would have felt like we had stolen some of the fondness that alums have for it.”
That doesn’t mean Hanse was afraid to shake things up a little. The order of play was modified to accommodate a new clubhouse, with each hole pushed back one slot on the scorecard. Multiple tee boxes send players into rolling terrain with few flat lies, skirting Shakerag Hollow with several dramatic views of the valley far below, especially from the backside of the green at the par-3 third. And with the campus providing what Hanse described as a sense of timelessness, his team dug in with classic design features.
One example is the Bishop’s Nose, a mid-fairway bunker complex on No. 8 named in honor of the course’s original architect, Albion W. Knight, right reverend of Sewanee. The bunker is a tip of the cap to the Principal’s Nose bunker at the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland.
“There were a lot of old classic features that we thought would fit on that golf course,” Hanse said. “Because the architecture of the campus is very traditional, we thought we could build a course that feels old-school with features that match that environment.”
The course has plenty of width for golfers navigating flared, naturalistic bunkers, and there are multiple options for approach to most of the bentgrass greens.
Like Collins at Sweetens Cove, Hanse said there was an emphasis on providing a fun experience instead of a grueling test.
“If people are playing a full 18 holes of golf, there’s an expectation of a certain level of seriousness. I think people just feel more relaxed on a nine-hole golf course,” Hanse said. “It shouldn’t be a quality thing, because obviously you can have quality in a nine-hole course. But if the architecture reflects that casual, more fun vibe, then that’s a good thing.”
Sewanee manager Matt Daniels said plenty of players – the course saw about 8,000 rounds last year – head back out for a second loop.
“A lot of traveling golfers will stop off (Interstate 24) and they don’t know what to expect with a nine-hole course,” Daniels said. “And then they’ll play it and tell us, ‘Man, this is legit.’” Gwk
(Note: This story is from the annual Golfweek’s Best issue.)