Around 5 p.m. on the first Sunday of November, the sun began to dip behind the mountains that surround South Pittsburg, a sleepy hamlet in southeast Tennessee, and the golden light illuminating the two groups still playing one of the most scenic, trendy and imaginative golf courses in the country started to fade. It was the kind of tableau that a golf purist might hold up to a nonbeliever as all that is beautiful, sacred and right about the game.
Of course, said purist would probably reconsider after taking a closer look at the two groups. The first comprised eight guys from Atlanta—one of whom was in a witch’s hat, punishment for having the worst score the previous hole—who were hitting two balls apiece on their 36th hole of the day while music played from a speaker in one of their bags.
The other group was a twosome: a ticket broker from Chicago named Noah Weinberger and Sasha, his six-year-old standard poodle.
In other words, just your basic Sunday at Sweetens Cove, a nine-hole course opened in 2014 by architect and designer Rob Collins and constructor Tad King that has forced the golf community to reconsider what a course is—and what it can be. There’s no clubhouse and no driving range. No marshals telling you to hurry up. Greens fees are paid in The Shed. (It’s exactly what it sounds like.) Until about four months ago there was no plumbing; the facilities consisted of a single Porta Potty. (There are now men’s and women’s rest rooms in the parking lot.) Even the most hallowed of amenities for the weekend player—the beer cart—is nowhere to be found. “It’s all about the golf,” says Collins, who designed the course and now runs it.
Innovation in golf—at least the kind that is easily recognizable to the duffer—is generally associated with equipment. (Insert your own joke here about Carl Spackler’s inventing a hybrid grass that you can play 36 holes on in the day and then get stoned to the bejeezus belt at night.) But the 44-year-old Collins, who quit an advertising job in Atlanta to go back to school and get a master’s in landscape architecture from Mississippi State, was determined to make a statement with his first course. A sign at Sweetens Cove features a quote from Alister MacKenzie, who designed Augusta National: “It’s only natural that players who have been spoon-fed on insipid, flat uninteresting golf should view with a considerable amount of suspicion anything which is undoubtedly out of the ordinary.”
Says Collins, “I’m sort of preconditioned to want to take chances and do things a bit differently. One of the things that bothers me is that a lot of architects and builders and owners placed a lot of self-imposed rules on themselves. A golf course has to be this number of yards, everything has to be visible—all this bulls--- that doesn’t mean anything. It’s just made-up rules that people are putting on themselves.”
It helped that he had an essentially blank canvas on which to work. When Collins and King started to build, the 72-acre tract had one foot of elevation change. Now—after moving 300,000 cubic yards of dirt—undulations abound, giving the course genuine character. The 9th green drops 10 feet, one of many putting surfaces that inspire sensations of vertigo. If only one putt rolls back downhill and stops at your feet, you’ve had a pretty good round.
Consider the 5th hole, a short par-4. The green wraps around a 10-foot-deep pot bunker that’s an homage to the Devil’s Asshole, a similar trap on the 10th hole at Pine Valley. While the green is drivable, if you land short or lay up the bunker comes into play—but you don’t have to shoot at the stick. “You can play to the right of the Devil’s Asshole and use the contours to bring it around and have the ball lay dead at the hole,” says Collins.
With four tees and two pins on each hole, it’s not hard to create a new adventure from round to round. And that’s not even taking into account unofficial “cross-country” holes–driving from one tee to a different green. From the proper box, the massive green on the par-3 9th funnels balls hard from right to left. From the 7th tee, though, the severe slope serves as a backstop for a daring 240-yard shot over sand. (When you inevitably come up short and leave your shot in the bunker, you can easily pick up your ball when you pass by two holes later.) The practice is so common that there’s even a platform constructed near the pump intake in a pond near the 4th green that turns number 6 from a long par-4 into a par-3. “I’m not worried about how people feel after their first round,” says Collins. “I’m worried about how they feel after their 100th.”
High-end courses (and Sweetens Cove, which was ranked the 49th best modern course by Golfweek, can hold its own with just about any track when it comes to quality of play) have a way of making casual golfers feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, trying to learn which fork is which. Where am I allowed to wear my hat? Who am I supposed to tip, and how much? And God help the man whose cellphone rings.
Sweetens Cove doesn’t put on airs and embraces phones. “The golf course really blew up on social media,” says Collins. “We started an Instagram page and a Twitter account and it really spread like wildfire.”
But when the course—formerly known as Sequatchie Valley Golf and Country Club—opened in 2014, business was virtually nonexistent. (In typical DIY fashion, Collins and one of his partners went to Home Depot and bought mailbox stickers so they could plaster the course’s new name on the sign on Highway 72.) It had been owned by a concrete company that bankrolled the renovation but pulled out of the project just before the opening. Collins likens it to “the scene in Temple of Doom where the guy rips the guy’s heart out of their chest. I’m like, what, why are you stopping?”
Collins reluctantly took over management duties. He and King had partnered four years earlier with the idea that they could work more efficiently if they did everything themselves. Sweetens Cove was their first project, and they needed it to succeed if there was going to be a second one.
The leader of the eightsome from Atlanta first heard about the course on a golf podcast. Weinberger, who drove nine hours with Sasha just to play Sweetens, read about it on Twitter and on the website Golf WRX. “It seems like it’s the hottest thing on there,” he said as Sasha ambled alongside him up the 6th fairway. “I wanted to see if there was something to it. It almost seems like it has to be overhyped, but it’s just great.”
In May the course got its biggest social media win when Andy Roddick tweeted a video Peyton Manning had sent of himself walking on the 8th hole. Manning drawled what has become the club’s unofficial motto: “Carrying my bag, playing nine holes, God bless America.”
The two retired athletes are more than just fans: Earlier this year they were part of a group of new investors in Sweetens Cove. “Our core group is very passionate about golf,” says real estate developer Mark Rivers. “Golf is in the middle of sort of redefining itself. On the one hand, people want to declare, ‘Golf is dead.’ On the other hand, I’d say something like, ‘Well, have you ever heard of Topgolf? The millions of people who are all trying it for the first or second time?’ It’s really a question of what the experience is and what the culture of it is. You can reinvent it a little bit and have it reflect the way people live today. When you visit Sweetens Cove, you realize it’s not about the Caesar salad in the grill room with plaid carpet. It’s like, grab your Bluetooth speaker, throw a six-pack in a cooler and have at it.”
Sweetens Cove is thriving at a time when course closures have outnumbered openings for 13 straight years. (In 2018, 198.5 closed, while 12.5 opened.) Many were built in the past 20 years, when hundreds of cookie-cutter courses went up in housing developments and resorts. “We’re a rebellion against the days of gluttonous golf courses that were just thrown together as sort of paint-by-numbers places where they weren’t really trying,” says Collins.
Sweetens Cove is also attracting young golfers when overall participation is down 20% since 2006. “I credit millennials with saving the golf course,” says Collins.
The cultural touchstone for youngsters playing golf their own way is, of course, Caddyshack, the quintessential slobs-versus-snobs tale. But Sweetens Cove doesn’t force golfers to take a side, instead finding middle ground—an affordable ($75 to play all day) world-class course where everyone is welcome. With success often comes the temptation to make things bigger, grander—in other words, to do the exact things that Sweetens Cove has avoided. Collins, who with King is working on a course in Nebraska and one in New York’s Hudson Valley, is thinking of adding some lodging (dog-friendly, of course) to the grounds, but he knows he needs to keep things simple. “What we’re trying to do is to take what got us here and just make it better,” says Collins. “I mean, we’re never going to have a clubhouse. It’s always going to be The Shed.”