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I’m sitting in a meeting room in Tallahassee, Florida, but my golfing soul is somewhere near South Pittsburg, Tennessee. For those in the know, South Pittsburg is home to Sweetens Cove Golf Club, the modern masterpiece of a course handcrafted by King-Collins Golf Design.
Tad King and Rob Collins are the duo that comprises this golf course design and construction team based out of nearby Chattanooga. The work they have done there has touched a nerve with me. I am just returning from my first trip to this cult phenomenon of a golf course and the slopes, bunkers, and angles are running through my head like the tune of a new favorite song.
The Sweetens experience is incredibly unique. That is apparent when you set foot on the property. The clubhouse is nothing more than a small shed painted in hunter’s green. There to greet me on my recent arrival was Colt, a young man watching over the course from a folding chair on the porch of the shed.
Colt checked us in, handed us a few scorecards, took our small greens fee, and pointed us to the first tee. The only resemblance of a locker room is an old port-a-john. It’s all the furthest thing from luxury golf you could imagine.
That all changes though when you walk onto the teeing area. Like Shoe-less Joe Jackson walking out of a cornfield, you are transported into a world of pure perfection.
As you stroll to the teeing ground and the vast landscape unfolds before you, you can’t help but look back at Colt and wonder why a mall cop is guarding the Mona Lisa. Better yet, he nods at you in recognition that now that you have paid your fee, you can go walk up and touch her.
Sweetens Cove is without parallel in today’s golfing world. It’s a monument to the modern minimalist school of golf design. In this case, as in many of its contemporaries, minimalism does not mean lacking.
The depth of design on display at Sweetens Cove lives through three main components of the course; the bunkering, the slopes, and the angles of approach. King and Collins have created a variable wonderland of golf design elements that come together to form a siren for the golfing soul.
Those three components are best observed by walking. Walking is not only an essential part of the game of golf but in the case of Sweetens, it is the only way to absorb the subtle mastery in design that is painted on that turf canvas from corner to corner.
I have never been so excited to enter a bunker as I was at Sweetens. Throughout the course’s bunkers, there are obstacles of many shapes and sizes that range from boulders to wooden boards and native grasses. They are playable but punishing at the same time. All of the bunkers play as waste areas on the course. Ground your club as needed. There were large expansive bunkers that run the length of holes paired beautifully with small pesky pot bunkers. There was a curiosity in my swing that guided my ball into these traps just to see what lied in their sandy bottoms.
Sweetens is surrounded by mountainous terrain. The course itself is in a flat valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains rising around it. Those hilltops must have been an inspiration for King-Collins as they shaped the majestic slopes that make up the playing surfaces at Sweetens.
The fairways roll like the wake behind a lake boat, but the real magic of the course appears on the greens. Each green is a masterclass in shaping putting surfaces. The greens are excessively large in all the right ways.
The par 3 fourth hole, named on the card as KING, is a soliloquy on slopes. That green must extend some 80 yards in length allowing the hole to play in incredible variations off the tee. Slopes like those can carry your ball to glory or run it onto the endless supply of closely-mown areas around the greens.
The way the slopes of the fairways merge into the green complexes is stunning. The greens then entertain you with small doses of timeless template features such as punchbowl, redan, and biarritz.
The Angles of Attack
The final pieces of the Sweetens puzzle are the angles of approach. This perhaps is the most impressive element of the design. Much like the mother course in St. Andrews, Sweetens is an ever changing variable.
There is no rough at Sweetens. The fairways roam from edge to edge. Should your ball wonder off and be lost, fret not, anything not in the fairway acts as a lateral hazard for more friendly play.
In those expanses of manicured turf, the fairways provide numerous options for how to play a hole. Some holes even share a fairway, creating scenarios that are hardly found in the common courses of American golf. The examples of this are rampant on this nine-hole course of wonders.
You can play Sweetens into perpetuity and never play it the same way twice. The King-Collins team show an uncanny ability to create multiple playing experiences on a hole and the time you are able to spend pursuing those routes is simply magnificent.
When you exit the ninth green after your play is complete, you can’t help but sadden at the thought of the ending. But with Sweetens, it really isn’t over. Once you play her, you will have to come back someday. You just can’t help yourself.
A day there is a favorite new song that you just heard for the first time. For me, Sweetens Cove is a Jason Isbell song. It’s a collision of worlds happening in an East Tennessee mountain valley.
The course setting is a rustic reminder of the old south in fields that are home to the future of an ancient game. Some lyrics find you long after you listen to the song. That’s the Sweeten Cove experience I am still having hundreds of miles away from the place where I first heard this tune. The bunkers, slopes, and angles are the lyrics I cannot get out of my head.
Somewhere in that song, I can hear Colt saying softly, “see you again” as I walk out of the green shed. I’m trying to pay attention to a meeting in Tallahassee, but the song of Sweetens is playing in my head and I can’t hear anything else.