Pure golf. That’s the sensation you feel the moment you step foot on the grounds of Sweetens Cove Golf Club, a gem tucked into the foothills of Appalachia 30 minutes outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s a very unassuming place, no grand clubhouse, no driving range or putting green, just a trailer, a few carts and the best 9 holes of golf you can find.
I heard about Sweetens Cove from a friend and after checking out their instagram and website, I decided I had to play it. I was heading to a wedding in Knoxville, so it was the perfect time to make the trek. After speaking with the GM, Patrick Boyd, I was set up to play early on Saturday morning, first off, as soon as I could arrive from my 2+ hour drive from Knoxville.
A history lesson
Sweetens Cove is part of a movement in golf course architecture, taking a previously run-down and bland muni golf course and turning it into a masterpiece. In this case, the course was Sequatchie Valley G&CC, a municipal 9-hole course known for its hardpan, flat greens and signature drainage ditch that ran through the property. Although everything about the course was a complete disaster, the potential the property had was unmistakable. What Sequatchie Valley needed was a visionary. Enter golf course architect, Rob Collins.
When Collins stepped foot on the plot in 2011, he saw potential but also a lot of work. Old Sequatchie was as run-down as they come, but Rob’s imagination ran wild. Sweetens Cove was his first full design project, which historically has brought out the best work in architects. Such is the case here where he masterfully merged classical features such as the Redan-Punchbowl 1st green or the 40-degree biarritz green on the 8th. Collins poured his blood, sweat and tears into the project, personally overseeing the build for 2 years (an unheard of practice within architectural circles) and making sure every bunker lip was shaped to perfection and every green complex contoured to his exact vision.
Unfortunately, as the course neared completion, drama arose within the ownership group of Sweetens Cove, and the course was abandoned. All of the hard work went down the drain…that is until June of 2014 when Rob Collins and partner Ari Techner negotiated to take over Sweetens Cove. After 5 months of preparation, in October of 2014, the first golf game was played before the full opening in April of 2015.
Back to present day
I arrived around 7:30 am and was greeted by Patrick, who is as big of a golf course enthusiast as they come. After a quick chat about what lay ahead, I was off to the first tee with the hazy morning fog billowing from the Appalachians. The open vistas and surrounding nature brought about a calmness before I teed it up.
It is clear from the first hole that Collins’s mission at Sweetens Cove is to present golfers of all skill levels with endless shot options. The course features wide and firm fairways that keep most shots in play, but its mounding and green complexes reward shots that are placed in the right positions. Sweetens Cove’s defining characteristics are its bunkering and green complexes, to which Collins put in maniacal attention to detail.
Sweetens Cove is on a rectangular piece of property. The compact routing provides the player with plenty of variety though. It begins by looping around the perimeter on holes 1-3. The 4th turns inward and then 5-8 wander back and forth. The 9th returns to the clubhouse, and is situated conveniently near the 1st tee for the inevitable re-round. The surrounding scenery makes Sweetens feel expansive and there is plenty of room on the holes that reinforce this sense of scale. At the same time, the course is quite intimate with tees, greens, and fairways intersecting at numerous points.
HOLE #1 – 563 yards – par 5
The par-5 opener is reachable for longer hitters and is a precursor for what to expect the rest of the day. Off the tee, Collins presents golfers with their first set of options – a wide open driving area on the right side (300 yards to bunker) or a riskier path to the left that yields a better approach angle but brings the tree and bunker (260 carry) into play. As you near the green, the cross bunkers create problems for the layup while the green complex is magnificent and unique. Collins employs a redan style green on the left half that becomes a punchbowl on the right. This allows players to either run up their approach or fly the ball to the pin.
HOLE #2 – 375 yards – par 4
This shortish par-4 allows the player to hit anything from a driver to a 5-iron off the tee, keeping a leary eye on what’s been dubbed the “2Pac Bunker” by Dillon Mays, a Sweetens Cove regular, because if you find yourself in it you’re dead. The pin placement on this challenging green dictates the ideal angle of attack. The green features many different sections. The front pin (which I played) allows play off a huge backstop behind it, while the back right corner has a unique bowl that favors a tee shot down the left side for the best angle.
HOLE #3 – 582 yards – par 5
The second par-5 at Sweetens Cove is a dandy. The wide landing area allows players to let one rip. The best drive is down the right side but will bring the large bunker into play. The fun starts from there as your second and third shots are dictated by a large tree that guards the challenging green. The green is very shallow from front to back but very wide from left to right. It creates unique pin positions and challenges players as they navigate the tree on their approach shots.
HOLE #4 “King” – 169 yards – par 3
The 4th hole is dubbed “King” after King Oehmig, a local legend in Chattanooga who helped Collins get the Sweetens Cove project. An Alps par-3, this is one of the most unique holes you will find anywhere. The blind shot can play anywhere from 130-190 yards.
HOLE #5 – 293 yards – par 4
The first of two reachable par-4s at Sweetens Cove, the 5th features the “Devil’s Asshole”, an extremely deep and penal bunker that guards the green. I (of course) found that special spot on my first go-round, leading to an extremely challenging second shot. Collins designed this horseshoe green to funnel balls towards the center of the green, which allows a player to run the ball up close to the pin without having to challenge the Devil’s Asshole. The 5th is a masterful little piece of strategic design.
HOLE #6 – 456 yards – par 4
A traditional Cape Hole, the 6th has a wide landing area that rewards those who can move the ball from right to left. If a player executes a draw off the tee, they will be left with a significantly shorter shot than one out to the right. The green is heavily protected with a hazard on the left and the backside bunker. The green here has a few great pin positions. The back right creates a switchback effect where an ideal shot off the tee is a draw followed by a high fade approach. The middle position requires an extremely precise shot to a small landing area. If a player misses slightly, they will find themselves in a bunker or on another tier of the green. The front position brings the water hazard into play, where a shot a little too far left will bounce and funnel further left into the hazard.
HOLE #7 – 328 yards – par 4
At this point in the round, I was thinking the course couldn’t get much better but holes 7-9 are as good of a finish as you could ask for. The 7th looks quite benign from the tee, a drivable par-4 where Collins imparts some deception with the bunker in the middle. It feels as though you want to play right or left of it, but directly over it leads to best approach to an extremely narrow green that slopes severely off the right and left side. A perfect example of the risk/reward here is my drive which ended pin high right of the green, leaving me an extremely awkward second. I decided to hit a bump-and-run which I hit too hard, rolling off the other side of the green into the left swale. From there I managed to putt the ball onto the green and two-putt for my bogey 5, after being within 40’ of the pin with my tee shot.
HOLE #8 – 387 yards – par 4
My favorite hole at Sweetens, the 8th is a par-4 that requires strategy off the tee to position yourself best for an approach to the 40-degree biarritz green that lies ahead. While the 7th rewards a straight shot, the 8th calls for a tee shot down the far right or left sides of the fairway to make your approach a more conventional one. The day I played, the pin was in the valley of the biarritz with my tee shot in position A down the right side, leaving me a wedge approach with a lot of room for error in front and behind the green. This hole and strategy is a perfect example of the genius behind Sweetens Cove. A 150-yard wide fairway allows everyone a clear shot to the green, but a well-placed tee shot will greatly enhance your likelihood of making a birdie.
HOLE #9 – 148 yards – par 3
Sweetens Cove finishes with a Macdonald template blend, a short-redan par-3, the perfect hole to settle up on a match with your playing partners. A low handicap will most likely fly the ball right to the pin, but a high handicap has the option to play a running shot that uses the slope to funnel the ball to the pin.
Unfortunately, I walked off the 9th green with a wedding to attend, disappointed that I couldn’t keep playing all day. As I reflected on my two-hour drive back to Knoxville, I thought of how Sweetens Cove was in rare air as one of my favorite golf courses because of its beautiful backdrop and world-class architecture. Each shot on the golf course presents unique challenges and multiple shot options to overcome them. Just the type of course I dream about playing from sun up to sun down. I would urge everyone to find a way to check this gem out as I didn’t regret one minute of the 4 hours I drove to see it.