Revisiting the Sweetens Cove story and a 2016 conversation with architect Rob Collins of King-Collins Golf Course Design
Election Day in 2016 now seems like a lifetime ago. After watching election returns that night from an Atlanta hotel, I hit the road early the next morning to make a much anticipated jaunt to Sweetens Cove. Fellow geeks had been lauding the course—the architecture of Rob Collins and Tad King as well as the unique vibe—and my lucky day had finally arrived. What I found, making loops with Rob and Patrick Boyd, was a confirmation of the special character of Sweetens Cove, and the men who had devoted themselves to its creation and survival. As a follow-up, Rob shared his story and that of the course in the interview and tour below.
Much has changed in the world and in South Pittsburg, TN since that day. Dylan Dethier’s New York Times article in August, 2017, among other media coverage, brought national attention to Sweetens Cove, and with it, an influx of pilgrims seeking their own awakening. The vast majority have enthusiastically reported that the course delivered a fun and creative version of the game that fanned the flames of their passion for golf.
Among those converts were two guys named Peyton and Andy, who have become partners in the venture, setting it on a path to an even more exciting next phase. King-Collins Golf Course Design has also seen a change in its fortunes. After a false start at The Buck Club, the duo have created another 9-holer in NY, and are hard at work making their own modern statement on the Nebraska sandhills. New projects continue to fill their pipeline.
While Sweetens Cove certainly has a cult following, to write off its success as merely a novelty fueled by golf-Twitter hipsters is to breeze over its depth. Those who have followed Rob’s work, or who have been lucky enough to meet him, know that he is not just talented. He is authentically good. Sweetens Cove is an eclectic blend of strategic, heroic and penal design, with a heaping helping of visual flare on top. It is a course that could be played every day without a hint of repetitiveness. What makes it truly great though is not only what it is, but the delta between what it was and what it has become. A flat, lifeless mud-pit of a course has been transformed into a golf geeks’ amusement park. Look beneath the surface, and one finds the powerful parallels between the making of the Sweetens Cove, and the hard-fought birth of its architect’s career.
It is worth revisiting Rob’s story and that of the course at this point. The attendant tour contrasts the before, during and after perspectives on each hole. The designers words are complemented by a mix of photography from Jon Cavalier (@linksgems), Rob (@KingCollinsGolf) and me, illustrating the many moods of Sweetens Cove. The variety of colors and contrasts are among the many ingredients that keep a steady stream of devotees coming back for more.
One of the Good Guys
The interview that follows is presented with minimal modification to Rob’s answers from November, 2016. His answers still demonstrate his thoughtfulness and passion.
How did you get introduced to golf?
I played golf for the first time as an 11 year old with my Dad. At that time in my life, we only played a few times a year. It was nothing more than a minor hobby in my early years.
When did you know that the game had a hold on you?
I decided to try out for my high school team my senior year. At the time, I was an absolutely horrible player, but I enjoyed the sport and I thought I might have a shot at making the team. As it turned out, our team was so bad that I was able to squeeze in at the six spot. Playing on a more regular schedule helped build my interest in the game. As I started to see some marginal improvement, I began to like it more and more.
After my freshman year in college, I was invited to go on a trip to St. Andrews. By that time, I was really enjoying the game, and was primed to fall in love with it. Our loops on the Old & New Courses, along with watching the first three rounds of the Open Championship at Turnberry, solidified my addiction to the game.
How did you get into the business?
I started in the graduate landscape architecture program at Mississippi State in 2002 with the intention of using that degree to help me get into the field of course architecture. In 2004, I was hired by Rick Robbins as an intern, an opportunity for which I will be forever grateful. I learned a great deal from Rick and his team, and I was fortunate to transition that into a design coordinator role with Gary Player Design.
Who is your favorite Golden Age architect, and why?
That is a very difficult question, but I think I would have to go with MacKenzie. His writings have had a huge influence on me. Not only do I love his artistic flair and adherence to strategic principles in the design and construction process, but his willingness to cut against the grain of conventional wisdom appeals strongly to me on a personal level. His twelfth green at Sitwell Park exemplifies his brilliance, self-confidence, and one-of-a-kind flair for the dramatic, and his words in defense of his work amount to my all-time favorite golf architecture quote:
“I have got accustomed to measuring the ultimate popularity of a hole or course by the amount of criticism it gives rise to in the first instance…It is 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.”
Who has had the most influence on you, both inside and outside of golf?
I think I have to start with the people who first believed in me. Rick Robbins gave me my first job in course architecture. Also, Frank Henegan from Gary Player Design brought me into their organization. I learned a tremendous amount about the design and construction process from both him and his colleague, Jeff Lawrence, a Senior Designer with GPD. Also, I would be remiss not to mention my partner, Tad King. Not only is Tad one of the most talented shaper/finishers anywhere, but he is also a master of managing the construction and grow-in of golf courses. His common sense and streamlined construction methodology has had a massive influence on me, and his approach provides the basis for much of the philosophical component upon which King-Collins was founded.
What should every owner/Green Committee member learn before breaking ground on a golf construction project?
There is another way! You don’t need to hire a contractor to build the course, and for God’s sake, keep the consultants and so-called experts as far away from the project as possible. It is all too common in the golf world for unnecessary expenditures to be passed off to the client by self-interested parties under the guise of obtaining a quality result. Tad and I have both seen it firsthand, and we believe firmly that one of the biggest problems facing the game and golf construction, more specifically, is overinflated construction costs. When courses cost too much to build, people who would otherwise build golf will look in other directions for how to spend their money when developing land. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to recoup the initial investment if the golf course construction budget spirals out of hand. Furthermore, inflated green’s fees result from uncontrolled expenditures, which obviously make the game less accessible to the general public. In sum, less golf gets built AND the game costs more to play when costs aren’t controlled.
We believe, and I think that Sweetens Cove is living proof, that our method not only works, but that it is the best method for designing and building golf courses. Simply put, we are able to maintain quality and artistic control over all aspects of the course while keeping costs to a minimum. Here are a few prime examples:
During the Sweetens Cove construction, Tad and I visited another course that was also undergoing a renovation. Both Sweetens Cove and this other course were using the same sand to cap the fairways. We were told during one visit by the contractor’s project superintendent that they would no longer be using the sand because it had failed in testing and grass wouldn’t grow on it. 419 Bermuda, which will grow across a cart path, wouldn’t grow in this sand according to that job’s contractor! Think about how idiotic that is and what the consequences were for the client:
- They had a mountain of sand, which they were told they could no longer use. This amounted to a huge waste of resources, time, and money.
- They actually paid money to a lab and a consultant to acquire those results.
The end result is that they spent more money to go slower with zero improvement in quality. Those kinds of situations occur all of the time and the cost of decisions like that can be astronomical. As an aside, the fairways at Sweetens Cove, which were planted in the nonconforming sand, are perfect.
The second example that comes to mind is related to a project that we were hired for in the Canadian Rockies. Unfortunately, the Montane Club was never built, but we put together a $4.9M budget on a piece of land that had previously been budgeted by a former touring pro, signature architect at $1M/hole. With the signature architect’s army of consultants and a golf contractor on site, the project easily would have spiraled upwards of $25M. Had it been built, how would the client have recouped these costs? Unfortunately, stories like these repeat themselves over and over, every day all around the world of golf construction.
So, to answer your question directly, I would encourage all green committee members, owners, clients, etc. to educate themselves about construction costs and work hard to discern what costs are necessary and which ones are not. After that, they should call us (half kidding, sort of…ok, not really kidding at all).
How has your commitment to creative collaboration in the field impacted your work?
First, the design / build method, which we employ, is the best way to build golf. Golf courses are built in the field, not on a desk 1,000 miles from the site. The best decision I ever made in my career occurred right out of graduate school. I had two opportunities. One was with the Player Group as an on-site design coordinator, which would immerse me in the daily routine of a construction process or as a CAD/office designer for a competing firm. While I was hugely grateful for both offers, I chose to go with the offer from Player, and I am thankful every day that I made that decision. Not only did I fall in love with the construction process, but I learned the fundamentals of how to build a golf course and the degree to which construction and design are intertwined. So, the process of collaboration in the field forms the basis for my work. Every great golf course in recent memory has been built using the design/build method, and Tad and I formed our company on the belief that we could deliver elite quality with a reduced price using that approach.
How did you get involved with the Sweetens Cove project?
I was referred to the project by King Oehmig. I was desperate to remain involved with architecture after the economic collapse in ‘08, and King was spearheading the Gil Hanse project at Sewanee. I approached him to see if I could get involved up there, and he said he would be happy to help. He took it a step further and referred me to my client who was looking to do something with their nine-hole course, Sequatchie Valley G&CC, which would ultimately be rebranded as Sweetens Cove Golf Club after the renovation.
What place do you see courses like Sweetens Cove having in the future of the game?
I think they will be extremely important. The days of spending an entire weekend at the local club only to show up at home on Sunday night are long gone. A lot of people don’t have time for an eighteen hole round, and quality courses of alternative lengths will be increasingly important for the game as it works to stay relevant and expand. Furthermore, Sweetens Cove operates on a budget that is a fraction of your typical maintenance budget, but it delivers high quality conditions thanks to the tireless efforts of the staff and the design of the course. Finally, I think Sweetens Cove is a prime example of how you can have fascinating and engaging playing scenarios on a site that, at first glance, didn’t seem like it could possibly yield good golf. I believe that the notion that great golf cannot be derived from an inferior site is a flawed one. If anything, Sweetens Cove proves that you don’t need eighteen holes or a good site to create a great golf course. On top of that, an outsized maintenance budget isn’t needed either. If there were more courses like Sweetens Cove and fewer courses like (fill in the blank), the world would be a better place.
What is your favorite part of a golf course to design? To build?
I love bunker construction, but the most fascinating part of construction comes at the greens. Our goal is always to match the green contours to the strategy of the hole. Ideally, I want players to be considering the slope and contour of the green surfaces and their surrounds while they are on the tee. If you can get people to do that, then I think your work has been very effective. Essentially, we want to provide ground for endless shotmaking and strategic scenarios to unfold. Working to create that in the field is a thrill.
What do you love about practicing your craft?
I love the reward that comes with seeing things unfold. It starts with an idea and then it evolves a little more each day. That evolutionary process is what gets me excited. At Sweetens Cove, we kept turning it up and turning it up. It was so much fun to obsess over and refine the minutest of details on the course. Ultimately, a golf course is a sum of its parts, and it was our goal to pack Sweetens Cove with micro details across the entirety of the property. We never placed one detail in importance over another. For example, the edgework on the back side of an island in a part of a massive bunker that nobody was ever going to see was equally as important as the edgework on the flashiest, most highly visible bunker.
With that approach, you are guaranteed to have a course full of highly personalized details when it is complete. That is how you get that attitude and character in a course that you can feel but you can’t quite put your finger on. The best courses do that, and I am most proud of that aspect of Sweetens Cove. Nothing was overlooked and nothing was taken for granted. That is why a nine-hole course in a flood plain in rural Tennessee has received massive amounts of publicity and attention. None of that happened by accident. Instead it was a result of untold countless, thankless hours of labor when no one was watching. Looking back on that effort and seeing what we have today fills me with desire to go out and do it again. We love the creative process, and we are ready for #2.
What courses are at the top of your hit list to see or play next?
There are so many that it is impossible to come up with an adequate list, but here are a few off of the top of my head:
Crystal Downs, Old Town, Prairie Dunes, Maidstone, Shoreacres, Chicago, Seminole….and, I would like to wave a magic wand and take a three month trip to GBI to travel and explore the endless options there. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening, but it would be great if it did.
When you are not working or playing golf, what are you doing?
I have six and eleven year old daughters so my wife and I spend most of our time outside of work juggling parenting responsibilities.
The Sweetens Cove Story
In the summer of 2010, I was desperately searching for a way back into golf architecture. I had heard that Gil Hanse had been hired to renovate the golf course at Sewanee, which happened to by my alma mater. I asked around and found out that a graduate of the Seminary School at Sewanee and a local golfing legend, King Oehmig, was heading up the project. Via Mark Stovall, the former superintendent of Lookout Mountain, I was placed in touch with King. In May 2010, he wrote me this note as part of an email chain about the Sewanee project:
PS: I do know that Mr. Bob Thomas, the proprietor of Sequatchie Concrete Company, who is a Sewanee Alum, has just bought a little course right outside of Kimball, TN, the Sequatchie Country Club. Right now, it needs a lot of work; I would suggest that you contact Bob, and you can tell him that I suggested that you call him about possibly helping him with fixing it up. Thanks. – KO
Reading back through that old email brings back a flood of memories: my internal feeling of desperation about returning to golf architecture, my hope for getting involved with the Sewanee project, the VERY early days of King-Collins, and my gratitude toward King for suggesting me to Mr. Thomas. Reading it now makes it hard to believe that over six years of my life have gone into this project.
Soon after King’s recommendation, we began a discussion with the Thomas family about possibly renovating the Sequatchie Valley G&CC. We were eventually hired in March of 2011 for the job, and Tad and I were extremely excited to have the opportunity to put our ideas into the ground. We brought in Gus Grantham to be lead shaper on the project, construction commenced on June 2, 2011 and the course was grassed out a year later in June of 2012.
The golf course, which only had one foot of fall across the entire property sits in a flood plain near Battle Creek. In addition to having extremely minimal drainage, the site sits on heavy clay soils. We, therefore, had a massive task ahead of us if the resulting work was to have even a modest level of playing interest. First and foremost, we had to devise a way to drain every drop of water off of the property while creating highly interesting golfing features. In the end, we moved about 300,000 cubic yards of dirt & installed fifteen (15) miles of drain pipe. I am very proud of the fact that we did all of this “in house” while building the course for a fraction of the cost of a typical project. In addition to the earthworks, the site was capped with approximately 4” of sand, which has been wonderful for helping us maintain firm and fast conditions across the property.
My overall vision for the project going in was to create an inland links that borrowed lessons from some of my favorite places in golf: Pinehurst #2, TOC, Tobacco Road, North Berwick, the 1932 version of Augusta National, and others. However, I had no interest in playing copycat. It was very important to me that the course have its own unique flair while still grasping the core lessons at the heart of the aforementioned greats. Essentially, I wanted to take the things that I liked in architecture, put them in a blender and come up with a concoction that would hopefully remind others of places they had seen or been but with a degree of uniqueness that would ideally leave one feeling as though they had found a true original. Those qualities are not something that you can plan for in the office. To the contrary, the highly personalized details only rise out of the ground through intensive site work. The long, thankless hours that we spent fashioning the course are something of which I am very proud. There were countless opportunities to mail it in or walk away from the project entirely, but we never did. I think that our unwavering commitment to it shines through in one’s playing experience, an aspect of Sweetens Cove that elevates it over most.
After grassing was complete, the course remained under the umbrella of our client’s various business interests until August 2013. They made an internal decision to return the focus of their business solely toward concrete manufacturing, and I was approached about the possibility of leasing the property from Sequatchie Concrete. Given the level of commitment that I had exhibited to the course, I was a natural fit, and as a result, I enthusiastically began the search for a like-minded partner. Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2013 when I received a call out of the blue from Mark Stovall that Ari Techner & Patrick Boyd, partners in Scratch Golf, were interested in touring the course. As always, I was pleased to show it to any interested parties, and soon after that visit, Ari & I embarked on a quest to launch Sweetens Cove. We were able to get a signed lease in the spring of 2014, and the course officially opened in October 2014. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be an owner/operator of a golf course, but my intoxicating relationship with Sweetens Cove would not allow me to see it return to nature. It’s an interesting wrinkle in the saga that Mark Stovall was the linchpin for the entire project in that he originally connected me to the project via King Oehmig and also introduced me to my future partner who would help me save it.
Following are some of my thoughts behind the architecture of the course and the backstory of the construction of each hole.
Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions
HOLE #1 – 563 yards – par 5
I think I struggled with the design of this hole more than any other. I had a number of different ideas about the design for the green complex, before settling on the current version, which has a reverse redan tilt set inside a punchbowl. The green itself is protected front and center by a deep and foreboding hazard, which was nicknamed the “Mitre Bunker” by Sweetens Cove GM, Patrick Boyd. Like the rest of the course, the original hole was dead flat with a pond, which we were not allowed to touch, near the landing area on the right side. To complicate matters, water from the mountain on the left side of the hole would pour onto the first fairway during rain events via culverts buried under Sweetens Cove Road. After the left side was cleared of its excessive trees and underbrush, Gus, Tad, and I embarked on a plan to create a thrilling opening hole that would remain dry. Given the existing site conditions, this was an extraordinarily difficult task.
Nowhere was the moniker for the original course “Squishy Valley” more apt than on the first hole. During the original rough shaping of the hole, long buried golf balls were bouncing off of the blade of the dozer. In order to prevent water from draining onto the hole, the entire left side of the hole was built up, and water from the mountain and road are now captured prior to reaching the course. Additional drainage was installed throughout the fairway, and like all of the other holes, the fairway was capped with roughly 4-6” of sand.
Regarding the strategy, and overall look, I think that the first does a good job of introducing players to many of the themes that they will see during the round at Sweetens Cove. The tee and approach shots both allow for multiple routes of play, and the heavily contoured green welcomes well played running and aerial shots. Most importantly, Sweetens Cove never dictates to players exactly how to navigate the terrain. Instead, golfers are left to choose their own path, with each respective route providing its own unique challenge and set of options.
HOLE #2 – 375 yards – par 4
In a pure construction sense, the second at Sweetens Cove is one of the most important holes on the course. While the second hole at the original Sequatchie Valley was also a drainage nightmare, it offered an opportunity to simultaneously handle the water on a large swath of the property while creating much needed fill material for construction. The original hole was a long, straightaway par four of approximately 440 yards. When the first green was moved back toward the property line, the second tees shifted forward. Even with this change, we were still left with a massive dead space in front of the tees. In order to handle the drainage on the second hole and the second half of the first hole, we dug a large lake near the tee complex. I was adamant that most players not be forced to carry the water on the tee shot. As a result, I angled the lake away from the line of play from the blue tees forward and into the massive dead area behind the seventh green. Fill from this lake was used for shaping and to gain much needed elevation on the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth holes.
On the tee, the primary goal is to miss the deep, centrally located pot bunker, which has been nicknamed “Tupac” by a Sweetens Cove regular. The ideal line of play on most shots is from the small patch of ground adjacent to his bunker and the right-hand bunker, which is approximately thirty yards closer to the green. From this angle, players will not be forced to deal directly with the very strong contour along the left side of the green. As with all greens at Sweetens, there are many different potential pin locations. Perhaps the easiest and most fun pin is in the bowl in the front of the green, a lobe of the green which came close to never existing. When the green was originally shaped, it was about 25% smaller. I couldn’t get comfortable with that iteration, and we kept pulling out the front portion of the green until that pin location was created. I think that change took the green from good to great, and is an example of why it is so important to maintain artistic control on a project. Had we settled on the earlier version, it would’ve been fine but nowhere near as good as what is there today. The most difficult pin, by contrast, is the far left location.
As all of the greens at Sweetens are surrounded by tightly mown shortgrass, the bold contours along the front left and left side of the green can repel indifferent efforts on the approach. This green complex is as good an example as any of how short grass can at once open up a Pandora’s Box of terrible outcomes while at the same time provide unlimited shotmaking options. Short grass simply has a way of delivering a level of awe and fear that many ‘typical’ hazards can’t approach. The multifaceted nature of tightly mown turf has always fascinated me, and the second green complex, which is defended only by contour and the speed of the surrounds, fully immerses players in the shotmaking possibilities at Sweetens Cove.
HOLE #3 – 582 yards – par 5
The third hole is the second par five on the layout and the first real taste of how we utilized dead space on the Sequatchie Valley layout by tying the golf holes together. One of my favorite things about Sweetens Cove is how the holes relate to and complement one another. Prior to construction, the majority of the 72 acre site was covered with a monochromatic carpet of bermudagrass. Now, waste areas and large swaths of native plants add texture and complexity to the layout. The waste area which borders the right side of the fairway serves as a way to add strategic and visual interest, and negates the dead space that previously existed between the third and fifth holes.
During construction, the first half of the hole was raised slightly in order to ease drainage. All water from the tee to the central bunker drains to the pond by the fifth and sixth holes, and the second half of the hole drains to the pond behind the green. At the green, I really wanted to do something different with the strategy, and I chose to leave a lone Oak tree in the center of the approach. This tree and the location of the pin on the massive green impact decision making on the tee. If the pin is left, you have to come in from the left side of the fairway, and conversely, if it is on the right, it is wise to favor that side of the fairway on approach. If the pin is behind the tree, it is generally easier to approach from the right side, but the tree and the shaping of the green complex present the golfer with a host of options: intentionally play to the left or right of the tree with the intent of using the contours to funnel the ball toward the hole or play over the tree.
The green itself is divided into sections by large rolls. From the right side, the 10,000 square foot surface of the green has the appearance of a waterfall tumbling down a slope, and all pinnable areas can be reached by playing away from the hole with the intent of laying the ball dead at the hole after it rolls out along the bold contours. The third is the first truly wild green at Sweetens, and it serves in many ways as a primer for what lays ahead during one’s round. Thematically, the third fits with the rest of the golf course in that it is a terrific match play hole where eagle and birdie are achievable, but the short grass, contours, and hazards can conspire to deliver a firm punishment for anyone out of position.
HOLE #4 (King) – 169 yards – par 3
There is only one hole at Sweetens Cove that has a name on the scorecard. The fourth was aptly dubbed “King” after King Oehmig, the man who referred me to the project, in addition to providing the design inspiration for the hole.
When I first toured the site with King in July 2010, he remarked, “Rob, it would be so cool if you could find a place out here to build a Himalayas hole.” As a fellow lover of classic, quirky architecture, I wholeheartedly agreed with his proclamation, and I set out to find the spot to make his vision a reality. During one of my subsequent visits, I came upon the spot where the current fourth resides. The fourth green was tucked into a small corner at the edge of the current fourth hole. Adjacent to the miniature green was a large open area that could easily accommodate a first rate Himalayas hole. During construction, we used dirt from the lake excavation to create the ridge that runs between the tee complex and the massive 20,000 square foot green.
The green itself is 87 yards deep, and the hole can play totally blind, partially blind, or 100% visible depending upon the tee and pin location. It’s not uncommon to play the hole at 110 yards completely blind on one day and visible and 210 the next. I think the unlimited combination of pin and tee locations, along with the heavily contoured, serpentine green, makes the hole a fascinating challenge from day to day. In the sense of pure variety, fun, shotmaking options, and ability to change complexion from one round to the next, the fourth probably embodies the true spirit of Sweetens Cove more than any other on the course. Along with being great fun to detail, the massive waste hazard, which was built into the ridge, provides a sense of visual and strategic continuity with much of the rest of the course.
HOLE #5 – 293 yards – par 4
Drivable par fours are my favorite type of hole, and I knew that we had a great opportunity to do something special when we first laid out the concept for the fifth. There was no interesting terrain to work off of, but we had all the width that we needed to create a highly unique, option-filled short par four. I felt early on that the third, fourth, and fifth holes were the heart of Sweetens Cove. I’ve always liked that they represent three different pars, and the natural ebb and flow of the routing adds emotional depth to the layout. As you come off of the challenging fourth, which can play up to 210 yards, you are greeted with a drivable hole of only 283 yards. Along with multiple eagles, I have scored everything up to a ten on the hole. At its widest point, the fairway is 100 yards wide, and the boomerang green gives the hole loads of variety in possible pin placements.
On the tee, the key feature to avoid is the ten foot deep greenside bunker that is partially bordered with railway sleepers. I absolutely love what this hazard does to the player psychologically. While not large in physical size, it is guaranteed to weigh heavily on the minds of all players on the tee. The extremely penal nature of the hazard means that multiple shots to clear its depths are not uncommon. Additionally, the bunker plays larger than it looks as some of the greenside and surrounding contours will help funnel balls toward the sand. Finally, we paid extra attention in the finish to the contours around the bunker, which will allow the clever player who is stymied by the bunker to play away from the flag along the ground in an effort to lay the ball dead at the hole. One of my favorite memories of my time at Sweetens Cove involved this exact scenario. I watched a player that could not have had a handicap lower than 36 approach the green from about fifty yards away toward the pin tucked directly behind the bunker. With his hybrid in hand, he topped a ball that looked as if it would be gobbled up by the bunker. Instead, he caught the perfect contour and his ball rolled around the perimeter of the hazard and rolled to within a foot of the flag. It was an extraordinary thrill to see the contours that we had labored over help produce such a miraculous shot!
One of our members at Sweetens Cove had a similarly heroic shot this summer when he aced the hole with a three wood. Similar to the previous example, the pin was behind the pot bunker, and his shot, which carried long and right of the hazard, ran up on the strong back right ‘catcher’s mitt’ contour, took a hard left turn, and rolled fifty feet into the bottom of the cup. These types of playing scenarios are what make the course so special, and it never ceases to give me great pleasure when I hear a new story about someone’s shotmaking. Ultimately, the fact that success and failure reside in such close quarters is what makes the fifth a timelessly entertaining hole.
HOLE #6 – 456 yards – par 4
The natural ebb and flow of a good routing demands that there be a handful of highly challenging holes, and the sixth at Sweetens Cove fits that mold. A long cape hole, which plays over 450 yards from the tips, this two shotter can wreck a good scorecard with one slight misstep. I also love that the sixth is sandwiched on either side by short par fours. The psychological pull of feeling as though one needs to hang on and get through the hole without falling prone to disaster can weigh on the player. Those who are unsuccessful will find a sliver of hope with the knowledge that the possibility of redemption awaits later in the round.
Overall, the design of the sixth is fairly simple in that it uses the strategy of the cape hole design template. However, I wanted to do something different at the green. Whereas many cape holes have a kidney shaped green that hugs the water, I wanted to have a large part of the green run away from the water. In order to get the unique angle, shape, and contour right, we ended up wearing the dirt out here a little bit. In the end, though, I am really pleased with the way the hole turned out. The green has the far left, nearly impossible “Sunday” pin along with easier pins on the right and middle of the green.
The transitions and rolls throughout the green can at times complicate matters on the approach or provide the option to play away from certain locations while keeping the ball on the ground with the intent to use contour to get the ball near the hole. This is particularly true on the lower shelf, which is bisected by a strong roll. The clever player can use this feature to aim the ball away from the water while trying to get the ball close to the far left pins. The roll also adds complexity to shots that approach middle pins. Slightly pulled or short shots to the middle pins can be shed away by the same contour that may have helped you on previous rounds. Again, we see an instance of elasticity in the greens, a core component of how a golf course can provide sustained interest round after round. One of the more difficult pins on the green is, ironically, the one furthest from the water. There is a small, upper shelf, which is most easily accessed through the air, one of the few shots at Sweetens that has that characteristic. Overall, the hole requires precision and excellent ball striking to avoid bogey or worse.
HOLE #7 – 328 yards – par 4
Prior to construction, the seventh and eighth holes were by far the worst back to back par fours that I had ever seen. The two holes were bisected by an open concrete ditch, and the playing corridor of the seventh was choked down in size by trees along the right side of the fairway. On a golf course riddled with poor turf quality, the ground on the seventh, especially near the open ditch, was barren. While each hole had its challenges, I am most proud of what our team accomplished on seven and eight.
The two holes combined cover an area approximately 350 yards long by 150 yards wide. Our primary challenge lay in how to drain every square inch of this acreage without importing any fill material. This was accomplished by cutting into the ground and using the generated material for shaping. All low areas were drained to the ditch, which was covered with concrete slabs to support the earth that was pushed over its top. By taking this approach, we were able to rid the holes of the overly penal and immensely unattractive ditch while, at the same time, providing the necessary width to create the ground where endlessly varied playing scenarios could unfold.
While it is certainly not apparent upon first glance, the strategy of the hole is similar to that of the fourth at Pebble Beach, one of my favorite holes at the famous Links. On both holes, wide fairways greet the player, but the ideal angle of attack is from the far right side. At Sweetens Cove, this strategic dilemma is set up by the placement of the bunkers in relation to the angle of the tee shot and the direction of the central axis of the green. At Pebble Beach, players need to challenge the cliff along the right side of the hole to gain the best angle to the tiny green. Frightening bunkers flank both sides of the narrow putting surface, making any approach from the far left side of the fairway extremely difficult. I have been fortunate to play the hole several times, and my only scoring catastrophe there occurred after a tee shot that ended up on the far left side of the fairway, which forced me to approach the green over the left greenside bunker and from an angle that is perpendicular to the central axis of the green. From that position, the margin of error is finite, and absolute precision is required in order to achieve par, a dynamic that I absolutely love on a short par four.
Unlike the fourth at Pebble, the seventh green at Sweetens is bunkerless, and the extremely strong fall-off contours on the right and left side make approach from anywhere but the ideal sliver of fairway extremely difficult. With the tightly mown shortgrass of the surrounds, it is not uncommon for scores to balloon around this green, which may be the most devilish on the course. In fact, we have an inside joke at Sweetens that the seventh is the hardest 310 yard par five in America. In spite of its difficulty, the shortgrass around the domed green is a far more interesting hazard than bunkering, in my opinion, because it provides the opportunity for a greater number of players to attempt and find success with difficult recovery shots. It is essentially impossible for a 20+ handicap to have a chance to get up and down out of a difficult bunker, whereas even the worst players can keep the ball on the ground leaving open the possibility that their ball will wind up near the hole.
I should also mention that one of my favorite hazards on the course is the large bunker on the seventh, also known as “Dan’s Bunker,” which was named after the Coore & Crenshaw associate, Dan Proctor, who provided early assistance with bunker construction on the seventh, eighth, and ninth holes. The intricately detailed hazard is a terrific example of the bunkers at Sweetens, which were intensely labored over during every stage of construction.
HOLE #8 – 387 yards – par 4
Given that the seventh and eighth are parallel par fours of a similar length which occupy the same fairway, there was a danger that we could get repetitive in this part of the course. This potentially negative outcome was on my mind as I thought through design for the eighth hole. In contrast with the previous hole, the double plateau green at the eighth is massive, coming in at approximately 12,500 square feet. With wildly different outcomes and shotmaking scenarios possible with each hole location, it is imperative that the player identify the proper angle of approach. For nearly all hole locations, the far left or far right side of the fairway is best.
Central bunkering and a few scattered trees add drama on the tee shot. Even though the fairway is 150 yards wide, I find that this tee shot is one of the most unsettling on the course. From the tee, the area to the right of the centerline bunker appears to be much narrower than it is in reality. This visual deception creates indecision in my mind and a sense of unease on the tee. Conversely, the far left side of the fairway can be tricky to reach because of the large oak that we left during construction. Also, any balls that take the left-hand route off the tee risk winding up in one of the central bunkers if the tee shot is pushed.
Prior to construction, the fairway narrowed to approximately twenty yards wide between the ditch on the left and a large grove of pines on the right, a scenario that is hard to picture given the current realities on the ground. Without the tree removal and the ability to cover the ditch, the hole would’ve been unrecoverable. As it is now, it presents a wild variety of shotmaking options on approach and recovery, and the extreme width of the hole allows golfers of all skill levels to choose their own route to the pin.
The green, which is one of the largest on the course, is also one of the most severely contoured. It is often, fairly, called a sideways Biarritz green. While it was not my intention going into construction to design and build a green of this style, the end product is a result of our approach to the process. I explained to Gus, our shaper, that I wanted a double plateau with a large, central roll fronting the green. I trusted Gus’s immense talent and let him take a stab at putting something cool in the ground. Given that it was only our second green to build, we were very early on in the construction process. What Gus shaped blew me away and solidified my belief that we were well on our way to delivering something exceptional at Sweetens Cove. I think the evolution of this green perfectly encapsulates our approach to field work. Had I shackled Gus and not believed in his innate abilities, the green wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is. I think that designers need to grip the job firmly enough to have control but loosely enough to let uniquely artistic features unfold. In the end, if the green hadn’t fit my eye, it would’ve been changed, but the point is that you have to have a certain level of trust to let things unfold naturally. The key is in laying out a vision and trusting the people with whom you are working to help you deliver. At Sweetens Cove, we didn’t have a lot of personnel, but the ones that we did have were immensely talented and capable of creating unique and memorable golf holes.
As a penultimate hole on a course designed for match play, I am very fond of the ability of the eighth to unveil both heroic and disastrous play. With a very wide range of potential scores in play, golfers embroiled in a tight match will feel nervous with the lead and optimistic playing from behind, a psychological dynamic key to all great match play venues.
HOLE #9 – 148 yards – par 3
Like everywhere else on the course, there was nothing remarkable about the ground at the ninth hole prior to construction. In fact, the old ninth green was bizarrely located underneath the tree that borders the left side of the current first. The one natural feature that we did have to work with on the entire course was the hill leading from the clubhouse site to the valley floor. By locating the tee behind the eighth and benching the green into the hillside beneath the clubhouse site, we had the bones of a thrilling finishing hole. All that was left to do was to shape a 10,000 square foot redan / short hybrid green and construct and detail a two acre waste hazard that would provide the necessary angle and visual drama for a highly unique par three finish.
One of my favorite aspects of the course is that it ends on a one-shotter. All of the match play drama that can build over the preceding holes can come down to a 130 yard short iron shot. As I mentioned before, each hole at Sweetens Cove has a wide gap in potential outcomes and scores, and it could be argued that the ninth has the widest gap of all. To date, the hole has seen an extraordinarily disproportionate number of holes in one, and the dreaded “other” is never too far away. Fifteen aces have been registered since we opened two years ago, and none were more exciting than the ones that occurred during the Mack Cunningham Baylor Preview Golf Tournament in August. We hosted thirty of the best female high school players from around the state, and the fireworks at the ninth on the final day of the tournament put the design of the home hole on full display. Early on the second day of the tournament, two sophomores playing in the same group beat seventeen million to one odds to record back to back aces. Not to be outdone, Ashley Gilliam carded a hole in one on her final swing of the day to give her team a one stroke victory in the tournament – a walk off ace!
During the planning stages and construction, we imagined that it would be possible for that type of drama to occur on our home hole, but what I witnessed that day was beyond my wildest imagination. Unlike many one shot holes, this hole presents a variety of options on the tee shot. You can play away from the far left flags by using the giant redan kick plate to bring the ball around to the hole, or the bold golfer can choose to fly directly at the flag. When the pin is on the middle tier of the green, the hole plays much more like a traditional short. By marrying two of the most iconic par three designs into one on hole, I think we created one of the most unique, entertaining, and vexing one-shotters anywhere.
Another great aspect of the ninth is the elevated nature of the green, which allows golfers to see the entire complex with its highly visual bunkering from every hole on the property. During construction, I realized that this visual reality is similar to the auditory trigger that one has when they are approaching a big rapid on a rafting trip. Analogous to the sound of a roaring river, the dominating visual presence of the ninth is a constant companion for the golfer. You know that drama and exacting shotmaking await you in the future and are fully aware that in order to complete your round successfully, you will eventually have to face that harrowing final shot. The sense of anticipation for that moment adds to the drama of the final shot.
I think the hole is a perfect ending to one’s round at Sweetens. It presents a variety of options, and thematically, the ninth is another unique take on classically inspired golf architecture motifs.
Sweetens Cove has become a hit because it is a wonder. Years ago, it might have been reasonable to doubt that Rob Collins and Tad King would ever have the opportunity to prove that they could do it again. Now, the self-confidence that Collins has always carried inside is manifesting more projects in the ground. The hits just keep on coming.
Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf