SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. – When golf architect Rob Collins was hired to renovate Sequatchie Valley Golf Course, he made a vow to Bob Thomas, the owner.
“I’ll see to it you get one of the best nine-hole courses in the country,” Collins recounted as he walked the redesigned layout, now known as Sweetens Cove Golf Club. The semi-private facility will open later this month.
Collins honored his promise to Thomas, converting what he called “the worst golf course I’d ever seen” into an engaging design that recalls some of the game’s beloved layouts..
At Sweetens Cove, the hole corridors are massive – almost 100 yards wide in spots – and players can utilize the ground game throughout. Bunkers are scant, and there is no rough. The greens are huge and wild.
These qualities allow Sweetens to provide an experience common to most classic courses: a balance between being an intensely strategic test that can challenge the highly skilled player while still providing a pleasurable experience for everyone else.
“I really wanted to put something in the ground that’s completely different from anything in the Southeast U.S.,” Collins said. The result is a course where lost golf balls are rare and enjoyment is high.
This commitment to fun matches the spirit of Play 9, the USGA’s initiative to encourage participation and enjoyment of the game even when golfers don’t have time for a standard 18-hole round.
Nine-hole rounds often fit better into today’s busy lifestyles, and Sweetens Cove represents the newest venue for enjoying the format. In the United States, there are more than 3,000 nine-hole facilities – representing 21 percent of all courses – and nine-hole rounds comprise 24 percent of total rounds.
These figures indicate there are plenty of opportunities for golfers to enjoy nine-hole rounds, and courses like Sweetens Cove can help fuel the growth of the format while demonstrating that nine-hole courses offer just as much challenge, stimulation and enjoyment as 18-hole layouts.
Sweetens Cove is the first project for King Collins Golf Course Design, a partnership between Collins, the architect, and Tad King, the construction manager. But they almost never got to complete the construction.
The brief version of a long, convoluted story goes like this: Reese Thomas, son of Bob Thomas, owner and founder of Sequatchie Concrete, one of the largest producers of its kind in the country, wanted to take the existing Sequatchie Golf and Country Club, which the family owned, and turn it into something special to honor his dad. The original layout was rudimentary, with no hazards and 1,500-square-foot rectangular greens. From one side of the property to the other, the fall in elevation was one foot; it flooded regularly.
Through a series of happenstances, King Collins was hired to redo the course, and work began in 2012. Then, a disagreement in the Thomas family resulted in the project coming to a standstill. The course languished from September 2012 to August 2013 as vast swaths of turf died and bunkers washed out.
It was brought back to life when the Thomas family agreed to lease the course to a management company formed by King Collins and Ari Techner, owner of Scratch Golf, a custom club manufacturer.
Techner was stunned by what he encountered after visiting and playing Sweetens Cove.
“Walking away from there, I couldn’t imagine something so amazing was going to go back to the earth,” he said.
Techner said he initially thought nine holes should be added, but his opinion soon changed.
“I played 80-something holes in one day and never got tired of it. I was sad when it got dark and I had to leave.”
Techner approached Collins looking to help get Sweetens Cove back up and running. That’s when the partnership was formed, and they hired superintendent Michael Burrows, who previously worked at Streamsong Resort in Florida, to guide the project forward.Collins said he designed Sweetens knowing it will always be a nine-hole course, a fact he embraces.
“The wildness of the golf course is a result of it being nine holes and me wanting to do something fun and unique,” he said.
Collins also strove not to overdo it.
“You have to strike a balance between the wow factor and playability,” he said. “With wild greens, you don’t over-bunker them.”
The playing characteristics at Sweetens Cove can change dramatically from round to round. Take the par-3 fourth hole, which is modeled after the famed Himalayas hole at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland. At Sweetens, the green is an astounding 20,000 square feet. Pair that with the enormous teeing ground, and the hole can play from 80 to 200 yards.
“Variety is twice as important on a nine-hole course,” Collins said.
The plan is for Sweetens Cover to be semi-private. The public will be able to play nine holes for about $45, and according to Collins, the recruitment of founding members is underway.
Collins is aware that the boldness and distinct nature of the design may be a jarring experience for some. He has faith in his creation.
“If people give it a chance,” Collins said, “it’s the kind of thing that will bring you back.”
Anthony Pioppi is based in Middletown, Conn. A paperback version of his book, To the Nines, a celebration of nine-hole golf courses, is scheduled to be published in spring 2015.