Sweetens Cove Golf Club in rural southeast Tennessee might be golf’s unlikeliest story in the Twenty-First Century: a truly world-class golf course, born from an abandoned, dead-flat goat track in a flood plain in South Pittsburg, Tenn., that staved off financial ruin thanks to — of all the things in the world — an Internet cult following and a feature in the New York Times. The golf course has been the subject of lavish praise since it opened in 2014; it is the rare place that deserves every word of that praise — it’s that good. Sweetens Cove’s designer and biggest advocate is architect Rob Collins, who grew up around Chattanooga, Tenn., and studied at Sewanee and Mississippi State.
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LYING FOUR: Is it weird being a folk hero of the golf Internet?
ROB COLLINS: Yeah, it is a weird feeling. It was not by design. A lot of it was the circumstance of everything that happened with Sweetens Cove and our ability to stick with it and deliver this golf course that’s not supposed to be there. It just kinda happened. It definitely wasn’t by design.
LYING FOUR: What’s your favorite hole at Sweetens?
ROB COLLINS: No. 5 is my favorite hole. I always kinda make a “Sophie’s choice” joke at this point, but No. 5 encapsulates Sweetens probably more than any other hole. It’s a very strategic hole. You’ve got a chance to do anything from a two to a 10 on it. It’s one that can just absolutely tear you apart or can reward you. It’s got a wild green and some other cool stuff going on, and you’ve got to change your area that you come in from every time, depending on where the pin is. And I’m a sucker for short par 4s.
LYING FOUR: I love the story of how you came up with No. 1.
ROB COLLINS: Yeah, I was really struggling on what to do on No. 1, and I went through a few different ideas for what to do on the green complex and the strategy of the golf hole. I just couldn’t get comfortable with anything. And then I was laid up for a few days with a really bad fever, and I was laying in bed and sort of had this fever vision of this crazy punchbowl-reverse Redan green complex with a big bunker in front. I think I texted Gus, the shaper, and said, “I got it! I figured it out!” He made it happen. That was one of those greens that, the moment he built it, you just knew how good it was gonna be.
LYING FOUR: My first round at Sweetens, I thinned my iron shot into that green. So after I cursed, it flew over the green, rolled about halfway up that back, and then fed back to about four feet from the hole. And I remember thinking, “Oh, this is gonna be that kind of golf course!”
ROB COLLINS: That’s one of those things — Sweetens Cove can either give and it can take away. That’s definitely a green complex that probably gives more than it takes away. It may look really intimidating from the fairway, but it’s a lot easier than it looks. The best shot that I’ve ever seen at the golf course was on that hole. It was back in the summer of 2016, when we had a quarter-inch of rain in a month, in August. And Graylyn Loomis from Links Magazine hit this putt from in front of the green that went way up on the lefthand side and just went forever — it seemed like it took about 45 seconds for the shot to develop. And it finally trickled down just a few inches from the hole, way down on the righthand side. It was an amazing shot.
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LYING FOUR: I remember hearing Tron Carter say one time that Sweetens was where the light bulb came on for him, in terms of the ideals of golf course architecture. Did you have a moment where the light bulb came on for you?
ROB COLLINS: Yeah, the thing I call my “aha” moment was at Pinehurst No. 2. I was on the lefthand side of the second green. I was gonna hit a wedge — this was pre-renovation, in 2007. And I was gonna grab a wedge and hit it up there out of the rough, and the caddie said, “No no, hood an 8-iron and bounce it up there.” I had this kind of awkward lie, and I did it and hit it to like a foot, and got up and down. That’s a really tough hole, and just seeing how those contours work and how they opened up so many more options than what I was accustomed to seeing was a revelatory experience. Everything that I’ve ever done or will do will have some vein of Pinehurst No. 2 in it.
LYING FOUR: I didn’t realize until recently that you worked early in your career in Gary Player’s design firm. How did you go from a formative experience in a gigantic firm like that to the more minimalist philosophy that you pulled off at Sweetens?
ROB COLLINS: Well, I took a lot of the very valuable lessons that I learned with the Player Group, and I’m very grateful for the time that I had there. I got my job with the Player Group was to be an on-site design coordinator, and I just got thrown into the fire on this construction project down in Florida. And that’s where I met Tad. That experience — and being forced to learn a lot of things on the fly, seeing how things really worked — was incredibly valuable. And trying my hardest to make sure that the Player Group got what they wanted was a daily struggle. I did the best job I could do with it. During that process, Tad and I began brainstorming and realized there was probably a more efficient way to do it — instead of having an architect on one side and a contractor on the other, if you put it all under one umbrella in a design-build business, you could build in a lot of efficiencies, save money, and have total artistic control over the final product, which was the thing that I really struggled with working with Player. You were always fighting with a contractor. It was hard to get everything you wanted — it was basically impossible, you have to concede on some things. But there were no concessions at Sweetens Cove. We did exactly what we wanted. If something needed to be changed, it got changed. There wasn’t a change order behind it or an extra bill to the client. You just went and did it as good as you possibly could. Sweetens Cove wouldn’t have been possible without the experience that I had at Player. And I just took the most important lessons that I learned and applied them to my own beliefs and thoughts at Sweetens Cove.
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LYING FOUR: When did you realize that Sweetens Cove was going to be not just a really good golf course but a world-class golf course?
ROB COLLINS: We were very fortunate to get Gus Grantham, one of the the best if not, potentially, the best shaper in the world. I’ve never seen anybody as good as him. He just is a dynamo. We were shaping the seventh green — it’s the first green we built — and it’s kind of a Pinehurst-inspired green. I explained to him what I wanted. When he turned that out as well as he did, I was like, “Oh, man. It’s on right now.” We just kind of built from there. It just kept getting better and better. Then there were all the issues with the course getting abandoned and then us picking it up. And the last five years have been filled with a lot of uncertainty. It took a while for the course to garner the attention that we felt like it deserved. So that was a struggle. There were a lot of times where we didn’t know whether it was really and truly going to see the light of day. That was a big part of my motivation with it. I knew how good it was. I thought, “This can’t not exist. It has to exist. It can't go away. The world has to have it.”
LYING FOUR: When did you realize that you were gonna make it?
ROB COLLINS: We were nearly dead in the summer of 2017, before the New York Times article. And that saved it and gave it a real shot. And then 2018 was our best year yet. We had a run of several months in the middle of the year where we were actually a real business that was cash-flowing. In 2018, I began to breathe a little bit easier. After that, I knew we would make it.
LYING FOUR: I remember hearing you on a podcast, talking about those early days when nobody knew about the golf course except for locals, and hearing you talk about some of the people who’d come out.
ROB COLLINS: They had no clue. It was kind of bizarre. When we took it over, the course was in really bad condition. It had been abandoned for about eight, nine months at that point. And it was covered in weeds, and half the greens were dead. We had a lot of work to do from the moment we took it over to the moment we opened in October 2014. So during that five months, once we got the course to a basically semi-playable condition, we just let it be known that people could come out and play it for free. We were just trying to get the word out, anything we could do. I remember this one guy came — he and his buddy used to play — and one guy would carry the golf bag, and one guy would carry the cooler of beer behind them. And neither one of them had shirts on, which was just perfect.
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LYING FOUR: What do you think about the counter-revolution of width and angles? Has the pendulum swung back too far toward too much width?
ROB COLLINS: Every project that we go into, no matter what the site looks like, the question that I always ask myself is, “How do we bring this golf course as close to the ideals of the Old Course as possible?” Whether it’s a mountain course or a seaside course or 72 acres in a floodplain in Marion County, that’s my approach. So I think you can have tons of width and angles, but the problem that I see in some examples of modern architecture — and I won’t name any specifics — is that there’s a disconnect between the penalties that should arise from a bad shot and the sense of reward that one should get when they take on a hazard and succeed. I think those are the fundamental aspects of golf course architecture. When something gets so wide and too easy, there’s no real penalty for hitting bad shots, and the golf course loses its edge. One of the things that makes Sweetens Cove so much fun on a repeat basis is that, yeah, you can pretty much hit it everywhere — you’re always gonna be playing golf — but there are times when you’re absolutely gonna hate your position, and it can eat you alive. And knowing that creates a mental dynamic that’s at the heart of the game. Balancing that and threading that needle, when you have success, is what makes you feel good and makes you want to come back. Conversely, failing under those circumstances is a reminder that those penalties are very real. You look at the Old Course. I remember that time Jack Nicklaus hit it in one of the bunkers — it was later in his career, I think it was the ’95 Open — it took him, like, four shots to get out of it, and he’s the best player of all time. And he was not supposed to be in there. It was his fault for being in there. And it exacted a huge toll on him. That doesn’t mean that every single hazard has to be like the Devil’s Asshole or some massive penalty, but you’ve got to have a push-and-pull dynamic between strategy and penalty. And I think a lot of the modern courses have gotten — it’s like they’re just catering to a 25- or 30-handicap. That’s not really a good golf course, in my opinion. I mean, the best golf courses are the ones that truly challenge the whole spectrum. That’s what you should try to do.
LYING FOUR: That’s what I love about Sweetens. The playing corridors are plenty wide — in places, they’re huge. But depending on where you are in that corridor, you’re presented with completely different choices.
ROB COLLINS: That’s right. There’s tiny windows. The window where you need to be to have the best shot to a lefthand pin on No. 8 is, like — it might be 15 yards wide in a 150-yard-wide swath of fairway. That’s what makes it interesting. Yeah, you might hit it on the opposite side of where you need to be, and you might be 80 yards away from where you need to be because you pushed it or pulled it so bad, but you’re still playing golf — but your second shot is gonna be infinitely more difficult as a result of being out of position. And when you don’t have that, you just — I mean, you’re not asking people a real question, and it gets kind of boring. That’s what Sweetens really excels at.