Sweetens Cove

A Spiritual Morning
in an Unlikely Place

Sweetens Cove Golf Club
South Pittsburg, Tenn.
Greens fee: $40 to walk 18
Date: May 2, 2019

“Nash isn’t here yet,” the crew member said.

In Nash’s defense, no one was here yet. No one except the crew member, anyway. And now, me.

Sweetens Cove hadn’t been far from my mind since my first visit six months prior. It is a stunning convergence of paradoxes: a truly world-class golf course at the end of a country road in rural Tennessee; a set of rumpled fairways and rolling greens in a floodplain; a $40 greens fee at a course that delivers more than clubs that charge 10 times as much. It’s not the sort of place you forget about; and the more you think about it, the more mystifying it becomes.

For golf course architecture enthusiasts, Sweetens Cove has been the subject of a cult following since its opening in 2014. For the rest of the world, the cat has been out of the bag since a New York Times profile in 2017. Sweetens Cove and its creator, Rob Collins — one of the single most likable people on the planet — have been the subjects of interviews, blog posts, podcasts, and YouTube videos. There was no chance of my writing something new about this place. But maybe I could see it in a way most people don’t.

When I began the 90-minute drive from Nashville a few minutes before 5 a.m., I feared that I’d left myself too little time for this. My tee time was a few minutes after 8, but now, here I was on the first tee box, at not yet 7 a.m. — the sun still rising, this unlikeliest of courses completely empty, still bathed in gold light and long shadows.

“Nash isn’t here yet,” the crew member said.

I explained that I had a tee time, but asked whether I could just walk around for a few minutes and take some pictures. “Yes sir, help yourself,” he replied as he returned to his work.

If there was any question about whether I’d caught the course early enough to capture its waking moments, then a quick glance over to the ninth green — which sits just below the first tee — assuaged them. It is a huge redan, with a kick plate sloping down to a narrow but pinnable spine, before settling at a bottom tier some 10 feet below the kick plate. It’s my favorite green on the course, and on this morning, the shadows cast by the still-rising sun tumbled down each successive level like water breaking over rocks. I fumbled for my camera.

From No. 9, I started walking diagonally across the property toward the fifth green, another favorite spot of mine. This kept me out of the crewman’s way, but cutting across fairways and greens out of order helped me lose my orientation; instead of walking the routing, I was wandering across it like a garden. Rimmed by mountains, Sweetens Cove doubtlessly gets more than its fair share of prolific mornings; but on this morning, the course slowly came to life under a set of just one set of footprints — my footprints.

I walked with a pace quick enough to acknowledge that this aura could not last, but slow enough to soak in each moment. I stopped to photograph spots on the course that I’d been thinking about for months, revisiting them like they were old friends: the eighth, the fourth, the fifth. The gold in the light could never have lasted long enough for me to see them all. There are no weak holes at Sweetens Cove, but that understates the course’s brilliance: there are no weak places at Sweetens Cove. Every square foot of ground at Sweetens Cove has purpose; no matter where you find yourself on the golf course, you are confronted with questions that must be answered thoughtfully, risks and rewards that must be weighed against one another. Perhaps there are other golf courses that were designed with such remarkable attention to detail, but I have not yet found them.

I do not say this lightly: Sweetens Cove might be the best golf course in America. Not the best golf course in Tennessee, or the best course in the South, or the best nine-hole course. The best, period. There is a spirituality to this place; in the morning’s earliest moments, it is nothing short of ethereal. I keep a running Google Doc of my favorite courses; after I’ve played a new course or had some revelation about an old one, I’ll edit the list to reflect my growing view of which places I appreciate the most. Sweetens Cove currently sits at No. 4 on that list, ahead of the likes of Bethpage Black, Pinehurst No. 2, and Kiawah Island. The only American course I keep higher on the list is Pebble Beach, but I’m not sure that I’ve got it right. There is a feeling here that is elusive, a sense of a place that is bigger than the game. The only places I’ve felt it are at Pebble, Royal Dornoch, and Augusta National. And Sweetens Cove.

I checked the time. There was just enough left to see one more hole at sunrise and still get back to the first tee before the day’s first group went off. I made a beeline for No. 1. Collins told me once that the idea for this half-redan, half-punchbowl green came to him in a fever dream. He could’ve come up with the rest of the course the same way. It is like something from another world.

I headed back to the first tee, struck my tee shot, and was off. On my second trip around, I grouped up with a twosome playing Sweetens Cove for the first time. They were headed to Nashville for a bachelor party afterward, and at No. 8, one of them suggested quitting after nine holes to avoid pre-party exhaustion.

“I would,” responded the other, “but I didn’t know the course would be this good.”

In the light of sunrise, Sweetens Cove is a near-religious experience. But viewing this place through the eyes of someone playing for the first time is the most revealing light of all.