On Sept. 15, 2008, the world ended.
The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the world’s largest investment bank, signaled the tipping point of an international financial calamity, the likes of which few living people have ever seen. Stock markets plunged. Banks collapsed. Lifetimes of savings disappeared. Across the globe, people lost everything: homes, jobs, fortunes, dreams.
Rob Collins was one of them.
Twenty-five hundred miles away from the New York courthouse where Lehman Brothers kicked off Armageddon, Collins was grassing the third fairway at Wildstone Golf Course in British Columbia as a design coordinator for Gary Player Design. At its core, golf course development is real estate development — so not unexpectedly, the financial crisis’ earliest rumblings had been shaking the British Columbia project for weeks: fundraising had gotten tougher, and contractors weren’t getting paid on time. But Lehman Brothers’ collapse wasn’t just another bad economic headline in a year full of them. This was different, and Collins knew it. It wasn’t just another dark cloud — it was the storm. The worldwide golf development bubble was bursting, right under Collins’ feet.
A colleague was working with Collins in the fairway. Collins walked over to him.
“We’re fucked,” Collins told him. “It’s over. It’s done.”
He was right. It was over. But it also was the beginning.
. . .
For the better part of a decade now, Rob Collins has been golf’s version of Ray Kinsella, the farmer in “Field of Dreams” who plows his corn field under to build a baseball field — risking his family’s well-being, courting financial ruin, and inviting dumbfounded stares from onlookers. “Build it, and they will come” is plausible enough to support a movie plotline for 107 minutes — but in the real world, in an industry where even well planned golf courses often don’t succeed, it’s a leap of faith at best.
But for Collins, the architect who designed (and built) (and opened) (and operated) (and marketed) Sweetens Cove Golf Club in tiny South Pittsburg, Tenn., self-confidence is not in short supply. That’s not to say that Collins is cocky — he’s not. Collins is affable and impossible not to like. But Collins has dodged enough bullets and weathered enough storms by now to know that, given time and opportunity, anything is possible. Collins is not oblivious to risk — but he is dead certain that, given the chance, he can make it work.
“He’s no fool. He’s shrewd,” said Lewis Collins, Collins’ older brother and a corporate lawyer in Boston. “He sees risk — his calculation is just different. When you’ve gone all in, you’re already all in, so there’s no more risk.”
Sweetens Cove is something of a manifestation of Collins’ personality: wildly creative but unassuming. Ironically, though, Collins’ career began in a setting as far away from Sweetens Cove’s ethos as one could conjure. After graduating from Sewanee in 1997, Collins worked in Atlanta for a company that negotiated over advertising on local television stations. The same phone calls, over and over; the same paperwork, over and over. It was the furthest thing from the life he leads today. Predictably, he hated it.
“I was just like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’” Collins said. “The thing in ‘Office Space’ where Peter is like, ‘Yeah, I usually come in and space out at my desk for about 30 minutes’ — that’s what it was like.”
So like a lot of young 20-somethings uninspired by their first couple of jobs, Collins went back to school. But unlike most of those 20-somethings, Collins knew exactly what he wanted to do: he wanted to design golf courses. Collins had played a fair amount of golf growing up, but a trip to St. Andrews as a teenager — and, later, an eye-opening round at Pinehurst No. 2 — drilled into his ethos that minute contours and short grass can impact play just as much as gigantic hazards.
“One of my indelible memories from St. Andrews actually happened on the New Course,” Collins said. “My friend’s dad hit this shot, and I was standing up by the green — and he was way out, so maybe he hit like a 3-wood or something — and his ball landed and it was rolling for like 50 or 100 yards. And I was like, ‘Wow, what a great shot. This thing’s gonna come up right by the front of the green.’ And then all of a sudden, his ball takes a hard left-hand turn on some contour, and gets sucked down right into this nasty bunker right under the lip. Then he takes like four shots in the bunker and picks his ball up in disgust. And I was just like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ I’d never seen anything like that. If his ball had been one foot to the right, it would’ve been on the green. But it caught this little knob, and he was screwed.”
Collins left Atlanta for Mississippi State, where he studied landscape architecture and graduated with a master’s degree in 2005. After an internship with architect Rick Robbins in North Carolina, Collins had two offers: the design coordinator job with Player, or a drafting position in Arizona for Tom Fazio. The drafting job offered the stability of an office job — but it was also an office job. And that was what Collins had gone back to school to escape. He took Player’s offer.
And he made a quick impression on his new colleagues: smart, but smart enough to ask for help when he didn’t know what to do.
“Rob was conservative,” said Frank Henegan, a golf course designer who supervised Collins during his Player days. “He didn’t want to do something where I’d walk up and ask, ‘What the hell did you guys do? Change it.’ He just did his job. He was good at it. He cared about it. A lot of guys, they could sit in their truck and read the newspaper all day. And that wasn’t Rob.”
A gigantic, “signature” architecture firm might seem an unlikely environment for the designer for one of golf’s most unpretentious hangouts, but Collins loved it.
“I had limited construction experience at that point — I had some, but not a lot,” Collins said. “It was a real trial by fire. I was thrown right into it and had to figure it out — had to learn the steps of how to do things. I learned about the dynamic between the client and the contractor and the designer, and how that all works — and doesn’t work.”
At his first project in southwest Florida, Collins quickly picked up on a fundamental tension in the work of any large firm: the designers’ attention to detail, and the contractors’ desire to minimize costs. The two interests are inherently and unavoidably at odds. That frustrated Collins. It also hadn’t eluded Tad King, a shaper on the Florida project. Over dinner at a Carrabba’s one night in Bonita Springs, the two agreed that one day, they’d go in together on a firm that cut contractors out of the middle — with design and build work under the same roof. They even came up with a name for the firm that night: King Collins.
“You don’t have to have it separated by this line of demarcation with a contractor doing all this stuff,” Collins said. “Implementation of the design is so important — that in and of itself is architecture. There’s things that get lost in translation when you’re giving instructions to someone who may not have your best interests, or the best interests of the project, at heart.”
After the Florida project, the two went separate ways to their next assignments: King to a project in Morocco, and Collins to British Columbia. They stayed in touch, ready to jump on their first chance to test out their idea. The impending recession had different plans.
. . .
Collins’ last day on the Wildstone job was Halloween 2008. Four days later, Barack Obama was elected president. The global economy stood on the edge of a knife. It was a time of hope, but tempered heavily by anxiety and uncertainty. Forget the golf industry — there was no guarantee that the entire world wouldn’t slip into a depression.
Collins, along with his wife Denise and young daughter, came back to Tennessee and moved in with Collins’ mother — which brought a kind of depression of its own.
“It sucked, big-time,” Collins said. “I was really happy to have a mom who would say, ‘Yeah, come back home.’ A lot of people wouldn’t have had a place to land. But it’s not really a great situation when you’re 33 years old and married with a 3-year-old and you have to move back in with Mommy. That was pretty crappy.”
It wasn’t just Collins, of course. King’s work had dried up, too; everyone’s had. “I knew what he was going through. Everybody in the golf industry was going through the same thing,” King said. “It was hard on everybody. We’d kinda get together and vent and say, ‘It’s gonna happen.’ We both believed it.”
Collins’ professional career had ground to a halt, but his passion for design hadn’t. While the federal government went about scraping the economy off the floor, Collins looked for ways to fill the hole in his career. He spent hours reading a golf architecture website called Punchbowl Golf, which was written by Yale golf coach Colin Sheehan and Outpost Club co-founder Will Smith.
“They were super-smart, insightful, interesting guys,” Collins said. “The punchline is that, at that time, they had a few projects they were working on, and they were almost exactly my age. They were doing stuff, and they were writing about it. And at first, I loved reading about it. But eventually, I couldn’t keep reading it. It was too depressing. They were doing what I wanted to do. And I could look at it, but I couldn’t touch it.”
A second daughter came in 2009. Golf design opportunities didn’t, of course — for Collins or anyone else. Collins kept himself busy with standard landscape architecture work. As the economy slowly backed away from oblivion, a more cautious man might have settled on safer, more dependable work.
But Collins had done the office job before. He’d even had a chance to go back to an office, when Fazio had offered him the drafting position out of grad school. Collins wasn’t going back to an office.
And in early 2010, the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself, disguised as anything but the opportunity of a lifetime. The Sequatchie Concrete Service — owned by a locally prominent family — counted among its holdings a dead-flat, flood-prone goat track of a golf course in nearby South Pittsburg, Tenn., called the Sequatchie Valley Golf and Country Club. Sequatchie Concrete was a concrete company, not a golf management company — but there was just enough interest among family members to get the course into shape.
The golf course was featureless, poorly maintained, uninteresting — a greenish flood zone with nine holes in the ground. There was nothing about it that suggested architectural potential.
And somehow, Collins saw the big break that he’d been waiting on for nearly two years.
“Basically, it was just a huge, gigantic blank slate,” Collins said. “Nothing that was there was really worth saving, save a few specimen trees and part of the routing. The surrounding valley was really pretty. We knew that if they let us put the right team together, we had the vision to pull it off. We just needed an opportunity.”
In March 2011, the opportunity was there: Sequatchie Concrete hired King Collins to renovate the golf course that soon would be known as Sweetens Cove. That June — more than two and a half years after the British Columbia project had crumbled underneath his feet — construction began in South Pittsburg. Collins was back in the dirt.
. . .
Sequatchie Concrete Service is, as its name implies, not a golf course development company. Sequatchie Concrete sold concrete. Its dalliance with Sweetens Cove was, at best, a side project. For Collins, that was good and bad. On one hand, concrete companies aren’t obsessed with the day-to-day details of building a golf course; once Collins had established his own competence, Sequatchie Concrete more or less let him do whatever he wanted. He and King didn’t even work from a set of plans; aside from a handful of conceptual drawings for Sequatchie Concrete, they just built the course out of the dirt as it came to them.
“The Sequatchie guys actually hired us to do three holes at a time,” Collins said. “Or at least that was the stated plan. That was more just a way to keep us on a really short leash, to make sure we could do what we said we could do. And once it became apparent that we could do what we said we could do, they were like, ‘Alright, just do the rest of it.’”
Collins and King went to work with two ideas constantly in mind. First, they believed that if they had just one chance to display their talents, that everything afterward would take care of itself. Second, the other side of the same coin: “My thing and Tad’s big thing was, ‘If you mess up this first one, there will not be a second one,’” Collins said. “That was the mantra: we had to hit a massive home run.”
On the other hand, Sequatchie Concrete never went all-in on the golf course; Sequatchie Concrete Service is, as its name implies, not a golf course development company. Its dalliance with Sweetens Cove was, at best, a side project.
This is where two aspects of Collins’ personality emerge — aspects that are fundamental to who he is and how he works.
First, Collins is, at once, wide-eyed about the people who impose obstacles to his work and deeply grateful to those same people for their help; he is, in the same moment, fully aware of the thunderhead above him and grateful for the cloud’s silver lining.
“The Keisers don’t let Tom Doak run wild. They put him on a leash, and this is Tom Doak, maybe the biggest name in architecture,” Collins said. “Reese Thomas [at Sequatchie Concrete] let us run wild. He let us implement the vision we wanted. And that’s very rare for anyone, especially for your first time out of the gate.”
Second, Collins is dogged. He does not give up, even when perhaps he should. When people close to Collins speak of him, the phrase “sheer force of will” comes up a lot. To hear Collins describe the journey from breaking ground in June 2011 to opening Sweetens Cove in October 2014, it is difficult to imagine anyone else bringing the course to light.
There was the seed-germination fiasco. Sweetens Cove’s remarkable bunkering is lined by wild, twisted grasses. Those grasses had to be planted. By hand. When they were, Collins waited. And waited. Nothing happened. The seeds never germinated. A lot of designers would have let it go; there’s no rule that bunker edges have to be grassed, after all. But Collins is not the kind of person who lets details go.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well I’m never gonna get the look that I want if I don’t do this all over again,’” he said. “And there’s like two miles of bunker edges out there, probably. So we had to re-prep miles of bunker edge, re-seed everything. And after it grew in, I edged every square inch of bunker on that property. That took a long time.”
There was the mobile drug lab, which showed up unannounced one day to take samples from Collins’ already-understaffed crew.
“I knew that if these 15 guys got canned — which was exactly what was going to happen if they actually pissed in the vial — then these bunkers were never gonna get finished, and Tad and my vision was never going to be seen,” Collins said. “The world was never gonna see it. And it was just sitting there. And I knew, ‘This place is freaking amazing. Now we’re this close, and the rug is gonna get pulled out from under us.’ So completely on-brand for Marion County, there was a 20-ounce Mountain Dew bottle on the ground. And because I drank about four gallons of iced tea every day, I had to pee like a race horse, and I filled this bottle up. And I gave it to the guys, and every one of them sprinkled my urine into the drug thing, and every single one of them passed except for the last guy.”
There was the endless waiting — the golf course sat finished, ready, waiting, for the first eight months of 2013 while Sequatchie Concrete wrestled with how (and whether) it wanted to incorporate a golf course into its decidedly not-golf-oriented business. The whole time, Collins worked — without a salary — to keep the golf course in shape, with offers to Sequatchie Concrete to help them market the course.
At one point in 2013, Collins tried to shake loose some progress by e-mailing an article about the renovation at the nearby Course at Sewanee to a couple of company officials, as an example of the sort of publicity that Sweetens Cove could generate.
“All that sounds great,” one of the officials sarcastically responded. “Maybe in a few years we’ll be able to finish it, unless you know someone who might want to finance or invest in such a magical endeavor.”
And then, there was the coup de grace: Sequatchie Concrete’s decision not to open the golf course at all. Sequatchie Concrete Service is, as its name implies, not a golf course development company. Its dalliance with Sweetens Cove was, at best, a side project. And in the end, even after two years of work, Sequatchie Concrete wanted no part of it. The company walked away.
But it didn’t pull the plug. Instead, Sequatchie Concrete’s chief operating officer, Mark Williams, suggested that Collins manage the course under a lease.
Collins was an architect, not a manager. He was furious.
“My first reaction was, ‘Hell no I don’t want to lease it, I want you guys to open it,’” Collins said. “But it really was [Williams’] idea. I don’t know that I ever would have thought of that. I was pretty wrecked that this thing was not ever gonna come to light. We got it so close to the finish line. And so it took me about 24 hours. I talked to Tad, and he said, ‘You should do it.’ And I decided I would do it — or try to do it, anyway.”
. . .
Collins gets a ton of credit for designing, opening, and overseeing Sweetens Cove. But he is the first to deflect that praise toward others: to King and his crew, who pulled a design out of the dirt so well that it borders on hallucination; to Williams, who offered Collins the chance to lease the course; and to Ari Techner, with whom Collins signed a $200,000 personal guarantee on a line of mowing equipment that they used to maintain the course on a threadbare budget.
Finally, in October 2014, two inevitable things happened: Sweetens Cove Golf Club opened for play, and it simultaneously spent its last dime. Collins had dug into some savings after a potential investor backed out, and that was enough to get the course to the finish line — but no farther. So at nearly the same time Collins was welcoming in media to introduce to Sweetens Cove (Adam Lawrence and Ron Whitten attended; “It must have been the most low-budget, cheap-ass opening either one of those guys has ever attended,” Collins said), he had to let go of his crew and his superintendent.
“It was like climbing Mount Everest and having a heart attack after taking one step off the peak and dying face-down in the snow,” Collins said. “We literally were completely out of money.”
King stuck around until Thanksgiving, helping Collins maintain the course as their first winter approached.
“We weren’t, by any stretch of the imagination, super well-capitalized, but we had enough to keep it running on a super-minimal budget,” Collins said. “And we just kind of thought at that time, ‘Wow, we got it open, and it’s an amazing golf course, so we’re gonna be a solvent business.’ The numbers didn’t seem that difficult.”
Temperatures fell. The world got dark, hard, and cold, the way it always does when late fall bleeds into early winter. Play was slow; most days, no more than two or three golfers showed. It was not uncommon for Collins and the course’s general manager, Patrick Boyd, to be the only people at Sweetens Cove.
“I can remember sitting in the middle of No. 5 green with Patrick Boyd, in January 2015, broke as shit, pulling poa annua out of the green by hand so we could get an extra pin on the left side,” Collins said. “The greens were covered in poa annua. And it was so thick that you couldn’t putt on the damn green. Patrick and I sat out there for four or five hours, pulling it out by hand.”
Collins was baffled. Bafflement turned to frustration. Frustration turned the possibility that this whole thing might not work out. The bank called. A lot. The “B” word started getting thrown around a lot — “bankruptcy.” What little money came in went straight to the bank. And still the bank kept calling.
“The key was not letting the fucking bank take the goddamn equipment away,” Collins said. “Like Eddie said in Christmas Vacation, they were on us like flies on a rib roast. They wanted our ass, and they kept threatening us, saying, ‘We’re gonna come get the equipment.’ We kept telling them, ‘Guys, the course is open, it’s winter time — you’re gonna get paid, we’re gonna find somebody, just give us time. We’re giving you every penny we have.’ Whatever we made, it had to go to the bank. Because if the equipment went away, we were never going to be able to get equipment again: the business credit would be shot, we wouldn’t be able to get another equipment package, and we would have been screwed in the spring when the grass started growing again.”
Somehow, Collins kept the course afloat; “I did all kinds of psychotic financial stuff to keep it open,” he said.
. . .
The calendar turned over. Winter came and went; the bank didn’t stop calling, but it didn’t take the equipment, either.
Other people had started calling too, though. In November 2014, Golf Club Atlas ran a Q&A with Collins that introduced Sweetens Cove to much of the architecture-savvy corner of the golf-centric Internet. Andy Johnson of the Fried Egg profiled the course in June 2016. So did Graylyn Loomis in March 2017. Blog post by blog post, podcast by podcast, tweet by tweet, tiny Sweetens Cove took on a strange, heretofore unclaimed title: the darling golf course of social media.
But there was something more to the place than just the golf course. Since there was no money for marketing, maybe it was inevitable that Sweetens Cove’s public profile would take on Collins’ laid-back, forget-about-the-mortgage-for-a-little-while-and-let’s-just-have-fun personality, if only by osmosis. However it happened, Sweetens Cove slowly became a place where golfers simply wanted to be; the golf itself, stunning though it is, was almost secondary.
“One day, somebody from some website came out to write about the golf course, and [Collins] went because they were coming to play, and they asked if he was going to be there,” recalled Collins’ wife, Denise. “And I said, ‘Oh that’s nice. Sure, go out to the golf course.’ So then he comes back, and I joked with him and said, ‘Did you sign any autographs today?’ And he said, ‘Actually, someone did ask me to sign their scorecard.’ And that just blew me away. So the girls and I give him a hard time — we keep him very humble at home.”
Collins’ wife and daughters weren’t the only members of his family who helped him keep going. His older brother Lewis, the Boston lawyer, and Lewis’ wife chipped in more than once.
“I invested in Rob,” Lewis Collins explained. “I work in the investment industry, and that’s an easy investment to make. It was an easy decision, even knowing how long the odds were.”
The needle was moving — but retweets don’t pay the bills. By August 2017, Sweetens Cove was on life support. Collins had exhausted every possible financial lead. He’d put every dollar he had into the course, sold every sellable asset he owned, and put that money into the course too — all the while never taking home any pay. (To this day, Collins has never drawn a salary from Sweetens Cove.) There were no investors on the horizon; the crowds never showed. Sweetens Cove would become another distressed piece of real estate, like the millions of others in the previous decade that fell into foreclosure, toppling countless dreams on their ways to the ground. And Collins’ dream was next.
Salvation takes strange forms. In the case of Sweetens Cove, salvation was the New York Times.
When Sweetens Cove opened in October 2014, Ron Whitten and Adam Lawrence weren’t the only writers on hand. Dylan Dethier had met Collins while working on 18 in America, and when Sweetens opened, he was back to lay eyes on the finished product. Something about Sweetens resonated with him. By this time a freelance writer, Dethier pitched Collins on the idea of publishing an essay about Sweetens.
“I thought he was gonna get it in Golf Magazine or something like that,” Collins said, “and he said, ‘I’m gonna shoot for the moon, I’m gonna try to get it in the New York Times.’ And I said, ‘You go boy. That’d be awesome. Fucking A. But we’ll see.’”
On August 15, 2017, everyone saw. Dethier’s story about Sweetens Cove ran under the headline, “The Little Course That Could.” The crowds flocked, like the cars lined up at Ray Kinsella’s Iowa cornfield, all ready to plop down a greens fee and take in the surreal experience for themselves; suddenly, Sweetens Cove really could.
“That saved the golf course, period,” Collins said. “That was like an immediate, big uptick in our play and our rounds. We immediately became a solvent business, overnight. For a stretch of time, we didn’t make any money, but we didn’t lose money, either. It was the first time in the history of the business where it was a legitimate business.”
Winter came again. But for the first time, Sweetens Cove didn’t risk going on ice.
. . .
Sweetens Cove was off life support — barely walking around the hospital room, sure, but off life support just the same. That allowed Collins to broaden his vision: instead of getting Sweetens Cove to the next spring, how could Sweetens Cove be preserved for the next generation?
A handful of investors had kept Sweetens afloat for its first three years, but Collins had always dreamed of something that would last. He and Patrick Boyd, the general manager, spent afternoons in the Shed — Sweetens Cove’s makeshift clubhouse — pipedreaming about Sweetens’ ideal partners. The conversations always seemed to return to Peyton Manning: a Tennessee icon, an avid golfer, and deep down — by all accounts — just a regular guy. But double-digit revenue days have a way of trampling dreams.
One day in 2018, Collins was killing time at the course when his cell phone rang. He almost didn’t answer. But Collins and chance always seem to connect.
“I was sitting in the Shed, checking people in, and there was a lull. And this number comes through that was a New York number — 99 percent chance it’s a robocall, but I answered,” Collins said.
The caller introduced himself as Mark Rivers. Rivers and his partner, Skip Bronson, were real estate partners, and he’d read about Sweetens Cove in the Times. He was working on a project in New York, but he had a daughter at Vanderbilt, and he wondered whether he might come visit Collins the next time life brought him to Tennessee. Anytime, Collins said.
Soon thereafter, Rivers found his way to South Pittsburg, and Collins showed him around.
“We’re riding around,” Collins said, “and he starts asking me questions about the golf course. And just the way he’s asking questions, I’m starting to think, ‘I don’t think he’s just interested in hiring us for a future project.’ And after we finished, just very matter-of-factly, he said, ‘This place is amazing, I think we’d be interested in getting involved here too.’ And I about jumped out of my skin.”
Collins had chased enough dead-end possibilities over the past five years to know real from fake. This was a real lead. Other investors had offered to come in and take Sweetens Cove off Collins’ hands. Rivers suggested a real partnership: acquiring Sweetens Cove from Sequatchie Concrete and doubling down on the laid-back, no-frills atmosphere that Collins and his crew had pulled out of a Marion County floodplain.
Rivers and Bronson got to work recruiting additional partners. In true Sweetens Cove fashion, the team was high-caliber and eclectic. Tom Nolan, who ran Ralph Lauren’s golf line for four years, came on. So did Andy Roddick, formerly the world’s No. 1-ranked tennis player. In time, a fifth new investor came on, too. One Thursday night, Rivers suggested that a handful of them get together at the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Chattanooga to celebrate.
“I got there five or 10 minutes early,” Collins said. “And I’m standing there at the bar with Mark, with my back to the door, and Mark goes, ‘Oh hey, they’re here.’ And I thought, ‘They?’ Because I’ve only been told about Tom. I thought maybe Andy was with him, because I hadn’t met Andy at that time. I turned around, and I thought, ‘OK, that guy is Tom Nolan, and that guy is —’” Collins pauses here — “‘not Tom Nolan.’ And Peyton walks up to me and says, ‘Hey, I’m Peyton Manning.’ I said, ‘Hi, I’m Rob Collins.’ And over my shoulder, Mark says, ‘And there’s your fifth partner.’”
Collins texted his wife a few minutes later. “You’ll never guess who the fifth partner is,” he wrote.
Denise replied: “Peyton Manning?”
. . .
The rest of the story is, by now, well told. Collins and his partners announced in April that they had acquired the golf course. “What happens next?” is a natural question, but this moment itself must be dwelled upon for the point it represents: Collins won. Collins bet on himself, an unproven commodity; he bet on Sweetens Cove, a concept and design that runs against every convention in mainstream golf course development; and he placed those bets again and again and again, over a span of more than five years, repeatedly to the point of financial near-ruin. No one would have blamed him for walking away — for deciding that the odds of success were simply too slim to justify continuing to expose himself and his family to such steep financial risk. But to Collins, it was more than a math problem, because Sweetens Cove tied together all the passions and frustrations of a 20-years-long journey: from the inspiration of St. Andrews and Pinehurst, to the bleakness of Wildstone’s third fairway while Lehman Brothers came crashing down, to the chance to transform an old, flat nine holes into something that the world had never seen before, to building a field of dreams and then waiting year after agonizing year for the crowds that Sweetens Cove deserved. This was his chance, and he refused to accept failure — which is not the same thing as saying that failure was impossible. But if failure were going to occur, then it would have to be thrust upon him.
Even Collins’ older brother, Lewis — the same older brother who invested in Sweetens Cove during one of its driest spells — urged Collins to develop an exit strategy. Remember, Lewis is a corporate lawyer; he knows financial overexposure when he sees it.
“Fuck an exit strategy; the exit strategy is that I crash and burn,” Collins recalled telling his brother. “If I have to walk away, it’s because I’m in a smoldering heap on the ground. I’m not letting you put that much money into this thing and leave something on the table. I would not be able to live with myself.”
Whichever of the parts of Collins’ personality can be described as core, this is perhaps the most important to understanding the “why” and “how” of Sweetens Cove: Collins accepts that the the possibility of failure is the price to be paid for doing anything worthwhile.
“I think there’s something to not having a fear about something, and — I don’t even want to say believing that it’s gonna work out, because that almost implies that you’re worried about it,” Collins’ wife, Denise, said. “And we never were worried about finances. And I think our brains work in the same way, in that regard.”
Undoubtedly, it is Collins’ eagerness to take chances — to do things that haven’t been done before — that has led high-profile developers to bring on design teams with longer, more conventional resumes than King Collins (although Mike Keiser, Jr., whose father sired Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley, said earlier this year that he and his partners “have an eye” on Collins). But slowly, other opportunities have come King Collins’ way: the Miracle, which Collins describes as “a 4.5-acre golf playground” at St. Simons Island, Ga., opens in September. There are other irons in the fire too — although, for now, the details remain hush-hush.
There are further plans for Sweetens Cove, too. A new Himalayas-style putting course will open later in 2019; the Shed will be expanded at some point (even running water is in the cards), and a deck built into the natural amphitheater above the ninth green, from which hangers-out can watch golfers finish their rounds.
Even for someone who never lost faith, it is still difficult to believe — turning a dead-end job for a concrete company in South Pittsburg, Tenn., into a destination golf course of cult-level status, and parlaying it into a fully capitalized venture with, among others, Peyton Manning. At one point, Collins told Rivers that he feels like someone who came back from his last hand to win the World Series of Poker on a string of royal flushes.
“It’s a testament to the power of believing in something in an all-encompassing thing and envisioning it,” Collins said. “If you’re focused on the end result in a positive way, and you just fucking refuse to quit, you’re gonna get positive results. That’s what that is.”