CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – On the drive west out of Chattanooga, as the Tennessee River hugs serpentine Interstate 24, signs beckon travelers through the “Scenic City.”
See Rock City. Visit Ruby Falls. Climb Lookout Mountain.
For golfers, two other nearby attractions in the southern Appalachians now merit quick detours: Sweetens Cove Golf Club and The Course at Sewanee.
It took many millennia to shape Rock City, Ruby Falls and Lookout Mountain. In recent years, three visionary architects carved two public-access golf gems out of the rural southeast Tennessee countryside: Tad King and Rob Collins at Sweetens Cove in South Pittsburg and Gil Hanse at Sewanee.
> Fun Meter: Sweetens Cove Golf Course
Just as so many tourists have stood in amazement over the years at Chattanooga’s natural attractions, golf pilgrims are starting to marvel at Sweetens Cove and Sewanee. The courses, nine-holers about 25 minutes apart just off of I-24, stand out for their design, playability, conditioning and affordability.
Golfweek magazine recently ranked Sweetens Cove and The Course at Sewanee as Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, among its top public courses in Tennessee. Other national media have taken notice. That’s high praise akin to a shout-out from atop Lookout Mountain.
So, how did two rural nine-holers in such proximity come to be so widely acclaimed? Well, that’s mountain lore destined to be handed down through golf’s generations.
With his carry bag slung over a shoulder during a spring round at Sweetens Cove, Collins comes clean: “If I hadn’t seen Tobacco Road, I wouldn’t have had the guts to do this place,” he said, saluting Mike Strantz’s bold creation near Sanford, N.C. “It really opened my mind to the possibilities.”
Collins, who turned 43 on June 5, grew up on nearby Signal Mountain. He graduated from the University of the South, just up Monteagle in Sewanee, with a degree in art history. That eye for artistry no doubt helped him envision the potential at the flat, featureless, flood-prone site of the failed Sequatchie Valley Golf and Country Club — “Squishy Valley,” to the locals.
Collins, who had been part of Gary Player’s design team until the Great Recession, worked with King to move 300,000 square yards of earth for the 2014 redo. They shaped moguls, bunkers, waste areas, swales, collection areas and drainage/irrigation ponds, sand-capped fairways and even added 30 feet of elevation.
But Sweetens Cove’s magic is found on the heaving greens, which average 10,000-plus square feet. The combination Redan/Punchbowl No. 1 and the Biarritz No. 8 stand out, but the Himalayas No. 4 exceeds all others for its audaciousness: a 20,000-square-foot putting surface of exquisite Miniverde Bermudagrass that stretches 93 yards from front to back, with a magnet-like collection area guarding the front right.
With wide and inviting fairways framed by natural areas, Sweetens Cove welcomes the ground game on a fast and firm surface.
“It’s a fun way to play golf,” said Collins, a long-driving 5-handicap who carries a youthful-looking 6-foot-6-inch frame topped with wavy dark hair tumbling from under his Sweetens Cove-logoed cap. “We were able to get away with the strong contours without a lot of bunkering around the greens. A 20-handicap can’t play out of bunkers, but they can putt.”
Regardless of ability, golfers will find that after the tee ball, the putter seemingly always is an option at Sweetens Cove. To prove his point, Collins putted from 75 feet, up and over a false front at the par-5 third hole, to within tap-in range for par at a precarious front-left hole location.
Sweetens Cove’s nine holes measure 3,301 yards of sheer golfing joy, “designed and built as a walking course,” Collins said. Multiple teeing grounds summon golfers to play a second nine and enjoy the various approach angles.
Don’t expect to be pampered at Sweetens Cove. Visitors certainly will be underwhelmed by the grass parking area, gravel cart lot and shack-like pro shop that seems better suited for a “before” segment of HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living.” There’s not even a place to grab a sandwich or a drink, but if you visit on the last weekend in April, fuel up at the annual National Cornbread Festival in downtown South Pittsburg. Otherwise, it’s BYOE at Sweetens Cove: Bring Your Own Everything.
But the lack of modern golf amenities quickly fades amid a classic golf experience.
Approaching the par-4 eighth green complex, with its sprawling mix of humps and falloffs surrounded by collection areas, Collins smiles and nods toward the top-left hole location on a canted Biarritz putting surface.
“It’s all about introducing a suite of shot-making options,” he said.
In other words, don’t be so quick to grab the wedge around the greens.
Atop Monteagle, Gray Matthews watches from the ninth tee as schoolmates at the University of the South, popularly known as Sewanee, trudge up the adjacent first fairway at The Course at Sewanee. He explains the fraternity ritual to a visitor: four frat brothers playing golf, with three pledges – one carrying doubles – trailing as caddies. The bags clearly sag with extra weight – in 12-ounce liquid increments, apparently.
“They party harder and study harder,” Matthews, 20, a rising junior from Raleigh, N.C., and a member of the school golf team, said of his colleagues.
Golf has been played at Sewanee, an Episcopal Church-affiliated liberal-arts school of about 1,800 students, since 1915. That’s when the Right Rev. Albion Knight, the school’s bishop, enlisted the football team and a pack of mules to carve a course out of the mountain flora and hardwoods. By the turn of the century, the campus nine-holer was showing its age. Gil Hanse, a rising star in course architecture, got the call to redesign Sewanee.
In his 2013 renovation, Hanse stayed true to the bishop’s original routing and the school’s tradition in forestry but infused his signature blend of minimalist architecture and playability. The result: welcoming fairway corridors that encourage the ground game into rolling, tiered green complexes. Strategic placement of bunkers, waste areas and native grasses help frame the layout and limit maintenance.
A modern makeover of the Sewanee Inn, a 43-room, two-story boutique hotel that overlooks the eighth green and provides a sweeping panoramic view of the course, enhances the property’s appeal to alumni and visitors.
“As soon as I stepped onto campus, I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere else,” said Matthews, recalling his first visit to the NCAA Division III school, in late 2015. “We’re so lucky to have this course on campus. I can ride my bike here in five minutes.”
Matt Daniels, the club’s head professional and general manager since 2012, stands on the clubhouse veranda, overlooking the Probasco Practice Facility, which like the course has benefitted from extensive alumni support and sponsorship.
“The university has embraced it as an amenity now,” Daniels said. “The whole culture of the men’s and women’s golf teams has changed. They can recruit, knowing that they've got a good course and practice facility.”
For Sewanee and neighboring Sweetens Cove, golf merits inclusion on the area’s list of top tourist attractions.
Sweetens Cove Golf Course
Location: South Pittsburg, Tenn.
National Cornbread Festival
Location: South Pittsburg, Tenn.
Steve Harmon is the editor of Morning Read. He lives in Longwood, Fla.