I got off the exit from Interstate 24, went under the overpass and started looking for the first right. Easy enough, I figured.
Just before I was going to make the turn, I spotted the landmark sign. It was printed originally with the name of a golf course lost to history. Covering it, in lettering tape used for mailboxes, written in a style reminiscent of a hostage note, was “Sweetens Cove Golf Club.”
I smiled and hung a right.
It’s a winding South Pittsburg, Tenn., road back to Sweetens Cove, a nine-hole golf course I’d just finished driving almost 2 hours to find. I was in Crossville, Tenn., which is actually the golf capital of the state, for an Independence Day pig roast and celebration at my in-laws’ home. I had convinced a couple of my family members to bring their clubs and drive well out of the way of the food, beer and family to play a nine-hole golf course I had hyped hard despite never having seen it myself.
“This better be good” came up a few times during the drive.
After I made the right, the backroad feel to the final couple of miles was a little jarring.
“Turn around. There’s no way there’s a golf course back here.”
And then we saw the entrance sign. We’d made it. One more right, and we’d found our destination. There’s no asphalt parking lot at Sweetens Cove. Most everyone parks in a grass-gravel lot just off the road, situated across from a mini-cul-de-sac of houses. Right there, out the car, is the Sweetens Cove clubhouse-slash-pro shop, which is basically a shed you’d buy at Home Depot. Inside, there’s no drywall, fancy pictures or even much merch. It’s more like a desk, some bottles of booze, a refrigerator and a bunch of boxes of mixed things. There’s not even a cash register. Everything is handled via Square terminal on a phone. It’s glorious.
The one thing the Sweetens Cove clubhouse has is a porch with a view of the golf course, and it’s a stunner. What Rob Collins and Tad King have created on this plot of land, set in between sprawling mountains, is the stuff of cult legend. From that porch, you can see most of the course, including the full opener — a par 5 — and the closer — a wedge-in-hand par 3.
That’s when it should hit you: You’re paying less than $65 to go around twice on one of the best golf courses in the United States.
Sweetens Cove is mind-blowing for the average golfer. Most people never see a golf course like this in their travels. If you’ve got the money and the time, you can experience something like this at Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, Cabot Links (hi Canada), Sand Valley and the like. These modern resorts are a magnet for the woke set, sporting multiple modern-modernist courses with plenty of width, lots of short grass, plenty of sand and perception-warping green complexes. The accommodations are a form a minimalist luxury, and the places are so remote you practically have to spend several days there to justify the journey there. In others words, the places golfers flock which have designs somewhat like Sweetens Cove cost a lot of money to experience.
There was a moment of skepticism standing on the first tee, looking at a perfectly designed risk-reward par 5. How could this place be as good as described and look as great as it did. Something’s up. And then I made the wrong choice off the first tee, and I realized how smart this design was going to be. I took driver, thinking I would hit a tight draw over the center-line bunker and give myself a mid-iron into the green. My mind couldn’t process that, flaring a ball to the right and finding some native junk. Lesson learned for the second nine. That’ll be a long iron.
That’s the thing about Sweetens Cove. Every shot makes you think. When I hit my approach, I had to decide if I wanted to fly it in right at the stick or use the backstop or side stop.
On the second hole, yeah, I could smash driver over the aiming bunker in the middle, but then I would have a touch shot to a tucked pin sitting on the very front of the putting surface, which sits 4 feet below the next-lowest spot on the green.
There’s plenty of landing room on the par-5 third, though it doesn’t look that way from the box. But then the next task is figuring out on which side of the green-guarding 25-foot-high tree to hit. Good luck finding the proper landing spot on a 60-yard-wide green. Getting on the wrong side of the upright is a surefire way to walk away disappointed.
And then there’s the King hole, the 165-yard fourth. We’d been briefed this was the largest green in the United States, some 20,000 square feet in size, but the one and only thing you can see is the pin. After tee shots is perhaps the best reveal on the course, walking through mounded bunkering to see the putting surface, which serpentines in a way it feels like four greens stitched together. It takes walking all the way around to fully appreciate what it is, effectively taking a static tee box and making five or six different holes out of it.
The fifth hole is in the company of the greatest short par 4s I’ve ever seen. It’s just about 290 yards to the center of the green, hitting from a tee reached by walking through part of the bunkering for No. 4. With a blowout bunker on the right side and a pot-style bunker with a wooden face jutting into the putting surface, there are three choices: lay up with a mid-iron to a comfortable number, go for it up the left side to leave an uphill chip shot, or try to draw a big club over the bunker and hold the green. Every option is worthy.
A hole later is the longest hole on the course — 436 yards — with one of the smallest greens. It’s jarring after playing Nos. 3 and 4, but it goes to show how design can be appropriately used to make a hole tougher. There’s water left, which is really the only place it’s truly in play on the course.
On the surface, Nos. 7 and 8 look the same. They’re short-ish par 4s, with the seventh reachable for a longer hitter. In practice, they share a 150-yard-wide fairway for decision-making. Formally, the seventh owns a massive bunker guarding the drive zone where most would hit their 1-wood. Go for the green if you must, but if you short-side yourself right, like I did, it’s practically impossible to leave the second shot anywhere near the hole. What an absolute blast.
The eighth might be my favorite hole on the course, primarily because you don’t expect a Redan-slanted Biarritz to be the target. The hole looks kind of plain until you realize where you’re going. For us, the hole was located on the front right portion of the green, but finding it on the left side would have completely changed the approach to the hole.
The finisher is a great match-play par 3, with a two-and-a-half tier green, including a massive backstop for players who miss the green and need a way to shuffle their ball close for par. Hit a good short iron to the right section, and the hole is pretty benign. If you don’t, well, you might make 5.
The best part of Sweetens Cove is going around again. With some gentle bruising, I had a chance to right some wrongs of the first nine. Long iron off the first. A better wedge to No. 2 green. Hit to the right of the tree at the third. (I tried to drive the fifth green because when would I be here again?) It’s the best part about a nine-hole golf course like this. Of course you’re playing it twice; we’re in South Pittsburg! It’s not like a Pinehurst where you get your kicks in 36 each day. Go around twice or three times in an afternoon at Sweetens Cove, then head home.
It crossed my mind a few times how Sweetens Cove exists. There are only nine holes. There’s no on-property housing. It’s not like the town is much of a draw. But that’s the beauty of how this place is thriving. There are plenty of locals to form a loyal base of players, certainly. As important, however, is spreading this gospel to all kinds of golfers. World-class golf can be accessible and affordable and fun. It just takes a little effort to get there. It’s a two-and-a-half or three-hour drive from Atlanta and Birmingham, and the underrated Chattanooga is a half-hour east. If you want to tack on the Gil Hanse-redesigned Course at Sewanee University, that’s a good addition.
We bid adieu to Sweetens Cove and went back to Crossville. All the golfers in the family who didn’t go inevitably asked, “Well, how was it?” Asking that about Sweetens Cove invites an animated answer. The King green. The third. The clubhouse. The minimalism. The width! The cost! It’s a crescendoing list of reasons why it was so much fun to play.
A couple of days later, our family gathering was dispersing, and the sendoffs were starting on Saturday night. As me and the two guys who came with me said goodbye, I couldn’t help but pop a huge grin when one of them bro-hugged me and said to me with a laugh, “What a crazy golf course.”