Wiedmer: Sweetens Cove suddenly more than a local golf gem

Course designer and builder Rob Collins tees off at Sweetens Cove Golf Club in South Pittsburg on Oct. 22, 2014.
Course designer and builder Rob Collins tees off at Sweetens Cove Golf Club in South Pittsburg on Oct. 22, 2014.

SOUTH PITTSBURG - Seven years ago and three miles down Sweetens Cove Road from its Highway 72 entrance, Rob Collins got his first glimpse of the goat track once known as Sequatchie Valley Golf Course.

"This is the worst course I've ever seen," he thought to himself.

But 2010 was also less than two full years removed from a major real estate crash and recession. Golf course designers such as Collins were struggling. Formerly employed by golfing great Gary Player's design firm, the McCallie School and University of the South grad was back in Chattanooga, with Rob, his wife Denise and daughter Mae (then 4, she's now 12) all living with his mother.

So with encouragement and financial support from Reece Thomas and Sequatchie Concrete, plus much assistance from business partner and golf course architect Tad King, Collins agreed to do what he could to make what would eventually become Sweetens Cove Golf Club, in his words, "something architecturally significant."

On Tuesday, the full fruits of that "labor of love," as Collins terms it, came to harvest. The New York Times ran an excellent article under the headline The Little Golf Course that Could, with Dylan Dethier detailing the long and winding road Collins traveled to sculpt what many believe is one of the top two or three nine-hole layouts in the entire country.

Wrote Dethier of the majestic finished product: "Broad, undulating fairways stretch out across the property, some of them 100 yards wide, the rolling landscape interrupted only by a set of vast waste areas and a handful of wild, chasmic bunkers that would be easier to escape with a shovel and a ladder."

Collins has been in Naples, Fla., on another job the past couple of days, but he has heard from plenty of people since the story hit newsstands and the internet.

"My phone's blown up," he said. "Texts. Instagrams. Facebook. You name it. A friend of mine who's in the business texted me, 'You just got $1 million in free advertising.'"

Yet the venerable Times isn't the only high-falutin' establishment to highly praise this public course that can be played with a cart for $30 for nine holes or $45 for 18. (If you walk, the fees drop to $20 and $30.)

In a Times Free Press article by former writer David Uchiyama in 2014, Anthony Pioppi - author of "To the Nines," a study of the nation's best nine-hole courses - said of Sweetens Cove: "I think it's the best nine-hole course built in the last 40 years. The most famous nine-hole course is The Dunes Club (in New Buffalo, Mich.), which is private. Sweetens Cove is a better golf course than The Dunes Club."

Beyond that, as pointed out in the Times article, Golfweek recently listed Sweetens Cove at No. 59 in its top 100 American golf courses built since 1960. That places it ahead of No. 67 Hazeltine National Golf Club near Minneapolis and No. 77 Valhalla Country Club near Louisville, Ky. - each has hosted multiple major championships - as well as No. 60 Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., the site of last weekend's PGA Championship.

Not bad for a course where the only restroom is a singular portable unit and the office/pro shop is a roughly 16-by-8-foot structure without insulation or air conditioning.

"But," said course worker Bryson Helm with a grin Wednesday afternoon, "the port-a-potty's always open."

That's more than enough to satisfy regular customer Derek Montecalvo, who played at Mississippi State University, interned at The Honors Course in Ooltewah and worked as an assistant pro at Chattanooga Golf and Country Club for a time.

Though he lives close to an hour away in the Hamilton Place area, Montecalvo plays Sweetens Cove several times a month.

"It's just great golf," he said as he strapped his clubs into a cart early Wednesday evening. "Nothing fancy. No one's taking your clubs out of your car for you. It's really a course for the true golf fanatic. I've played four rounds in one day out here before and haven't had more than three shots that were similar, and those were putts."

South Pittsburg High School golf coach Hunter Giles agrees. He was there Wednesday, coaching the Pirates' Ty Butner, Nick Campbell, Tyler Halley, Justin Shavers, Daniel Skyles, Casey Tierney and Marty Vizi on the game's finer points.

"The way it forces you to play, hit so many different kinds of shots, it's certainly the best course we play on," Giles said. "It's amazing."

It certainly all seems amazing to the 42-year-old Collins right now, both the attention and what that attention could mean for the future of his company and his family.

"It's put us on the map," he said. "Now golfers in places like Atlanta, Nashville and Birmingham know they don't have to spend thousands of dollars to play a highly ranked course in Florida or somewhere. They can come here for so much less money."

The only downside thus far has come from 7-year-old daughter Ambrose. When Denise read their daughters the Times story Tuesday evening, she wasn't happy not to be mentioned by name in it.

But by Wednesday, Ambrose was reportedly telling her mom: "I forgive easily, Mommy. I've forgiven Daddy for not getting me in the story."

Now she's in at least one newspaper item, and Collins knows what he intends to do with it.

"I actually got an email from a guy saying his company frames and laminates newspaper articles about your business," he said. "Hopefully he can get us something in the next couple of weeks to put up at the course."

And maybe a couple of more to put in Mae and Ambrose's bedrooms.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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