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Former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, right, and former tennis star Andy Roddick, not pictured, are among the new co-owners of Sweetens Cove Golf Course in South Pittsburg.
some text Mark Wiedmer
some text Sweetens Cove Golf Course designer, builder and co-owner Rob Collins tees off at the South Pittsburg nine-hole layout in October 2014.

One month and one day ago today, Rob Collins was wrapping up an afternoon of golf at his Sweetens Cove course when one of the new co-owners, Mark Rivers, suggested Collins accompany him and another new partner or two to the Ruth's Chris Steak House in Chattanooga.

Shortly after Collins arrived at the high-dollar restaurant near Hamilton Place mall, Rivers told him to turn around to meet the fifth new owner of the only nine-hole course to make GolfWeek's Top 100, with the South Pittsburg tract coming in at No. 50.

When Collins pivoted, there stood Peyton Manning.

"It definitely surprised me," said Collins, who grew up in Chattanooga and is an alumnus of McCallie and Sewanee. "It was unbelievable. A really cool moment. When we first started this place, we used to talk about who would be the ideal person to be involved, and we always settled on Peyton."

Manning isn't the only easily recognizable name to buy into the remarkable public course Collins opened in 2014. Former tennis great Andy Roddick is also among the five financiers, led by Rivers, who are joining Collins in this grand experiment to see if the "little golf course that could" — as the New York Times once called it — can grow even bigger and more famous than it already is without the benefit of so much as a single plumbed bathroom.

"Plumbing might be a good start," Rivers replied when asked if the new ownership group might push for any changes. "Right now there's a single porta potty for everyone. We might also talk about adding a (practice) putting green."

However, for those who believe the property's single- -wide trailer should be replaced by a modern pro shop, clubhouse or both, Rivers had a strong rebuttal: "The reason you have the notoriety you have is because you don't have a clubhouse."

What Collins and Tad King had when they first began to turn the old Sequatchie Valley Golf Course into Sweetens Cove was a dream, but little more than that. In fact, Collins said more than once on Friday, "We were so close so many times to not making it."

But then it opened to the public, this pristine plot of perfection no more than a sand-wedge shot from Interstate 24 and a Waffle House. Referring to two Kevin Costner movie classics, Rivers said, "It's 'Tin Cup' meets 'Field of Dreams.'" A moment later, he added, "If Augusta National and your local bowling alley had a love child, it would be Sweetens Cove."

Whatever it is, you can still play nine holes with a cart for $35 on weekdays ($55 with a cart for 18 holes) or $10 more than those fees on weekends. If you're willing to walk, the fees are $25 for nine holes and $40 for 18, seven days a week.

"This may well be the future of golf," said Rivers, a real estate investor from California. "I've been following the phenomenon of Sweetens Cove for about a year. Just struck by what they've done and what they're trying to accomplish. There aren't a lot of golf courses out there that have used social media to be their voice."

What golf overall has done in its recent past is commit professional suicide after the 2008 recession. It is a story of too many courses built on too much debt abandoned by too many people who no longer had the time or money to lose a whole workday becoming agitated chasing a little white ball around a big chunk of real estate made too difficult to bring much enjoyment to the average 20-handicapper.

And that was always in the back of Collins' mind when he was designing Sweetens Cove. Or as Andy Johnson of The Fried Egg, a website focusing on golf course design, wrote after playing the layout: "If you're a short hitter, that's fine, because you can run it up to the greens. If you're a long hitter, there are all these places to get aggressive and maybe get punished. And the greens — they're wild, and they're special."

To return to Rivers, word of Sweetens Cove's sweet layout has gone somewhat viral on social media.

Now, almost as suddenly as tweets or texts can be written and read, the course has also hit a financial hole-in-one with this new ownership group highlighted by Manning and Roddick, two of the biggest names in their sports over the past 20 years.

"Other than Andrew Jackson, I can't think of a Tennessean with a bigger name to be part of this deal," Rivers said regarding the Volunteers legend. "Sweetens Cove may not meet the traditional investment criteria, but what makes it exciting going forward is that we've put together this all-star collection of people."

Collins got a glimpse of that all-star persona the night he first met Manning at Ruth's Chris.

"The funniest thing was watching people watch him walk through this jam-packed restaurant," he said of the former quarterback who won two Super Bowls, one each with the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos. "They'd have been less shocked if they'd just seen Halley's Comet."

So who's a better golfer — Manning or Roddick?

"They're both really good," Collins said. "I think Roddick had a little better score the weekend we played, but Peyton's iron shots are dead-solid."

What would also now appear to be dead-solid is Sweetens Cove's financial future.

"Oh, this is unbelievable," Collins said. "I feel like I'm living inside my own Make-A-Wish Foundation. This really is a dream come true."

But the best dream come true for golfers near and far without the coin to join a private club may have come from Rivers, who said of Collins' new partners: "Sweetens Cove is a special place, and part of our objective is to ensure that it remains publicly accessible."

Could the love child of Augusta National and a bowling alley ever be anything else?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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