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AP photo by John Locher / PGA Tour rivals Phil Mickelson, left, and Tiger Woods stand at the first tee before a head-to-head match on Nov. 23, 2018, at Shadow Creek Golf Course in Las Vegas.

Oh, what might have been.

Almost every proud citizen of the University of Tennessee's Big Orange Nation will no doubt tune their televisions to TNT at 3 p.m. Sunday to watch their ultimate UT football hero, Peyton Manning, team with Tiger Woods in a charity golf match against Phil Mickelson and new Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, who won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.

Dubbed "The Match: Champions for Charity," the event has already raised more than $10 million for COVID-19 relief with more money all but certain to be generated.

And it should be great entertainment, though it could be argued that the athletic career of each man — Manning four championship rings shy of Brady in the Super Bowl category; Mickelson trailing Woods in major titles, 15-5 — could have reasonably paired Peyton and Phil, even if this also figures to be the wiser handicapping format.

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AP photo by David Dermer / Former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, left, stands alongside PGA Tour star Tiger Woods on the 11th hole at Muirfield Village Golf Club during the pro-am for the the Memorial Tournament on May 30, 2018, in Dublin, Ohio.

Still, how much better could it have been — at least for everyone in the Volunteer State who has ever hummed "Rocky Top" for no reason other than it's on a permanent loop in their head — if Manning picked the layout instead of Woods?

Because had that happened — instead of Tiger choosing the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Florida — the whole world would have seen Peyton's place, which is officially known as Sweetens Cove, that nine-hole plot of public course perfection just up Interstate 24 in South Pittsburg.

"Peyton really wanted to have it here," said Rob Collins, the McCallie School and University of the South grad who co-designed the course with business partner Tad King. "But I don't think Tiger was budging from the Medalist."

A question-and-answer session with Manning published Thursday on Esquire's website confirmed as much.

Asked about the event, the Sweetens Cove partial owner who won one Super Bowl each with the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos replied: "I tried to get it moved to Sweetens Cove. I liked the public course, but (the Medalist) is Tiger's home course and I wasn't going to argue with him."

There is no arguing Sweetens Cove is rapidly moving up the lists of the nation's finest courses. A couple of years ago, Golfweek ranked it 59th among U.S. courses built since 1960. Though Golf Digest failed to rank it among the 13 best courses built over the past decade, it did single out six-year-old Sweetens Cove for high praise, the magazine's Ron Whitten writing that "Every hole has unique character and individual quirks."

In a recent ranking of Tennessee's best courses, it placed third behind understandable leader The Honors Course in Ooltewah and runner-up Holston Hills in Knoxville.

And come Sunday afternoon, a Sweetens Cove sticker will be prominently displayed on Manning's golf cart.

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Staff file photo / McCallie School and Sewanee graduate Rob Collins tees off at Sweetens Cove Golf Club, the nine-hole public course in South Pittsburg he co-designed with business partner Tad King.

"You can't buy that kind of publicity," said Collins, who expects to watch "The Match" with his wife Denise, 14-year-old daughter Mae and 10-year-old daughter Ambrose in their North Chattanooga home. "It's really serendipitous."

There's no question the arrivals of Manning and tennis great Andy Roddick as prime investors have helped. And because of them, a second investment group that includes Peyton's brothers Eli and Cooper, as well as longtime CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, has also joined in.

"It's really given us the financial backstop we needed," said Collins, who has seen the course that once had a single porta-potty, no clubhouse and no significant practice putting green now include an outdoor pavilion with a firepit, men's and women's bathrooms and a 20,000-square-foot practice green.

As for the singlewide trailer doubling as a clubhouse, well, to revisit a quote from chief investor Mark Rivers a year ago: "The reason you have the notoriety you have is because you don't have a clubhouse."

Or to quote Peyton from a video of him playing Sweetens Cove: "Carrying my bag. Playing nine holes. God bless America."

To further bring attention to the course, the investment group is adding Sweetens Cove bourbon, though the course isn't officially part of that endeavor and won't reap any profits earned from the 13-year-old, 102-proof blended Tennessee whiskey, which will conduct an online pre-sale Tuesday at a hefty $200 a bottle. Tennessee residents only can purchase the liquor on that day (May 26) at sweetenscovespirits.com, with a portion of the proceeds going to COVID-19 charitable endeavors.

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Staff file photo / Sweetens Cove Golf Club in South Pittsburg has benefited from having a group of famous investors that includes brothers and former NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning and International Tennis Hall of Famer Andy Roddick.

"The ownership group bought 100 barrels of 13-year-old whiskey from a Tennessee distillery," explained Collins, "and had master taster Marianne Eaves — she's the Peyton Manning of bourbon tasters — blend it. Everything Peyton gets involved with is first rate."

A little known fact regarding Sweetens Cove: A tradition has sprung up at the course to have first-timers take a shot of bourbon before they tee off. That led to a second tradition of those who down a shot leaving a nearly full bottle of their favorite spirits behind for the next first-timer to sample.

Said course general manager Matt Adamski with a grin Saturday morning: "If you work here, you learn all about whiskey, whether you want to or not."

Will Collins sip such nectar during "The Match"?

"I don't have any," he said. "I've tasted it, though, and it's really smooth. No, I just plan to root like crazy for Peyton and have everyone in our house dressed in Sweetens Cove regalia."

And just what might that regalia include? Collins chuckled and said, "Let's put it this way: I haven't bought a stitch of clothing the last four years that didn't have the Sweetens Cove logo on it."

Said Collins as he looked ahead to Sunday afternoon: "The only thing that could make this better was if Tiger, Peyton, Phil and Tom were playing at Sweetens Cove instead of in Florida."

Maybe next time.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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