Sweetens Cove Golf Club has nine holes. None are occupied by golfers on a 90-degree mid-August afternoon.
Four people are on the grounds. Superintendent Brent Roberson and a co-worker are using homemade mats to drag sand on a tantalizing collection of gigantic Tennessee greens. Nearby, Rob Collins greets a visitor at the clubhouse, a railcar-sized green shed with a University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and No Laying Up towel draped over a wooden railing.
Collins owns and operates Sweetens Cove. He designed it with partner, Tad King, and enthusiastically shuttles visitors around the course. On this day, he’s driving cart No. 16. The tour pauses 15 times over the next two hours. Collins first stops alongside the first green, where Roberson circles the surface in a utility vehicle. A day earlier, Roberson walked 10.3 miles with an aerifier, punching ½-inch holes into 110,000 square feet of greens.
Roberson hops off the utility vehicle and describe his team’s part in making Sweetens Cove, well, sweet. The ensuing conversation revolves around the two As – agronomics and architecture – but geographic and business context must be provided before revealing details.
Sweetens Cove is in South Pittsburg, Tenn., population 3,092. Chattanooga is 30 miles to the east; Nashville is 110 miles to the northwest. The Georgia and Alabama lines are a Peyton Manning heave from South Pittsburg. Interstate 24 meanders through South Pittsburg. Sweetens Cove is less than three miles from Exit 152, although no interstate billboards promote the course’s proximity to thousands of daily travelers.
A blue sign a quarter-mile from Sweetens Cove Road serves as a remnant of the course’s former life. Black and white stickers spelling Sweeten Cove override letters spelling Sequatchie Valley Golf & Country Club. Uniform land, in a floodplain, supported a family-owned, nine-hole golf course for 60 years. The course lacked street appeal and reliable infrastructure. “I can easily say it was the worst golf course I have seen in the 32 years I have been in the industry,” says King, who first visited the site in 2010.
Sequatchie Valley Golf & Country Club no longer exists. The worst course King had ever seen now closes for two days in August to aerify and topdress, a pair of cultural practices required to keep Sweetens Cove atop Tennessee’s public golf hierarchy.
Revitalized via a rare golf construction project that commenced during the Great Recession, reopened and renamed in 2014, and reenergized following glowing profiles in consumer publications, including The New York Times, Sweetens Cove disperses simplicity into an industry filled with complexities.
Not many rural golf transformations compare.
A food and beverage operation. Restrooms with utilities. Space for weddings and Kiwanis club meetings. Beverage carts. Overnight accommodations. Traditional phone lines. An agency to market the course. Pro shop selling balls, gloves and tees. A practice facility. GPS units in carts. Eighteen holes. A calendar brimming with social functions.
Sweetens Cove has none of the elements industry suits insist golf facilities need to compete in a cluttered marketplace.
Juggling two smartphones, Collins fields five calls in a 45-minute stretch on the recent topdressing Tuesday. One phone serves as the course’s mainline; the other allows Collins to check the tee sheet. Conversations begin with the seven-word greeting: “Sweetens Cove Golf Club. This is Rob.”
Golf represents the sole purpose of the calls. A port-a-potty joins the shed to give Sweetens Cove a pair of primitive structures. The maintenance facility is offsite, a half-mile from the first tee. If somebody wants to grab a sandwich or six-pack, they must visit downtown South Pittsburg or return to the conglomeration of chain restaurants and hotels off Exit 152.
A celebrated golf course is Sweetens Cove’s lone amenity. Golfweek ranks Sweetens Cove the 50th best modern golf course in the United States. Author and historian Anthony Pioppi profiles Sweetens Cove in “The Finest Nines,” a book examining North America’s best nine-hole courses. Golf enthusiasts and architecture aficionados regularly praise Sweetens Cove on social media, helping the course develop a devout following among the 45-and-under crowd.
“There’s a huge disconnect between the quality of the golf course and the catastrophe on top of the hill,” says Collins, glancing at the shed and port-a-potty above the first tee. “It’s funny because we can’t afford to do anything else. Strangely, that has become a strength of ours. People realize that’s part of the deal. There are no comfort stations, there’s no guy shining your shoes. We don’t have that stuff, but we do have a golf course that no other public golf course in the state can offer.”
Roberson, a veteran of the South Florida private club world, nods in agreement. “There’s nobody giving you a cool towel here,” he says. “I wish I had one of those.” Roberson then wipes sweat from his brow. Preserving nine highly regarded holes is grueling work.
Almost every course on every top-100 list has at least one maintenance employee per hole. Roberson maintains a 72-acre site with a crew of five. The golf course must be right, because Sweetens Cove has no alternative revenue-generating tactic.
The maintenance staff has quintupled since Sweetens Cove opened with a media preview in October 2014. Reaching opening day was anything but sweet and simple.
The Thomas family, owners of Sequatchie Concrete Services and the previous golf course, hired King Collins Golf Design in 2011 to design a new course. The family left the golf business by 2013, placing Collins and King in a peril because the course had been grassed in 2012. Confident Sweetens Cove was special, Collins negotiated with investors, including Ari Techner of former custom club manufacturer Scratch Golf, to secure a long-term lease on the property in spring 2014.
A sluggish economy left Collins, a Chattanooga resident who previously worked for Gary Player Design, with few options. King left a project in Qatar to help Collins open the course for the late 2014 opening.
“The client pulled the plug on all the resources, let all the labor go and you had $100,000 worth of grass out there that nobody was maintaining,” King says. “Rob and I, just as a labor of love, would run irrigation cycles, pull hoses and everything else. Rob and Ari took it over on a lease and it worked out well for me. I left Qatar and came down in the fall of 2014 solely to get Sweetens open for our media event. We had burned through all the budget, but we had to get it launched so we were all working for free.”
Collins’ group exhausted its financial resources after the opening, which led to then-superintendent Michael Burrows departing a second time for a stable job at an established private club. In addition to working for Collins’ group for six months in 2014, the Thomas family employed Burrows as superintendent before they exited the project. King then returned to the Middle East, leaving Collins as the only regular employee as the winter of 2014-15 approach.
Collins maintained the course and operated the business until Patrick Boyd, who was also involved in Scratch Golf, agreed to become general manager. The duo endured a dicey winter, which included losing 2,500 square feet on a green because of freezing temperatures and high winds.
Hiring Roberson, a native of nearby Dunlap, Tenn., as superintendent in March 2015 represented a major triumph because of his experience working under respected agronomist John Katterheinrich at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla. Two inches of snow covered Sweetens Cove when Roberson first toured the course with Collins. He saw enough potential in the rolling land – and felt confident enough in Sweetens Cove’s financial future – to leave Florida and lead what would become a small crew maintaining a layout built atop a course he played as a teenager.
“I could see parts of the course and it was like, ‘Wow, this is really neat,’” Roberson says. “You got on the greens and you could tell there was a lot of movement. It wasn’t even the same property. I took a chance, I definitely took a chance. In our industry, it’s hard to get from state to state. It’s one thing to be working in Jupiter and to get a job in Boca, but to be in Tennessee, 30 to 45 minutes from where I grew up … I’m fortunate.”
The similarities between working at a nine-hole course in Tennessee charging $65 for 18 holes with a cart on weekends ($55 on weekdays) and a private club in South Florida end with the Bermudagrass playing surfaces.
Besides employing a small crew, Roberson has just three mowers to maintain 35 acres of turf: a fairway unit and two triplexes. Hand labor, although sometimes needed, is reduced by using a triplex to mow the nearly three acres of MiniVerde greens and a mechanical rake to smooth the almost seven acres of bunkers/waste areas. All bunkers play as waste hazards, thus allowing golfers to ground clubs. No rakes are placed on the course.
I could see parts of the course and it was like, ‘Wow, this is really neat. You got on the greens and you could tell there was a lot of movement. It wasn’t even the same property. I took a chance, I definitely took a chance. In our industry, it’s hard to get from state to state. It’s one thing to be working in Jupiter and to get a job in Boca, but to be in Tennessee, 30 to 45 minutes from where I grew up … I’m fortunate.” — Brent Roberson
Roberson and his team use the mechanical rake on bottoms two or three times per week. Tasks such as restoring edges after heavy storms – South Pittsburg averages 59 inches of rain per year – and pulling weeds are performed by hand. Collins lauds Roberson and his crew’s persistence, but he says Sweetens Cove’s bunkers aren’t meant to provide the favorable lies golfers find at many private and high-end public courses.
“We definitely take a different approach to bunker maintenance and that fits in with our architectural style,” Collins says. “We believe bunkers are hazards, and if you don’t have a perfect lie, I don’t care. That’s your problem. You shouldn’t hit it in there.”
Roberson, whose team includes loyal mechanic Ron Simpson, admits he was overwhelmed at times in his first year at Sweetens Cove. But experience has taught him the value of prioritizing, which he says becomes more important when leading a small crew.
“This was a big change for me,” he says. “Where I was you had a crew of almost 30. I was having trouble keeping people busy, especially in the winter, which was our busiest time in Florida because you had a lot of golf. You did a lot of shop work. It’s a lot tougher here. It’s never ending.”
Working at a nine-hole course with meager resources has its perks. Collins knows for Sweetens Cove to succeed he must entrust key employees to efficiently operate their departments. So, Collins says, he gives Roberson and Boyd “a lot of latitude” to make decisions. Having just one layer to report to contrasts what many talented superintendents and general managers experience.
“I don’t know what Brent’s previous job was like,” Collins says. “I know there’s a lot of things he wishes were different here, but I would guess one of the things that’s better here is that when you work at a big private club, you have a GM, you have a club president, you have some obnoxious members, you have a greens committee and they are on you every single day. Brent doesn’t have any of that here. Hopefully the things he likes about working here are a little bit of a tradeoff.
Less oversight often means more job fulfillment in the turf world. “It works better to for a superintendent, in my opinion, whenever you are able to do what you need to do and not answer to six or seven people,” Roberson says. “Greens committees have ruined quite a few really good golf course superintendents. With the way this is, I know what needs to be done and I don’t have to ask. Unless it’s a big financial deal, I’m just going to do it.”
Closing for two summer days to aerify and topdress represents a major decision at Sweetens Cove, one that Collins estimates costs the course between $2,000 and $3,000 in revenue.
Sweetens Cove aerified once in each of Roberson’s first three years at the course. Roberson received an agronomic treat when Collins agreed to a DryJect application earlier this year. The application injected 22 tons of sand into the greens, further promoting the fast and firm surfaces Collins and King envisioned.
Because of the DryJect application, Roberson aerified with a smaller tine in August. Using a ½-inch tine allowed Sweetens Cove to limit golfer disruption. Feeling comfortable about closing the golf course for an important cultural practice represents significant progress in the Sweetens Cove’s business evolution.
“Last year it was extremely scary to aerify,” Collins says. “We weren’t doing that well financially and it was hard to stomach closing. This year we are up substantially and because of how quickly the golf course recovered from the DryJect and because we were doing a little bit smaller tine, I felt like we could to the right thing for the for the golf course and still do the right thing for the business.”
A creek borders Sweetens Cove, mountains surround the property and a dam rests on the other side of Interstate 24. When it rains hard, Collins, Roberson and Boyd get antsy.
The property has one natural foot of fall. Creating an interesting and functioning course involved moving 350,000 cubic yards of dirt, installing more than 10 miles of drainage and capping the ground with 4 inches of sand. The construction effort, which included workers from the concrete company and shapers recruited by Collins and King, created 30 feet of elevation. Numerous materials used in construction, including two varieties of sand, were provided by the concrete company.
Flipping a floodplain into a fully flood-proof setting, though, is almost impossible. “When you hear the word flood and golf course in a same sentence, it carries all sort of terrible connotations,” Collins says. “We don’t get a torrent of water that flows through the golf course. Mostly, it comes up and just flows away. It’s really a pain in the ass in two ways: it’s a pain in the ass operationally because we have to shut down for a few days and it’s a pain in the ass for Brent because it’s cleanup.”
Following a heavy storm this past February, water submerged parts of the course. High water levels coincided with thawing and Roberson considered using kayaks to reach greens that needed covered. “Luckily, it didn’t get to that point,” he says. Water and winter will continue to yield uneasy moments, making Sweetens Cove’s environment no different than many Transition Zone courses.
A steady day at Sweetens Cove …
Golfers begin arriving at 7 a.m. First group tees off at 7:30 a.m. Morning tee times run until 9:30 a.m., with many customers opting to play 18 holes in a cart. Boyd schedules tee times 15 minutes apart, allowing gaps for potential walk-in play.
Sweetens Cove had 18 carts until adding five more earlier this year. Optimal capacity involves placing no more than 50 golfers on the course at any given time. “I try to keep that flow going and that cycle keeps going all day until the golf course is empty,” Boyd says.
Collins initially envisioned the bulk of Sweetens Cove’s customers hailing from Chattanooga. Architecture gurus relished their first glimpses at the course, which includes a par 3 with a 20,000-square foot green, a driveable par 4 guarded by a sadistic bunker, and modern versions of beloved Golden Age templates such as a “Cape” hole and “Biarritz” and “Redan” greens. But the combination of traditional marketing and architectural praise didn’t produce immediate success in the 550,000-person Chattanooga market.
An engaged following cultivated through an inorganic in-house social media effort slowly developed, expanding the customer radius to a three-hour radius that includes Nashville, Atlanta, Knoxville, Birmingham and Huntsville. Sweetens Cove’s 3,100 Twitter and 3,300 Instagram followers are believed to be the nation’s highest totals for a standalone nine-hole facility. “Twitter and Instagram are our two best friends,” Collins says.
Sweetens Cove doesn’t have out-of-bounds stakes, rough, cart paths or a dress code. “Everything is designed to keep it moving, keep it fast, and keep it fun and enjoyable,” Boyd says.
Simple works in many facets of life. Can it work in American golf?
Short-term success at Sweetens Cove includes expanding the regional customer base. Revenues have grown every year since the course open and, so far, 2018 marks the “best year we have ever had,” Collins says. Building a permanent clubhouse, onsite maintenance facility and perhaps a few cabins are long-range goals.
A survive-the-day mentality still permeates when trying to polish a spacious golf course that blends with idyllic surroundings. “If I could wave a magic wand and get more resources, I would hire three more guys, get another fairway, get another surrounds mower and update some of the equipment,” Collins says. “Walking a tightrope day after day is tough.”
Sweetens Cove has already received a few doses of magic, surviving a recession, ownership change, financial hardship and ultra-lean beginnings. Sweetens Cove will never magically morph into an 18-hole course because of land constraints and because sometimes nine memorable holes are enough to serve a deeper purpose.
“It’s about as anti-establishment of a golf club or experience that you’re going to find,” Boyd says. “There’s no masquerading about that. We celebrate it for what it is.”