Sweetens Cove GC

3,093 yards, slope n/a from the Blues
Course:  About 25 minutes from Chattanooga in South Pittsburg, TN, lies Sweetens Cove, a nine hole course designed by Rob Collins and Tad King (“King-Collins Golf Course Design”).  Previously known as Sequatchie Valley Golf & Country Club, King-Collins performed a total rebuild and re-design of the course in 2011.  Essentially, it became an entirely different course as a result.  
As you pull in to the parking lot and start walking to the shed that acts as the clubhouse and pro shop, the entire course is below you and it becomes immediately apparent that SC is a special place.  The course is filled to the brim with character, as the bunkering is rigid and wild, the fairways ripple and slope, and the green complexes are the most undulating I have seen.  Indeed, the greens are wild.  I found the greens to be exciting and unpredictable, giving the course an aspect of re-playability and making it a terrific match play venue.  One of the match play attributes is due to having a chance at recovery no matter where your ball ends up, unless you hit it wildly out of bounds on one of the perimeter holes.  In playing it, you can tell how much attention was paid to every detail of the course, and can almost feel the passion and excitement that went into its design.  SC definitely asserts itself as one of a kind and ensures you will face shots and holes never encountered before.  The maintenance and conditioning are also top notch.  
A look at the court walking to the clubhouse
The clubhouse
Behind the initial impressions of the design, Sweetens Cove is a course with numerous subtleties as well and generally, makes you think about every shot.  The complexity of the greens means approach shots must be precise, which starts off the tee and of course deliberation changes depending on where your tee shot ends up.  The greens also allow a tremendous variety of short game components to get close to the pin.  There were countless times where I wavered between trying to flop it close as opposed to using the ground game before finally settling on one, only to second guess my decision when the ball didn’t get as close as I wanted.  The random nature of the undulations, mounds, bunkers and greens means the course won’t play the same each play, which means the strategy and thinking during the round will be different each time.  That’s quite an accomplishment for a nine hole course in my opinion.  
While I immediately liked Sweetens after setting my eyes on it on that initial walk to the clubhouse, I liked it even more after playing it.  In fact, I ended up playing it the entire day.  And after playing 3 rounds in a row, it is easy to see why SC is ranked the #1 public course in Tennessee and received the highest rating of any course in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi & Louisiana in “The Confidential guide to Golf Courses” volume 2.  As it stands for me, it is one of the best nine hole courses I have played (Phoenixville CC is on that list as well, just to tie this in to the Philly area).
The First is a 503 yard par 5.  The elevated tee is a few steps from the clubhouse and the Ninth green, with the fairway below and dog legging slightly left.  The tee shot presents an array of bunkers, some that come into play and some that simply make you think about shot placement.  There is a bunker off to the left center of the fairway that signals the exactness many shots require here, meaning in on the First tee, you’re not able to simply whale away with your driver.  The second shot is fairly strategic.  Of the three times I played it, I laid up once, went for the green once, and tried to set up a nice wedge shot once.  The lay up is the only one that worked out for me.  There are mounds that protect the front of the green and make it fairly blind from the fairway, so getting as close as possible, preferably on either side of the mound, is ideal.  There’s also mounds on the far side of the hole, which you can use as a side board to try and get the ball close to the hole.  There’s so many options, so much thinking to do and a whole lot of fun.  It’s one of my favorite holes on the course and sets the tone early for the kind of strategic, exciting hole to expect.
On the second or third round, I was walking to the First green when a gentleman drove up in a golf cart, without golf clubs.  I assumed it was someone from the clubhouse who saw my ugly swing and decided I should be escorted from the course, but instead it was Rob Collins, one of the course architects.  Rob lives near by and was just watching how guys were playing the course.  He asked how I liked the course and we talked a little about it, then he drove on to the next hole.  He was a great guy and even with that brief interaction, you could tell the passion he had for the course.  
The First

Moving down the fairway
The Second is a 352 yard par 4.  A bit more subdued than the First, The left side off the tee is tree lined before a wood fence marks OB.  Any shot on that side, however, can be found and a recovery shot is possible, which is another aspect of the course I loved; redemption was always possible and you didn’t spend a lot of time searching for balls.  The ripples along the fairway create various bounces and rolls and the small pot bunker in the center of the fairway comes into play off the tee more than it appears.  The green complex is terrific, as it falls off on the left side, so any shots in that area are in danger and rolling off, which also slopes and undulates in various directions.  It was this green that I realized a well struck approach shot wasn’t enough here; it was more important to figure out how to get the ball close to the pin using the contours of the green and area around it.  
The Second

Approach shot territory
The Third is a 536 yard par 5.  Off the tee, there is a vast waste area on the right side while a tree line runs along the left side.  I am glad I nailed my tee shot here on all three occasions, because it is vital to avoiding a big number.  As you can see from the second photo, the contours of the fairway and breaking up of the waste area also comes into play off the tee.  I just aimed to the left side of the waste area and tried to carry it.  The second shot is another thought provoker.  From the fairway, you can see the green in the distance and, yep, that is a tree in the middle of the fairway, front and center of the green.  There are several ways to confront this approach shot.  You can bomb your second shot to get as close as possible to the green, trying to create a preferred angle to chip around it; you could lay up short so you’re able to carry the tree on your approach, or you can hit something in between to the extreme left or right and hit your approach from that angle.  Some might complain about the tree near the green, but I liked it.  To give an example of how random this hole can play from time to time, the first time I played it, I bombed my second shot and had a nice chip shot to the far side of the green, opposite of the pin.  I chipped it on, then thought I was looking at a two-putt par.  Nope.  My first putt picked up speed on the contours and ran straight off into a bunker.  I ended up getting up and down for a very gracious bogey.  Another time, I laid up to allow myself room to carry the tree on my approach.  I pulled off the shot perfectly and watched my ball dance on the green and sit on a ridge in the area of the pin.  It was probably my most exciting approach shot of the year and the ensuing par was one of the most satisfying.  I think that tree adds to the randomness, fun and excitement of the hole.  The green complex itself is also wild, but playable.  Distance control on them is crucial.  
I would probably pay the green fee just to play the two par 5’s.  I liked them that much.
The Third

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory
The Fourth is a 169 yard par 3.  We have walked the perimeter of the course and now have turned back in the direction of the Third.  A large waste/mound area block the view of the left side of the green while the right/rear side is visible.  The area to the right of the green slopes down to a short grass area, but the green in that area narrows considerably from the left/front.  Based on pin placement, this hole changes dramatically.  I found it to be the most difficult holes on the course and was only able to grind out a bogey at best during my rounds. 
The Fourth
The Fifth is a 293 yard par 4.  A short par with a wider fairway, a waste area with trees is on the right while the lone tree on the left only comes into play with the worst of hooks.  Figuring out the ideal distance and angle for your approach shot is important here based on the raised boomerang green where a deep pot bunker is set in the front center.  
One of the toughest aspects of this course for me was not hitting the greens, but making my ball stay on the green.  I mentioned this earlier, but the greens invite the ground game as much as the aerial game, but if aerial, the bounce and release of the ball after it lands determines most of the success of the shot.  With the ground game, you can control the roll of your ball more, which helps it stay on the green better, at least for those of us who find it difficult to impart back spin on the shots.  It’s also one of the reasons that made this course infinitely re-playable, is getting to know the greens and figuring out how to use their contours on approach shots.
The Fifth
The Sixth is a 434 yard par 4.  The longest par 4 on the course snakes it way to the green, which is set off to the left of the fairway.  Water is along the left side of the hole and guards the front of the green, which comes into play on your approach, depending on which line you take.  The further right you go off the tee, the less the water comes into play, but your approach will be longer.  The green itself was almost multi-tiered and there is a trench bunker on the far side collecting shots overcooked.  I found the approach shot to be one of the tougher on the course, mainly because it’s a longer shot, yet requires the same precision and use of the green contours as the other holes.  This hole killed me each time because I couldn’t pull off the approach shot.  Another reason to get back.
The Sixth

Approach shot territory
The Seventh is a 313 yard par 4.  A short par 4 where cross bunkers narrow the tee landing area significantly and makes you wonder if driver and going for the green is worth it.  The green is severely pitched and trying to find the best line of approach is a challenge.  The right side appears to be the ideal angle of attack.  Most shots short of the green are also touch to get close to the hole, as they must climb the pitch and then manage the slopes that travel out and off the backside of the green.  I finally decided to hit very short off the tee, then had a longer approach I aimed at the front of the green, that hit and rolled over to the pin.  But again, there are several playing options and figuring out which one works for you is a big part of the fun.
The Seventh

Approach shot territory.  Camera issues popped up again on the focus here, but the pin is in the center of the photo
The Eighth is a 361 yard par 4.  The tee shot, while to a wide fairway, does have trees and bunkers to contend with and come into play off the tee.  Another tough approach shot awaits, as the green is very different from the others as there are large swales on either side (I wish I took better photos of it!).  This is another green that is better approached from the sides of the fairway then the center, which will help keep the ball on the green as opposed to it running off.  After dealing with a deluge of par 4’s from the Fifth, all with distinct thought-provoking challenge, the green is a terrific cap to the par 4 run.  My ball did so many different things each time I played this hole I almost walked back to the tee to play it one more time for another crack at it.  Again, limitless options based on meticulous design features.  
The Eighth

Approach shot territory
The Ninth is a 132 yard par 3.  The last hole is visually stunning, as the large desert bunker area separates the hole from the tee and the bunker line continues to the far side of the green.  The green itself wraps around the front bunker area and drops almost 10 feet from the left center to its extreme left.  We were able to play pin positions on the right center and on the left side between drop offs.  The pin on the right center is more straightforward, as you try to feed the ball to the pin from the right side or go straight at it by carrying the bunker.  The pin on the left side invited a bit more creativity, as you could either attack right at the pin or use the slope on the right to get the ball close.  Unfortunately, my ball held up on the slope, then I had to putt downhill and could not get the ball to rest on the same level as the pin.  This hole can play so many different ways, but as a short par 3, demands a well executed shot or else stiff consequences will be faced.  For those matches coming down to this hole, the victor will be the one who plays better one way or another; there is no falling backwards into the win on this hole.  

The Ninth

Looking at the green from the far side

A look at the front of the green on the left side
Ranking the holes, I would go 1, 9, 3, 8, 4, 7, 5, 6, 2.
Generally, Sweetens Cove is a terrific example of a course that makes you think about each shot and rewards, or rather promotes, repeat play.  The challenge of thinking about every shot makes it fun; the greens, their unpredictability and how to use them to get to the pin makes it fun; and the variety yet consistent themes make it fun.  The inland links course plays firm and fast, utilizing every square inch of the course has a purpose and using the ground game is encouraged as much as the aerial.  I just wish I had a better punch shot and bump and run when I played here.  
The course is an ideal match play venue, mainly because of the array of options for each shot.  The players can play off each other’s shots or attack each hole with their own particular style, so the match isn’t decided only on who executes each shot the best, but rather who is able to out-think and manage the course, as well as his opponent.  The course does not let up from the first hole, which is more necessary for nine holes, but is done here quite well.  Based on everything, Sweetens Cove is likely in the top spot of courses I’d love to take a group for a week, hold a match play tournament and schedule free play on top of that.  Ultimately, it had what I look for in a course and is a terrific example how a generally bland piece of land can be turned into an ideal golf course through golf course design.  

Gripes:  Not a gripe, but the bold design here may not agree with some.  It has distinct character, but at no point in time did I feel it was unfair, gimmicky, or overboard.  Many of the features you see here are similar to the features encountered in several links courses across the pond.  

Bar/Grill:  It’s called a chair on the porch overlooking the course.  That’s pretty good in my book.

Practice area:  The Ninth green when no one is playing it to get used to the green speeds.

Nearby:  No help here.  It was 20 minutes from Chattanooga and you dip into Georgia during the drive at some point.

Getting there:  I believe it’s off the Pittsburg exit of I-24, then 5 minutes.  

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