Disclaimer: I am not an architecture junkie. I’ve never played the Old Course, National Golf Links, or North Berwick. Hell, I didn’t know what a Redan was until LinksGems came across my twitter feed a couple years ago. My personal Top-10 list is made by answering one simple question: if I had one last round to play, with 3 close friends, where would I play?
After seeing pictures and rave reviews of Sweetens Cove on my Instagram feed the last couple of years, I put it on the calendar, rallied 7 friends and made the drive up to South Pittsburgh, Tennessee. I heard the “clubhouse” was a 300 sq. ft. shed, the bathroom was blue and made of plastic, and the lunch cuisine was whatever you packed in your cooler and brought with you. All of this is true — actually, it’s about 30% more true than I described above.
We hopped on carts and headed to the first tee (there is no driving range and no putting green (although one overachiever in our group had to sneak off to #9 green and roll a few — calling it a “pro move”). The course opens with arguably the strongest hole on the property. You immediately find out what you’re in for: generous but not enormous fairways, hole-defining bunkers, and huge undulating greens. The bunkers are fairly penal, but ironically when your ball is heading towards one you’re hoping it finds sand as the bunker surrounds are a particularly nasty strain of Tennessee Gorse. I’ll spare you a hole-by-hole but the 9 holes include two drivable holes, one short and one long par-5, one very difficult par-4, and two spectacular par-3’s. Our group consisted of 4 pro golfers and 4 amateurs with handicaps ranging from 2 to 10. On our first lap around the track we weren’t exactly sure where to drive it, searched for a few balls, lost a couple of our ams in the scraggly bunkers, left balls on the wrong side of huge slopes, but still managed to play in about 1:45 and have a great time.
I’ve never been to Merion, but I’ve heard that the lunch patio overhanging the first tee is a highlight. Well, I think Sweetens gives Merion a run for best outdoor dining in golf. They have a single plastic picnic table, that sits in the pinestraw above the 9th green and alongside the first tee, and it’s just spectacular. Lunch could not have been more awesome. Sandwiches from home, Ruffles, beer, Gatorade and a full recap of our first look at Sweetens. The cool thing about the lunch spot is that you can see almost the entire course from there, so rehashing all the holes and talking about what we saw on first look was easy because you could just point to the hole you were talking about!
We played another 9 and then a six-some played an Emergency-7 holes to close out our visit. Overall the day could not have been more enjoyable. The course is so much fun to play for players of any skill level, and the rustic lower-than-low-key vibe was a refreshing break from valet parking and talk of incredible shower heads in the locker room.
From an architecture standpoint, there is a lot of talk these days about green complexes. Doak says that routing and greens are the two keys to a great course. Shinnecock was praised for it’s interesting greens. Trinity Forest has big rolling undulating greens. I agree with all that — but interesting green complexes have two big challenges when trying to be the defining feature of a great course.
Television is 2-D. A Tour event on a course with undulating greens will never be as fun to watch on TV as a course with pronounced hazards and water features. The back-9 at Augusta is awesome for many reasons, but the excitment of watching those holes on TV is driven by the water on 11,12,13,15, and 16.
Interesting green complexes are only appreciated after multiples plays. If you are playing a course once at a resort, or as a guest at your friends club, you will usually favor and remember the course with big beautiful bunkers and water features (aka Fazio courses). It’s not until the 3rd or 4th playing that you can learn and truly appreciate interesting greens. I played at The Abaco Club earlier this year and came to this realization. Only after 3 times around did I feel like I had a grasp of the greens, how great they were, and how to play them. But most people don’t play a course that many times. Getting back to Sweetens…the great thing about it is that it’s only 9-holes! You see those incredible, huge, slopey greens at least twice on your first visit, if not more! A friend of mine went a couple Saturday’s ago and they played 36 holes!
Whether you keep a personal list of Macdonalds 10 best Eden holes or you just light up at the idea of golf and cold beer, set the GPS to South Pittsburgh,Tennessee and go play Sweetens Cove. You won’t regret it. I’m already making plans for my next visit.
**Note: post originally published in Sept. 2018
**Note 2: I still have not played the Old Course, National, or North Berwick.