Is the best 9-hole golf course in the country located in Tennessee?

Photo Courtesy King-Collins Golf

The complete version of this story and several pictures of Sweetens Cove can be found in Tennessee Golf Quarterly.

It seems hard to believe, but within a 15-minute drive of one another, across Interstate 24 between Chattanooga and Nashville, sit two of the finest nine-hole golf courses in the world, both restoration projects, both compelling in their design, both playable for golfers of all skill levels.

One man helped jumpstart their Lazarus-like second acts.

King Oehmig’s tireless work on behalf of the Course at Sewanee, located on the grounds of his alma mater, the University of the South, was documented in Tennessee Golf Quarterly’s spring 2013 edition. Little did Oehmig know at the time, but a recommendation he made in 2010, while Sewanee was being masterfully restored by architect Gil Hanse, would lead to another nine-hole course being renovated, make that rebuilt, into a gem that has critics of course architecture lavishing it with the highest of praise.

That course is called Sweetens Cove, and it sits in Marion County, not exactly the place where one would expect to find the best nine-hole course in the country, but that’s exactly what some golf architecture writers have suggested it has become.

“[Sweetens Cove has] such character and fun that, it could rival Mike Keiser’s Dunes Club as America’s best nine hole course,” wrote Ron Whitten of Golf Digest. “Sweetens is that sweet.”

“Sweetens Cove is a better golf course than the Dunes Club,” wrote Anthony Pioppi, author of To the Nines. “The best nine hole course constructed in the United States since WWII.”

When Rob Collins stumbled onto the former Sequatchie Valley Golf and Country Club, he was an out-of-work course architect who was making ends meet taking on landscaping projects. Collins had earned a Masters in landscape architecture at Mississippi State, gone to work for noted course designer Rick Robbins for a valuable nine-month internship, worked three years for Gary Player’s design group, and then, after the financial crash of 2008, found himself out of the business and back in his native Chattanooga.

Eventually tiring of landscaping, he formed King-Collins Golf Course Design with his friend Tad King and began looking for work. When the Sewanee project was underway, Collins, hoping to help in any way he could, asked Oehmig if he would put in a good word with Hanse.

As it turned out Hanse had Sewanee well under control by that time, but Oehmig did Collins one better. By introducing him to Thomas family, owners of Sequatchie Valley and Sequatchie Concrete Service, he changed Collins’ life, along with the life of a golf course that had been all but forgotten except for the few locals that kept it (barely) in business.

“My family knew the Thomas family,” Oehmig said. “One day in church, I mentioned to Bob Thomas that I wanted to talk with him about Sewanee, and he told me he had bought Sequatchie Valley and really wanted to do something with it.

“And I said, “I’ve got the guy for you.’ He went to McCallie [in Chattanooga], where Bob’s sons had gone to school. He worked for Gary Player. He was very bright, very eager. And as far as architects go, he would not be very expensive. I would recommend hiring him.”

The Thomas family took Oehmig’s word for it and brought in Collins and King for a site visit.

“Sequatchie Valley was the worst golf course either of us had ever seen,” Collins said. “I swear to you that’s not a hyperbolic statement in any way. Terrible. Horrible. Dead flat. But it had two things going for it. One was a beautiful site, as pretty a place as you’ll ever see. The other thing was it had decent routing. It needed to be tweaked, but it was fundamentally sound.”

Though the project would be Collins’ first chance to redesign a course on his own, he had the right influences guiding him for the task.

“I had been influenced by guys like Tom Doak and Mike Strantz,” Collins said. “I had a vision for this property as being basically a blank slate. I wanted to instill a Pine Valley, Pinehurst, Scottish kind of feel to it.”

The project was uniquely suited to Collins’ vision, in no small part because the Thomas family, owing to their concrete business, owned tons of sand on nearby Monteagle Mountain. They offered Collins as much of it as he needed.

As it turned out, Collins needed a lot of sand. Other characteristics central to his concept are big greens, one as large as 20,000 square feet, no rough, tightly mown fairways, and several options for a player to execute a shot, whether through the air or on the ground.

Sweetens Cove looks as though someone airlifted Pine Valley or Pinehurst No. 2 and dropped it on Sequatchie Valley. Collins and King’s work forever changing the way the course will be regarded, and, ultimately, played and enjoyed.

One hole that symbolizes Sweetens Cove is the par-3 fourth, which, depending on the pin position, can result in a blind tee shot, thanks to the presence of a massive bunker. The hole was inspired by a suggestion from Oehmig.

“He and I were bouncing around ideas,” Collins said. “And King said it would be so cool to figure out a place to do a Himalayas hole. Before I got the job, I used to come out here once a month to imagine what if. What if I got the project? What would I do? One day, I texted King and told him I’d found the Himalayas hole, with a 20,000-square foot green that sits behind a massive bunker. I named that hole King Oehmig in his honor.”

“I don’t think there’s a hole like it in America,” said Oehmig, long a student of classic golf architecture. “But there are several in Scotland. I’ve never played a blind par 3 before, yet it’s in the pantheon of great holes, at least in the UK.”

Every hole at Sweetens Cove has a similar story, an influence, or a reason Collins wanted it on the course.

“There are some features out here I was quite certain upon first inspection by a lot of golfers might be off putting,” Collins said. “Like the strength of some of the contours, the difficulty of the hazards. But I stuck to the belief that what we were doing, even though it was wild and crazy, was still grounded in a set of fundamental principles that are common to really great architecture.

“No matter how far we pushed the envelope, as long as the course remained grounded and attached to those basic principles, we could do something great.”