The resurrection of a classic Tennessee golf course
The resurrection of one of Tennessee’s most historic golf courses began in earnest at Augusta National.
It was 2006, and six alumni of the University of the South had gathered to play golf and discuss a subject near and dear to their hearts—the school’s 9-hole golf course, which had been around since 1915 but had fallen into disrepair, the victim of neglect and lack of funding. The ringleader of this gathering was King Oehmig, son of the greatest amateur golfer in Tennessee history, Lewis Oehmig, and a 1977 graduate of Sewanee’s seminary school. Oehmig had been working since the turn of the new century on a plan to renovate the course.
That day at Augusta, inside famed Butler Cabin, an important ally came to the forefront.
The discussion inevitably wound its way down to the most critical component of the project—funding. That’s when Chris Hehmeyer, a classmate of Oehmig’s who had been successful in the investment business, stood up and stunned everyone else in the room.
“I pledge a million dollars,” Hehmeyer said.
Oehmig had to take a second to regain his composure after an intense rush of euphoria. And once he did, the first thought that came to him was that the course he had played so often as a college student was about to receive the facelift it so desperately needed to stay vital and relevant. Finally, after more than six years of trying, it was go time.
Oehmig had long before finalized the other key component in the process. By chance, Oehmig stumbled upon the architect he thought would be perfect to give the Sewanee course new life—Gil Hanse.
That realization came in the middle of a round of golf in 2001. Oehmig had traveled to the Capstone Club of Alabama to play a round with a friend from Mississippi. The course made an immediate impression on him.
“It was the best new course I’d ever seen,” Oehmig said. “I thought it was a combination of Pinehurst No. 2 and Pine Valley. I was totally blown away.”
When the round was finished, Oehmig went to the pro shop to find out the name of the course architect. Told it was Hanse, Oehmig immediately reached for his cell phone.
“I said, ‘Gil, I’ve never met you, but I’ve just got to tell you this is the best new golf course I’ve ever played,’ ” Oehmig said.
That conversation led to a couple of projects for Hanse. First, he was hired to finish a restoration job Brian Silva started at Lookout Mountain Golf Club, Oehmig’s home course. Before that project was completed, Oehmig invited Hanse to check out Sewanee. Silva had already drawn up plans to renovate the course, but Oehmig thought a second opinion wouldn’t hurt.
“He came up and walked it,” Oehmig said. “And he fell in love with it.”
Hanse, considered a minimalist who moves earth only when it’s absolutely necessary, had a simple plan for Sewanee.
“Most of the projects that we are taking on involve a significant designer or course, so we feel it is important to honor this history,” Hanse said. “At Sewanee our approach was mainly to restore the course because the routing and land were really good, and the nostalgia that the alumni feel for the course is really a good and overriding story.
“The appreciation that the students and alumni have for Sewanee is unlike many other schools that I have seen or attended. They love their school and retaining the spirit of the course was important to us.”
Hanse knew a unique opportunity when he saw one. What he had before him was a links course on a mountain.
“A bit of a contradiction maybe,” Oehmig said. “But that’s the best way to describe it.”
Sewanee was designed by Albion Knight, an Episcopal bishop, with help from Jack Cowan, a Scottish immigrant who was on the faculty at the university. With the school’s football players helping clear the land, the project took several summers to complete.
“Jack’s story is not unlike that of Donald Ross,” Oehmig said. “The both emigrated to bring golf to America.”
Because of his background studying classic links courses in Scotland, Hanse thought it was appropriate to utilize old-style bunkering and mounding throughout the course and add size and contour to every green. But his most important decision was to take advantage of Sewanee’s greatest gift. It sits on the Cumberland Plateau, but some potentially breathtaking views had over the years become hidden by trees.
“Part of the focus of the project was to open up the course to these fantastic views out over the mountains,” Hanse said.
On a crisp mid-March morning, Oehmig, having escorted a visitor to hole No. 3/12, a par-3 called “Infinity,” waves out over the stunning view of the mountains and proclaims it “one of the top five views in golf.” The visitor, staring in slack-jawed wonder, nods in agreement.
“By moving the tees up and pushing the green back toward the edge of the bluff, the green will sit with nothing but sky to the rear of it, creating an infinity edge as a backdrop,” says an explanation of the hole in a brochure about the course. “Once you reach this breathtaking green, you may never want to leave.”
The view is just as breathtaking behind Hole No. 5/14, a par-3 known as “The Edge.”
“This hole is named for the distinct drop-off to the left of the green and for the dramatic views off the bluff to the rear of the green,” says the hole’s description in the brochure. “The creation of a long tee along the water’s edge will create an uphill tee shot over the pond.”
The views will be worth the trip to Sewanee, but the course has much more to offer. Take for example the risk-reward, driveable par-4, No. 4/13, called, appropriately enough, “Short.”
“You take some 20-year-old kid, full of testosterone, a little wind behind him, and at 295 yards, he’s gonna try to knock it on the green,” Oehmig said. “He might make eagle, but he might make a 6 or 7.”
Hanse added bunkers around the green, which he also extended onto a peninsula.
“One of the aspects of the course I love, and a testament to Gil’s genius, is that for you to score on this golf course, you’ve got to make good shots and good plays,” Oehmig said.
“You can’t just stick a tee in the ground and swing as hard as you can,” head professional Matt Daniels said. “Each time you ride around the course, you kind of think, this is going to be a target oriented golf course.”
One of those targets can be found in the 8th fairway. The Old Course at St. Andrews has its famed Principal’s Nose, a three-bunker complex in the middle of the 16th fairway. Sewanee’s answer to that, and a tribute to the course’s creator, is “the Bishop’s Nose,” a similar bunker cluster that will challenge tee shots at No. 8.
Sewanee’s views and rich history are what lured Daniels to the project. But that wasn’t a recent development. The course set its hooks into Daniels years ago.
“I first played here around 1975, when I was 11 or 12 years old,” Daniels said. “My dad used to bring my and brother and me up here to play. I remember one Saturday morning he woke us up early, and we thought it was yard work time. But he said, ‘we’re going to play golf. I’ve got this place I want to show you.’
“So we drive up here, and it’s this course with these beautiful views. That was imprinted in a 12-year-old’s mind. Now 35 years later, lo and behold, I’m here.”
That’s no accident. Daniels has spent his entire career in the golf business. Four 14 years he worked just down the road at the Bear Trace at Tim’s Ford, all the while keeping his eye on the little course at Sewanee.
“I knew one day this was where I wanted to be,” Daniels said. “I wanted to be involved in the whole process of renovation.”
When Daniels’s says “process,” he means it. In addition to the work on the course, the university has torn down an adjacent inn—“an old, 1950s, Holiday Inn-looking thing, really unattractive,” Oehmig said—and replaced it with a 40-room facility that, combined with the course, could make Sewanee a destination spot for golf travelers.
“When they came up with the design for the inn, I thought, ‘Oh God, they’re throwing in a brand new 50,000-square foot inn over there,” Daniels said. “I would have given a finger to have that at the Bear Trace to attract stay-and-play golfers and little tournaments and outings. It’s kind of a no brainer.”
Oehmig has high hopes for the renovated course, state-of-the-art practice facility including indoor teaching bays, industrial-strength practice green designed after St. Andrews’ Himalayas putting course, the inn and a donated adjacent home that will house up to eight.
“In seminary, this course was sort of my cathedral,” Oehmig said. “To see it go to seed was saddening. It was underfunded, neglected, an afterthought. Now we’ve got a chance to have a positive effect on Tennessee golf. The potential is endless.”
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