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March 25, 2024

Good vibes only when it comes to Sweetens Cove

By Gregg Dewalt, Alabama Golf News Editor
Sweeten's Cove No. 8

Great fun if you can ignore your score

We usually play Sweetens Cove in mid-summer when it’s pushing 100 degrees in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and the course is running hard and fast. By the time the first tee shot is airborne, the sweat is pouring off you like when Ted Striker took over in the pilot’s seat in the 1980 movie “Airplane.”

A few weeks ago, a friend was looking for a place to play while on spring break from Jacksonville State University. Josh (his real name) played Sweetens Cove for the first time with us last summer and being somewhat masochistic, decided he loved it.

When Josh found a rare day-pass for March 19, he quickly booked it before any of us said we were available to play. (Note: They don’t do tee times at Sweetens Cove; they do nine-hole, 18-hole or all-day passes).

Sweetens Cove nine-holer has grown in stature

Here’s the ongoing theme when it comes to Sweetens Cove, that quaint little nine-holer with over-the-top greens complexes in Tennessee: When you can get a pass, you grab it now and worry about details later. Why? Because passes are not easy to get due to the course’s immense popularity. They’re limited so that the course doesn’t get overly crowded and players can absorb the entire experience.

Sweeten's Cove late afternoon
Sweetens Cove on a late afternoon in mid-March. (Photo: Gregg Dewalt)

Usually, when booking a summer day-pass, I’m on the website the minute they open up. You don’t wait a day. You don’t wait an hour. Trying to get a pass at Sweetens Cove is like needing to be first in line at Target for Black Friday. You snooze; you lose.

After Josh secured his all-day pass, he texted Phoob (not his real name) to see if he wanted to play. Like me, Phoob has an affinity for Sweetens Cove, and he quickly signed on. “Dog” (not his real name) also wanted to play. He was a first-timer for the trip.

My invite came via text at 8:29 p.m. on Feb. 14. My one-word response – “In” – was sent at 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 14. No way was I going to let that invitation slide.

Like most golf trips, we started monitoring the weather well in advance. Although there’s nothing a person can do about it, weather in the South can be persnickety in the spring. It might be 80 degrees and cloudless one day, and 40, raining and blowing 20 mph the next. Sweetens Cove, which is set smack-dab in the middle of Sequatchie Valley, which means it floods. Not only does it absorb the rainwater that falls, but it also collects the runoff from the surrounding hills. So, it can be quite soggy.

 And in the South, it rains in the spring. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes a little. Our recent weather pattern has been rainy weekends, so we wanted to know if we were going to get the soggy Sweetens Cove or the drier version. Four days out from our day trip, weather forecasters predicted rain followed by below-freezing temperatures. Not good. And not wrong.

By the time we pulled into the gravel parking lot at Sweetens on that mid-March morning, the outside temperature had soared to 37 degrees from the overnight low of 27. For Dog, playing meant making an exception to his “I don’t-play on days that the temperature is under 52 degrees” rule. That’s how much he wanted to see what the Sweetens Cove fuss is about.

What sets Sweetens Cove apart from many golf experiences is the fun factor. The first course from the design team of Rob Collins and Tad King, Sweetens Cove initially came to prominence following a Dylan Dethier article in the New York Times in 2017. Although it was just weeks away from closing – they built it but nobody came – before Dethier’s article, Sweetens Cove is now on everyone’s must-play list. It also launched the Collins/King team into the stratosphere of golf design.

Except for the Shed, nothing is subtle at Sweetens Cove

When you show up to play Sweetens Cove, it’s not really about shooting a score. Well, it is but you quickly realize how insane that notion is when that first chunked pitch shot off a tight lie winds up back at your feet. Instead, you go there for the vibe, the friendliness, the crazy greens complexes and the non-conventional way they do things.

Sweeten's Cove shed
If you’re expecting a typical pro shop at Sweetens Cove, think again. (Photo: Gregg Dewalt)

When a golf shop is a literal small green shed, don’t you shed all expectations? Sweetens Cove is simply no-frills, go have some fun with your buds, golf. There’s even a “heckle deck” that overlooks the ninth green and the back tee on No. 1.

Wanna play eight? Go ahead. The day we played there were two eightsomes and a sixsome on the course. We had four, and there were a few twosomes and some singles walking.

Worried about getting stuck behind those eight guys hitting it all over the lot? Don’t be. Groups are encouraged to skip around and find open holes instead of sitting and waiting on every shot, fuming about slow play.

Sweetens Cove is a nine-hole, par 36 layout with four sets of tees. Each green is spacious and features two pin locations each day – white and blue. Every green is elevated, creating steep false fronts. There are no subtle breaks on Sweetens Cove’s greens. Their slopes and undulations and mounds are dramatic. It’s bold, beautiful and frustrating as hell trying to navigate them. Jaw-dropping, really.

The eighth hole features an angled biarritz green and the fourth green measures 87 yards from front to back. Every greens complex has runoffs and collection areas.

Although the greens are massive, precision is the name of the game. A shot doesn’t have to be off-line by much to ensure a three-putt, four-putt or having a chip shot that is a 10 out of 10 on a scale of difficulty. Pro tip: Practice chipping with your hybrid, 3-wood or use your Texas wedge for shots around the greens before you arrive at Sweetens Cove. Those options might be the prudent play, but no shot around the greens can be considered safe.

It didn’t take long for Josh to re-acquaint himself with Sweetens Cove’s diabolic greens complexes. We started on the par-5 third hole and Josh had a third shot of no more than 15 yards to a pin tucked just over the massive false front. His third shot came up short of the ridge and trickled back to his feet. So did his fourth and fifth shots. By the time we walked off the green, Josh had a 9 on his opening hole. Welcome back to Sweetens Cove and good-bye course record.

Dog got his biggest taste of Sweetens Cove reality on our second trip around the par 4 sixth hole, an excellent par 4 with water along the left side all the way to the green. A waste bunker guards anything long, and the left side of the massive, undulating green is like a finger that seeps terrifyingly close to the pond. It’s also where the pin was located that day.

Dog hooked his drive into the water. He dropped and hit his third shot into the water. After another drop, his fifth shot sailed into the waste bunker. He got out of the bunker in six and watched his seventh shot trickle into the water. He eventually recorded an 11. He later offset that number with a couple of birdies, though.

I got off to a decent start and came to the ninth hole, an uphill par 3 with a waste bunker guarding the front and back of the green. My 8-iron went left and settled into a collection area about 25 feet from the hole. My hybrid putt skirted past the hole and then rolled off the front of the green. I made a double bogey and the good vibes from the first six holes vanished.

Any score can be made at any time

Depending on which tees you play, both par 5s are reachable in two and three of the par 4s can be driven. So, yes, there are eagle and birdie opportunities available. But even with good tee shots double- and triple-bogeys are everywhere, given the strategic positioning of greenside waste bunkers.

The quote from the movie Forrest Gump – life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get – is apropos at Sweetens Cove. And that’s why it is ridiculously fun to play because you don’t know what you are going to get from shot to shot. Good shots can end up in bad places and bad shots can end up in good places.

Like always, we played 36 holes and except for a cool breeze, the day turned out to be pretty good. Temperatures reached the mid-50s and the course was drying out nicely. It still needs warmer temperatures to green up and get the Bermuda grass growing, but Sweeten’s Cove was just as much fun on that March Tuesday as it will be in July when we make a return trip.

Gluttons for punishment is what we are, no doubt about it.

Gregg Dewalt is the editor of Alabama Golf News

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Featured image courtesy of Sweetens Cove

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