FeaturesUnited States

Unquenchable Thirst: A First-Timer’s Journey to Sweetens Cove

Fernweh: [fɛʁnve] (German) noun.

(1) Literally, “farsickness.”

(2) The sensation of longing for a place one has not yet been.

I. Gig City Livin’

The flight from Atlanta to Chattanooga is about 30 minutes from wheels-up to touch-down. The idle waiting on the tarmac at the world’s busiest airport was, of course, much longer.

Not that I was keeping track. I didn’t have to. The minutes waiting to push back from the jetway felt like hours, and no one could convince me that they were not. I was sitting in seat 36A on an MD-88, which, for the uninitiated, is a special little corner of personal hell. It is a “window” seat with no window, as one of the fuselage-mounted engines happens to be riveted directly into your left eardrum. To my right, across the aisle, sat a polite but talkative 16 year old girl who left her inside voice somewhere back in grade school. Her entire life story, spilled wistfully to her half-interested seat-mate, became the cadence of my last nerves zapping bright white spots in my narrowing vision, as a feeling of mild claustrophobia welled inside of me. I needed a distraction.

Closing my eyes, I took a few deep breaths while I cocked my head to the side and rested it against the plastic interior of the airplane. In my mind’s eye, I replayed from memory the flyover video I’d watched no fewer than twenty times in the previous seven days–hole by hole, shot by shot–of the reason for enduring the pleasureless vibes of basic economy air travel.

Finally getting airborne was a relief. The whir of the fully spooled-up engines ignited my senses, as did the g-forces that pinned me further back in my already…cozy…seat. I’ve flown all my life, but never had a flight felt so constricting, yet so liberating all at once. The quick hop gave me a few fleeting minutes to day-dream. I recalled, perhaps imperfectly, one of my favorite lines from Travis Hill’s splendid story in The Golfer’s Journal No. 2. “A glorious plume of vape smoke filled the morning air. ‘When that clears,’ he said, ‘you’ll see one of the greatest opening par fives in the world.'”

***

A calmness came over me. Our flight began descending as quickly as it reached its ultra-low cruising altitude of 14,000 feet. We touched down a few minutes later, and even though I was in the last row, I did not feel impatient while watching the passengers filter down the aisle, swiftly turning left and disappearing off the plane in single file. I grabbed my belongings and shimmied my way between the seats and past the flight crew who bid me a good night.

I pulled my suitcase up the jetway’s slight incline until I was thrust into the empty, dark terminal. Looking up, an advertisement crested the only hallway, over the escalator heading down toward the baggage claim.

“You’ve arrived! GIG CITY Home of the Nation’s Fastest Internet,” the mural proclaimed.

Gig City, USA. Photo by Matt Wood.

“Who woulda thunk it?” I mused to myself. As nice as the greeting was, and as ordinarily excited as a tech-literate millennial like me might otherwise be about such a revelation, I couldn’t help but shrug about the irony of such a first impression. After all, the internet had (thankfully) brought me and my companions for this trip together; soon enough, we’d all use the web to tell the world how great our pilgrimage had been. But for the next 24 hours, I wanted to get as far away from the real world as possible.

I deeply longed, in the truest sense of the word, for a place I had not yet been. But I was closer than ever to the destination of my daydreams–Sweetens Cove Golf Club.

II. Too Excited to Sleep

The premise for our trip–or the excuse, if we’re being honest–was a 10 vs. 10 match play team event in honor of D.J. Piehowski’s thirtieth birthday. The Thirsty Cup, as we dubbed it, was nascent in its creation, but already historical in its importance–at least in our own little corner of the golf Twitterverse.

We didn’t have a clear set of rules. Or a definite format. We barely had a trophy.

But we had a vision, and two fearless leaders to execute it. The inaugural matches would be played between Team Tron and Team D.J.

While Team D.J. may have been slightly more golf-inclined, Team Tron, of which I was a part, “put a strong emphasis on team room vibes,” as our captain so eloquently put it. We were fine putting on the nobody believes in us hat.

***

I summoned a ride as I waited outside the terminal in Chattanooga.  After a ten minute jaunt through the sleepy river-edged town, my Uber driver promptly delivered me at the front porch of our just big enough accommodations. As a working stiff, I was the last to arrive, shortly after midnight. I barged through the front door to a rousing cheer, obviously fueled by the collective consumption of a few adult beverages. Although the pairings party was already well-underway, it became apparent rather quickly that I hadn’t missed much in the way of locked-down information. I grabbed a beer out of the fridge, shook a few hands, and found my way to the last available seat on the couch.

I sat quietly, watching Captains D.J. and Tron delve out pairings over cross-talk that would rival any cable news show at 2:30 in the afternoon. Thankfully, one of the participants, Kevin Van Valkenburg, kept studious journalistic notes on the matches–pairings, sequence, and all. I listened intently for my name to be called.

My first partner, for the two-man scramble, would be Travis “the Thrill” Hill, of The Golfer’s Journal fame. My second partner, for the alternate shot, would be Adam “So Good” Sarson, our resident ambassador from the Great White North. I could already tell this was going to approach levels of fun I hadn’t even considered.

While the pairings party started to wind down, I knew the only chance of making a contribution to my team was to get at least a modicum of precious sleep. Soly, benevolent soul that he is, offered me the opportunity to set up my air mattress in the master bedroom closet. It struck me as odd, to be sure, but also practical. And when I finally inflated the air mattress within it, I realized that in a house full of 16 dudes, I had actually lucked into a quiet, dark corner to call my own. This was becoming a theme of the day, but the closet was decidedly more comfortable than seat 36A that I’d occupied a few hours earlier.

The final obstacle to achieving a good night’s rest was my own excitement. Spoiler alert: I didn’t overcome it.

Less than an hour later, I was tip-toeing around downstairs, searching for coffee-related items, and trying not to wake the whole house. Second spoiler alert:  I didn’t overcome that obstacle, either.

III. We out here

Our caravan approached the driveway, and slowed down as our tires crackled over the gravel. The little red sign that reads “Sweetens Cove Golf Club” is slightly overgrown and deliberately unassuming–in other words, the exact opposite of the course itself. A veer to the right reveals a little green shed and an unpaved parking lot–both as unassuming as the sign out front.

Then, you drive to the edge of the hill, and you see it.

A first impression that sticks with you. Photo by Jim Hartsell.

The first thing that hits you is the scale–you couldn’t imagine nine holes could occupy so much playable turf.

The second thing that hits you is the shear, unrelenting beauty of the place.  The amber hues of the tall, waving grasses against the subtle hazel of the turf. The rolling mounds that mimic the smoky blue-grey mountains surrounding three sides of the property. For our group, that morning, we were treated to misty fog that settled right on top of us; it served as a bubble enclosing us in our own little world–just 20 young men, a “trophy,” and a little slice of golf paradise.

IV. “Been a rule since day one”

There are many avant garde features at Sweetens Cove; the place feels like a living monument to bold thinking in golf architecture. The course speaks loudly for itself. That’s one reason why everything else about the place is so understated. Perhaps most refreshing is that the architect, Rob Collins, and the general manager, Patrick Boyd, intuitively understand how the course bellows, and they don’t need to add much else in the form of spoken words. They let you find your own way of trying to express it. And if a simple google search for “Sweetens Cove” is any indication, thousands of words come to minds of dozens of pilgrims like me. I must now try my best to conjure some that haven’t been written before. Here’s what I came up with:

Sweeten’s Cove is a Three Michelin Star restaurant in a truck-stop town that can notoriously support not one, but two Subways (and only one of them serves food that might qualify as edible). But locale, if not for the natural topography, is basically beside the point. As the Michelin Guide portends, “Three stars is the ultimate accolade, afforded only to those restaurants that offer ‘exceptional cuisine’ that is ‘worth a special journey.’”  There is no doubt that what Sweetens is serving up is worth the meandering trip to South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Sweetens’ kitchen offers a sumptuous, indulgent nine-course tasting menu, and Executive Chef Collins knows how to make an impression.

***

If you first eat with your eyes, the par five opening hole is the perfect precursor upon which to begin your feast. Bombs away from the highest point on the property, the first tee shot is equal parts inviting and intriguing. Collins offers generous width to atone for the lack of your driving range aperitif. But his plating of bunkers and grasses and a far-flung water hazard also guide you on how to use your utensil of choice. The first bite is satisfying, sure. But it only hints at the depth and breadth of the assault on your palette to come. Indeed, the first green offers a sampling of two classic design features, with both a punchbowl and reverse redan incorporated into the same massive site. The green is fronted by a Dye-inspired bunker that would surely meet the approval of the man himself.

The Mitre Bunker that guards the first green. Photo by Kevin Livingood/Rob Collins.

Now that all your synapses are firing after your initial experience with a King/Collins green, the second hole offers no let-up from the intensity of the first. The green here is the capstone of a peppery dish–the spicy note of a stew composed from rolling undulations of the putting surface keeps building until you find the bottom hole and a much deserved reprieve.

***

The third hole is your first entree–this dish would be that perfectly rosy-colored duck breast at your favorite French bistro. The unrelenting shot values represent a new depth of flavor with each bite sized stroke you take, until you reach the finale and find that the course’s only aerial hazard, protecting the perched green, is waiting to ask one last question about how daring you feel.

Only upon reaching the fourth tee do you understand how special this feast of the senses is about to become. KING, as it is called, is the “we don’t really have a recipe–a pinch of this; a dash of that” course that changes in flavor profile every day but never deviates away from its delicious core concept. A front left pin may be a treasure hidden from view, while a back right pin shows you everything you need to know about the hole without revealing any secrets on the execution required. Maybe 120 yards today; maybe 190 yards tomorrow. A great chef must give his staff room to experiment with the menu.

By this point, you might be wondering about a less-inspired-by-comparison, transitional dish. At first glance, the mere 290 yards comprising the fifth would seem to be just that. But this small, rare, cheese and nuts course–ostensibly serving as a lighter bridge between the first half of the track and the second–is anything but a throwaway. The tee shot asks you more than a few questions, and only upon a second or third or fourth helping may you finally discover the answers. The green is guarded by a deathly pit one might say is the pungent danish blue cheese on the plate; not inedible, but perhaps delightfully bitter in taste if curiosity or carelessness leads to an unexpected detour.

The captivating fifth packs a lot of punch into a meager sub-300 yards of terror. Photo by Rob Collins.

If you ordered the wine pairings, you’ll finally get a big ol’ taste of water on the sixth to wash it all down. A nontraditional take on a classic, the cape-like vibe of this crescent wonder is a big, beefy wagyu feature. It is just the type of dish that deserves a preliminary tête-à-tête stare down for a minute while you build up enough courage to take it on. This brutally long and deftly protected hole is not for those with a weak heart (or high blood pressure).

***

If there is a palette cleansing hole, it would be the seventh. A shorter par 4, this hole reveals its hidden splendor as a tart, crisp coulee setting up the grand finale. In my trip to Sweetens, I first had the opportunity to meet Rob and Patrick, formally, as they sat behind this hole and watched our opening match of the Thirsty Cup. Admittedly, I may have been slightly more bashful had I not absolutely stuffed my approach to four feet while they looked on. But having conquered the hardest part of this hole (finding the appropriate tier of the multi-plateaued green), I puffed my chest and confidently strolled over to offer my hand to Rob and Patrick, giving my finest personal compliments to the Chef and Sous Chef, respectively. Ever humble and gracious to host us at the Chef’s table, Collins whipped up something truly delectable for a two-course dessert.

Architecturally, there is nothing I would change about Sweetens Cove. Every hole presents infinite strategic options–each shot demands your full attention–each hazard is deftly placed in the exact location from which you want to make your next swing. What’s more, we found out first hand that the mammoth greens, with all their swales and rolls and plateaus, truly define the strategy of the hole, all the way back to the tee.

A prime example is the non-traditional biarritz eighth. With its beastly swale, it could only be the devil’s food cake of our culinary experience. The green is almost comically large and oriented about forty degrees front-right to back-left from the fairway. The pitch, meanwhile, is in the opposite direction. While the majority of the green is perched four to six feet above the fairway, the middle portion is a deep swale in the biarritz vein; so deep, in fact, that a pin cut at the bottom of it is barely visible from certain places 130 yards away for the non-discerning taste-tester who couldn’t find the correct angle. I’m speaking from experience.

The spectacular eighth green, and the swale-bottom pin we were treated to in the morning sessions. The grounds crew, led by the incredible Brent Roberson, re-cut us a fresh “fuck you” pin on every green while we ate lunch. Photo by Rob Collins.

Just when you think you’ve reached the richest part of the journey, Chef Collins serves his signature crème brûlée and double espresso to get your heart pumping one last time. The short ninth is a mega-redan style par 3. In many circles, an ending par 3 might be deemed anticlimactic–the unfortunate result of a poor routing that left the architect jammed up coming back to the clubhouse. This is not such a hole.

Instead, the ninth is a very intentional confectionery delight that caps off the crescendo building since your opening tee shot was struck a mere 10 feet away from from the final green. This dessert presents in a small dish, but below the crunchy surface of a perfectly crisped top layer, you will find a sweet, creamy center of the green that, depending on the day’s pin location, offers anywhere from a “better than usual” to “exceptional” chance to write a closing 1 or 2 on the card. If that’s not enough to leave you feeling satisfied, I can’t help you.

***

The extravagant design features, the cult following, and the off-the-map location could all lend itself to the type of pretentiousness one might typically associate with a haute cuisine establishment of such vaunted credentials and reputation. But maybe the most pleasant surprise of all is that nothing about the place is remotely stuffy, trendy, or chic. From the simplicity of the “clubhouse” to the lack of a driving range or shortgame practice area, to the two-figure price tag for an all-day pass, and beyond to the almost too genuine southern hospitality of the staff, the ethos of Sweetens Cove is pure golf and pure fun.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this better than Patrick’s jovial commentary as we stood on the first tee ready to hit our opening tee shots of the Thirsty Cup. As we watched touring pro Justin Hueber take a line so high and so far left off the first tee that left us all shaking our heads in disbelief, one of the uninitiated among us asked whether it might be out of bounds. Patrick immediately put such an inquiry to rest.

“There’s no out of bounds, junior!” he shouted with exuberance through the thick cloud of ever-present smoke billowing from his lips. “This is Sweetens Cove…it’s all fuckin’ lateral. Been a rule since day one!” And if there was any doubt, that local rule, along with a few others, are spelled out clearly on the perfectly simple and elegant scorecard.

“Been a rule since day one.” Photo by Rob Collins.

V. Unquenchable Thirst

The overall vibe of the place brought out the most extroverted side of everyone there. Among my favorite memories, I was fortunate enough to not only play a few loops on a spectacular track, but also forge some new friendships along the way. In my opening match partnered with Travis Hill, we served up some delicious ham-and-eggs for breakfast, quenched with a Miller Lite or three.

In my second and third matches, I combined with Adam Sarson to form a 3/4ths Canadian team. Unfortunately, we also took 3 or 4 putts on just about every green, especially in the three-club challenge where neither of us thought to bring a damn putter. We had a hard time finding our footing against the thirstiest man himself, Big Play Ray, who did his best “Patrick Reed Carrying Jordan Spieth” impression with two different partners to dampen our chances of winning (but not our attitudes).

My last teammate and I formed a redux of the San Antonio Spurs’ “Twin Towers” days, as I played Tim Duncan to Big Randy’s David Robinson. I don’t remember much about how that match went, other than we all played poorly, KVV was too disheveled to muster a single Gary Player impression, and I enjoyed every second of getting to know a yet another kindred golfing spirit as my playing partner. Going three for three in that department, I couldn’t have been luckier.

***

If there is one karmic give-and-take about Sweetens Cove, it is that the same mountains framing the property, which lend both their serenity and their swirling winds, eagerly steal the a final few minutes of twilight from those who just want to traverse one or two more holes. But when it arrived–bathing the ground with its tantalizing long shadows cast under the sparse evergreens, ratcheting the marigold and saffron glow of the wispy grasses up to eleven, and revealing every subtle ebb and flow of the rolling terrain ordinarily lost in the high noon sun–the golden hour was otherworldly.

The fourth hole, KING, showing off its evening attire. Photo by Chris Solomon.

Concerned with waning daylight, the Thirsty Cup captains sent each two-hole singles match out paired with another match for a foursome, with all the rest of our crew following in a caravan of carts, drones, and phones. By this point, few among us knew the score (Team Tron’s a little to Team D.J.’s a lot), the number of beers collectively consumed (probably best measured by the case), or the number of holes we’d be able to play before the day came to an end. We just knew we had to keep playing until we couldn’t even see the ball at address. And maybe beyond.

As the matches played on, a palpable melancholy crept up behind us as the realization set in that with each hole out, we were another stroke closer to the end. I don’t remember who won what match–though I’m sure the participants of each will recall every shot. After halving the seventh with pars, I blasted my drive on the eighth hole to mere half-wedge range, but couldn’t check my pitch to a halt on the left-side table top of the nasty biarritz green with my second. I was then presented with a near impossible up-and-down from six feet below the green surface, which might as well have been six feet under ground, going up against a perfectly played hole by Ryan Young. I predictably lost the hole, but I’m pretty sure the Cup had already been clinched by someone much thirstier than I.

***

Shortly after, darkness descended. The dusky gloom did not discourage anyone in the group from trying a few heroic 250 yard shots from the first fairway into a straight on, traditional high-low-high biarritz angle of the eighth green–one of the many off the menu, secret holes that you’ve surely heard about. We all took turns trying to find a flattish surface on which to peg it by cell phone flashlight glow, only to give each ball a serious rip into hazy night, probably never to be seen again. Unless you fancy yourself a pro golfer like Zac Blair. And you hit it to like…6 feet.

As the last few hoots and hollers rang out between the distinctive, metallic clank of each three wood, my cart was positioned close enough to Rob’s to eavesdrop on the conversation he was having with Patrick. I could tell by their tone that even for the two of them, having seen the thousands of golden hours, thousands of first timers’ jaw-dropped faces drawn of equal parts glee and awe and wonder, even this day–with this crew–had to be among the all timers. Then, they made it explicit.

“We need to change our business model,” Patrick said, only half-jokingly. “Just private events from here on out.”

“We do, but only if they’re like this one,” Rob replied. “Days like these are why we built Sweetens Cove.”

About the Author

Job is pronounced with a long O. Aspiring club champ and golf course architecture nerd. Living proof that breaking 80 is even harder than it looks. Usually just trying to make it to my next tee time. Lived in Jacksonville, FL before NLU made it cool. jwfickett at gmail.

Love No Laying Up? Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on all things NLU. We promise to respect your inbox more than Bubba respects Ted Scott. Subscribe now!

From the Pro Shop