The Sweetens Cove sequel: Rob Collins and Tad King unveil brand-new New York nine-holer
It’s a sweltering midsummer day in upstate New York, and Tad King is behind the wheel of an old white Toyota Tundra, cackling as we bounce along a swath of shapely earth that he identifies as the 6th fairway.
“Oh, you’re gonna die when you see this green,” King says. He hops out the side of the cab and leads me up onto what will become a putting surface so massive and contoured that it’s hard to grasp. In the pre-grassing phase, this is all just carefully configured dirt. But with King as tour guide, it comes alive. A dramatic swale lingers on the left side of the green, deep enough that it’s partially obscured from the fairway, welcoming well-placed shots and ensuring a healthy chance at a hole-out. A pin on the right ridge, on the other hand, is nearly inaccessible from the right side of the fairway. Strategy and variety are baked in everywhere.
That’s just the beginning of this putting surface. King points out the outline of the green’s edge as we climb a slope: this lower section connects to an upper section via an hourglass-shaped sloping funnel. This is a double green: No. 6 occupies the lower section, while No. 3 owns the upper section. In all, the green rises 20 feet from bottom to top, and it’s a rollicking 25,000 square feet of interior slopes and peninsulas caping off to the sort of short-grass collection areas that get King — and design partner Rob Collins — so excited.
Tad King and Rob Collins are the two halves of a golf course design-build team best known for creating Sweetens Cove, a revolutionary nine-hole design carved out of a featureless floodplain in rural Tennessee. King’s official title is Managing Director of Construction. Collins is Principal Designer. Sweetens has become a nine-hole holy site, and the partners who brought it to fruition have become cult heroes among the course architecture set. But Sweetens Cove was also the only King-Collins golf course in existence — until now. Their team has been secretly working all summer on a new nine-holer in Accord, New York — a bold new design that they’re confident will live up to the hype.
“THE BACK NINE”
There’s no name for this course yet; that, plus site maps and images, will come with a more formal unveiling. But if you stand up above the 4th tee, the highest point of land on site, you can squint across the property and convince yourself you’re at Sweetens. Crazy-wide fairway corridors. Rollicking greens. Ambitious bunkering. A flood plain in the foreground framed by Appalachian mountains rising up behind. Fresh air. Room to breathe. Small-town America.
Golf course construction doesn’t happen quickly. That’s partly to blame for King-Collins remaining on the sidelines these last few years, despite an unparalleled string of rave reviews. But Collins still credits the constant wave of positive feedback with delivering this opportunity.
“Sweetens Cove has turned itself into this perpetual publicity machine, which none of our competitors have,” he said. “Even when it opened, we hoped there would be some attention around it for a little while. We had no idea it could still be going, y’know, years later.”
But in late 2017, a group of New York-area business partners approached King-Collins with a proposal. They had their eye on a golf course in New York — and they had a particular directive. “They wanted the full Sweetens Cove effect,” Collins remembers. “They were clear: Don’t hold back. Give us what you’ve got.” The golf course site was 55 acres and belonged to Rondout Golf Course, a mom-and-pop local track in need of an update. This would turn out to be much more.
King, who has been in the business for more than 30 years, never remembers having this type of freedom. “I’ve seen a ton of golf in my career, but you rarely get a client that lets you see what you see and just cuts you loose. It’s a blast. It’s been so much fun.”
The Sweetens Cove "wow factor" is coming just north of New York City 👀. @Sean_Zak and @dylan_dethier caught up with course designer Tad King to discuss the secret (until now) project that should have golfers everywhere excited.
— GOLF.com (@GOLF_com) September 3, 2019
Rather than resisting comparisons to their first design, both are embracing the idea of a Sweetens sequel. A friend recently visited the site. After a short walk around the property, he chuckled and gave a succinct review.
“This is the back nine!”
“I don’t want to jinx us, but the phone’s been ringing a lot,” King admits. “We’re in a fortunate position where we can actually start saying no to stuff.”
That’s a new feeling for a pair who have fought tooth and nail to get to this point. Their next “yes” just came through the wire: Landmand Golf Club in Homer, Nebraska. The pair speak effusively about the site they’ve been given (that’s “unbelievable” from King and “ridiculous” from Collins) and expect to break ground there, soon. King insists that’s not an opportunity they’ve taken for granted — and that not taking anything for granted is their very identity.
Landmand greens. Size range from 2,500 sq. ft. (Hole 8, 110 yard, par 3) to 40,000 sq. ft. (Hole 17, 310 yard, par 4). pic.twitter.com/6SgVgD7hyM
— King-Collins Golf (@KingCollinsGolf) September 2, 2019
“We’ve made a firm commitment to each other that we’re not going to overextend ourselves and lose quality. That’s really important for King-Collins; if we take a project it’s going to get 100 percent of the attention that it deserves, and we’re both proud of that.”
It’s an ethos built on experience. King and Collins align completely on how they want to build golf courses in part because it’s how they initially got connected. Their origin story begins in Naples, where the two met on a job site and were dismayed by the process they were forced into. “We saw the dysfunction of the way the whole operation was put together. You can’t draw a golf course in an office, you really can’t,” King insists. “And unfortunately the large design firms, the signature ones, you have to have formal square footage for everything. And as soon as you try to modify any little thing in person, you have the contractor starts screaming, ‘Change order! Change order!’ It doesn’t make sense.”
The partnership was sealed in a Carrabba’s in southwest Florida. You know the rest.
Where they differ is in their knowledge of course architecture. “Rob’s great, he’s a scholar of golf course architecture and partly why we work so well together is because I don’t have a desire to become an expert on that stuff,” King muses. “I like to work off raw imagination, not have template holes in my mind all the time. What he sees and what I’m thinking seem to complement each other in a way that works.”
They work best because each is comfortable being himself. That’s the King-Collins way. And nine more holes in upstate New York has them dreaming big.
“Don’t get me wrong, because I have taken a tremendous amount of inspiration from them,” Collins says, carefully but certainly. “I have absolutely zero desire to be the next Tom Doak, the next Bill Coore. I want to be Rob Collins. He wants to be Tad King. We want King-Collins to forge a new and different path.”