Andy Roddick requested a last-minute change to our Zoom meeting. He needed to get on his iPad, he said. “That’s where my Sweetens background is.”
Passion takes certain new forms these days. When tennis’ former world No. 1 popped up on my screen, sure enough, there was Sweetens Cove behind him, new pavilion and all. Roddick straightened his lid — a black “Sweetens Cove” rope hat — and flashed that characteristic smile.
“You guys must be hurting for content, if you’re having me on,” he cracked.
(Note: Even though this is mostly about Sweetens Cove, this is also loosely part of my colleague Luke Kerr-Dineen’s Whiskey Wednesdays column. We’ll get to the bourbon piece later, but you can buy Sweetens Cove’s bourbon here, beginning next week.)
My story ideas and his aw-shucks-iness aside, Andy Roddick is a big deal for the golf world. It’s a big deal that this generation’s top American tennis star joined forces with one of its top quarterbacks, Peyton Manning, to buy in on a nine-hole public golf course built for nothing on a Tennessee flood plain. It’s wild to think that two of the most iconic sports stars of the 2000s hop on work calls to talk about new tee boxes at Sweetens Cove. And it’s clear that both value the attention to detail that made Sweetens a cult phenomenon in the first place. After our interview, Roddick found out that I’d written previously about the place (something he’d have zero reason to know), so he followed up with an email.
“I feel s—– that I didn’t know your connection,” he wrote. “Thanks for the chat in spite of my ignorance.” I can’t remember getting an email like that. If he was looking to butter up the media to help sell some bourbon, well, it was a solid strategy.
By way of brief backstory: Last year, Roddick and Manning were part of a five-man group that came in to invest in Sweetens Cove, a rehabilitated nine-hole golf course just outside of Chattanooga. They saw the way the golf community had rallied around the course as a bold, fun vision for the game’s future and wanted in. One main goal, Roddick said, was not to screw it up. We talked about that idea, plus their new bourbon and more in a brief interview here:
DYLAN DETHIER: Andy, what’s the deal with Sweetens Cove? Could you explain to someone that may have never been there? Why do people like it? What’s so special about it?
ANDY RODDICK: My co-owner Mark Rivers likes to call it “Field of Dreams” meets “Tin Cup.” There’s just this amazing nine-hole course that Rob Collins built by hand. He would kind of rent the equipment during the day, go work on the course and then return it at night. So, it has this very natural feel to it. Before we got our ownership group together, it didn’t have a bathroom. So we’re getting fancy now. We have a bathroom! And you can actually see the little pavilion in my [Zoom] background that was built, and a little putting green. So we’ve made some improvements, but we were pretty sensitive. We didn’t want to come in as this group and ruin the feel of the place, you know, by overbuilding. And so we made some simple improvements. But it’s just pure golf. There’s no pomp and circumstance. We like to say yes more than we say no down there. So it’s been a really fun project to be a part of.
DETHIER: Do you have a favorite single shot out there or favorite hole that sticks out when you go play?
RODDICK: It’s pretty fun, like — the action between teeing off on 1, where we put a new back tee box, so you actually launch it right next to the putting green. And you kind of hit over No. 9 green.
And then the last one-shotter is a par-3, I’m not sure if you’ve been there yet, but there’s a par-3 on No. 9 where we built a little heckle-deck above it. So if you’re with a group of people, they’re watching you come in. And so there’s a lot of action that’s happening between the putting green, No. 1 tee and No. 9 green, and I always kind of like that area.
DETHIER: What is Peyton Manning like as a co-owner of a golf course?
RODDICK: He’s the quarterback. You know, we’ll do our Monday calls. ‘OK, so who’s going to be where? Whose job is it to do this? What are my responsibilities?’ You feel like he’s running a play when we have a business call. But I take a lot of pride in any business venture I’m in; I try to learn it. I don’t have an agent. I don’t have “people.” You kind of get into the mix a little bit.
I haven’t once — throughout this entire process with the course and then moving into the different businesses off of Sweetens — I haven’t seen one of Peyton’s “people.” I haven’t talked to anyone; he never kind of passed the buck off on anyone else. He’s always there and extremely present. And you know, we certainly feel lucky to have him in this project.
DETHIER: For you, is this a passion project? Is this a business opportunity? What’s kind of the vision for Sweetens from your perspective?
RODDICK: Uh, yes. To everything you said. Luckily, I don’t think I don’t think we have to choose. You know, when Mark Rivers and I kind of — we’d been looking at a bunch of different business opportunities for a while and I’ve gotta give him credit. He’s the least-golfy person out of our entire group. He’s working on it. But he said, ‘There’s some magic with this nine-holer in Tennessee. You have to take a look at it. We have to do something with it. I don’t know what it is yet, but we have to figure it out.’
And, you know, we go there and you see the traditions of the bourbon on the 1st tee and leaving a bottle for someone else. The next group behind you, and tradition, we’re going, ‘Well, that makes a lot of sense.’ And so I don’t know that there was ever an intention to be in the nine-hole public golf course business, but the place is just magic. We fell in love with it. And, you know, we certainly think there are opportunities past the golf course.
DETHIER: So tell me about the Sweetens Cove bourbon. Tell me everything I should know about it.
RODDICK: Well, it’s limited production. You know, we were — similar to not wanting to come in and change the culture of the golf course, we don’t want it to be some mass-produced, average quality celebrity brand that Peyton’s involved with. You know, that would kind of be low-hanging fruit. I actually think it’d be a bit of a lazy way to go about it. So we were able to go out and get a master blender, Marianne Eaves, who is just a rock star. And so I think one of the things that we all realized very early is we might be successful in other areas, but we need to leave the bourbon to Marianne.
And she just knocked it out of the park with the product and the quality, and the reviews that it’s getting from people that know a lot more about bourbon than I do is really encouraging. And it’s going to be exciting to see it grow. Our first batch is just over 14,000 bottles, only released in Tennessee at first; we thought that was important. And so it will kind of trickle into some different markets and see what the reception is. But we’re really excited about it.
DETHIER: What does it taste like? Do you have — how’s your bourbon palate? Do you use these good descriptors that experts have to talk about it?
RODDICK: [Laughing] I have all the notes and I read all the notes and I could — listen, I taste it and I can’t tell you that I fully understand, I’m not going to get melodramatic about it and I’m kind of learning as I go here. But it’s one of the first ones that I’ve been able to sip and actually, just with a cube and just drink straight. It’s just a beautiful taste. And like I said, the people that know a lot more about it than I do seem to be really excited about it. So I’m just happy because if we didn’t put out a quality product, it was just going to be some other brand run by Peyton with the involvement of y’know ‘Jim Nantz is an investor’ or ‘Whoever else is an investor.’ And so it was really important just for the quality to be the first talking point.
DETHIER: What is the connection between Sweetens and bourbon? I understand there’s a special tradition connecting the two.
RODDICK: It was really natural. You know, at the 1st tee, I don’t even know where it started, but by the time we got [to Sweetens], you’d see that a lot of groups took a shot of bourbon on the first tee. And a lot of times they’d have a bottle and they would just leave the bottle. And so the group that came out to them, it was like a gift, kind of passing it back. And it kind of speaks to the culture of Sweetens a little bit. And everyone was respectful. No one’s cruising around, falling over. But it was just a great, great tradition. And so we thought there was an opportunity to build off the tradition that was made by people who loved the golf course.
DETHIER: I love it. All right, I want to get a couple tennis-golf comparisons really quick. First, I want you to tell me which major translates to which. All right. Starting with tennis. Give me the golf equivalent.
RODDICK: So the easiest parallel, I think is between Wimbledon and the Masters. The traditions, the fact that you don’t see advertising around either venue. The players come and go, but those seem to be bigger than any given player that’s playing currently. Past that the U.S. Opens are probably about right. The PGA is run through … [trails off] the easiest one, because it’s played at the same venue year after year is Wimbledon and the Masters.
DETHIER: Fair enough. We’ll stick to those two. And then tell me, who is Andy Roddick’s golf equivalent? Who is the Andy Roddick of golf?
RODDICK: Gosh, I’m trying to think of some guys that maybe came in second more than they came in first [laughing]. Actually, two guys come to mind that have each won one major. One of them’s been No. 1 and one of them has won a lot of Tour titles. And so that’s kind of a parallel of my career. [Dustin Johnson], obviously, he’ll win more, I think, so I won’t be able to cling to that comparison very long. But Sergio Garcia spends a lot of time in Austin and we play sometimes, and there was a moment after he won the Masters where almost every, like, total wins around the globe, we’re at like 30-something. You know, he plays great in Ryder Cup. I played well in Davis Cup. So we were walking through it one day. It was like — it’s almost the same, as far as like they stack up. Now past that, I’m not sure, but the way that the numbers stack up for sure.
DETHIER: I like it. I can see that D.J. comparison, a couple of big power hitters. I feel like you’re more talkative than he is, though.
RODDICK: I don’t know about that, but that’s a comparison I’d welcome. He’s a lot of fun to watch.
DETHIER: If you had to convince anyone to come down to Sweetens Cove, what would be your 20-second elevator pitch to them?
RODDICK: I mean, listen, you don’t have to come unless you like really fun golf in its purest form. If you don’t like that, then there’s no need to make the trip.
You can learn more about Sweetens Cove Spirits here. A limited run of the bourbon will be available May 26 for Tennessee residents.