Why one big-name golf course architect is fiercely tackling a very short, very old muni

overton park rob collins

KingCollins is tackling its first municipal course: Overton Park in Memphis, Tenn.

KingCollins

Rob Collins is contemplating leftovers. He just smoked a turkey for the first time, and with the help of a brand-new Big Green Egg — a thank-you gift from a friend, for whom Collins did some free consulting — he ended up with a decent bird.

“That was a lot of fun, actually,” he said. “The experiment worked!”

It’s a good season to be home, and the Collins family spent their weekend laying low in Chattanooga, Tenn. Rob, principal designer at the upstart architectural firm KingCollins Golf, has been in and out of town plenty over the last few years. Since the release of his first hit single, nine-hole Sweetens Cove in nearby South Pittsburg, Collins and his partner Tad King have been busy. They’re tackling one nine-hole project in Accord, N.Y. which they hope will open in June. There’s Landmand Golf Club, an ambitious 18-hole design near Homer, Neb. (“I’m freaking out about Landmand,” Collins says. “I’m dying for people to see it.”) There’s another 12-hole job in Jackson, Miss. and talk of taking to Lubbock, Texas, too.

But Collins’ attention is presently centered on his home state and a project near and a project that means more than most: a redesign of Overton Park Golf Course, a municipal nine-holer in Memphis. This is Collins’ first muni — and, like every one of his designs, this one’s bound to look, feel and play a little bit different.

GOLF: What’s the history of the Overton Park Golf Course?

Rob Collins, principal designer, KingCollins Golf: It’s an old course, 114 years old. And one of the most unique things about it is that, at one time, it hosted one of the biggest junior match play tournaments in the country. That’s such a neat thing about it; when you talk to people in Memphis, they’ll tell you about playing in the Overton Park Junior. They have all these memories of a course that has faded away as it’s become increasingly neglected, to some extent.

Since word started leaking out about us doing something, I’ve had a lot of people talking to me about how important Overton Park was to them in their life and what a great opportunity it is to have it shine again. There’s a lot of pride in Memphis. People who are from Memphis are very proud of where they came from and I think that’s super cool. Overton Park is in a neat part of town and it’s got a chance to be a little jewel.

The proposed layout is a par-35, although par here is really just a number; only one hole is expected to stretch over 300 yards. Collins has spent much of his career fighting against the mentality that “good” golf courses should be long, hard and brutish. This one certainly won’t be.

How did you get wind of a potential redesign?

Collins: I was in town for [Rob’s wife] Denise’s 20th reunion at Rhodes College. So it was a night in 2017. And a good friend of mine, Parks Dixon, a local Memphian — he and his wife Beth were two of our first-ever members at Sweetens — hosted us for the weekend. And Parks said, ‘Y’know, it would be great one day if you could re-do this course. Let’s go take a look!’

We went over there and I thought the place was just really cool. That was the very beginning, right around three years ago.

Someone named ‘Parks’ led to your first muni design. Got it. So how did the funding come together — and how did the city get on board?

Collins: Well, there were years of discussions of how to make it work politically. There are multiple layers to any city government, Memphis is no different, and they needed to have the mayor and the city council on board, and the Overton Park Conservancy is a powerful vehicle in the discussion as well, the people on that board needed to be okay with this. A lot of discussions over the years made the stars align.

There’s a gentleman named George Cates who spearheaded a lot of the fundraising. He helped put together a team of private citizens who came together to make it happen. So it’s basically a gift to the city of Memphis from passionate Memphians who want to see something good happen for their city and the place that they grew up playing.

The city has no financial downside; they’re going to cover the cost of running it, they’ll cover revenue shortfall. But after this renovation there won’t be any revenue shortfall; it’ll be profitable.

One main appeal of the project to the Overton Park Conservancy is the course’s ability to blend with its surroundings, particularly to highlight the Old Forest. Staffers including a forester, a bird biologist, and a naturalist — not always the friends of course designers — put together a proposal and were delighted when KingCollins “enthusiastically adopted our recommendations,” they wrote on their website. This is a park, after all, and it’s a piece of nature, too.

“It’s a unique space in that so many non-golfers also use it – runners, birders, dog-walkers,” the Conservancy wrote. “Everyone is a stakeholder, and everyone should benefit.”

Rob Collins at Sweetens Cove in South Pittsburg, Tenn.

Some architects are like college football coaches; they’ve got a “system” and they’re going to lay it on whatever site they see. But you have the reputation of keeping a pretty open mind when you arrive at a potential new site. When you started thinking about Overton Park, what were your goals for the course?

Collins: For one thing, the golf course winds through this old-growth forest. That’s an interesting thing about Memphis; it has the largest old-growth forest in any American city. And part of it was to beautify the course to be a complement to this amazing forest, which is right in the middle of Memphis.

From a golf standpoint, the goal was to make it super playable and engaging for people to get excited about the game. That means playable for seniors, too — a lot of juniors and a lot of seniors, both ends of the spectrum, are our primary targets.

It’s not about making it difficult or anything, just about making it interesting. We want to give some cool playing characteristics that hopefully harken back to some of the cool courses around the world. We’re going to build a cool Punchbowl green on one site that’s perfectly set up for it; we’re going to do a putting course where you have to be invited by a child; that’s an idea we got from North Berwick. But there’s just an opportunity to do something that celebrates the game of golf and gets new people excited about it.

When people talk about “growing the game,” what’s the best way to do that from an architectural perspective?

Collins: I think just making the game more fun, less penal and more engaging to the mind. The most boring courses are ones where you lose a lot of balls; they hit you over the head time after time after time. The ones that are the most fun are the ones that reveal the great parts of the game, where you hit a shot that one day can reward you and you can remember it forever, and another day it might not reward you and you’re then faced with overcoming an obstacle on a recovery shot. Engaging the mind, the psychological side of golf, that’s important as far as growing the game.

That’s how I got hooked on golf; everybody remembers when they hit their first pure shot and then they chase that feeling the rest of their life. Similarly, from an architectural standpoint you remember when you saw your first great architecturally significant golf course and how it made you think, it opened your mind to different things, revealed something to you about the game. I think tapping into the mysteries and the quirks of golf make it fun to actually be out there.

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Collins expects the course to look, feel and play dramatically different. The traditional tee boxes will be replaced with free-flowing, strategically-placed teeing grounds. They’ll add three bunkers. They’ll eliminate any rough; besides the greens, all grass will be fairway height until you reach the native grasses.

But as with any King-Collins design, the highlight is expected to be the greens. The existing green sites are expected to triple in size, from 1,500 square feet to 4,500 apiece. One example: The green at No. 4 may become the largest on the course, replacing a small turtle-back design with a sprawling two-tiered surface that will keep your ball on the green but leave you with plenty of intrigue once it’s there.

Looking at Overton Park’s proposed yardage is fascinating; you’ve got a lot of half-par holes, par-3.5s. Tell me about those.

Collins: Well, there are a bunch of shortish par-4s. The way you deal with those is just by making them really interesting on approach and recovery. It all comes down to the greens and making nine interesting complexes. We’re going to have to err on the more understated side of things for this project; for anyone who has seen Sweetens Cove, it would be a mistake to go in and build nine Sweetens Cove greens, that’s not what we’re going to try to do.

It’ll be more understated, which means it’s a chance for us to do something a little different while still making you think.

What’s your feeling in general on a half-par hole?

Collins: My feeling is ‘Oh my god, yeah!’ Those are the most fun holes. All the half-par holes are the ones that make you think the most, that get your heart pounding a little bit. You think you can make a birdie and next thing you know you’re walking off with a bogey.

That reminds me a little bit of Pinehurst No. 3, which got redone. It’s a super-short course but with really intriguing greens. That place makes you want to grab a 1-iron, pitching wedge, a putter and go try a whole bunch of different cool shots. So I think we’ve got an opportunity to tap into something like that at Overton Park: interesting shotmaking opportunities, just on a smaller scale.

One main focus of every involved stakeholder is to make Overton Park an appealing place for kids to come learn the game. KingCollins’ vision is to allow kids age 15 and under to play free of charge and to put a significant senior discount in place.

The addition of the Children’s Putting Course has Collins particularly excited; it’s an idea borrowed from North Berwick. At Overton Park, a large putting green near the clubhouse can only be used by kids; adults can only gain access if invited by a child.

This is your first muni. What does that mean to you guys, to be involved with a municipal course?

Collins: For me on a personal level, I take it really personally because Denise went to Rhodes and I’ve been going to Memphis since she was in college there, so I’m very familiar with the city, and the people around this project have an infectious level of enthusiasm for Overton Park and for the city as a whole. I think there’s definitely a sense of doing something larger than yourself.

Architecture can tend to be a little bit self-centered. I mean, you’re doing stuff for golf, but a lot of it’s about you, too. We’re trying to promote ourselves, we’re trying to promote a brand and a name. A normal project has a lot of me, me, me. Here it’s bigger than us. It has a bigger meaning. That’s really cool.

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The start date isn’t 100 percent confirmed, but Collins is an optimist — he thinks they’ll be on track to break ground in mid-December. He expects four months’ construction time after that, using some of his favorite team members, guys fresh off work at Landmand, the movers and shapers of the KingCollins world. Trevor Dormer, Mark Berger, John Ellsworth. “Really talented guys,” he says.

Is there one particular hole that sticks out as one you’re excited about?

Collins: [Laughing] Oh, that’s a great question. There’s this hole, No. 2, it’s a par-3 and it’s truly one of the strangest holes I’ve ever seen. The first time Parks showed it to me, he was sitting on the tee, he goes, ‘I’m not going to say anything, I just want you to look at this.’ And I’m standing there looking at it.

It’s a short par-3, about 135 yards, and you shoot through this little gap in the trees. My natural inclination as a person who designs golf courses is, ‘Well, you’ve gotta get rid of these trees.’ But I could tell Parks was a little nervous to show it to me, biting his tongue, wondering what I was going to say. And I stood there and I go, ‘This hole is so weird that I like it.’ And what it is is there’s this little tiny gap that you hit it through. It’s not something you’d ever design, but once I saw it, I was like, ‘If we get this course, we’re not changing that gap.’

Parks was so glad. He goes, ‘I’m happy to hear you say that because it was sort of a rite of passage growing up and playing this course: The first time you didn’t clank it off a tree.’ It’s like, this feeling of achievement that you get when you send it through this small gap, which is like 15, 20 feet. So that’s a weird hole, we’re going to mess around with it, we’ll make the green a lot more interesting, the green side-bends so I think we’ll do a Redan-type green there.

I can’t wait for people to play this place.

This is part of our Muni Monday series, spotlighting stories from the world of city- and county-owned golf courses around the world. Got a muni story that needs telling? Send tips to Dylan Dethier or to munimondays@gmail.com and follow Muni Mondays on Instagram.

Dylan Dethier
Golf.com Photographer

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/GOLF.com, The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a 2014 graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.