What’s the deal with Sweetens Cove? 9 observations from an average golfer’s first trip

August 19, 2019

There’s a small wooden sign hanging outside the trailer-masquerading-as-a-clubhouse at Sweetens Cove Golf Club. It’s small enough, and the engraved quote is small enough, that if you’re here and you’re in a hurry, you might miss it. Maybe that’s the point.

“It is only natural that players who have been spoon fed on insipid, flat, uninteresting golf should view with a considerable amount of suspicion anything which is undoubtedly out of the ordinary,” it reads.

The quote, from Alister Mackenzie, is a bold ethos for a golf course. This was my first trip to South Pittsburg, Tenn., and I’d arrived with some skepticism. Could the cultish aura surrounding Sweetens Cove live up to the hype?

But after a day at this nine-hole golf haven, I’m happy to report that everything you’ve heard is true. For me — hardly a course architecture buff, an avid but average golfer, fresh off a summer internship at GOLF Magazine — Sweetens stripped the sport down to its bare bones, removed all that was unnecessary, and left something pure and joyous.

Needless to say, seeing and playing it for myself erased any of that skepticism. What’s that first Sweetens experience like? Here are nine things I learned (one per hole!) along the way.

1. Get ready for an adventure on the greens

Consider Mackenzie’s adjectives of choice — “insipid, flat, uninteresting” — a fair warning to Sweetens’ intentions with its greens. These putting surfaces reject those descriptors wholeheartedly. With two pins in each hole, chances are you’ll use every inch of these undulating, rollicking greens during an 18-hole day. In turn, your wedge shots will come to define your round. Imprecision with approaches will prove deadly, as a miss to the wrong part of these greens screams “three-putt”.

The fourth green is a prime example, a hole modeled after the fifth at Prestwick. A topsy-turvy putting surface spanning what must be 50 yards in length means a miss on distance will prove perilous. It’s no more than 130 yards from the tee, but with slopes and false fronts galore, it’s no cake walk.

2. Mix up the tee boxes

On the first nine we teed it up from the blues — a playable 6,186 yards (Let’s just say I’m not a long-bomber; my community prefers the term “length-deficient”, thank you very much.) But after a thoroughly enjoyable first spin, we decided to mix it up, and I’d urge any other newcomers to do the same. If you’re there for some clean, pure fun, treat yourself to a go-around on the whites, bringing in the risk/reward of several reachable par-4s, and the realistic possibility of some low scores. Just don’t rub it in that the 229-yard, par-4 5th hole is a mere long iron for you. We get it, man.

3. It’ll test your golf IQ as much as your golf swing

For most players, this is not the course to smash driver mindlessly off every tee. Each shot demands a thoughtful calculation. Off the tee, that means reaching a number that will leave a comfortable look, not necessarily the closest. On approach shots, precision means understanding the action of the green and identifying the right miss. A creative golfer will hit shots of all trajectories — high, low, draw, fade — during his or her time at Sweetens. Maybe on the second nine, for example, you’ll opt for rolling up a punch 5-iron where you once thought a flush 8-iron made more sense. Frankly, golf is more fun when the muscle you’re stretching most is the one between your ears.

4. Stretch out … and maybe take a breakfast ball?

No frills means no frills. If you came to Sweetens expecting an expansive practice area with a range and practice green, try again. Roll up, park your car, tie your shoes and step onto that first tee. For some, this setup might necessitate some additional preparation, namely an extra-vigorous stretch or a few more practice swings than usual. If your group is anything like mine, breakfast balls all around are in order.

5. Angles are everything

It’ll be hard to lose more than a few balls, with the holes generally open and compressed together. But that doesn’t mean it’s free-wheeling off the tee. With pot bunkers on some fairways, and trees often impeding approaches, finding the right angle into the greens off the tee will be vital.

6. Birdie the dog can fly

Don’t be alarmed if, standing on the tee box, a bolting black dog suddenly catches your eye. Make no mistake, ‘Birdie,’ the dog-in-residence, can fly, sprinting from tee box to green before you can even get your bearings. Birdie provides just another reminder of the place’s simplicity. This place is nature, it’s fun, it’s dogs and it’s golf. Just make sure your tee shots don’t endanger an unsuspecting furry friend.

7. Leave the 60-degree wedge at home

The next time I head up to Sweetens, I’m planning on heeding young Cohen Trolio’s advice and pulling the 60-degree from my bag. This is by no means me bragging about my wedge game, which is not at Trolio-level, to say the least. I just think Sweetens is more fun when you’re leaning into the challenges of the greens, using your touch to find the right angles to attack the pins. There are very few shots that can’t be conquered via a good ol’ bump-and-run. It’s almost a physics experiment. Plus, you’ll be perturbed when your attempt to fly the pin misses five feet left and rolls off the green. Evergreen advice: embrace the weird.

8. Don’t bolt out of town

My trek into Sweetens was a two-hour drive from Atlanta, Ga, an easy day-trip for a couple of unoccupied college students staring down the end of summer. Still, something about this journey felt incomplete without venturing into the town of South Pittsburg. At the risk of feeling like a golfing carpetbagger, we stopped by a local waffle house and struck up a conversation with a few locals inside before driving back to Atlanta. Waffles and hashbrowns aside (who could complain?), the experience provided just a bit more context for the unassuming slice of heaven up the road.

9. Take a moment to look around

It’s truly hard to imagine there’s anything quite like Sweetens Cove in the country. Standing atop the first tee, you can see just about every hole on the course, boxed in by mountains in every direction. Everyone walks around with satisfied grins, like they’re part of an inside joke. There’s something cathartic about it all, really. Sweetens may rapidly be reaching mainstream golf consciousness, but it seems unlikely the excess attention will ever alter the character of the place. One lesson from the sign in the clubhouse: at Sweetens, there are little details everywhere. So stop, take a moment, look around you, and really soak in the experience.

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