By Tony Dear
Over the last couple of years, Rob Collins has become one of the best-known golf course architects in the country basically on the strength of nine holes. Those holes at Sweetens Cove Golf Club in South Pittsburg, Tenn. opened in late 2014, and since then they’ve attracted a huge following of golfers devoted to courses with character, charm, and soul.
A former Gary Player Design employee, Collins had expected to receive a few more offers to build courses by now. But the tide is slowly turning, and with Sweetens Cove’s new ownership group, which includes Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick, now on board, the future looks bright. And Collins couldn’t be more excited.
You must have known Sweetens Cove was really good, but did you expect the extent of the acclaim?
I knew Sweetens was great when we were building it, which made it immensely frustrating to see it have such a difficult birthing process. Tad and I said from very early on we just needed to get people to see it. If we could somehow do that, we knew that our lives would fundamentally change, but I don’t think I anticipated the degree to which it has resonated with people.
Once it was established how good, and how popular, Sweetens Cove was, did you expect to be inundated with requests?
Yes, I felt like our big break on a great piece of land would’ve arrived several years ago, and I will concede to being frustrated with seeing the same roster of names trotted out every time golf on great land is considered. However, those frustrations have washed away over the last six months. During that time, I’d venture to guess that we’ve received as many phone calls about golf on compelling land than anyone in the business. The tide has finally turned. On a funny note, one of my best friends has prodded me to make Ric Flair’s famous saying “None of you can be first, but all of you can be next” as our sales tagline.
You list a couple of projects on your web site (Signal Mountain, Montane) that aren’t widely known. Do these sorts of jobs/projects come up often?
We’ve done some under the radar work in the last several years. In addition to our work on the 3rd and 17th there, we did a master plan, and we built a new practice facility this spring. We also built a really cool practice area / short course several years ago for The Golf Performance Center in Ridgefield, Conn. Montane in British Columbia wasn’t built sadly, but I like for people to see the way we would approach the design and construction process, so left it up.
Many have seen your social media posts about “The Miracle” at Sea Palms. How did that job come about, and what exactly are you doing there?
I met the owner of Sea Palms, Will Carter, in Chattanooga several years ago. After he gained control of the property, he contacted us about coming in to build a unique amenity for the resort. Essentially, The Miracle will be a 4.5-acre golf playground with five greens, bold bunkering, and endless shotmaking options. It is possible play a short, cross-country loop or practice your bunker shots, chipping, or putt. Imagine a condensed version of Sweetens Cove on sand. It’s going to be seriously badass.
Tell us about working with Zac Blair at the Buck Club. When did that project begin, what have you completed to date (drawings, plans, routing?), and is it just a waiting game now?
On advice from Andy Johnson (the Fried Egg), Zac contacted us two years ago about the possibility of coming out to see the proposed site of The Buck Club. Over time, Zac has been able to generate an extraordinary amount of interest in the project, and working with him has been one of the most fun and entertaining experiences of my life. Together, we have finished a full routing and design. As a result of his incredible enthusiasm, vision, and persistence, there’s really no frustration at all. In fact, I met with a potential financier for the project last month. We all know it’s going to happen. It’s only a matter of time.
Besides operating Sweetens, working on the Buck Club, and renovating Sea Palms, how else have you spent your time lately—made any golf pilgrimages, or played any bucket-listers?
I had the opportunity to spend a week in Pinehurst last October, which was the home of my architectural awakening when I played the course for the first time in 2007. The sheer brilliance of #2 never fails to amaze me. I also had a great time at Ohoopee Match Club recently. I was impressed with everything from the golf course to each perfectly-executed nuance of the business.
How did the partnership with Peyton Manning, Andy Roddick etc. come about?
I was originally approached by Mark Rivers, a real estate developer from California, about a possible project in New York. Mark & his partner, Skip Bronson, ended up deciding they wanted to get involved at Sweetens Cove, and the original Sweetens ownership group enthusiastically engaged in the negotiation that led to the current structure, which, along with Peyton Manning & Andy Roddick, includes Tom Nolan. I made the analogy to a friend recently that I feel like I hit a royal straight flush on the last hand at the final table at the World Series of Poker after pushing all of my chips into the center. Sweetens couldn’t be in better hands moving forward.
We suspect the owners don’t intend changing much at SC—why would you when it’s been so successful? So, what exactly is the plan and what changes could we see at SC in the near future?
As you noted, the plan is not to change the formula at all. Instead, the new ownership group brings a level of stability and operational expertise that will secure Sweetens for generations. Our first order of business is to address the “top of the hill” near the first tee. In the very near future, we will be building a Himalayas putting green and several social hub/hangout areas that take advantage of the great views. Most importantly, the Shed will remain as the clubhouse, but with the addition of new places to socialize along with indoor plumbing!
How big a challenge is it to maintain Sweetens’s character while maximizing its profitability?
That’s the big question and one we’ve wrestled with. It really is a balancing act. I think the improvements we’ve announced will add a lot to the overall experience and make us more popular without it costing too much. I also know that cabins would be a huge hit & would be profitable. So, we eventually look to add those.
Could the plan also be to buy more 75-100-acre parcels around the country and build more Sweeten Cove-type venues?
We are definitely interested in replicating the success and model of Sweetens Cove elsewhere. In time, the brand will grow, and this will include all new golf spaces on new terrain that have the same vibe and feel that we cultivated in South Pittsburg, Tenn.
Have you ever played Sweetens Cove? Tell us what you think of it in the comments!