Divergent walks: Thoughts on Sewanee & Sweetens Cove, Tennessee’s two terrific nine-hole courses

After a weekend of walking the MidSouth’s best nine-hole courses, I’ve been thinking about my experiences in terms of what sets Sweetens Cove Golf Club and The Course at Sewanee apart.

The infinity green complexes at Sewanee’s two par threes provide strikingly beautiful settings.

They are both located in southern Tennessee. They both consist of nine holes. They are both fantastic golf courses, open to the public. The similarities of consequence mostly end there.

The differences between the courses prove both mighty and many. Distilling my thoughts down to the most basic analysis, I found myself wondering if I would enjoy walking and playing each course alone, in solitude, without the company of old friends or new acquaintances.

Thinking through my answers revealed what makes the courses so spectacular, yet spectacularly different from one another. The golfer’s experience at each reflects not only the architecture and management of the courses, but traces back to their respective purposes.

The Course at Sewanee, set high on the Cumberland Plateau on the campus of the University of the South, is a very serious golf course. It’s designed to be enjoyed by the campus community, welcoming golfers of all skill levels, yet simultaneously challenging top amateurs and college golfers. The holes contain features of classic golf architecture templates, in varying degrees, relying upon tried and true strategic principles to provide an enjoyable, modern take on the classic golf experience.

There are so many cool features and mysteries to be solved within Sewanee’s nine holes.

I think I could wander around Sewanee for days on end and not tire of the mysteries of those golf holes. It would be fun to spend a summer playing there, constantly trying to post ever-lower nine and eighteen hole scores. Carved from the forest, I suspect there’s a certain magic found in the long shadows of the parkland style layout in the golden hues at dawn and dusk. Yes, I think I’d enjoy strapping my golf bag over my shoulder and racing the dying light of the sun there, or sneaking in a quick nine before work, whether there was anyone joining me for the game or not.

The experience and course found at Sweetens Cove stands in stark contrast to Sewanee. Physically, it lies across the flat valley flow in a flood plain, secluded and quiet. Before ever stepping foot on the course, golfers are told that Sweetens Cove has no course rating or slope and that they are about to encounter the most ridiculously difficult greens most of them have ever seen, which is largely accurate.

These warnings support the notion that the course is intended to be a match play golf course, or more accurately, a golf-themed playground, where laughs and memories are the prized currency of the day. Over the four full days I’ve walked Sweetens Cove, I must concur wholeheartedly with that sentiment.

Perhaps because there are two flags and cups on each green, I developed a familiarity with Sweetens Cove much faster than normal.

The golf course, replete with short par fours and catastrophic risk set against tremendous reward on every shot, is meant to be shared. It’s a place that begs one to “Go for It!” at every opportunity.

The competition there, if competition must intrude on the day, is best waged against friends, old and new. Everyone is there for to have fun, unless one’s idea of fun is grinding hard to post a score for ego purposes.

The Sweetens experience simply would not work for me in solitude. So much of the joy derived there is watching my friends try to pull off implausible shots, or from my own vain attempts to occasionally avoid defeat at the hands of those massive, pushed up greens. It’s not that I might get bored playing it by myself, but rather it might feel like I was misusing the magic.

The laughing, the teasing, the memories made…that’s the Sweetens Cove experience.

They are both tremendous golf experiences, Sweetens Cove and Sewanee. I’ve only played them in the winter and spring, so I harbor lingering curiosity about their presentation during peak season, but that will have to wait.

Yet, brown, green, or in-between, the “Secret Home of Golf,” much like a secret family recipe, is best when shared among those who mean the most to you.

My personality quirks probably favor the Sewanee experience, but I consider myself fortunate to have a few friends to share Sweetens with a couple of times this year.

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