Golf in Tennessee
Two words describe the golf scene in the Greater Knoxville Area: Sneaky good. Knoxville may never rival Bandon Dunes, Ore., or Pinehurst, N.C., as a trendy golf destination, but zoom the microscope a little more into East Tennessee and you’ll not only find high quality golf courses but history and tradition, as well.
Classics such as Cherokee Country Club and Holston Hills Country Club were founded in 1907 and 1927, respectively, and were both designed by famous course architect Donald Ross. They sandwich the downtown cityscape, and Holston Hills annually ranks among the nation’s top classical courses.
Fox Den Country Club in Farragut has played host to the Web.com Tour’s Knoxville Open for nearly two decades, and the Knoxville stop on the Web.com Tour—the PGA Tour’s proving grounds—is the longest-standing event on the Tour’s schedule, dating back to 1990.
WindRiver, located just Southwest of Knoxville in Lenoir City, and Tennessee National Golf Club in Loudon, are two of the area’s hidden gems and newer tracks. WindRiver can play up to 7,225 yards at its championship tees, and Tennessee National is a Greg Norman design with Open Championship style bunkers.
Tellico Village, Tenn., located some 30 minutes south of Knoxville, showcases three charming yet demanding courses. Its Kahite course even boasts a par-6 hole. Oak Ridge Country Club played a role in the development of three-time PGA Tour winner Scott Stallings.
Three Ridges in North Knoxville, Avalon in Lenoir City, Sevierville Golf Club, River Islands in Kodak, Egwani Farms in Louisville, and Willow Creek in Farragut are well known for attracting golfers for their consistent quality, layouts, and reputations.
And for the budget-conscious golfer who wants to enjoy the casual round, Dead Horse Lake, Knoxville Municipal, and Whittle Springs have soundly invested in their courses over the last decade and have reaped the benefits.
Williams Creek, Concord Park, and Beverly Park offer amazing par-3 courses. Fairways and Greens Practice Center welcomes golfers of all skill levels to learn or hone the golf swing.
And rumor has it that TopGolf may be coming to town.
Regardless, once its all added up, Knoxville has a sneaky good golf scene, with courses on par with some of the best in the region.
Zac Blair, a diminutive PGA Tour player with a refined palette for golf course architecture, finished his third-round 71 on May 12 at the Knoxville Open and promptly departed from Fox Den Country Club—and Knoxville.
Sure, the 28-year-old wasn’t ecstatic about his score, but he didn’t withdraw from the tournament. He simply had an afternoon tee time at Sweetens Cove that he did not want to miss.
“It’s a must play for me any time I’m in the neighborhood,” Blair tweeted that afternoon.
A 130-mile drive isn’t exactly “in the neighborhood.” But to those who know Sweetens Cove’s story and who have played its nine holes, a two-hour drive might as well be two minutes.
The trip rarely disappoints, and many East Tennessee golfers have made the trek there or are planning one.
From 1951-2011, Sweetens Cove was known as Sequatchie Valley Golf and Country Club, the only course in Marion County and located specifically in South Pittsburg, Tennessee—some 30 miles west of Chattanooga.
It existed essentially in anonymity. Meanwhile, Chattanooga golf boomed with courses like The Honors Course, Black Creek, Council Fire, and Chattanooga Golf and Country Club.
But that all changed in November 2011, when the Chattanooga Times Free Press published an article about how the 60-year-old course located on Sweetens Cove Road would be getting a face-lift and a new name.
Mercy, did it ever. It was almost as if Chip and JoAnna Gaines came and renovated—but without all the shiplap. In this case, though, Chip and JoAnna were architect Rob Collins of King-Collins Golf and contouring specialist Gus Grantham.
And so, a course with little-to-no elevation transformed into a breath-taking, mind-bending topography of golf with elevated tees, knee-high native grasses, expansive waste bunkers, greenside bunkers with wooden-plank faces the height of NBA centers, and greens so massive and undulating that Tony Hawk could skateboard them.
Once it re-opened in 2014, Sweetens Cove quickly built a reputation through word of mouth and social media. By 2017, Golfweek rated Sweetens Cove a Top 100 Modern Golf Course. It’s now No. 50.
Its trials and difficulties during the reconstruction process have been told many times over by golf publications, podcasts, the New York Times, Golf Digest, The Golf Channel, and bloggers galore; Collins was forced to mortgage everything and take over the lease just to finish the project and get the course opened again.
The money ran dry once the course was finished, leaving the property bereft of many of the amenities most golfers come to expect. But the lack of a clubhouse, paved parking lot, bar or grill, and indoor plumbing are all now part of Sweetens Cove’s charm.
It is the Course That Can Do No Wrong.
The blue roadside sign on Highway 72, that alerts your impending right turn for Sequatchie Valley Golf and Country Club, still exists—but with mailbox letters stuck on it that spell Sweetens Cove Golf Club.
And the lone port-o-potty on site, the randomly placed synthetic turf practice green, and the dilapidated red entrance sign to the course enhance the stories told about Sweetens Cove every bit as much as the tales of the 20,000-square-foot green at the par-3 fourth or the roller-coaster of a green at the par-4 eighth.
Two-time Greater Knoxville Amateur champion and reigning East Tennessee Amateur champion Tyler Lane swears by Sweetens Cove. He’s had varying experiences each time there. He was 7 under through 10 holes on his first visit—and hasn’t played under par in the “four or five times” he’s played since his first round.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Lane says. “You’re never playing the same golf course.”
“When you’re thinking about golf,” Lane adds, “there are a lot of things that can be wrapped up into what people think ‘good golf’ is. Sometimes, it’s the clubhouse or the facilities or the aura around it, the history. I think I can fall into that trap, too, when thinking about legendary golf courses.
“But when you step onto this place, when I stepped onto it the first time, I remember thinking there’s none of that. It’s just pure golf—and you get it from the very first tee shot.”
Hayden Echols, the Knoxville regional director of the Tennessee Golf Foundation, was one of 36 players who pooled together some funds to rent the course out for an entire day.
They played 45 holes on June 23, and they won’t be the last golfers to sign up for a marathon round. Sweetens Cove’s locale draws pilgrimages from Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta, Birmingham and beyond to come see what the buzz is about.
“For us, you hear about the uniqueness of the layout. You hear about the crazy green complexes. And then, obviously, Golfweek had it ranked the 50th best golf course in the U.S. Anytime you have a course rated that high, open to the public, only nine holes—there’s something very special there,” says Echols. “We wanted to go check it out.
“It’s one of those that where it’s unlike anything you’ll ever play. So, in terms of course layout and design, it met and exceeded expectations. I’ll be going back as soon as I possibly can.”
And as for Blair, he’s already planning a return trip. He announced, via Twitter in late July, a two-day gathering at Sweetens Cove on Oct. 19-20 called “The Ringer.”
Visiting in the Fall is imperative; by then, the foliage on the mountains that envelop the property have turned shades of red, brown and gold and they peripherally accent and complement the turning hues of the high grasses around the bunkers and rough.
“If that place got firm
and fast, it would be very difficult. But as far as a cool place to play, that’s probably the best golf day in Tennessee, to be honest,” said three-time PGA Tour winner Scott Stallings of Knoxville. “Play nine holes there, play nine holes at Sewanee (Golf Club), and then drive up and play The Honors (Course).”
Trending Golf Companies
Nowadays, what you wear on the course or the golf accessories you carry matter almost as much as your scores.
Whether it’s trendy ballmarkers to use on the greens or fashion-forward socks and hats, today’s golf shopping extends beyond the walls of the pro shop.
Each year, the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando is replete with new vendors. Here are a few of the companies trending online and social media.
Tyson Lamb (lambcrafted.com) – If Scotty Cameron is the Michael Jordan of putter design, then Lamb is the Lebron James. The talented clubmaker from Texas has developed a massive following, and his items sell out in a matter of hours online. He’s been featured multiple times on The Golf Channel, and his customizable putters, donut-designed ballmarkers, leather putter covers, and other handcrafted goods demand high dollar.
We Asked the Experts
Golf is a game for all people: short or tall, athletic or non, young or old. All personalities are welcome; the game doesn’t discriminate. But one thing that all golfers have in common is: they all have passionate opinions about the game. Even the most introverted golfer won’t mind intimating his hate for a hole, a brand of ball, or a certain course—be it warranted or not. It’s what makes the game fun to debate and discuss.
We threw a few topics about Knoxville area golf courses at three of the area’s top players: three-time PGA Tour winner Scott Stallings, reigning East Tennessee Amateur champion Tyler Lane and Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame member and one of the state’s all-time top amateurs Jeff Golliher.
What’s the toughest par 3 in Knoxville or the surrounding area? The two talked about most seem to be No. 12 at Cherokee Country Club and No. 14 at Holston Hills.
STALLINGS: No. 12 at Cherokee. Nothing comes close. It’s in its own category. Everything else is separate. … There’s nowhere to miss. Right is out-of-bounds. Left is a hazard. And you have a bunker short (of the green). It almost forces you to run it up to the right, if you’re going to try to run it up on the green.
LANE: No. 17 (at The Country Club) in Morristown is very difficult as well, the way it kind of sits on top of a hill and slopes really tough from back to front. It used to be tougher before they put a bunker in, but it’s still a really difficult par 3.
GOLLIHER: I think the hardest has to be 12 at Cherokee. It’s everything. It’s probably 235 yards from the back. Out of bounds just right of the green. Hazard just left of the green. I’m not saying it’s the best hole in Knoxville. I think it would be a great hole at 180 yards. I think it’s too narrow for a hole of that length. When we would play the State Amateur or the U. S. Amateur qualifying there, I laid up. I would lay it up short of the bunker and try to get it up and down (for par). I’d never go for it. So, what kind of par 3 is it when you can’t even go for the green? But it’s by far the hardest hole. It’s not even close.
Is there a course in the area that’s really good that doesn’t get enough credit?
STALLINGS: I like the layout a lot at WindRiver. That’s a place not a lot of people go. It’s off the beaten path a little bit.
LANE: The one that comes to my mind first is WindRiver. From the back tees, WindRiver is a great golf course. It’s challenging. The greens are always in really great shape. It’s a good layout with a lot of variety with slope and contours. It has a really good practice facility. I always look forward to going down to WindRiver. When people ask my top five courses in Knoxville, it’s usually right there.
GOLLIHER: (The Country Club in) Morristown is one of the most underrated golf courses in this area. It was done by a pretty famous designer that you’ve never heard of. I think Morristown has a lot of good golf holes on it. I think it’s fair. I think it separates the field as good or better than any course around.
East Tennessee has its fair share of crazy holes.
Some with large elevation drops or rises.
What’s the craziest hole in this area?
STALLINGS: No. 11 at Egwani. Without question. Nothing else comes close to that.
LANE: I’d probably say No. 7 at Whittle Springs. It’s not any more odd than 11 at Egwani. But once you get on top of the hill at (No. 11 on) Egwani, it’s a pretty cool hole, off the cliff there. It’s just an awkward tee shot. But on 7 (at Whittle), you can hit all kinds of shots to get down to the bottom (and around the corner of the 90-degree dogleg). I saw a guy hit a cut there one year, and I bet the ball cut 70 yards (to the right), and I’m thinking, ‘He’s just hit a house.’ He picks up the tee like he’s done exactly what he’s tried to do. Sure enough, we get up there and it’s in front of the green.”
GOLLIHER: I think No. 13 at Beaver Brook is awfully weird. You
hit like a 6-iron and an 8-iron. It’s a terrible hole. Sevierville
has one, maybe No. 12, that goes straight up a hill. That’s
pretty bad. Certainly, No. 7 at Whittle Springs. That green
needs to be blown up.”
Q: What about the par 6 hole at Kahite?
GOLLIHER: I think it’s a great golf course, but I would play it as a par 5. It didn’t do much for me when I played it. That’s a really good golf course, but I wasn’t much for the par 6.
Avalon Country Club
Beverly Park Par Three Golf Course
Concord Park Par Three Golf
Dead Horse Lake Golf Course
Egwani Farms Golf Course
Knoxville Municipal Golf Course
River Islands Golf Club
The Sevierville Golf Club
Sweetens Cove Golf Course
Three Ridges Golf Course
The Wee Course at Williams Creek
Whittle Springs Golf Course
Willow Creek Golf Club
WindRiver Golf Club