The Little Golf Course That Could


Between 1990 and 2006, more than 4,500 golf courses were opened in the United States. It was a bubble fueled by the rise of Tiger Woods and a prerecession financial optimism. More people were buying homes than could afford them, and many new housing developments that sprung up featured golf courses.

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An abandoned golf course in Henderson, Nev., in 2012. Golf course residential spending plummeted and the number of new golf course construction projects fell after the housing market crashed in 2008.

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Damon Winter/The New York Times

When the housing market crashed in 2008, golf went with it. Golf course residential spending plummeted and the number of new golf course construction projects fell. Images of abandoned, half-built golf course developments — where unsold condos overlooked overgrown courses — were reminders of miscalculated affluence.

Collins had an entry-level job in golf course architecture in British Columbia at the time, working with Gary Player’s firm.

“We were grassing the third hole on this course, Wildstone, when Bear Stearns collapsed,” Collins said, “and then, almost that very same day, everything in the industry stopped dead.”

His job disappeared, so Collins took his wife and 4-year-old daughter and moved in with his mother in Chattanooga. He was a landscape architect who had only ever wanted to do one thing: build golf courses. What could he do now?

But Collins sensed a glimmer of opportunity in the industry’s rubble and fell back on a conversation he had had with the builder Tad King years earlier at a restaurant in Naples, Fla.

“We’d spent hours that night at Carrabba’s just talking about the slow, expensive way things went between firm and contractor,” King said. “And we just kept shaking our heads, like, there has to be a better way.”

Now, postcrash, Collins called King, wondering: What if golf’s rapid decline was not just the result of the recession? What if the courses themselves were to blame?

“People had been building golf courses completely wrong for years,” Collins said.

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Rob Collins, the architect and owner-operator of Sweetens Cove Golf Club, has also served as its head of construction, head pro, general manager and entire maintenance crew.

Credit
Melissa Golden for The New York Times

Before the crash, he said, courses were either so long and so hard that golfers needed to be professionals to have any fun, or “limp, bland, paint by numbers” — built as decoration for a housing development. And they were too expensive to build and maintain, a cost ultimately borne by customers.

“It’s no wonder people cut golf out of their lives,” Collins said. “They were paying a lot of money for a mediocre experience.”

By 2010, King and Collins had started their own design firm, but they had no prospective clients.

Then a project fell into their lap: the redesign of a featureless, insolvent parkland course in South Pittsburg, Tenn., population 3,000. It had been purchased as the side project of a local concrete conglomerate.

“Everyone said it was a no-potential dead end,” Collins said. “And they weren’t necessarily wrong, but I knew this might be my only chance to make something special.”

Collins worked with a skeleton crew for long hours and low pay on an accelerated timeline. Other architects and prospective owners circled like vultures, ready to buy up the property. In sheer desperation, Collins mortgaged everything and took over the lease himself.

The course cost about $1 million to build, while a top design firm would have charged $8 million to $10 million for such a project, Collins said.

“The whole thing just got bootstrapped together; it was a labor of love,” he said. “I had a thousand opportunities to walk away, but, damn it, I believed so much in the project, and I honestly had nowhere to walk away to.”

Four years after getting the job, with Sweetens Cove finally set to open in October 2014, Collins officially ran dry. There was no money to keep the maintenance staff on, never mind pave a parking lot, build a clubhouse or do any marketing for the course’s debut.

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