Paired Up with Rob Collins, Part Two: Why So Spiritual?
“There’s so much shit in the marketplace, not just the golf marketplace, but in every business and marketplace, there’s so much lying and inauthenticity that people are so desperate for authentic experiences they want to shove it in their veins.”
“You must be Rob, correct?” asked a young, twenty-something guy who pulled up to the shed in a golf cart from the ninth green with his mom in the passenger seat.
“Yeah. How’s it going?” Rob answered.
“We’re traveling from Wisconsin to Florida and we wanted to stop by. We’ve heard about the place and absolutely had to come. It’s awesome!”
“No kidding! That’s so cool. Thanks for stopping by,” Rob said.
“This is our only stop on the way to Florida,” the boy’s mom said with an accent fitting their home.
“To be honest with you, this is the whole reason we’re driving down. We just figured we’d see family in Florida while we’re down here,” the son added.
“How cool is that?” I asked Rob as the mother and son walked back to their cars.
“That never gets old, I’d be lying if I said it did,” he answered.
One More Question to Answer
Back in December I took a trip to South Pittsburg, Tennessee to play a round of golf with Rob Collins, the principal designer of Sweetens Cove Golf Club. I had played his course for the first time the previous August, and I had two main takeaways that I wanted to talk to Rob about.
1) Sweetens Cove felt sacred to me from the moment I pulled into the grass parking lot. Why? I found this answer during our 9-hole round together and wrote about it in part one: https://www.pairedupgolf.com/new-blog/pairedupwithrobcollinspartone
2) The second takeaway is one that ate away at me for weeks after my first trip to Sweetens in August: why did this place stick with me—and many others—like a spiritual experience? This answer was revealed to me while Rob and I sat and talked on the porch of America’s favorite shed/pro shop/clubhouse/snack shop on a cold December morning.
Golf As Art
One of the hardest walks in golf is from the ninth green back to the shed at Sweetens Cove—not because it is physically strenuous, but because it’s so hard not to walk right back to the first tee and play it again. On the ninth green, however, we had just finished talking about Michelangelo’s creative process—as you often do during a round of golf—and I could feel that we were on the path to discovering the answer to my question, so I read Rob this quote as we made our way back to the steps of the shed:
“Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”
“I think there is a void in the world of great architecture, and the more you put out into the world the more people are exposed to it and can experience it,” Rob replied. “Most people don’t see golf as art, but to me, it’s really as complex of an art for as you can find anywhere in the world because you’re physically interacting with the work, you’re playing a game upon it, and how that all unfolds and what it presents to you is part of the art of it. You can’t walk into the Louvre and take the Mona Lisa off the wall and just start playing around with it. What would you do anyway if you could? But here, it affects you mentally, emotionally, physically, and there’s a visual artistry to it, but then there’s also the underlying artistry of it which is the questions that it asks and the problems that it makes you solve, and the story that it tells.”
Looking back to my childhood, so many of the golf courses I grew up playing in Florida felt formulaic, built with an assembly-line approach: a developer buys a large piece of land, builds 500+ homes, adds a community pool and tennis courts, and then throws in a golf course just as an amenity. That was the golf industry norm for quite a while, and what’s the result? You feel empty after playing there—and you tear a few pool screens with errant tee shots.
But if we are seeing Sweetens Cove as a living and breathing artwork, then what does good art do? It’s a disruption in your way of thinking, it challenges the perceived norms, and it is done without an unnecessary frills.
Sweetens Cove: Golf’s Greatest Comedian
“A good joke is the most you can say in the least amount of words.” –Larry Wilmore.
I liken Sweetens to a standup comedian, and the best comedians do two things really well: 1) they point out and challenge social norms, forcing you to analyze if these norms are even important to you, and 2) the best ones can do it in the fewest amount of words.
The moment you pull into Sweetens Cove, you are forced to answer a few questions. Is having a paved parking lot with a circle drive near the clubhouse where I can drop my clubs important to me, or am I okay with a grass parking lot? Do I need a large clubhouse with central A/C, a locker room, and a big pro shop with more golf polos than anyone could ever buy, or is a 10’ x 20’ wooden shed enough? Am I ok with using a port-a-potty at one of Golfweek’s Top 100 Modern Courses, or is a blue port-a-potty sufficient? You are forced to analyze what’s important to you in having a fun golf experience, unlike any other course in America, because it’s all part of the story this living artwork tells.
The story that Sweetens Cove is telling is subversive, approaching the industry from a punk rock angle. “Patrick (former GM) described it recently as an anti-establishment establishment, and it definitely is that without a doubt,” Rob said. “The place in its current state is a reflection of economic reality on one hand—if we could build a clubhouse we would, and we’re working towards that. But the whole vibe of the place is a reflection of mine and Patrick and others’ personality. You get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit. You have one of the best courses in the country—if not the world—and if that’s not enough for you then go somewhere else.”
After analyzing what’s important to you in a golf experience—regardless of your verdict—one resounding fact hits you before put a tee in the ground on the first hole: Sweetens Cove is authentic. Rob didn’t stumble upon authenticity by making a golf course and experience people were asking for, but rather one from his soul.
A hack is only thinking about the audience, only playing to what they will like. A hack can have success, but it’s empty. But a true artist, like Rob, creates what he thinks is interesting, bringing to life a project that is inside of him, not worrying about the reception, creating from his soul.
Back to comedy—the bad comedian tries to think what the audience will laugh at, but the good one writes what he thinks is funny, and then invites the audience to come along with him if they want. That’s authentic, and that’s Sweetens Cove. They don’t worry about the audience’s reception anymore, and they don’t hide from the past. No, they leave the shed and port-a-potty right there front and center, which led to a funny correlation.
Weaknesses Becoming Strengths
“The brand was created out of necessity, and the feel around the brand is a result of scrapping it together—just what me and Patrick (previous GM) could get from one day to the next,” Rob told me. “The fact that we weren’t well capitalized put pressures on the business and created certain realities that, like the shed and port-a-potty, were at one time a weakness that have turned into a strength.”
It wouldn’t be authentic if they did the shed on purpose, trying to be edgy. It was all they could do at the time economically, which a) makes it authentic, and b) is a constant reminder of the struggle, but with a new spin. There’s a Greek word for that, and I’m going to type it out to seem smart, but please don’t ask me to pronounce it: anakephalaoisasthai.
You know when you’re playing your career-best round of golf and only need a bogey on the last hole, but you hit a hosel rocket out of bounds, and then hit another hosel rocket even further out of bounds on your next drop? Or you know when you’re on vacation and you get a flat tire on the way to the airport in the pouring rain?
That’s the worst part of the round or trip in the moment, but it becomes the best moment when you retell the story later to your golf buddies or at a dinner party. That Greek word (that I’m avoiding typing again) means to retell or rename an experience. You gather up all of the pieces and you retell it after the fact because there’s a new center to the story. That’s what Sweetens Cove did to their story.
The grass parking lot, green shed, and port-a-potty were the worst part of their story in the moment, but they’ve now become, like Rob said, strengths. When you anakeph-whatever the story, you don’t hide the painful moment, instead you highlight those parts, and that’s what makes the story so compelling.
Every time I tell someone about Sweetens Cove I start with talking about the rural town of South Pittsburg, and then the grass parking lot, the shed, the port-a-potty, and lastly the world-class golf course—which might not be Rob’s preferred order. But those are the people, stories, and places that are easy to root for.
We’re not inspired by the stories where everything went right. “If you were given $20 million dollars to build a $10 million dollar golf course, $5 million dollar clubhouse, and the rest to build some cabins, you would absolutely cut your left [arm] off as an owner to have this level of brand identity and authenticity, and 99% chance you’re not going to get it,” Rob said passionately.
“I’m not taking all the credit or anything, but a lot of it is dealing with the realities of the situation you’re given and doing the best you’ve got,” he added. “We’re so lucky to have this brand identity now. Nash (the GM) posted a picture of some tees last week and people went crazy for them. If there’s another golf course that posts a picture of tees, no one gives a shit.” Nash laughed in the background as he unboxed the tees.
Then Rob hit the nail on the head. “There’s so much shit in the marketplace, not just the golf marketplace, but in every business and marketplace, there’s so much lying and inauthenticity that people are so desperate for authentic experiences they want to shove it in their veins. That’s what we offer here, and that’s why a guy from Wisconsin just stopped to see the place.”
A first visit to Sweetens Cove is a disruption from the bullshit in the golf marketplace—even if you didn’t know you needed it—and it goes right into your veins.
The people who fell down and kept going inspire us. Those are the authentic stories we can’t get enough, and that’s why I left Sweetens that day in December so inspired by my time with Rob Collins.
But that initial hit of authenticity isn’t enough, so what makes it stay in our system for weeks, months and years later?
Why So Spiritual?
The reason Sweetens Cove sticks with us like a lasting spiritual experience is because it’s a reflection of our own story.
We have all had a Sweetens Cove moment or project in our life, scrapping things together, hoping and trusting that it would work, that it would connect with someone. We’ve had a shed as a makeshift-clubhouse in our life. We’ve had times where we can only offer a port-a-potty to our customers and hope they’re okay with it. I’m sitting alone at my desk writing this well past midnight—with a long to-do list for my day job on hold—working to get this website off the ground about the strangers I meet at golf courses, hoping people will get it. That’s my green shed. I bet you have one too.
An authentic spiritual experience isn’t found in the church hallway taking a picture for Instagram in front of a mural and hashtagging #Easter2k19 while a song you’ve heard 100 times plays in the sanctuary. You want to post the picture, get the likes, and be done with it.
An authentic spiritual experience places you in the center of the story—boots on the ground—letting you experience it first hand. When it’s over, you can’t help but tell everyone you cross paths with. That’s why we leave these authentic experiences so inspired, because if they can make it, then so can we.
That’s what Sweetens Cove offers from the moment you step foot on the property: an invitation to participate in their story, where you get to interact with the artwork—an artwork paired with the reminders of their struggle not buried off in the distance, but right there front and center where you pay your greens fee, showcasing it’s authenticity.
That’s what Rob Collins and company have built in South Pittsburg, TN, and he’s forever grateful that you were a part of it for the day.
“I will never tire of hearing people’s experiences and the way it has impacted them,” Rob said. “It means so much to me and everyone else who limped it along, because so much of us is in it.”
So on your next trip to Sweetens Cove, take a moment to look around, and I bet you’ll find yourself in it, too.
Contest for a free all-day foursome pass to sweetens cove!
Thank you for reading parts one and two of my story on Rob Collins. To further celebrate Sweetens Cove, let's end with a contest!
How to enter the contest:
1) Subscribe to Paired Up at this link: https://www.pairedupgolf.com/subscribe
2) Send me your favorite story from a random pairing! It can be short or long, funny, heartfelt—whatever! Just tell me your favorite story or moment from a random golf pairing. Submissions can be sent through the contact page of the website or to firstname.lastname@example.org
Every submission gets a FREE Paired Up logo towel!
The winner gets a FREE all-day foursome pass to Sweetens Cove, and their story will be featured on Paired Up! Come on, let me hear you best story.