The ever-increasing number of diehards who make the trek to Tennessee to play Sweetens Cove’s mind-bending nine holes have seen KING on their scorecard. And whether it was a kick-in birdie, a hard-earned par or something far worse, they no doubt remember the course’s first of two par 3s. But they likely don’t know much about the stamp the man nicknamed King put on the golf culture there, and how his foresight led to one of the game’s cult classics.
When one door closes…
In July 2010, long before readers of this magazine were introduced to the “Bad Subway” of South Pittsburgh, Tennessee (TGJ No. 2), Rob Collins was sitting across the street, in the parking lot of the Krystal, waiting to meet with a man named King.
Collins had been happily working for Gary Player Design until the financial crash of 2008 hit his bulldozer right in the kill switch. Now he was rifling through his address book trying to find a way to stay in the golf industry. Golf construction projects at the time were as sparse as Krystal’s vegan options, but Collins had heard whispers of a dream opportunity—a Gil Hanse renovation of the nine-hole campus course at his nearby alma mater, Sewanee: The University of the South. Collins was desperate to get a spot on the job and reached out to the man who made many things in Chattanooga golf happen: King Oehmig.
“King said, ‘I’d be happy to put you in touch with Gil, but before I do, I just heard about this little course in the Sequatchie Valley that they’re thinking about doing something with,” Collins recalled. He jumped at the opportunity; weeks later, he was set to meet King for burgers and a tour of the flat, unremarkable piece of land nearby that would eventually become golf’s Little Course That Could: Sweetens Cove.
The ensuing ups and downs of turning the shuttered Sequatchie Valley Golf & Country Club into Sweetens Cove have been well documented, but on this day, before all that, Collins and King were driving down the middle of the overgrown fairways in King’s car, imagining what could eventually exist.
Sweetens Cove officially opened in April 2015 and King passed away the next month while fly-fishing, at the age of 63.
Today, the left-hand column of the scorecard at Sweetens features the numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. In the fourth space is the all-caps name of a perplexing par 3: KING.
“We knew we only wanted to name one hole,” Collins says. “And we knew exactly who we were going to name it after.”
An unholy idea
The Rev. Dr. Henry King Oehmig is a legend in Chattanooga golf, just like his father before him. Lew Oehmig was Tennessee’s answer to Bobby Jones—a lifelong amateur who preferred life at the Lookout Mountain Club to any sort of professional-golf shenanigans. He scratched his competitive itch by winning the Tennessee State Amateur eight times, captaining a Walker Cup and capturing state or national amateur titles in five different decades.
His son King was an accomplished player in his own right. Like his father, he played on the golf team at the University of Virginia. King also coached the golf team at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, a program that produced eventual pros Luke List, Harris English, Keith Mitchell, Stephen Jaeger and more. During the 12 years King coached, his boys’ and girls’ teams won a combined 21 state championships.
King’s true calling was as an Episcopal priest, but not the outwardly tranquil type you might picture. His teams at Baylor had “O.A.C.O.A.W.” embroidered on their hats, inspiring them to “Open a can of ass whup.”
“He had this great sense of humor,” says friend Doug Stein. “He loved catching people off guard with his colorful language while wearing his priest’s collar.…He had that sort of late-’60s counterculture vibe in there somewhere, even though he was very much part of the establishment, whatever that is. He had a ‘Free James Brown’ bumper sticker on his car back when those were a thing.”
It wasn’t just the competitive-golf landscape that the Oehmigs helped shape in Chattanooga. Later in life, King became a huge fan and scholar of golf-course architecture. He and Stein traveled around the country spearheading the research needed to help Brian Silva restore Lookout Mountain to architect Seth Raynor’s unrealized vision in 1997.
“Every time King and I would play golf together, we’d compete for this imaginary Seth Raynor Championship,” Stein says. “He’d treat it like it was the U.S. Open.”
King also helped facilitate Hanse’s renovation of Sewanee and assisted Stein in developing nearby Black Creek Club, which today plays like a museum to the boldness of Raynor and C.B. Macdonald, featuring some of the most dramatic template holes in golf. King hoped an architect could bring that same daring to the Sequatchie Valley.
“I probably did more to discourage the ultimate birth of Sweetens Cove than to help it along,” Stein admits. “I just thought it would be such a tough business proposition. But King continually told me how great it was going to be, and I think he persuaded Rob to be bold with it. That was something we had learned at Black Creek: Be bold. As we now know, King was right again.”
When King and Collins took their initial drive around the property, King blurted out an idea that seemed to be the antithesis of the boring land laid out before them.
“He thought it’d be so cool if we could find some way to build a Himalayas hole out here,” Collins says, referring to the famous blind shots at Prestwick and Lahinch. “He was so into that type of quirky architecture. Big, bold features: That’s what he loved.”
A bird and a prayer
Rob Collins and Tad King are the names on the design of Sweetens Cove, but they are quick to give a bulk of the credit (or blame, depending on your score) for the fever-dream fourth green to shaper Gus Grantham.
His team had already built three or four different greens when they got to KING, so Grantham had earned the trust of his bosses. The original plan for the par 3 called for a funnel-type putting surface, one with high banks on the left and right, almost like a halfpipe. But after it became apparent that they couldn’t dig enough dirt out of a nearby lake to build up both shoulders, they knew they would have to improvise on site.
“Gus came up to me one morning and said, ‘Rob, just let me go fucking crazy here,’” Collins says with a laugh. “And I said, ‘OK, man, have at it.’ He went nuts and turned it into this crazy, winding, serpentine green. We just had to massage the edges a bit, but we absolutely loved it.”
The beauty of KING lies in the fact that, like much of Sweetens Cove, it’s never confined to the numbers on the scorecard. It’s 30 or 40 different holes and yardages depending on the combination of the tee, the angle and the pin placement.
The green is a staggering 84 yards from front to back. That’s yards, not feet. Today there are plenty of tall tales about putts being made from one end of the green to the other, but when you’re standing over it, making a putt around Bristol Motor Speedway seems more likely. It can play as a 77-yard chip shot with a backstop and a funnel to the hole. Or it can be a 210-yard prayer to a shelf roughly the size of an office desk. A hillock in front of the green can make the shot completely blind or completely visible, depending on where your tee was placed on the 80-yard-wide teeing area.
During a recent trip, one friend made an ace with a pitching wedge to the front pin. When Collins and I got to KING the following day, the only chance that the long-hitting architect had to reach the back pin was “one hell of a stinger 1-iron.”
If the green were dead flat, there would still be plenty to think about. Instead, Grantham shaped violent shockwaves throughout the putting surface that virtually guarantee the ball won’t stop where it lands. When you miss the green—and if you play it enough, you will—you’re left with a multitude of options, and none of them appear good. The wall-to-wall fairway at Sweetens Cove means your next shot can be a putt, chip, flop, bump, punch or anything else you can invent on the spot. To a tough pin, a flat 20-footer for par feels like Christmas morning. When the pin is easy, a 6-footer for birdie might have you worrying about losing a shot to the field.
Walking away unscathed—or taking advantage of a gettable pin—can give you more momentum here than anywhere else on the course. But, like every hole at Sweetens Cove, disaster looms behind one lazy shot.
“I think there are a few spots on and around that fourth green where, for the first time in your round,” Collins says, “it kind of hits you that this isn’t a normal place.”
The highest compliment Collins throws out is when he sees a “great” shot. The secret to Sweetens Cove is knowing the difference between a good one and a great one; every hole asks tough questions about what kind of shot you are realistically willing (and, more importantly, able) to pull off. KING is no different. While it certainly won’t pressure you to take the hard route—take, for instance, the 50 yards of bailout fairway right of the green—it won’t coddle those who make the wrong decision.
The experience can leave a bad taste in the mouth of a player with the wrong mindset; playing ping-pong from collection area to collection area isn’t any golfer’s idea of fun. But Collins isn’t worried about those who claim that the green is too severe.
“I think those people just haven’t played the hole enough,” he says. “There are parts of it that require an extremely precise shot to succeed. There are other places where the pin lets you get away with it. It just depends from day to day on what’s going on. And I think that’s what makes it so interesting.”
Though most who play it will never have met KING’s namesake, it’s hard not to see the parallels when you hear a close friend’s description of the reverend.
“King was impish and thoughtful, erudite and profane, competitive and compassionate,” Stein says. “He was just a very complex, very fun man. And I miss him terribly.”