University of the South students, staff (and members of the public) have enjoyed The Course at Sewanee for over 100 years and this highly regarded 9-hole layout re-opened in 2013 after a 2-year renovation by Gil Hanse.
The course was originally designed by Albion W. Knight, the religious minister at Sewanee. He had no design experience, of course, but with a team of mules and the assistance of the school football team, a 9-hole course opened for play in 1915.
Almost a century later, a group of Sewanee graduates raised a reported $3.5 million before hiring Gil Hanse to completely redesign the layout, which involved constructing nine new green complexes, adding bunkers and removing trees.
Multiple tees on every hole allow the nine holes to be played twice with different yardages on every hole. Some holes play to different pars second time around. For instance, #1 is rated a 461-yard par four and #9 a 513-yard par five but they’re played as a 556-yard par five and 456-yard par four on the second nine.
I have fond memories of the course at Sewanee. I grew up in nearby Chattanooga, and occasionally my dad would take me to Sewanee as a special place to play on the weekend. I remember a short but tight tree-lined course that was a lot of fun to play. I had heard of the Gil Hanse renovation, but I had never had the chance to play the course until recently. As I drove up to the course, I saw that the tight course of my memory had been transformed into something completely different.
As I walked to the first tee, I was overwhelmed by the sight of rough-edged bunkers, open rolling fairways, and enough beautiful old hardwoods to give the holes definition. As I walked down the opening fairway, my first impression was that I had walked onto a mountaintop version of Swinley Forest, the magnificent course in Surrey. After I finished my round, that impression had only been confirmed.
Sewanee is laid out on a beautiful rolling piece of land. The closing ninth is the only really flat hole on the course, and there is enough undulation to require firm concentration to maintain your balance. Still, there are no slopes severe enough to feel contrived or overly difficult.
The bunkering is simply magnificent. Many of the fairway bunkers are set at a slight obliquity to the fairway, although there are no true angled bunkers such as you see at Swinley. The rough edges were reminiscent of the renovated bunkers at Old Town in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Many of the greenside bunkers were deep and severe enough to dictate the line of approach to the green.
The green complexes were interesting as well. Once again, I would point to Old Town as a model, with multiple slopes and excellent internal contours on all the greens, with the par-three 3rd hole even having a bump akin to a Perry Maxwell puff. Even though the greens had recently been punched, I enjoyed putting on them. The first five holes run roughly parallel, and then the last four are routed around the perimeter of the property. The first five are angled enough for the wind to blow at slightly different angles on all the holes.
There are several outstanding holes and no weak holes. The first and ninth can be played as either a par 4 and par 5, and I suggest that if both were played at par 4 and the whole course to a par of 70, this would be a stern test of golf for a golfer of any caliber even though the total length is 6700 yards from the longest tees. I liked the entire course, but the stretch of holes 6, 7, and 8 is simply outstanding. These are three strong par 4's that really test your driving ability. There is plenty of room here, but the drive has to be placed in the proper part of the fairway to allow the proper approach to the green. The only real weakness here is the two par threes, 3 and 5; both play back to the plateau's edge and are good holes. This offers a wonderful visual experience, but the holes are just too similar for my taste.
Comparisons will eventually arise to Sweetens Cove, another fantastic nine-hole course about 30 miles back towards Chattanooga. If you are in the area, you simply need to play both. I give the edge to Sewanee. Sweetens is wonderful, but Sewanee is more wonderful. Sweetens is dominated by the magnificent green complexes, but Sewanee has much more interesting topography and was a superior experience.
I live about 2 and 1/2 hours away, and I can't wait to return.
The Course at Sewanee dates back to 1915 and was redone by Gil Hanse. It is a 9 hole layout that utilizes different tees to create a different look and feel. The first hole plays as a long par 4 and as the tenth hole a par 5. The second shot is blind and there is a huge waste area on the right. The green sits on a ledge with a large bunker in front. The 2nd and 11th both play as a valley par five. A brook dissects the fairway with fairway bunkers on both sides. Tight hole. The 3rd and 12th is a par three with an infinity green with a lovely view. Pay attention to the task at hand as the left side of the green is surrounded by four bunkers. The 4th and 13th is a fun driveable par four. It has trees and bunkers where they need to be to ensure bad shots are not rewarded. Additionally, the green sits on a plateau peninsula with dropoff left and a collection of bunkers right. The 5th and 14th is played as a par 3, 210 yards for the 5th and 165 for the 14th. A small water carry and a nice view behind the green. The 6th and 15th is a dogleg left and has a significant contour right to left. Favor the right side off the tee. The 7th and 16th have multiple valleys along with the requisite fairway bunkers scattered about. However, the valley in front of the green has a voracious appetite for shots that didn’t quite get there. The 8th and 17th is a short par four that is a knockoff of the Principal’s Nose. Sewanee makes no bones about it and this hole is called, “The Bishops Nose’. Club selection on the approach is as this green is surrounded by 5 bunkers. The 9th plays as a par five and the 18th a par four. Tough finishing hole with moguls and fairway bunkers. Probably should take an extra club as the green is elevated, well protected , wide but not deep.
A fun course that I would pay to play again. While Sweetens Cove seems to get all the pub, I encourage you all to play them both and decide for yourself.
I played Sewanee in May of 2018 on the same trip that we played Sweetens Cove. I enjoyed both courses but if I had to pick one, I'd give the slight edge to Sewanee. Gil Hanse did a fantastic job in making a really fun nine hole golf course which has different sets of tees to make a round of 18 feel like you are playing a different course at times which was really unique. The condition was very good for a course of this cost open to the public. The scenery was amazing and this course is a must stop on any golf trip in TN. You will really enjoy yourself.