A Course Called Home: Tom Coyne Explores America

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.

—G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man 

Tom Coyne’s new A Course Called America is brimming with the joy of discovery and the gratitude of homecoming. His past trans-Atlantic golf adventures are well appreciated by the American reader eager to experience—even vicariously—the purity of golf’s home and the links of the old sod. But, to open the cover of this newest volume, one must wonder if our native land has anything of lasting significance to offer. We might ask if it’s worth stepping out to traipse about America’s far-flung and homegrown fairways. Well, as we find, it is worth setting out, and setting out very far, so that we can come home, and return with thanksgiving. 

The scale of A Course Called America is grand, as is fitting given the proportions of its subject. And as one can’t experience a nation like the U.S. all at once, but piecemeal, the book is rather episodic. With each installment, Coyne seeks the Great American Golf Course—whether it be set upon a hill, or even in some neighborhood nook—and in so doing determine just what it is that makes a course great. He also hopes to figure out just what it is to be American, a concept more foreign to him at the outset than the Irish stamp on his passport.

Seeking a solid standard to orient him amid the American expanse, Coyne settles on the goal of playing every remaining U.S. Open venue. Add to that list those courses any of us would cross the country for, and we find that most all the stalwart names are on the itinerary: Oakmont, Merion, Pinehurst, Shinnecock, Pebble, even the white whale that is Cypress Point. And they’re all as good as billed, better even. 

But, to this reader, the most delightful discoveries Coyne makes are in the most unexpected and unlikeliest of places. Those in the looked-past corners of our most curiously carved up or capacious states. 

One such episode finds Coyne seeking passage across Lake Huron via ferry to Mackinac Island in Michigan. He is in search of a course whose name—Wawashkamo—means “crooked trail.” Fitting. In a turn reminiscent of A Course Called Ireland, Coyne has to hoof it with his sticks on his back as Mackinac Island eschews engines in favor of animal propulsion, whether human or horse. Eventually arriving at the course—it was the other one on the island—Coyne finds a nine-holer steeped in history, quirk, and intrigue. A place unlike any he had played before, which is something. 

Looking back at the cannon marking the first tee—the island was the site of a battle in the War of 1812—Coyne wonders how or why he was even there. And it really is wonder, born of clarity of sight and gratitude. The physical cause-and-effect were clear, he took a ferry, then put one foot in front of the other for a while. But that’s the cause of his being there only in the most rudimentary respect. He’s there: “Because I enjoy rolling a ball into a hole in the ground. And as I boarded my carriage, I felt more keenly aware than ever that I loved this game not just because it transported us in geography, but because it tossed us around in time as well.”

And so we continue with Coyne as he happens upon courses many a reader will now seek out as well, whether those hidden in plain sight or a ferry ride away or on a Top 100 list.

We discover with Coyne that Nebraska might be the spot for building grand, ambitious golf in the U.S., and that we might want to give sand greens a go, or that the next great nine we play might be with the Navajo, or even in some guy’s backyard. 

We also realize anew that we shouldn’t see states and actual Americans as we do on electorate maps. That the country isn’t as it appears on our rectangular glow boxes, and that people are good. And, in case you were wondering, we learn that Bill Murray is a grinder. 

(Another pleasant surprise for the reader is the realization that if this golf writing gig ever fizzles out for Coyne, he has a future as a food writer. Especially as he details with a sophomoric smirk the finer points of testing out fried bull gonads.) 

America’s Foremost Golf Resort Food Critic

As Coyne comes to know the dizzying number of great and beloved American tracks, from the destination resorts to the neighborhood nines, he acknowledges with a certain subtle gratitude those responsible for building these playing fields we get to wander. 

In this, we hear of the greats of the Golden Age: Ross, Thomas, Tillinghast, Maxwell, Mackenzie and Flynn, amongst others. But we also come to know those of the right-now, new Golden Age of golf architecture, with such notables as Coore and Crenshaw, Tom Doak, David McLay Kidd, Gil Hanse, and quite a few others that practice their craft with imagination and ingenuity. 

At a certain point, Coyne asks Hanse what makes for a great course. Hanse’s answer bears professorial erudition expressed with the simplicity of a master craftsman. To a phrase, a great course can take many shapes, but it must have one thing: a sense of place. That is, it belongs where it is. And, we might say, the people that frequent it belong there too. In a way the two shape each other, the course its players and the players their course. 

In light of this, it’s fitting that Coyne’s Great American Golf Adventure ends where it began. Of all the courses covered throughout Coyne’s continental circumnavigation, there is one that stands as the golf course. It was the name written first on the long list of American courses to visit. The one of his youth, where he learned the game, caddied, and would walk the well-worn fairways and tree lines with his dad. A place and time that remains still an idyll in both memory and meaning. That is, Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pennsylvania. And if that name doesn’t mean much to most readers, it’s no matter. It does to Coyne. And Mr. Coyne. 

The heart of A Course Called America beats loudest as Coyne and his dad walk together what used to be their home course. In recounting memories both distant and recent, funny and heartfelt, Coyne memorializes so much of what first makes us love this game and the people we play it with.  

“Put the words golf and course together and I see Rolling Green.”

Perhaps the moment that most perfectly captures the essence of Coyne’s quest comes as he and his dad play a fortuitous recent round at Rolling Green, their first there in a while: “I never remembered him mentioning how great a golf course this was, but now I caught him stopping to look around. ‘This is beautiful,’ he said, as if noticing for the first time.”

A Course Called America, by Tom Coyne, Avid Reader Press, 2021

(Golf) Pilgrim’s Progress

In Tom Coyne’s new book, A Course Called Scotland, we join him on pilgrimage to the heart of the game through the home of the game. Coyne sets before the reader a story to satisfy the golfing soul. As Coyne ambles along the Scottish coastlines in search of the secret to the game of golf, the reader’s joy is in seeing how much more than that the author finds along the way.

Pilgrim

The pilgrim’s path is never just about the miles put underfoot or the terrain traversed. It’s never just about the sacred sites. The pilgrim is also never just about this one individual pilgrim. The pilgrim’s physical journey is a sign and catalyst for an interior one. The external and internal, though distinct, are inseparable. They challenge each other, give context to each other, enrich each other. The pilgrim’s path is a penitential one, the stripping away of all that proves to be an obstacle to authenticity, fullness, and joy. The pilgrim’s progress is not measured primarily in geographic spans, but by way of interior transformation.

The pilgrim is also a living symbol. An existential claim about the human condition. And the claim is this: we are often disoriented, adrift, strangers in a strange land. We are incomplete and so we desire, we long. We are restless. And we can either wallow in this condition, convincing ourselves it’s good enough or we can seek a remedy. Restless and lost, the pilgrim seeks the place that will still the heart’s longings. Where is the pilgrim trying to get? Further up and further in. Into the heart of things. To the source. The inn at the end of the world. (Because of its profundity, there can’t be any one image for this Thing.) It is the pilgrim that, as a condensed symbol, embodies this image of humanity’s lot.

In A Course Called Scotland Tom Coyne is this pilgrim.

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I am in agreement with Coyne, I abhor “golf-is-life aphorisms,” as he puts it. The bad bounce into the bunker as metaphor for life’s tough breaks. It can come off as so forced. But that’s not what this is. Golf like all rituals—for every game is a ritual—is a focusing lens. By fashioning games, we give ourselves venues within which we test ourselves, sift through ourselves, come to know the human condition a little better. Some of these focusing lenses are more refined and rich than others. Tic-tac-toe doesn’t stir the heart. Golf, however, inspires a romance.

Nothing less could compel Coyne to undertake a walk around a course called Ireland. Nor yet, a two-month sojourn in Scotland, as he does in this book. There is a very specific goal in mind on this quest: qualify for the Open Championship. This is what every step and swing is moving toward. As the book’s subtitle suggests, though, Coyne is even more so in search of the secret to the game of golf. And where to look but the game’s home? As Coyne puts it: “This was golf’s Mesopotamia, its Jerusalem, and its Cooperstown—either I found golf’s soul here, or I was a fool for looking.”

Soul

The choice of the word “soul” is an interesting one. It’s not an uncommon one when referring to the inner essence of the game. While evocative, it is a bit ambiguous. Here I think the older, Latin word for “soul” is of help: Anima. The soul is that which animates, vivifies, gives life to a particular living being. It gives the thing its identity and is that thing’s living principle.

So what is that which breathes life into golf? What animates it? It’s an odd, perplexing, mysterious conjuration, golf is. Like all games, golf is an artefact of human creativity. And even though countless groups and individuals have conspired with nature to shape this thing we call golf, I think the reality is that the soul of golf—that which animates it—is the soul of man.

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The funny thing, though, is that the game can shape, focus, and instigate us. Even though it consistently confounds us, the golfer has a sense that there’s something more to the game than putting the round thing in the other round thing in as few swipes as possible. The horizons of the course—especially those of the Scottish variety described by Coyne—beckon us beyond the everyday. The very scale of golf—so much grander than most other games—can, at times, open onto at least the possibility of the transcendent. The game itself points beyond its own contours. At times, it seems to hint at something more, though it itself can’t tell us what it is.

The secret golf whispers to us is our own. C. S. Lewis called this our “inconsolable secret.” Lewis describes this as the longing for that which is ultimate:

Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of—something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? . . . something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it.

For the golfer, the game—the purely hit iron, the tee shot sent off into the seemingly limitless horizon, the late-Autumn round walked through the gold of sun and fallen leaves—seems to point to this more, though it itself is not the more. Again, Lewis:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.

We try to satisfy this longing in so many ways. Success, credentials, sex, drink, busyness, you name it, we try to fill the void. Coyne’s narrative has a deep and moving channel through it recounting his allegiance to counterfeits, most especially booze and the possibilities it seems to hold within. Emerging from this, through some sort of redemption, Coyne puts forward a hopeful image of passing through onto a life marked by a greater wholeness, though not without its acute challenges.

Standing out as more satisfactory matches to the deep longings held within the human heart in Scotland are beauty and harmony. There is also a certain reverence, though the type that is immune to stuffiness. This all seems to be a hallmark of Coyne’s narrative. It’s there amidst the shorelines and newly-minted friendships. It’s there through the quaint towns and stunning coastal roads. It’s there on the beach in St. Andrews with his daughter:

Standing here in front of me was proof, four feet tall in yellow boots, that life was stuffed with the extraordinary. I thought I had to keep fighting and grinding to grab it, but it turned out that I just needed to notice.

It’s at the end of a day stuffed full of golf:

The rush of the day settled into a keen sense of presence, and I felt a full awareness of where I was and the lengths I had traversed and how astonishing life was and how large and beautiful this world could be and how I was going to golf the UK and it was going to be the experience of a lifetime. I felt so much gratitude.

It’s at Askernish. You’ll have to read that one for yourself. It’s worth the price of admission.

 Golf

And for all this, A Course Called Scotland is a golf book. Coyne’s enjoyable narration of his sometimes thrice-daily rounds is read with a twinge of envy every now and then. His ability to set the scene and give the reader a taste of a breathtaking landscape and what it’s like to golf your ball through such beauty is certainly on display.

And through it all, we get to see in Coyne the travails and triumphs a player endures and enjoys so long as the golfer has given something of himself to the game. We see into the various iterations of how someone approaches the game, but by the end of the book we get the sense that Coyne has arrived at that place we all know is the point of golf, though so many of us seldom get out of our own way to get there: joy.

For as good as A Course Called Ireland was, and it certainly was good, Scotland surpasses its predecessor. By turns hilarious and heartfelt, Coyne’s book is confidently vulnerable. Read it for yourself. In doing so you’ll get closer to the secret of golf, which we all know is about so much more.