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

Fairway Philosophy

The Danger of a Hasty Pace: Walking, Time and Golf

Pace of play. From pleas for pros to be put on the clock, to the six-hour slog some golfers are consigned to on crowded public tracks, to the almost-mythical slow foursome that one can potentially meet at the very next tee, pace of play seems to be a ubiquitous golfing-concern. There are a number of threads tangled in this knot. There are of course pragmatic and PR-related elements. No one wants to play a five-hour round and no one wants golf thought of as a pastime that just takes too long. There are somewhat deeper considerations at play, though. At some level of our concern over pace of play, I think we have a particular way of viewing the reality of our experience of time and ourselves as temporally-bound creatures.

There is something here in the relationship between “clock-time” and what we might call “interior time,” or one’s subjective experience of our temporality. We all know this, we’ve all complained that the hour-long lecture felt far longer. We’ve all also marveled at how the two-hour dinner spent in good company seemed to end so soon.

“Clock-time” is going to be what it’s going to be: increments folded into bigger increments, then into yet more expansive increments. And though it’s subjectively experienced, this sort of time has something more of a rigid objectivity to it. “Interior time,” though objectively experienced in the life of subjects—us—has a greater malleability to it. Its “interior passage” through our consciousness quickens and slows, slackens and calcifies.

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But what does any of this have to do with golf? Quite a bit, I think. One facet of the game we can consider with these concepts is how we actually make our way around the course. That is, walking or riding. To put it more clearly: our mode of movement—walking, riding, skating, sledding, jogging, crawling—does some profound shaping of our experience of our temporal activity. How we move through space deeply impacts how we experience the passage of time.

All the permutations of the walking vs. riding debate can’t be hashed out here. But I’d say that in all this talk of the pace of play on the course, we ought to consider how it is that our mode of movement contributes to the formation of our experience of time. So, this is not so much a consideration of “clock-time,” but rather “interior time,” and how four-hours walking and four-hours riding might in the end be rather different four-hour spans.

I’m not dogmatically opposed to carts. In fact, there are times I’m happy to have rode for that hot mid-July round on the course clearly not designed with the walking golfer in mind. I do, however, have a strong predilection and proclivity for walking. Golf to me is a walkers’ game. More generally, I have an abiding interest in the phenomenon of walking. While this might seem a pedestrian preoccupation, I think there is something deeply meaningful in this quotidian human activity. Motivated by this interest, I’ve been dipping into Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking. The book’s fifth chapter titled “Slowness” has some provocative thoughts on the difference between walking a span versus riding over it.

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He sees a real advantageousness to a slow mode of movement versus a hasty one: “Slowness really is the opposite of haste.” We like hasty travel with a premium placed on speed, but “the illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time.” At first it seems sensible; motorized travel covers the same distance faster than walking. Time saved. Right? “But haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day.”

What if we’re slower, though? “Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time . . . this stretching of time deepens space.” This is one of walking’s secrets:

a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar. Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship. Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.

When zipping along, “the eye is quick, active, it thinks it has understood everything and grasped it all.” Alternatively, when walking, “nothing really moves: it is rather that presence is slowly established in the body.” Further:

When we are walking, it isn’t so much that we are drawing nearer, more that the things out there become more and more insistent in our body. The landscape is a set of tastes, colours, scents which the body absorbs.

When it comes to walking or riding the golf course, my intuition is that when riding we can allow ourselves to get into far too hasty a mode. Haste makes us feel the weight and burden of time. We try to close distances as quickly as we can, anxious until our arrival. The walker, too, is trying to cover ground, but the way in which it is done is profoundly different from its motorized alternative. The walker through his very feet is tapped into the course, its contours, turns. At this pedestrian pace, the course reveals itself to him more gradually, allowing this experience to stretch itself out.

While much pace of play disputes focus on “clock-time”—see the stopwatches that emerge when it’s Bryson’s turn to play his next shot—it would do us well to also keep some attention on “interior time,” that is, how our personal dispositions and habits of mind, as well as our modes of movement, shape our experience of time spent playing the great game of golf.

 

Dr. MacKenzie Defends Beauty

In Golf Architecture, Alister MacKenzie raises the following topic: a “common erroneous idea is that beauty does not matter on a golf course.” This objection to the notion of the significance of the beautiful for one’s golf is predicated, says MacKenzie, on the idea that all that matters is good golfing conditions: a good test of one’s game, with this having little to no connection to one’s aesthetic encounter with the course.

Responding, MacKenzie states:

I haven’t the smallest hesitation in saying that beauty means a great deal on a golf course; even the man who emphatically states he does not care a hang for beauty is subconsciously influenced by his surroundings. . . . and there are few first-rate holes which are not at the same time, either in the grandeur of their undulations and hazards, or the character of their surroundings, beautiful holes.

The natural is MacKenzie’s model. His desire is to “conserve existing natural features,” and if there is need, “to create formations in the spirit of nature herself.” In effect, MacKenzie makes clear his attempt to provide for “a splendid test of golf” on his courses, though at the same time he strove “to achieve beauty.”

As Andy Johnson of “The Fried Egg” has it: MacKenzie “was able to seamlessly blend his design features into the natural beauty of his land sites while still providing a strong and interesting test for the scratch player and a fun and playable course for the average players.”

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MacKenzie acknowledges that “it may at first appear unreasonable that the question of aesthetics should enter into golf-course design.” Looking at the question more deeply, however, “it becomes clear that the great courses, and in detail all the famous holes and greens, are fascinating to the golfer by reason of their shape, their situation, and the character of their modeling.”

Quite importantly, he then comes to a fine summative point: “When these elements obey the fundamental laws of balance, of harmony, and fine proportion they give rise to what we call beauty.”

Often when conversations regarding beauty arise there is a tendency to eschew any claims to objective qualities of beauty. That, in effect, to describe something as beautiful is merely to describe one’s emotional response to the thing. As this thinking goes: the thing isn’t beautiful, my feeling is one I call the experience of beauty. We might call this a radically subjectivized take on aesthetic experience.

This doesn’t seem to have truck with what MacKenzie is saying, though. Of course, a golf course architect will have rather definite aesthetic opinions and positions. But MacKenzie goes beyond the particulars of course architecture and enters the more general realm of the philosophy of beauty. When he cites the qualities of balance, harmony, and proportion, he is trading in rather classical categories. He puts before the reader rather objective traits of a hole, or green, or course. In other words, MacKenzie seems to be suggesting that there has to be something about the course itself that would make us consider it beautiful. The course itself is beautiful. This doesn’t nullify the subjective aesthetic experience of the golfer, in fact it elicits it.

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I think Roger Scruton’s book Beauty can be of aid in tying matters together. In it, he says that in the experience of beauty we are not just describing something we see, “we are giving voice to an encounter, a meeting of subject and object, in which the response of the first is every bit as important as the qualities of the second.”

What MacKenzie is suggesting here is that this encounter is, in fact, quite essential for the golfer. Anyone that claims otherwise is simply deluded. And to rechannel the words of Scruton, this encounter occurs between the subject that is the golfer, and the object that is the golf course. This encounter of beauty suggests that we stand in relationship with the course, and this relationship is at times one marked by awe and wonder.

The topic of golf course aesthetics is a fascinating one in its own right, however, I think the game of golf provides for a particular angle of approach to the topic of aesthetics in general. It makes us consider the experience of beauty as it pertains to the objective nature of that which we consider beautiful, alongside our particular, very personal, experience of this thing we perceive.

There is so much more to be said on this topic. Let this short post be an entrée to further thought, substance and experience.

The Golf Course Perilous

From the player’s perspective the course is both inviting and disturbing, offering not only fairways and greens, but hazards of various kinds, and therein lies its dual possibilities. . . . How to quite explain the fearful allure of a curving stream or cavernous bunkers, if not in an image? How to convincingly impress the uneasy narrowness of a fairway, the tempting painful possibility of close-felt trees or an out-of-bounds? The viewer, to see and feel these things, has to imagine himself playing the game, seeking life on the green, fearing disaster in the water or trap.

–Walter T. Schmid, Golf as Meaningful Play, 2

The game of golf and its habitat show us a curious combination of the natural world and the formation of human meaning. Not articulated with words, it is nonetheless shown if one views the game and its courses from a certain angle. The golf’s landscapes have shaped the way the game is both understood and played. Further, the dunelands of Scotland and its four-legged residents gave contours to the game’s origins and heritage. Conversely, the game has given its fields a particular kind of meaning understood only within its parameters. Only the game can imbue a bucolic pastoral setting with non-pragmatic causes of trepidation and caution. Babbling streams that are easily crossed with one stride become the occasion for a golfer’s indecision and fear. A bunker no bigger than a child’s backyard sandbox can cause a grown man to stiffen like a corpse. A tree one would marvel at on a hike can now become the object of a verbal stream of vitriol as it knocks down the almost-perfect escape shot. It is a beguiling part of golf that an aesthetically beautiful scene, when played, can become the occasion for those interior responses fit for the ugly and harrowing.

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Man v. Sand

The course is nature suffused and woven together with creative, playful human impulses, meaning and culture. But it’s not as if this human-instilled meaning is superficial; simply layered upon the surface of neutral earth. Like the game itself, its playing field—with its challenges, particularities and beauties—is the result of countless men and women concocting with their creativity, thoughts, emotions and playfulness something larger and broader than any one person, time, or place. Along with this has come the stitching together of communal meaning, purpose, taste and appreciation. In other words, tradition. This word tradition communicates something of the ongoing, organic transmission of the game, its development and heritage.

But there is something of an inner key one needs to unlock this vision of the golf course, namely, the player-perspective Schmid refers to above. It’s through one’s initiation, apprenticeship, and slow mastering of the game that the scene of the golf course becomes more intelligible, more clearly displaying of its meaning.

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One could say that a baseball or football field require such a player-perspective to make sense of them and their essence as well. And this is true. Yet, only the golf course is as expansive and all-encompassing of the various facets of the natural world. Grass in all its glorious forms, water, wind, sand, stone, it’s all there. Its scale is far grander than those other games. At the end of the day, the baseball and football field are grass and soil, which is not to take anything away from them. (The finely manicure diamond at Citizens Bank Park is a welcome sight.) What this comparison does, I think, is highlight the quixotic relationship between the golfer and the course.  It helps us see, just a little more clearly, something about the game and why we love it.