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

Darwin on Tron Carter’s Lefty Evolution

Like many these past few months, I’ve watched with amused amazement as Tron Carter, of No Laying Up notoriety, has undertaken the willful experiment of playing his golf left-handed. This curious crossing-over seemed at first a playful ruse destined for a quick flash followed by a slow fizzling out. But with a certain doggedness—and much to his credit—Carter continues to approach his ball from the right.

The TC Way

This southpaw sojourn has yielded surprising results—amongst other things, that lefty finish often looks quite athletic—and has elicited a certain sympathy from the onlooker. Who can’t subscribe to this enterprise of pure grind, especially considering the utterly absurd and gratuitous lack of necessity to the whole thing. And I say this as a compliment. As I’ve recently been taking in the recent installments of NLU’s “Tourist Sauce: Oregon,” I’d say that this quixotic enterprise has also made for good theater.

It was with a not dissimilar joy of discovery that I recently came across a short piece of Bernard Darwins’ that considered this very sort of thing. In this brief essay, titled “The Re-birth of a Golfer,” Darwin opens by considering a fairytale wherein a soldier steals a magic box, within which are hidden three wish-granting dogs. As it goes, this sets matters in motion to the point where the soldier ends up wealthy and wed to the princess. Darwin stands envious and muses on that future moment when “some benevolent magician” will grant his every wish. He thinks one of these wishes, though modest, would “make us all happy.” This, namely, the gift of being “allowed to begin all over again the learning of some pleasant art.” 

Bernard Darwin, naturally right-handed

For the adult, once joyous and intoxicating activities like bike riding often lose their youthful luster and become tiresome. Our first forays into that form of self-propulsion, however, were so wondrous and wild: “can anybody deny that there was a romantic thrill in his earliest wobbles?” These for Darwin were remembered vividly: “a blazing hot day in September on the lawn at home, an angelic and perspiring parent who held me and the bicycle, while we made curious zig-zags across the grass.” The road we glided over on our first bike, “seems to me, in retrospect, to have been fringed by fairy trees and jewelled flowers.” 

Regarding the genesis of his own golfing life, Darwin remarks: “I began golf so long ago and at such an immature age that I can recall nothing about it, but it must have been delicious and I wish it could happen all over again.” Then he proposes something exotic:

If one had the strength of mind to do it, I believe it would be well worth while to start again as a one-handed player and pant for the day when one was given a twenty-four handicap. Or, perhaps, left-handed would be better . . . . No doubt there would be disappointments in store, but one would be getting slowly better instead of getting rather quickly worse, and there are few sensations more enchanting than the consciousness of improvement.

I have to confess that I don’t presently have the “strength of mind” deemed a prerequisite by Darwin for the flip to the other side of the ball. I still hold out hope that my regular right-handed play will yield that enchanting sensation Darwin associates with the “consciousness of improvement.” 

And yet, who can deny the appeal of beginning again, of being a golfer reborn? The game seen with innocent, expectant eyes. The course a wonderland, one’s body some strange amalgamation of motion. To throw oneself through the looking glass, headlong into what Darwin describes as the “strangeness and topsy-turvy-dom of being on the wrong side of the ball.” I imagine that at the very least, the joys of golf would be keen and fresh, which is what we looked for in the game in the first place. And perhaps what Tron Carter has found in his reborn golfing life.

Golf for the Nation: Donald Ross on Self-Governance

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“A country which gets golf-minded need not worry about the honor, the integrity and the honesty of its people.” –Donald Ross

I had before me the other day a short par 4 that dog-legged to the right. The right side of the hole was tree-lined, and a creek ran about 30 yards in front of the green. In other words: if you want a clear go at the green on your second shot, stay left off the tee. I went right.

Now in recovery mode, I hit a solid punch with a 7-iron that glanced off a tree branch, snuck over the creek, and settled directly in front of a curiously placed plant with fanning foliage. I don’t recall ever seeing this instance of flora before, and hope never to again. There was no conceivable shot that didn’t doubly bristle through its leaves. So after a few perfect practice swings—how often the case!—I duffed my first attempt. An actual duff. The ball moved about an eighth of an inch (.3175 cm, for European readers). The second attempt resulted in a squirty sort-of shank into a green side bunker. Lo and behold, I got up and down for what felt like a complicated double bogey.

After the hole, my playing partner keeping score says to me: “That’s a great bogey; seriously.” He taking my duffed attempt as yet another perfect practice swing. As much as I wish it had been the case—the “great bogey” being one of my favorite scores—I had to admit to my inept double. Erase that noble five, and slap a six on the card, my friend.

Now, why should you reading this care at all about a rather regular occurrence on the course? My intent in including this commonplace confession is to support the above-recorded point made by the venerable Donald Ross. A “golf-minded” player will certainly be guided by “the honor, the integrity and the honesty” the game demands, expects, and inculcates. (This anecdote, in case it’s not clear, is certainly not to extol my virtue—should there be any—but rather that of the game.)

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Mr. Ross overseeing his Torresdale course in Northeast Philadelphia

Golf stands as a practice—among any number of other similar practices—that is of its very constitution fashioned in a way such that pursuing the ends or goals of the game, as it is meant to played, one at the same time incurs an increase in certain traits of character. That is, virtues, excellence or strength of one’s person. These virtues not only enable us to meet the demands that are by nature internal to the game we play, they in turn better us beyond the confines of the course. And given the social nature of golf, these virtues orient us better toward those with whom we walk the course, as well as the byways of the broader world.

Or such is the ideal. Like all ideals, failure to meet them shows up in manifold ways. But to have the opportunity to get a stroke or two past the notice of one’s playing partners—“no one saw that swing, or would see me drop a ball here, or give this one a little nudge away from this tree root”—and not do so, this requires no act of courageous goodness or sacrifice, just the common everyday decision for truth, fairness, and goodness that provides for a civically healthy people.

To consider Ross’s line more fully now, the notion of golf improving the quality of a people’s character might at first seem far-fetched. We might ask: how could it be that the ins-and-outs of a game, a seeming trifle, shape and form the people of a nation for the better, let alone to the degree asserted by Ross above?

The line comes from a collection of Ross’s writings titled, Golf Has Never Failed Me. In an entry titled, “Do Golfer’s Need Rules?,” which is more aphorism than essay, Ross upholds the ideal of golf as a gentleman’s game, one where “every golfer is on his honor.” As such, then, golf doesn’t require more rules than are necessary. We should never seek to “control the game completely.” Golfers don’t need a slew of laws because they are ideally, in effect, a law to themselves.

That is, should the spirit and dictates of honor be instilled, fostered, and kept alive and well, golfers don’t need numerous and cumbersome external constrictions. Having interiorized the authentic spirit of the game, they govern themselves. And while Ross doesn’t use the term self-government here, it’s clear that this is what he has in mind.

As he pursues this line of thought further: “the game does more to bring out the finer points in a man’s character than any other sport.” Considering his time at Pinehurst, he continues, “I know of only two instances of a golfer cheating, two out of hundreds of thousands.” And so Ross can conclude: “a country which gets golf-minded need not worry about the honor, the integrity and the honesty of its people.”

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It’s these practices that we engage in, such as golf, those that some erroneously see as trivial and superfluous, that inculcate in a people—its practitioners—virtues and attitudes that contribute not only to an individual’s flourishing, but, given that these activities are social in nature, the individual’s particular growth in excellence of character can only contribute to the wellbeing of the social whole. More specifically, traits like honesty, fairness, integrity, patience, determination—those that are particularly helpful in golf—are clearly not just to the increase of an individual, but are socially beneficial.

To get back to the idea of self-government, a society of men and women who are able to virtuously govern themselves—their thoughts, desires, passions, emotions, attitudes, and actions—toward the good, makes beneficial self-governance in the broader, more communal and political sense, all the more possible and likely. This is the double-layered meaning of the term “self-government.” As Matthew Crawford puts it in his fascinating Why We Drive, the modern “liberal-republican” political tradition “holds that a people worthy of democracy must be made up of individuals capable of governing their own behavior in the first place, and have therefore earned their fellow citizens’ trust.”[1]

It is in a practice such as golf—as Donald Ross so aptly observed—that the habits and customs that shape a life lived well with others are fostered and given opportunity for expression. As a result, ideally, we see an increase in mutual trust and ease of social life. In light of this, we can say with Ross, that a nation can only benefit from her people being “golf-minded.”

 

[1] Crawford’s book sees the phenomenon of driving as a particularly rich arena wherein one might think through political, existential, ethical, and aesthetic questions. I reckon that golf is another such field ripe for philosophical exploration.

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.

Two Necessary Things: Golf and Friendship

If you’re putting together a short list of reasons people golf, friendship will most likely find a spot toward the top. From strangers meeting for the first time on the first tee, to the decades-long weekly match among old friends, the game of golf seems to have a particular proclivity toward the fostering of friendships. I’d like to devote a couple of posts to this facet of the game, and in doing so I’d like to call in the thought of Aristotle on the subject. Not a golfer himself—unless the history of golf goes back way further than we presently think!—he is certainly regarded as expert on the topic of friendship. By calling to mind this ancient Greek—once widely-known as the Philosopher—I think we can get to know the game of golf, and its fostering of friendships, all the better.

While I’ve argued before that golf is an activity good for its own sake, I think it is, of its own very nature, such an activity that allows itself to be a common pursuit of a collected number of people. Which is just a long-winded way of saying that golf is played in common. And having a common pursuit amongst them, golf’s players find a touchstone for their friendship. In time, I’d like to examine golf’s particularities vis-à-vis the facilitation of friendships, but for today I’d like to introduce some preliminary thoughts from Aristotle on the topic.

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For starters, it is commonly held that friendship is “most necessary for our life,” in fact, “no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods” (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. VIII, Ch. 1). All walks of life are needful of it. The rich more so than others, for they need friends in order to show their generosity, they are also in need of friends for the protection of their wealth. The poor in their misfortune need friends, as people are of the opinion that these are “the only refuge.” The young need friends to guide them, and the old need friends in their weakness. Those in the prime of life need friends to magnify their ability “to do fine actions.”

Overarchingly, “friendship would seem to hold cities together,” this being even more central to political life than justice, since friendship already entails justice within itself. As Aristotle puts it: “if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship.”

So much for the necessity of friendship. I hope to return to this topic later this week, looking at the different types of friends Aristotle considers. At the very least I hope it can be seen that because of golf’s intimate relationship to friendship, and friendship’s essential place in a person’s life, that golf is not at all trivial, but might in fact hold some discoverable secrets regarding human flourishing.

In any event, just consider No Laying Up’s recent “Strapped” episode. Big Randy and Young Neil express quite a bit about golf, camaraderie and friendship:

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.

 

 

(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.

The Witty Golfer

I get upset over a bad shot just like anyone else. But it’s silly to let the game get to you. When I miss a shot I just think what a beautiful day it is. And what pure fresh air I’m breathing. Then I take a deep breath. I have to do that. That’s what gives me the strength to break the club —Bob Hope

It goes by a couple names: wittiness, ready-wit, mirthfulness. (I think mirthfulness is my favorite, though I’ll use them all interchangeably.) Falling under the cardinal virtue of temperance, mirthfulness is the ingrained habit of joking well, laughing well, seeing the world with a playful vision, and includes providing for others’ enjoyment and levity. This wittiness implies the ability to recognize those facets and aspects of human life that call for a jovial or joking response.

The golf course is certainly an arena of human life where this virtue makes its great worth known. Whether laughing at oneself or helping a gloomy playing partner along with a quick one-liner, recognizing the comic element—maybe even the cheerful element—of the game is of great value.

In the next couple of paragraphs, I’ll draw on the thoughts of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas regarding this virtue. My hope is that by looking to an ancient and medieval author, we moderns might more fully grasp what this great character trait is, how we might live it out more fully, and how it contributes to our pursuit of human flourishing.

Starting from a rather obvious point of departure, Aquinas argues that it is against reason for a person to be “burdensome to others”[i]. When it comes to the activity of conversation and communication, it is the bore, characteristically, that fits this description. The type of burden the bore places on others is either an inability to “offer pleasure to others,” or the “hindering [of] their enjoyment.” The person without mirth, according to Aquinas, is one that not only lacks “playful speech,” thereby not positively contributing to whatever social interaction is at hand, but one that is also taxing on others as they are “deaf” to others’ wit and amusement, thereby spurning the enjoyable offer of levity from others.

In the section of the Nicomachean Ethics dealing with the witty, Aristotle begins by acknowledging that rest is a part of life, part of this rest being “leisure and amusement”[ii]. When at this leisure and amusement, Aristotle considers there to be a fitting “kind of intercourse which is tasteful,” that is, saying and listening to what one should and how one should. The conversation and interaction that Aristotle holds up for admiration is the ability to “joke in a tasteful way,” and he considers those that can do so “ready-witted.” An aspect of this ready-wittedness, according to Aristotle, is a person’s conversational agility.

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Plato and Aristotle walk the fairway

Present with the mirthful character is tact. The tactful person differs from the buffoon as regards how they joke and what they joke about. Illustrating his point, Aristotle compares what he labels the “old and new comedies.”  He states that the old comedies “found their fun in obscenity,” while the new comedies turned to innuendo, with the difference between the two styles being of “no small degree in respect of propriety.”

I think another angle on this is that the truly witty person’s humor is agile, subtle, and has a certain intelligence and timing to it. Bob Hope’s joke above is a perfect example. The buffoon’s is a blunt instrument, the bore’s is non-existent.

The mirthful person, the person that jokes well, is not simply marked out by what sorts of jokes he will laugh at or make. This person will also illustrate his possession of the virtue exactly in what he will not laugh at, or by the types of jokes he will not make.

Aristotle’s exposition of this virtue forwards the ideal that when it comes to joking, the virtuous person, therefore, “will be . . . a law to himself.” Further, there is a certain versatility to the virtue, in that the way one jokes amongst friends will differ from how one jokes with children or how one will joke with grandparents, for instance.

In having taken a very quick and partial account of Aristotle and Aquinas’s take on the virtue of wittiness, it can be seen that a distinctive quality of this virtue is its concern for others. Namely, the humor employed by the mirthful is concerned with the enjoyment of others, and not only their enjoyment but the avoidance of their being offended or abused by such humor as well.

Like all virtues, they are best understood when embodied in particular men and women. In a certain way, you know it when you see it. And in seeing, a person can better emulate the admirable traits in others to the point that they become one’s own. Of course the line between wittiness and buffoonery can be blurry in places at certain times, but to be too concerned with this doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the virtue.

So does this matter for golf? I’d say most certainly, yes. It matters for the overall enjoyment of a round, not just for oneself but for the whole group. It even matters for one’s play. We all know the dour effects of being overly-serious, or overly-dejected at a bad shot or bounce, or lip out, or flyer out of the rough . . . the list could continue. The worth of being able to lift yourself or a buddy out of golfer’s gloom can’t be underestimated. And not only that, wittiness or mirthfulness can only help us delight in the game more fully. And isn’t that what we’re after?

[i] Aquinas quotes taken from: ST, II, q. 168, a. 4, trans. English Dominican Province.

[ii]Aristotle quotes taken from: Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, in Introduction to Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1947), 394.

Fairway Philosopher: Tom Coyne (Part II)

Earlier this week, I started to comment on the recent work of Tom Coyne in this past year’s pages of the Golfer’s Journal. In short, I see two overarching effects of the four essays I’m considering: 1. a purification of our golf vocabulary, and 2. a reframing of our vision of the game. I put forward a couple words on no. 1 in the earlier post, and today I’d like to focus briefly on no. 2, that is, how Coyne is helping frame—maybe reframe?—the game of golf. What’s interesting here is that this vision is temporally comprehensive: it is attuned to the present state of the game, in touch with the richness of its heritage, and envisioning of what the game might be in the not too distant future.

This can be seen in three distinct essays, which when woven together provide a rich tapestry of what golf is, has been, and could be. In part, within these essays, Coyne addresses the following:

Prejudice and Push-carts

I admit it. To me it had been either carry your own, have a caddy—which I, myself, never did—or ride a cart. The pullcart was for the dufferingest of duffers. It’s an unjust prejudice, and I’m happy to say I’ve been disabused of it. In the Golfer’s Journal no. 1, Coyne’s essay, “The Push and Pull,” addresses the place of the pullcart in golf. To cut to the quick, Coyne highlights that at some of the best courses in Ireland and Scotland pullcarts—now often of the pushing variety—are ubiquitous. A succinct lampooning of the present American disposition against the man-powered club-carriage, that is. Further, Coyne does well to highlight the economic concern at play here. Were more golfers to forgo the driving cart, courses’ revenue would dip, perhaps jeopardizing the sustainability of courses where members demand “budget-busting, manicured perfection in their courses.” Perhaps, Coyne airs the question, “we could tolerate layouts that felt a little more natural . . . and if we didn’t demand castles for clubhouses . . . the cost of golf might come to resemble that of an actual game.” So much to say, were costs for course care to rescind, so might the addiction to the gas/electric cart. Further, this all gets into the walking vs. riding debate. One’s participation in, and relation to, the course is questioned here. Anecdotally, I only ever hear people comment on the greater sense of enmeshment into the game when walking. And beyond the game, a heightened sensitivity to the natural environs one inhabits on the course is, at least to me, noticeable when walking. Were the pushcart to greater facilitate this experience, then good on it and those that choose to utilize it.

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Endangered Species? Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Six Threes or a Dozen?

In the visually-impressive essay “Accidental Revelation,” found in the Golfer’s Journal no. 3, Coyne draws the reader’s attention to Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club, found off the west coast of Scotland on the Isle of Arran. There’s really a lot done in this essay, I’ll only comment on a bit of it.

Almost by happenstance, Coyne fortuitously happened upon this course, which, all-tolled, topped out at 12 holes. Placing this local quirk in a broader context, Coyne remarks, “eighteen holes and golf are linked like 12 eggs and a carton, like three balls and a sleeve, but the 18-hole standard is a relatively young convention in golf.” The essay then goes on a historical sweep through the variants of golf hole totals, showing along the way how St. Andrews eventually settled on the now-standard 18, and the substantial impact this has made on the game. When considering the historical span of the game, the 18-hole standard is a recent determination, in fact it “does not show up in some rule books until as late as 1950.”

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Photo Credit: Golf Advisor 

The question remains, though, what might all this have to do with the game of the present and near future? Coyne identifies the following problems, that for many, “golf, for our increasingly consumed and distracted modern world, is pricey, slow and hard.” Of course, we know of the present push for playing 9, yet Coyne opines: “I will confess that a nine-hole custom is not the panacea I wish for golf.” Something feels a bit unfinished about 9. 12 though? Coyne relates, “as we finished Shiskine, I felt a unique sensation come over me: I felt done.” And with time in the day to spare. Perhaps then the 12-holer would alleviate the triad of challenges to the game at present. 12 holes takes less time. With less course to care for, green fees might drop. Golf will—and always should—remain difficult, but for the beginner to not have to endure six more holes of bunkers, double bogeys and bungled putts, there might be less motivation for giving up the game.

Purposefully Harmonious

“His sideburns stretched to the corners of his mouth, and he wore a heavy kilt of green and black.” That’s quite an opening sentence for Coyne’s essay, “Proof in the Purpose,” found in the Golfer’s Journal no. 4. This one’s a lyrical though very tangible story of a golf course—its conception, creation, and continued excellence—as both harmonized with and enriching of its land and people. Scotland’s Machrihanish Dunes is set upon protected and fragile land. Getting approval for its building took years of patience and persuasion. The restrictions placed upon architect David McLay Kidd and his team rendered many a modern method of building and caring for a course off-limits. But the limits aided vision and clarity of purpose. The land too, now, was enlisted in the endeavor, it in a sense responding to some hidden vocation. Coyne here has woven together a narrative as rich and colorful as the fantastic images and layout of the essay. It’s worth a full read. It’s a written image depicting a course not imposed but discovered. Here are a few excerpts to convey the general ethos of the piece and place: “It was a new way, a fresh path forward; it was a sort of clemency for those of us who wanted to play past the fences. Done right, it was OK to want to golf through geography that scientists deemed off-limits. They proved it in Machrihanish, and the proof was in the purpose.” By way of closing, here is a poetic final impression from Coyne regarding placing the care of the land—its flora and fauna—over the whims of visiting golfers: “And we felt this joyful rearrangement of priorities in Machrihanish as we played; it was the thrill of golfing genuine landscape, and a reminder that only on ground not bent to please our preconceptions did we find golf to please our souls.”

All in all, we have here a set of enriching provocations. How and why we approach, understand and play the game are worthy of our consideration. This consideration is only made richer and fuller by the work of Tom Coyne. I’m looking forward to taking in his new book, A Course Called Scotland; a review of which is forthcoming on this site. Until then, check out his, and many others’, work in the Golfer’s Journal.