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.

 

Walking with Thoreau

To ride or walk? The question is often answered before it’s asked. Riding is the standard at many an American golf course. Yet for those that do walk, there is a certain appreciation for this practice that goes beyond wanting a little exercise. But the question of “why” still remains. Walk or ride, you’re playing the same game, inhabiting the same space, seeing the same things. Is there something to the manner in which you traverse 6,500 yards that makes a meaningful difference to your experience of a round of golf? And if so, then perhaps this is an indication that this phenomenon goes beyond the confines of the course to life as a whole.

I think there’s an intuition here about walking. It’s the job of the philosopher or thinker to explore and expound upon such intuitions. With this in mind, I’m interested in what others have said about walking, and it’s a topic I’d like to return to periodically on this site.

For starters, in this post I’m looking at a Henry David Thoreau essay titled “Walking” (1862). The essay has a few different threads. It has an overarching consideration of the human person in relation to nature and in relation to the whole of society. It comments on civilization, the beauties of the natural world, education and knowledge, history, and addresses a certain lethargy and dullness he sees in the lives of his contemporaries. In this, the dull is the tame. Thoreau wants the wild of the wood, not the cultivation of the city. There’s more to the essay than I’ll comment on here. This post basically tries to figure out if his thoughts on walking—which are always about more than walking—provide any insight into the game of golf and its play.

Knights of Sauntering

Thoreau wants to address the “art of Walking,” an art he finds so few practitioners of, so few have a “genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING.” Thoreau fancies himself, then, a knight of a “new, or rather an old, order,” that of “Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class.” He laments the craftsmen and shopkeepers sitting in their shops all day. Whereas for himself:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and field, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

Further, it’s not about “taking exercise . . . it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” I’ve made a similar point previously regarding the game of golf. Its uselessness is something that recommends its worth: it isn’t used for some further end. It itself is the goal. Exercise and comradery and a respite from the demands of life, all of this is part of it, but these are not some other, further goals for which we undertake a round of golf.

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Thoreau: All about the 4-hour walk

In this essay, Thoreau stands unimpressed by the society he inhabits. It’s the wild and unruly not the cultivated and crafted he’s after. (He also comes off as rather impressed with himself, which is a bit off-putting.)  So much of his walking-sensibility is steeped in the experience of distancing oneself from society, which according to Thoreau dulls the sensibilities and renders one devoid of life. As he laments: “How little appreciation of the beauty of the land-scape there is among us!”

Thoreau’s ideal is the wild: “Life consists in wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued by man, its presence refreshes him.” Further, he claims “it is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us.” His “hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” And it is walking that brings Thoreau to this place.

But, Thoreau says, “I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only.” But in crossing the border, “the walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land.”

There’s much more to say for this essay, and quite a bit to critique. But that’s enough for a brief introduction.

Thoreau on the Fairways?

So what of golf? Would Thoreau see this as an arena of life where his thoughts on walking find a home? I doubt it. As a game, golf is the result of human creativity and culture. While it can be a solitary endeavor, the game is in essence a certain type of societal effort. It is the result of a collection of persons connected by something shared in common. The comradery and friendship, even competition, of golf all mark its essence. It’s no mistake that clubs arise for the game’s play, promotion and preservation. Further, its playing fields are cultivated and shaped by human imagination and effort. The golf course doesn’t maintain the untouched wildness for which Thoreau is so desirous. So even walking the course seems to fail to meet Thoreau’s ideal.

Thoreau might also take aim at the private club:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only.

As one that lives close to an underplayed private 9-hole course, I can sympathize a little with Thoreau here. I’m not against the private club at all, but I do like something of the Irish and Scottish practice of having even membership clubs open to public tee times regularly.

This might be overstating a theoretical opposition between Thoreau’s thought and the game of golf, though. Of all games, golf seems the result of discovery. The result of cooperation with the natural world and what it gives. The development of the game on the Scottish dunes is one of accepting the givenness of nature and playing along with it. Surely, it’s the case that a departure has been made from this earlier idyll. Many a course of today’s game is the result of extensive human effort and reshaping of the landscape, sometimes abusively so.

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Nonetheless it remains that unlike the artifice of the baseball or football field, the golfer is found amongst trees and sand and sea. While certainly in the midst of the result of human efforts, the golfer traverses the course facing what the natural world offers. Golf in a climate-controlled dome would be a travesty. When done well, a golf course and its maintaining can be an example of stewardship and caretaking. See Machrihanish Dunes. (Of course, this isn’t always the model and too heavy of a hand can be taken where the natural world is harmed by golf and its practitioners.) I also think there is a more satisfactory anthropology present in the image of humanity as caretaker—gardener—as part of, but also a cultivator and shaper of nature.

Further, the golf course is in some ways a liminal place. An in-between. It’s a departure from the workaday world and an entry into a different sort of existence. Walking emphasizes this and allows one to experience this more fully. While golf is not the wild and untamed of Thoreau it is an alternative to the demands of commerce and business and necessity. It can help the golfer escape the numbing and dulling noise of the modern world. As a game, it is a free activity that, if done with the proper disposition, can provide a respite and recreation. Perhaps walking when playing can help this as a manner of emphasis and experience, a greater way of being enmeshed in the course rather than romping over it on four wheels. The walker is also freer. Where there is a cart-path only sign, the walker goes where he wants.

While Thoreau himself most likely would not have extended his thinking on walking to the world of golf, I do think there is a potential for portions of his thought to be applied to the game as experienced by the walking player.