(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.

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.

Fairway Philosopher: Tom Coyne

I’ve been a fan of Tom Coyne’s golf writing since I came across his A Course Called Ireland at a used book sale and subsequently journeyed through his peripatetic sojourn at a quick pace. Recently, his work for the Golfer’s Journal has been rather rich, and I’d like to devote two posts to what I think he has done this past year between the covers of that admirable quarterly. In short, I think he’s done two things: 1. Tried to purify our language, 2. Attempted to reframe our vision of the game. I’m not saying Coyne would endorse either summation, it’s just what I think I see going on.

As for no. 1, purifying our language, Coyne takes issue with a too loose use of the word “links.” In the Golfer’s Journal No. 2, Coyne’s essay titled, “Sacred Sand,” invites the reader to reconsider how we use this word, one that is often employed as a commonplace, referring to almost any and all golf courses. By doing so that which makes a true links course just that is obscured, and distinctions are lost. The loss of distinctions renders us less able to speak fluently about the multiform species of courses a golfer might meet and inhabit through a lifetime.

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Lahinch Golf Club

Coyne’s essay is both serious and playful, certainly not stuffy schoolmarm-ish vocabulary knit-picking. For Coyne, this makes for a true links course:

  1. It’s set upon ocean-side duneland: “Take a healthy slab of dark turf for your divot and you are not playing a links, where your divot should explode in the breeze as proper sandy poof. Gorse, humps and treeless vistas are all secondary indicators; the defining characteristic of a links is as simple as sand.”
  2. The formation of the course, its “kinks and ripples,” “are the stuff of primordial providence.” Coyne here gets poetically Platonic: playing a links, golfers play “their way across a landscape not built, but discovered.”
  3. For Coyne himself, there are also the factors of place and time to consider: “for me, a genuine links lives in the British Isles and predates the use of diesel in course design.”

The distinction now preserved, the distinctiveness of a links course can be more acutely appreciated and felt. Now the richness of the links emerges all the more clearly. And there is much to remark upon here, from geology to history to the playing experience, to the pints and soup and “droll caddies braving monsoons in brown sweaters.” The “irascible weather,” the seaside breeze, and the providential conspiring between man and nature. I can’t capture Coyne’s romp through the particular glories of a links course, nor will I try. I suggest you check out the essay for yourself: You can buy the issue here, it’s well worth it.

I’ll follow up with part two later this week.

Image Credit: By Tim Murphy, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13165674