Tom Coyne set out in 2007 to walk around the entire island of Ireland. To play golf. And he did. And wrote A Course Called Ireland. Just prior, he took a separate journey, to find out how good he could get a golf. And he did. And he wrote Paper Tiger. In 2015, he returned to an island in the north Atlantic, or at least, a portion of it. His follow-up to A Course Called Ireland is titled A Course Called The Kingdom, and retells his experience golfing across Scotland. The goal of Ireland was survival; the goal of Tiger was the PGA Tour qualifying school. The goal of Scotland is … well, you’ll have to find that one out for yourself. In the interim, read this interview that Mr. Coyne graciously gave to BuffaloGolfer.Com
1. Give us a bit of background on your golf self, including a bit about that Irish walkabout you had last decade.
I am something of an accidental golf writer. I grew up playing golf and caddying–pretty much lived at the golf club all summer carrying bags and playing twilight rounds. In college I decided that I wanted to be a writer and dreamed of authoring a book, but I had no inkling such a book would have anything to do with golf. I was trying to write a Master’s thesis at Notre Dame in the creative writing program, and I was working on a story collection when I started writing a story about a golf prodigy. That story became a chapter, and then another chapter, and in a relatively short period of time I somehow had a novel — A Gentleman’s Game. It got published and became a movie and I started getting the chance to write for golf outlets and work on golf book projects, so I wouldn’t say my life as a golf writer has been a a planned path. I’ve just gone where the next opportunity presented itself, and fortunate for me it has been in golf where I have been able to marry the two biggest interests and passions — writing and golf. Ireland would be on that list of passions and interests as well, probably toward the top, so I knew pretty soon after finishing Paper Tiger that I wanted to do a book about golf over there, where I had been traveling to play with my dad since I was young. But the book needed a new angle, something to not just hold my readers’ attention but my own, so I decided to play every links in the country — play Ireland as one giant golf course. A Course Called Ireland. And when you play golf in Ireland, you don’t take a cart, so I would walk the whole way. Not just on the courses, but between them — and thank god I did. It made for an exhausting, spirit-testing experience, but it also allowed me to get to know about Ireland in a unique way that I hope is something that makes the book special.
2. You’re back at it, in Scotland this time. They say that Kerouac attempted a recreation of On The Road in his later years, but abandoned it early on. Any trepidation in this journey?
There was a lot of trepidation going into the Scotland journey. Life had changed quite dramatically since the Ireland jaunt. I have two children now and I’m a full-time writing professor, so I had real responsibilities to consider and things to miss back at home. I had to balance my golf wanderlust with real life, which I think makes this a more interesting book, with challenges that I hope readers will be able to relate to–how do you balance your golf obsession (or any obsession) while trying to be a good father, husband, partner. I have pursued my other adventures in a sort of childish bubble where real life was never allowed to get in the way of my quests, but in this book, there’s more balance and for that reason, I think there’s hopefully more wisdom as well. But yes, I was worried–two months on the road, alone for most of it, how much time was I missing with my kids? How safe was all this? 54 holes a day and thousands of miles on the wrong side of the road–it wasn’t terribly sane. But when the idea came into focus and the planning started, there was no way I wasn’t doing it. And my wife agreed. She married my obsessions as well–I just try to manage them now like an adult, for all our sakes.
3. What’s the premise of A Course Called The Kingdom? What are you after?
A Course Called the Kingdom is something of an amalgam of the last two books — Paper Tiger, where I pursued next-level golf, and A Course Called Ireland, an extreme links travelogue. In this story, I played 110 UK links in 54 days in search of the secret to golf, and at the end of all that golf, I put what I found to the test as I attempted to qualify for the British Open. This project was different than the Ireland trip in that the golf on this quest mattered. Scores and playing better, improving and learning about the game and the best way to get around the golf course–that’s all a big part of this story, where in A Course Called Ireland it was more about surviving the skinny back-country roads. I set out to find the secret to golf–if it was to be found, I felt I had to look for it in the home of golf, and that it wouldn’t be enough to just play the rota or the known links. I would have to really search, overturn every stone, play the nothernost, southermost, westernmost. etc. I pretty much played every links in Scotland including the far-flung island courses, and I do think I came back with a new understanding of the game, and of myself. There is a secret, and I am writing about it right now. It doesn’t always mean you qualify for the Open (I won’t ruin the ending, but you might notice I wasn’t in the field at St. Andrews) but I hope what I have to share with readers in A Course Called the Kingdom is bigger than one round.
4. How familiar are you with the courses of Scotland? I’ve played the Old and the New at St. Andrews (and that was 20 years ago) so I’m no help.
I was not familiar with the Scottish courses at all, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to do the book. I am such a links devotee, but the only Scottish courses I had played were a few St. Andrews courses while I was on holiday during a semester studying abroad in college. So I had a huge gap in my golfing resume when it came to links. I’m happy to report that gap no longer exists. I stuffed it with courses this past summer. It was an education by complete immersion–I knew the Morris stories and had seen Braveheart a couple dozen times, but I didn’t really know who James Braid was, had no idea how high the highlands went, and had never tasted haggis. I learned so much on this trip–you could write a book about almost every links in the country; Scotland is just dripping with golf history and links anecdotes. No doubt that’s why this is a bigger book. Literally.
5. Will you be walking the entire way, as you did in Ireland, back in the day? If not, what are your transportation plans?
I thought about walking it again–in some ways it would have been an easier walk than Ireland in that Scotland has a handful of pockets (East Lothian, St. Andrews, Aberdeenshire, Dornoch, around Nairn, and Ayrshire on the west coast) that are just packed with links, some literally bumping into one another. So the walks there would have been short and lovely. But the space between some of the pockets was large, and once you get up into the highlands and then work your way down the west coast, down through Skye and out to Arran — driving the western highlands was the most dramatic travel experience of my well-traveled life, and as I navigated the hairpins and one-lane roads, I reminded myself often how grateful I was that I wasn’t walking. The upper half of Scotland is too vast and the coastline too craggy to make walking possible, not to mention that as a father now I take my survival more seriously. Scotland has twice the links Ireland does, and I was on a tight schedule in order to complete my itinerary before the qualifier, so transport in all forms was a must–a half-dozen rental cars, a dozen ferries, ten flights, and a few hundred miles walked on the courses themselves. No golf carts, though. I’m pleased to be able to say that.
6. You mention that, in Paper Tiger, you tried to figure out the “How” of the golf swing and the game. Now, you’re after the “Why” we play golf. What do you suspect that you’ll find?
Paper Tiger was about finding the secret to my best golf, for sure, but with a completely different approach. I trained in the gym, lived in the swing studio, studied film and used every gadget on the market. I had a coach, shrink, trainer–I used the methods that I felt the top players in the world were using, and while my handicap shrunk and I got pretty good at golf, there was something missing that was exposed in competitive play–tournaments expose a lot of things, but primary among them was my inability to get comfortable in my tournament skin. I guess I’m talking about fear. So after having lived a lot more life, I wanted to take another crack not just at competitive golf, but at fear, and find a way to play with it, or past it and through it. That’s why I designed the trip the way that I did–if I could play 110 rounds in 54 days in every corner of the home of golf, I felt that at trip’s end I would have earned my spot in any tournament. So the secret I’m after in A Course Called the Kingdom is less about lag and swing-planes (though they are part of it) and more about the mentality behind my best golf, and about playing and living without fear. It might sound corny to call it a spiritual quest, but you can’t spend this much time golfing god’s country, most of it alone, and not be affected on a spiritual level. And what I found is more important (at least to me) than the ‘how’ to play golf well, but it’s about the why–coming to understand the things I was really chasing and have been for many a year, on and off golf courses around the world.
7. For that matter, what do think you’ll eliminate from the “Why” list? What do we think is important in golf, that really isn’t?
After A Course Called Ireland, I would have probably said score–forget the numbers and enjoy the place, your swing, the contact. But score is still everything for me and there is no way of getting around that. I don’t like playing golf where the numbers don’t matter, or where I won’t be posting a score for my handicap (that’s why I tend to shut my golf down in the off-season, and don’t get me started on the USGA’s recent decision to deny solo rounds for handicaps–let’s grow the game by doubting golfers’ honor and by making it harder for players to establish and maintain an accurate index). So I want to say I’ve discovered that the tallies aren’t the everything, but I’m not there yet.
One thing that my links travels have taught me is that a course’s reputation/perceived greatness is not very important at all when you’re looking for golf’s best experiences. In this book, I write a lot more about courses people will have never heard of than I do about the big-name courses, and I don’t do so to be a contrarian, but because golf travel, to me, is about finding the unique and unexpected. You travel so far and spend so much money to be surprised, right? I think that’s at least part of it. And just checking off ten courses that all your buddies at your club said you should play isn’t all that adventurous when, if you’re open-minded and play some of the locals’ tracks, you are going to not just find some extraordinary golf, but you are going to feel like you are doing something special. And your welcome at tracks off the typical tourist itinerary is always going to be warmer (and your greens fee cheaper).
I think we put too much stock in a course’s name or design pedigree or pristine condition. Some of my most joyful days in Scotland were on quirky little nine-holders that they might have mowed once a week, or where they let the sheep do most of the greenskeeping. We often decide if a course is great by how it looks–maybe this is the Augusta effect, where we think of pretty as meaning great. But Tom Morris played rough and gnarly tracks. Golf is an outdoor sport; we shouldn’t demand manicured perfection, and if you can let go of your expectations and not worry if your ball ends up in a rabbit hole (my favorite Scottish tracks were full of them) then you might experience some of the beauty of golf the way it was once played, where we didn’t tame the landscape but instead figured out how to navigate it. If the greens at Askernish are shaggy (and they are), don’t complain. Just soak in the magic of the place and hit it harder.
8. Describe/Discuss your companions on this trip, along with any other aspects of it that make a difference to the telling. We’re all ears (or eyes, since we’re reading your words.)
Compiling a list of my playing companions on this trip was one of the real joys of the planning, and one of my favorite aspects of this book. I was fortunate after A Course Called Ireland to hear from thousands of generous and thoughtful readers over the intervening years via email–it has truly been a humbling and inspiring experience that I did not anticipate when I wrote it. Some readers kept in touch, and some were quite keen on being a part of my next adventure. I thought I might be a little crazy in inviting strangers known only by way of the unreliable murkiness of the internet to come join me for some golf in Scotland, but setting off to find the secret to golf and qualify for the Open is kind of crazy, too, so I thought an open guest policy fit this particular quest. Open-mindedness is one of the themes of this book, and it started with my playing partners–I had nearly a dozen people join me on the links in Scotland whom I had never met before. I just trusted that if they were willing to travel so far to be a part of this adventure, that they were going to bring something wonderful to the table–and did they ever. I could have never planned such a cast of characters on my own, and this story very much becomes theirs, and is better for it. Strangers became life-long friends in the matter of a few days on the golf course–every golfer has experienced this sort of bonding, but I was grateful to have the chance to capture that experience in a story.
9. What question haven’t we (or anyone else) asked? Go ahead and ask, then answer, it, please. And thanks for your time.
In all this golf, what was your favorite course?
My Ireland experience tells me that I’ll be asked this question a lot–maybe for the rest of my life–so I went around the UK with my eyes open, looking for an answer and pat response. I think I failed in that regard. But I can name a few with qualifications: I would put Cruden Bay atop any list of must-play courses in Scotland. In England, of my small sampling of courses, St. Enodoc was without peer. Short courses like Shiskine, Cullen, Carradale, Traigh, Tobermory and Covesea are all so fondly recalled in my memory, and the trinity of Machrihanish, Mach Dunes, and Dunaverty made the Kintyre Peninsula a place to which I would like to retire. But Askernish on the far-flung isle of South Uist is the closest thing I’ve experienced to the golf I might play in my heaven some day, if I’m lucky enough to find it. (If they don’t have Askernish up there, I fear I’ll be disappointed.)