Finding the meaning of golf on rollercoaster Scottish quest

Kevin Markham reviews Tom Coyne’s new book, A Course Called Scotland but does he discover the secret of golf.

“Are you the fella walking around Ireland, carrying your clubs and playing all the links courses?”

This was back in 2007 and I was standing beside my camper van, in Charleville Golf Club, 40 miles from the sea. My clubs sat on a battered old trolley beside me. “No, that’s Tom Coyne you’re thinking of.”

Coyne was an intrepid American who had decided to walk around Ireland’s coastline, playing over 50 links courses. He wrote regularly for this newspaper and he was in the Munster region at the time I was in Charleville, so I understood the confusion. Tom also has red hair… I have none.

A Course Called Ireland, the book of his Irish travels, became a bestseller. It was an enormous adventure that explored the Irish psyche and our landscape as much as the world famous links that dazzle Ireland’s coastline.

The only problem with such a journey is… what comes next?

Never let your memories be greater than your dreams,” said Doug Ivestor, the CEO and Chairman of Coca Cola (1997-2000).

After Ireland, perhaps Coyne felt that his dreams had been fulfilled. As the author of Paper Tiger — the story of his attempt to make it as a Pro — and the novel A Gentleman’s Game, he had delivered three very successful books and he had settled into life with a wife and two daughters, and a job as the associate professor of English at St Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia.

But that itch hadn’t been completely scratched and a seed of an idea began to germinate. Over time it grew until the fruit of clarity was too heavy to ignore:

I want to go find the secret of golf and qualify for the greatest championship in sports,” he wrote.

And so A Course Called Scotland was born.

A Course Called Scotland was published by Simon & Schuster, just ahead of this year’s Open Championship. The world’s best golfers are done with Scotland for 2018, but for those captivated by what they saw at Gullane and Carnoustie or just keen to explore Scottish golf a little deeper, look no further than Coyne’s book.

This is a story about adventure, about playing 111 courses in 57 days in a mad dash attempt to qualify for the Open Championship.

Scotland’s golf courses (and some in England and Wales, too) form the backbone to the story but the flesh is provided by the people Coyne meets along the way — many of them golfers who invited themselves on the trip following Coyne’s appearance on a radio show… where he casually issued an invitation for anyone to join him.

These are the people who give substance to his quest, stir his dreams, fuel his energy and frame the golf course descriptions, as well as his enjoyment in the adventures he pursues. He makes lifelong friends where he never

expected to find them and discovers an underground of golfers who are united behind his quest. One of these is Penn, from Georgia, who forges a strong bond with the author.

“... sitting across from Penn and listening to him give a damn, a proper adult who could give without worry, I thought for a moment that maybe it wasn’t the courses that were meant to dispense the epiphanies but the partners,” Coyne writes.

This is a constant everywhere he goes, whether he’s playing marquee courses or goat tracks, whether he’s walking the streets of Prestwick, discovering his plane is about to land on a beach on the isle of Barra, or being stopped for speeding.

The book is light-hearted and easy to read, laced with humour and insight, and we recognise many of the golfers he meets along the way. At times that puts us right there in the story. There’s honesty, too, and Coyne admits there are moments when he wants to – and does – escape to be alone with his own thoughts. Golfers everywhere will empathise but Coyne strips back the bare truths and digs deeper.

Coyne is a passionate and talented golfer who fully appreciates the beauty and challenges of a links. That may have been honed by his time in Ireland, but Irish readers will also feel a sense of pride as Coyne notes early on that “… the welcome at Prince’s was almost Irish in its warmth…” His time in Ireland has left an indelible mark and he will always be welcome here.

Another key attraction for readers is discovering what Coyne thinks of the courses he plays, especially if we have played them ourselves or have them on our bucket list. His descriptions will also take us to places we may never have heard of… Shiskine on Arran, Durness in the wildest Scottish Highlands, and Murcar, a links always overwhelmed by its immediate neighbour, Royal Aberdeen. Some of the trophy names do not fare so well, revealing that Open rota status does not necessarily guarantee the best golf.

Overall, A Course Called Scotland is a rollercoaster ride of golf, travel, history, friendships and emotions. You can’t help but envy his quest, pity his mishaps, embrace his friendships and admire his drive. In the end, you want him to qualify for that Open Championship… if only because you don’t want the story to end. That’s what a great writer does.

As for the secret of golf, it was Jack Benny, the US comedian, who joked: “Give me golf clubs, fresh air, and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and the fresh air.”

Everyone has their own interpretation of the secret of golf. It means different things to different people and can change as often as the weather.

“You want to know the secret of golf?” asked Coyne’s playing partner, Duff, after hitting a Mercedes in the Prestwick St Nicholas car park. “Here it is: Don’t play.”

Coyne gets answers to the secret of golf from many playing partners… but does he find his? You’ll have to read this fabulous book to find out.

- A Course Called Scotland by Tom Coyne is published by Simon & Schuster, €24 hardcover.

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