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Tom Coyne: in search of the great American golf course

Chambers Bay Golf Club
Chambers Bay in Pierce County, Washington

Tom Coyne has chased a golf ball around the globe for much of his adult life, embodying the essence of a true wandering golfer.

In doing so, he has carved out a niche as a golf travel writer with a connection to the soul of our game and to the people who bring it to life. His unique brand of storytelling focuses on the humour, heart and history of golf, and his writing is brought to life by the memorable characters he meets along the way as much as it is about the places he visits.

His books have all felt like a love letter to the game and his latest, A Course Called America, is no different. Following the success of A Course Called Ireland and A Course Called Scotland, the journey home was unquestionably his most ambitious, not only because of the scale of the challenge in playing in every one of the 50 States (just short of 300 golf courses in total), but also in focusing on his own nation and what it means to be American in the 21st century.

The United States of America is a character in this story, as Tom explores the country and the people who make it what it is. He plays with Bill Murray and at some of the world’s great golf courses, but what does it all mean? Who better to ask than Tom himself?

Tom Coyne author golf
Tom Coyne’s latest book is the search for the great American golf course

The Wandering Golfers: What is this book about, Tom?

Tom Coyne: The short answer is that it’s a love letter to American golf.

And then the slightly longer answer is that I set out in search of the great American golf course. That’s really what it was about.

All that time on the road, all that travel, that’s what I was looking for. Within that search, there were two questions to answer: the first was simply what makes a great golf course? Which is a good golf question for those golf nerds among us.

And the second was: what makes a golf course American? And to answer that requires one to think of what ‘American’ means in 2019 (the year he wrote the book) which is a big, unwieldy, complicated, question. One I was very interested in trying to answer.

It has been an interesting time here. And rather than sit on the couch and be upset and assume I knew what those people over there thought or assume that those people who lived there felt like this and those people who lived down there felt like that, I wanted to go out and see my own country. And try to understand it.

I felt like I knew a lot more about Scotland and Ireland than I did my own country, because I had looked at them through a lens of being a writer there. I had done the research. I wanted to put that right.

Tom Coyne - A Course Called America
Tom played 295 courses across all 50 States of America

TWGs: Your father features heavily – your differences, your shared passions, your love for him. How did your journey around America impact your relationship with him?
Tom Coyne:
My father served in Korea and is that red, white and blue flag-waving American and my experience of America growing up in the post-Watergate generation was a little different to his.

Make no mistake – red, white and blue here too, no doubt about it,  but there is also a bit of a cynical view of things that comes around after my Dad. My Dad’s generation does not share that cynicism. America won the war, America was xy and z, America was a very black and white idea. And it is easy for me to be dismissive of that but then you go out and travel and meet a lot of different people. One thing that was a revelation to me was the role the military play in daily American life.

I don’t mean that in a jingoistic way. I just mean that in a basic putting-food-on-the-table way. Throughout much of middle America and on the coast, there is a reliance on the base. The military is such a huge part of people’s daily lives.

I met so many people who woke up in the morning and they served. That’s what they did. It didn’t take me to the point where I wanted to keep forwarding on Dad’s emails with eagles clutching AR15s, but I did understand the notion that this country has been getting a bad rap. And there are extraordinary people willing to do extraordinary things for America and I had lost that in all the noise and the arguing. I was really grateful to get out there and see it was a blend of my America and Dad’s America and at the end of the day, it is a really great place.

Tom Coyne a Course Called America
Tom explores what it means to be American in the 21st century. (Credit: Frank McKenna)

TWGs: Listening is a big part of this book – how important was that to you?
Tom Coyne: That’s probably what I like best about this book.

Maybe, as an author, you always consider your most recent book, your favourite, but that’s certainly the case with this one. There are so many other voices in it.

The other stories – Ireland, Scotland – they are very much ‘I’ stories. In the Ireland book there are a few people who join me. In Scotland there are a few more. In America, there are a lot. It is very much a story about the people who do show up and say ‘hey, we want to be a part of this adventure.’

So, it is very much a ‘we’ story, which is what I really like about it, partly because I am a little bit sick of writing about myself and mining my own mental and emotional shortcomings for material. So, it was nice to have people come along and share their own stories and be a part of it. Listening to them, spending time with them, seeing how they acted, how they made choices, how much they loved golf. Picking up on all those sorts of things was really a wonderful education and all the different citizens of my country.

I know golf does skew the sample, but I tried to make this book as absolutely diverse as I could by going from the fanciest club to the least fancy; from the most public course to the most private. From the furthest north, to the furthest south. So even though the people I met was within the scope of golf, I was meeting a decent cross-section of my countrymen.

TWGs: Did meeting that cross-section help you bridge the political divide? Divided societies are something we are seeing more and more of in western countries.
Tom Coyne: The nature of the way political views are packaged and presented to us by social media or traditional media means we only see the extremes. They tend to be the loudest, the rantiest, the angriest opinions. And then you get out among people in red states and blue states and you find that most people’s concerns are not political at all. They want to work, they want to go on vacation with their families, a lot of them want to go to church, they want to play golf. That was refreshing.

I half expected people to be out there pointing pitch forks at each other and they weren’t. They were getting on with their lives. Golf is a way to bring people of different viewpoints together. Because you are all just trying to get the ball in the hole. And you are not doing as well as you would like to. So, there is something very bonding about the struggles of how ridiculously challenging golf can be. It was a great way to meet people and we all had something in common. I don’t think I had a political conversation in all those rounds of golf. It wasn’t something anyone wanted to get into. If you watch or listen to the media or social media, you would think that was all people wanted to talk about.

TWGs: You mentioned Ireland and Scotland. Was there a sense that, at times, you felt exposed by your comparative lack of knowledge of the United States?
Tom Coyne: It did start to bug me a little bit. Thankfully with the Scotland and Ireland books being successful, I guess I carved a niche as a links golf aficionado – which is nice. But there is more to golf. Much more. And there are great courses here in America which I had overlooked. If I was having a conversation about CB MacDonald or Seth Raynor, it wasn’t easy. I don’t think I had played a MacDonald to that point. And as my profile grew in golf, there was a feeling that if I walked into a room, I felt like I was thinking ‘If anyone wants to talk about links golf, I’ll be over here. But if you want to talk about anything Tom Fazio has done, I don’t want to talk about it.’ And that was kind of not the golf voice I wanted to be.

Tom Coyne A Course Called America
Pebble Beach in California is one of America’s most famous golf courses

TWGs: Golf travel has an almost spiritual impact on many of us. And I know it does on you. How do you explain that?
Tom Coyne: Spiritual is an apt description. A spiritual experience, to me, is when you become aware you are part of something much bigger than yourself. To me, golf is that. It is time to get away from distraction and be present.

If I have one shot at being truly present these days – and it has never been harder – then it is on a golf course, contemplating my next shot or looking at a hole and feeling like I am nowhere else. And that can happen anywhere. It doesn’t have to be on some lost links in Scotland or some exalted country club here in the States. It can happen on a driving range, where you are just trying to focus on one thing, you don’t know where your phone is and you are just trying to do something that, in my mind, I should be able to do and my body doesn’t want to do that.

Golf also lends itself to a chaser personality, like mine. Someone who gets obsessed with things –  golf is great for that. It is a never-ending quest, you are never going to get the answer, the questions keep changing. And yet, it gives you enough satisfaction to bring you back tomorrow. Not playing or having that outlet, you don’t feel like yourself. You feel like something is missing. Looking back, it is easier to see ‘that’s why I was in a funk’. You are not doing what you are supposed to do. Being able to wake up every day and play the golf that I think I should play. When you combine that with the opportunity to meet new people, interact with people who have read the books, that is something which has been pretty great.

Going on these book tours and meeting readers at clubs and talk about the travels and the adventures and their adventures. Getting that pat on the back and approval feels good. It is an addictive thing to get those ‘atta boys – I guess I am roaming around the country looking for them now!

The 7th at Pebble BeachTWGs: Is it still strange when you bump into people who tell you they have been somewhere because of what they read in one of your books? 
Tom Coyne: I still get surprised by that. I should anticipate it more than I do, perhaps, but that thinking doesn’t go into the planning or the travel or the trip.

The priority is always, ‘where is the best story going to be?’ But it is pretty wild that you realise somebody took one of these books and built their golf trip around it or joined a club because of it or went somewhere they wouldn’t have done because of it.

That is still amazing to hear and pretty humbling to be honest.

TWGs: What does normal golf look like, Tom? Does just going to your local club still do it for you? Or have you become de-sensitised in some way to that?
Tom Coyne: You would think I should’ve, would you? There is a feeling that because I have played all these places that maybe I need more to get myself interested. But I am such a golf junkie that I still get excited about playing nine holes at my own club – excited to see what I might shoot.

I am always working on something in my swing. And I want to see which direction my handicap is going. I still get interested in my Saturday and Sunday morning rounds. My regular golf is five minutes from my house at Waynesborough Country Club. I play early Saturday and Sunday – first or second off – play a round in a little over three hours. I will get in a Nassau money game with the guys who go off that early. I am trying to win that money and, since it is my home course, I feel like it is always a place that I should score well, and I don’t always do it. Sometimes you go to a place you have never played before with no expectations and you go ‘look what I just did? I played really well.’ And then on your home course you can force it a bit.

TWGs: Ireland, Scotland, America? What comes next, Tom?

Tom Coyne: The answer, I think, is not to go anywhere for a little bit. I think Scotland, Ireland and America is a nice trilogy and maybe down the line I will do some others or do it in another way, but the ideas I am kicking around now, I can do from this seat right here at home. And that suits me just fine for now.

Ben is the founder of The Wandering Golfers. He grew up on the links of Ayrshire in Scotland learning the game from his beloved Grandpa. He spent more than a decade covering Ryder Cups and the Majors for The Times and BBC Sport before starting his own businesses.

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