A Course Called Ireland
A Long Walk in Search of a Country, a Pint, and the Next Tee
An epic Celtic sojourn in search of ancestors, nostalgia, and the world’s greatest round of golf
In his thirties, married, and staring down impending fatherhood, Tom Coyne was well familiar with the last refuge of the adult male: the golfing trip. Intent on designing a golf trip to end all others, Coyne looked to Ireland, the place where his father had taught him to love the game years before. As he studied a map of the island and plotted his itinerary, it dawned on Coyne that Ireland was ringed with golf holes. The country began to look like one giant round of golf, so Coyne packed up his clubs and set off to play all of it. And since Irish golfers didn’t take golf carts, neither would he. He would walk the entire way.
A Course Called Ireland is the story of a walking- averse golfer who treks his way around an entire country, spending sixteen weeks playing every seaside hole in Ireland and often battling through all four seasons in one Irish afternoon. Coyne plays everything from the top-ranked links in the world to nine-hole courses crowded with livestock. Along the way, he searches out his family’s roots, discovers that a once-poor country has been transformed by an economic boom, and finds that the only thing tougher to escape than Irish sand traps are Irish pubs. By turns hilarious and poetic, A Course Called Ireland is a magnificent tour of a vibrant land and a paean to the world’s greatest game.
Disclaimer: This excerpt contains adult language and may not be suitable for all readers.
I took my first golf trip to
Growing up outside
We were Americans, Catholics, golfers, Phillies fans, shoregoers, Wiffle-ballers—even as a redhead, Irish ranked low on my list of labels. The potential of my heritage never occurred to me until I graduated high school and my father took me on a golf tour of
My father and I spent ten days bouncing around
The golf that week wasn’t perfect or great or pretty—it was something we both seemed unequipped to gauge. Golf as I’d known it was a game of explanations and excuses, strategies for future improvements. Yet that didn’t seem the language being spoken in places like Ballybunion and Tralee and
Many years later, I began devising a golf trip of my own, where I would prove to my unwashed friends why golf played against the
It wasn’t easy. How could we skip golf holes deemed unskippable by golf pundits the world over? How many holes might we squeeze in before friends were extradited home by their wives, their children, their Mastercard? Should we play it safe with a sampling of old Irish standards, take a chance on an itinerary of best buys, or seek out the bevy of new arrivals? There was only one rule—Ballybunion—but one rule had many offshoots to consider, because you couldn’t play Ballybunion and skip Tralee, which meant you weren’t far from Lahinch, which brought you too close to Connemara to cross it off the list, and made that course in Belmullet an easy temptation, which meant Enniscrone and Rosses Point were a must. We would be close enough to Donegal that we’d have to squeeze it in, which gave us no excuse to skip
As I plotted our trip, I learned that
The golf courses we are accustomed to in America—on television or on a Saturday morning—are almost invariably parkland tracks, tree-lined layouts with tightly cropped edges, fairways defined against carefully tiered cuts of rough. Parkland golf is handsome, convenient, and often obvious, while links golf is unapologetic, unpretentious, and wonderfully unrefined—parkland is the cover girl, lovely and forgettable; linksland is the girl who doesn’t bother with makeup but still turns your head, authentic and irresistible, the one you’d travel all the way to
The GPS-guided game we play in benign breezes over unblemished fairways allows us to take on a course with one golf shot in our bag—high and deep—knocking the ball over bunkers and over water and thusly being rewarded. Links golf, with its sea winds and lumpy fairways rolling their way into kinked putting surfaces, is not about knocking your ball over and above a golf course, but rather playing your ball through one. It’s less like darts and more like, well, golf, and it can leave you lightheaded with options as you stand in a heaving fairway and consider your own definition of fair. For anyone with a golf imagination, playing a links is an all-out indulgence, and it makes one understand that golf isn’t about striking the perfect seven-iron or hitting x number of greens. A good day on a links reminds you that golf is about one thing, and one thing only—stuffing your ball into the hole as quickly as you damn well can.
Golf historians trace the game’s origin to ancient stick-whacks-ball pursuits in Holland, Rome, and even China, but there is no debate that seaside Scots grew golf into the game we play today, and that the first lost golf balls in Scotland went missing along the margins of authentic links courses—unsuitable for growing crops, linkslands were left to sportsmen and their pursuits, and the dunes thus became the venue for golf’s original whiff. And that’s why there exists such passion about links golf—we might not know exactly who invented golf, but on a true links, you get to spend an afternoon with them. By strict definition, there is not one genuine, complete links layout in the entire United States (recalling so many keep off dunes admonishments by the Jersey shore, I can imagine why), but judging from my map of Ireland, it looked like you couldn’t go ten steps without tripping over one.
As I studied the courses and pondered our trajectory, the itinerary grew, transforming from a golf trip into something else. Each flag on the map pushed my imagination along to the next until I found my trip back where it began, one long round of golf with no clear beginning, no conspicuous finish line. And soon, I wasn’t looking at a map of Irish golf courses on my bulletin board. I was looking at the Irish golf course. In the caddy parlance of my youth, I was looking at the world’s ultimate loop.
When you played golf in
I had spent most of 2003 and all of 2004 chasing every golfer’s dream, dedicating all my dollars and hours to the pursuit of playing professional golf. After teeing it up for 546 consecutive days under the watchful tutelage of the most accomplished instructors, mind-shrinkers, and body-shapers in golf, I became thoroughly convinced that professional bowling would have been a better dream for me. Saddled with a +1 handicap that grew impossible to play to, I had become just good enough at golf to quit it, and I probably would have if it weren’t for the possibility of Ballybunion. So
But if I could play a course called
I bought a larger map of
“I’m from the States, I’m here playing golf all over the country. . .”
The girl leaned across her boyfriend, eyeing me through the cracked window. “Are you the American that’s walking around
There was hope. “That’s me,” I said, the warmth of a satisfied ego washing over me. I was saved. They were fans.
“Yer fuckin’ mad,” she said.
There hadn’t been much doubt up to that point, but it was now confirmed—these two weren’t golfers. When the un-golfed got word of my endeavor, they questioned my sanity. But when golfers heard about how I was spending my summer, they questioned my wife’s. I was either crazy or the luckiest bastard on the planet, depending on your handicap.
I watched tires spit pebbles in my direction as their car sped down the road without me. And as I looked to my loyal friend who hadn’t left my side, a dog who was eyeing me like I was wearing an EAT ME, I’M IRISH PIN, I wasn’t crazy, and I wasn’t lucky. To borrow an old Irish expression, I was fucked.“In this cheerily self-deprecating work, Coyne—an Irish-American Philadelphian who never knew much about his roots and avoided exercise—describes how he undertook a wildly ambitious plan to spend four months playing over 40 golf courses in Ireland and getting to them by walking. Coyne’s tiredness quickly translates into hiker’s euphoria; however, he has a tougher time facing the Irish breakfast every B&B owner serves him (sausages, rashers, beans, soda bread—“an afternoon of wincing regret”). Having already written a couple of books on golf (e.g., Paper Tiger), Coyne knows his way around a course, but more importantly, he also knows better than to bore readers with monotonous accounts of hole after hole. His style is more that of the travelogue, as he’s bowled over by one astoundingly beautiful and windswept course after the next. By the time Coyne gets to Ulster, it’s clear that golf is by far the least interesting thing for him, as the author packs his humorous narrative with historical tales and travel anecdotes about the small towns he passes through and the many pubs he stops in along the way.”
“Forgive fellow golf writers their resentment of Tom Coyne. His well-reviewed first novel, A Gentleman’s Game, was adapted into a well-reviewed film, co-scripted by Coyne and starring Gary Sinise. (Player haters would note it went straight to DVD; more generous observers would admit they’d contract the yips for such success.)
Coyne turned to first-person nonfiction with Paper Tiger, which saw the former standout junior golfer devote two years to his game, securing top teachers, mind-game gurus, trainers and technology in a quixotic attempt to earn a Tour card – an idea that every grass- and ink-stained wretch has had but which Coyne (an occasional Golfweek contributor) somehow parlayed into a publisher’s advance.
At first glance, Coyne’s new book, A Course Called Ireland, should drive his brethren batty. The concept: Play every links course on the Emerald Isle, land of his forefathers. If this sounds less like a pitch than a mogul’s dream vacation, there is a twist: Coyne would walk the 1,000-plus miles between courses.
This deal-cinching trope would make even the most jealous of us think twice about, well, following in Coyne’s footsteps. The author himself takes pains early on to explain his ambulatory approach.
It’s something to do with toughening a body and lifestyle gone soft, reconnecting with the game’s basic nature and so on. Whether you buy this justification or sense a whiff of blarney, it hardly matters, because the real reason to envy Coyne, and to buy this book, is that his writing outstrips even his salesmanship.
Coyne takes what could have been a numbing travelogue and jams it as tight as his lone knapsack with insight and humor. One memorable scatological incident in a quaint B&B will leave the reader doubled over; even better, when the event takes a serious turn, Coyne shows the intelligence, here as elsewhere, to extract larger meaning. Golf proves the author’s vehicle, not his ends. There is plenty of substance, about the courses and the game, yes, but also about a rapidly changing Ireland, for starters.
Still, Coyne’s greatest strength remains his writing style, light and conversational. On his walking shoes: “They were brown leather with important-looking straps, a big black rubber toe that announced their wearer as a person on his way to a place more timid souls didn’t go. That, or as a sucker who paid far too much for a pumped-up pair of Docksiders.” Coyne must work hard to make his prose read so easy.
Given Coyne’s centrality to the action, the only surprise, and disappointment, is that we don’t learn enough about his life. His wife makes a few cameos but, like their relationship, remains in soft focus. Is she unusually independent? Supportive? Deferential? Hard to say. Money concerns are alluded to but not detailed. The back cover, and only the back cover, raises the issue of possible fatherhood. It’s a credit to the writer that after four months in his company, teeing it up, drinking Guinness and running from stray dogs, we still want to know more.”
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