Book Review: A Course Called Scotland
The great temptation for a mediocre critic, is to find an esoteric passel of words, then title the review in that manner. In A Course Called Scotland, Robert Thomas Coyne supplies such parcels to excess. A great critic would have flagged each combine with highlighter or a sticky-note tab, for future reference. Alas, you are not blessed with a great critic…
A book like A Course Called Ireland, Coyne’s first swashbuckler’s travelogue of golf-country conquering, awakens or sows in the reader an equally-mad notion of I can do that, followed by I will do that, and concludes with Maybe I won’t, but I might do something similar. Throughout the same reading, Coyne subtly, or unwittingly (or both) gave us clues to impending changes in his personal life, which would play an unforeseen and extraordinary role in the follow-up, A Course Called Scotland. I didn’t open Scotland expecting that revelation, but its woven strands shape the sequel in a manner no other writer could manage.
With those two paragraphs as introduction, I’ll gladly access a familiar method of recalling a trip, or reviewing a tournament: four reasons why. Equal parts list, equal parts prose, this format offers a proper inspection of the writer’s work, but leaves the scrutiny and analysis to the reader. Onward, then, with four reasons why you should read Tom Coyne’s A Course Called Scotland.
Reason One: The Golf
Let’s remember precisely why we are here: we love golf, we have visited Scotland, we have read Coyne’s previous works, or we know the game of golf is credited to the territory north of England. No matter how, why nor when, it’s the golf that brings us to this tome. And Coyne seeks no shortcut in his survey of Scotia’s layouts, great and small. Unlike the Ireland volume, he drives this one. As he explains, Scotland is not nearly as compact as Ireland. Attempting to walk it would be a fool’s errand. Instead, Coyne somehow survives the entire endeavor with only one mainland rental car, akin to golfing a round without losing the ball with which you began. Cheers to that large feat!
Along the roadways, Coyne visits most of the 9-, 12-, and 18-hole courses of Scotland. He establishes two goals at the outset: to compete in Open Qualifying for the 2015 British Open at St. Andrews, and to play all 14 courses that have served as Open Championship venues. How these two missions resolve themselves is for the reader to discover, but remember that Coyne spent an entire year apprenticing to play the PGA Tour, detailed in his novel Paper Tiger. In other words, the writer has game and savvy. Does he have enough?
Over the course of Coyne’s time in the kingdom, he plays 111 rounds of golf. He plays 2, sometimes 3, rounds a day. While he doesn’t hoof the entire highway, his 37-pound weight loss (despite all the bacon rolls) is testimony to the demands of the quest. At novel’s end, Coyne contributes an appendix of lists, in which he sorts courses into the following categories and more: Only Doing Scotland Once; True Wanderer; I’d Change My Flight; Wee Ones; and Loves That Didn’t Make A List. He discovers courses built by common people and captains of industry alike. He rekindles his affection for links golf, if not for the weather that accompanies it in the British isles. Coyne goes where all men and women should go, playing courses on a whim, to add to the experience. Despite his confessed mania for control, he often defers management to another, to the delight of the reader.
There is the question of the secret of the game, the Arthurian saga that lingers in the back of every golfer’s mind. Coyne is transparent about his need to learn the answer to this question, and that he expects to find it in the land of the Celts and Picts. So far, we’ve the mysteries of Open qualifying, playing the 14 Open Championship courses, those named to Coyne’s lists, and the secret of the game. And we’ve just begun! So many reasons to read this work. Will it be sufficient for you?
RM: What about the golf surprised you the most?TC: A lot about the golf in Scotland surprised me, especially since I’d already done all of Ireland and thought I had the links thing down pat. I was surprised by the sheer quantity and proximity of so many great, legendary links. Around St. Andrews or in East Lothian or up in Inverness or over in Prestwick, you can’t swing a seven-iron without knocking into another great course you need to play. That convenience was most appreciated given my itinerary. I was also surprised by the affordability of club memberships over there; it’s a pittance of what we pay, likely because they allow visitor fees to help offset costs to the members. And I was struck by the competitive nature of golf at Scottish clubs–every week there was a trophy on or an open or an event for some hardware. They play make-everything golf all the time. Surely makes them better players.
Reason Two: The Travel
Travel provides different things to different readers. It begins with the roads taken. Highways offer speed and efficiency, while side roads gift long views of our world, along with layovers in restaurants, stores, hotels and parks. Gastronomy, photography, biography…they are all provided for along the roadways of a land. We travel with Tom Coyne as he visits a castle, a restaurant recommended at a Georgia diner, islands, mountains, and a great deal more. We miss appointments with him, thanks to weather, exhaustion, and other factors of fate. We round curves, struggle with left-side driving, and nearly miss entryways, to reach our appointed rounds, accommodations, and reservations.
Through the author’s eyes, we are reminded that much that is new awaits, always. Even though we have been many places, and seen many things, the expanse of the golfing world, the traveling world, is vast. It harbors many unexpected vistas and footholds, and is always worth exploring. Tom Coyne shares these discoveries with us, in a voice that echoes our own sense of wonder amid discovery. Although he knows what he knows before we do, he allows us to hear precisely what he felt as he rounded each turn.
RM: What aspect of travel have you yet to master?
TC: I have yet to master total flight comfort. I still get anxious around the airport, even though I spend so much time around them. The control issues that inspire and allow one to plan 57 tightly packed and planned days of golf are not as useful when you get on a prop plane headed for a Scottish island where you are going to land on a beach. I see people sleeping on prop planes and wonder if they’re alive, or what did they take to knock them out.
Reason Three: The Humans
Gramma Billy, Duff, Penn, et al. Leading into the trip, Coyne confessed to having done a dumb-ass thing. While on a well-followed interview show, he invited strangers to email him and join him for parts of the trip through Scotland. While combing Ireland at the turn of the last decade, he had survived in no small part, thanks to the presence of family and friends. It’s the curious moments of indecision that often shape lives, and Coyne’s curious decision to open his world to the unknown offered a shape to the journey that would be inimitable otherwise. Noted in the footnotes are the near-death experiences of two of the compatriots, if that sort of thing interests you. Also noted are the rise and fall and rise of others, as they come to understand not only what Coyne is attempting to do, but what they themselves have enlisted to accomplish.
There are other humans that figure in the resolution of the task: Coyne and his family. Coyne writes about golf and history, but behind the words is his desire to also be a part of golf’s history. He impacts the game by sharing its courses and its experiences with others, and he has rightly earned his small corner of the game. Without the understanding of his life partner, nor the hope that his efforts will one day matter to his offspring, he might not find the wherewithal and the impetus to carry out his impossible dream, part two.
RM: How did the inclusion of complete strangers alter the way your conception of the story to your telling of the story?
TC: I invited people I did not know to join me for a few reasons — one, I’d be pretty damn lonely if all the golf was solo. And the book would be pretty damn boring as well. I think this story, and any good story, is about the characters, so I was eager to welcome all-comers. The stranger, the better. I looked at it as, hey, if someone is a nightmare, or does something ridiculous, that will be great for the story. The people who did come absolutely carry the story and steal the show, in my opinion. So many became dear friends. Their contributions as people and golfers and as my caretakers exceeded anything I could have anticipated.
Reason Four: The Humanity
It’s never easy to say farewell to someone you’ve known your entire adult life. Coyne does precisely that, in the most unanticipated of ways. He hints at the sendoff throughout the book, forcing the reader to consider the outcome, even as she/he digests the courses, events and persons that populate the pages. When you connect with someone during your undergraduate years, the bonds are born of contrasting moments of affection and distress, making them that much stronger. Forced to let go offers a unique finality to what was expected to be only as much as a a golf book. Truth be told, I was more interested in the impending departure of Robert than I was in the discovery of new courses, and that’s quite a compliment to the writer.
There are times that Coyne frustrates, as his story unfolds. He confesses to knowing how to eliminate the errors that hold him back from realizing his golfing potential, but somehow fails to do so. I came to understand that knowing and doing, despite myriad opportunities, might simply be separated by a gulf to difficult to bridge. By the end, oddly enough, I empathized with the emotions, flaws and failures inherent to the task undertaken. No sympathy, mind you; he set the table and was compelled to eat every last morsel. Empathy, however; yes.
Coyne has worked as a professor of English at St. Joseph’s University in his native Philadelphia for a number of years. His work as an instructor of language and literature, along with a linguist’s life fully lived, has brought a maturity to his perspective and writing. In previous novels, the suggestion of such arose, but fruition is apparent in this one. It is worth your money and your time, as Scottish and British Open season approaches.
RM: Can you share a bit about exorcising some of your personal demons?
TC: I don’t shy away from telling the reader pretty early on that I don’t drink anymore. Given that my last book had a pint of beer on the cover, I think it’s fair that I’m upfront with readers about the change in my lifestyle. I also don’t let my sobriety overtake or bog down the narrative. It’s there, and I’m honest about it, but the book is written for laughs and smiles more than it is any sort of sobriety tale. Me not drinking is just there in the backdrop, but I hope it does add some meaning and poignancy to the story. There was a time I could not get out of bed, and a time I didn’t think I would golf anymore, let alone travel to golf like this, so if I didn’t touch on where I had been just a little, I think part of the joy I feel in the end wouldn’t quite come through in the way that I genuinely experienced it. And I did experience it. I didn’t write the book for this purpose, but if there are people who are thinking about giving up the sauce but keep bumping up against this idea that they wouldn’t have any sort of life if they did so, be sure I was once that guy. For a long time. And this book sits on my desk and reminds me that I was a fool for ever believing that.