A Course Called Scotland by Tom Coyne
Tom Coyne’s goal was to play “107 practice rounds,” the number of golf courses in Scotland, in 56 days in hopes of refining his game so that he could qualify for the Open. He played the courses, but you’ll have to read the book to learn whether he achieved his ultimate goal. That first sentence illustrates both the strength of his follow-up to A Course Called Ireland and a weakness: it is a delightful romp through the fens and fifes of Scotland, but a lack of intimate knowledge of golf reduces the fun. (The “champion golfer and winner of the gold medal” is played at the “Open” in Great Britain. It is not the British Open, just the Open, despite what American journalists and television announcers generally say.)
Some level of golf knowledge is helpful, otherwise, references to Old Tom and Young Tom, Nicklaus, Player, Faldo, and Els will bear little significance (although a reference to Tiger might be easily understood). Coyne displays a far-ranging expertise and love of the game, and his writing is solid. He occasionally provides an absolutely appropriate literary reference in exactly the right context. Speaking of his love of golf and having just played a warm-up round near London, he writes, “I slept a deep, thirty-six hole sleep, knowing that when one is tired of the prospect of golf tomorrow, one has tired of life.”
Even so, Coyne is not in the same league as great golf writers such as Herbert Warren Wind, Heyward Hale Broun, or Dan Jenkins, who all reported on the game with unequalled literary stylings. Coyne’s theme and purpose fit more closely to James Dodson (Final Rounds), the finest stylist writing today. Coyne writes with light-hearted humor and wit as he draws the reader into his quest. It will appeal to the serious golfer who shares that history and to the reader who seeks a well-told story about a search for fulfillment. Better scores, he writes, “weren’t necessarily about better shots but better misses.” As in life, how we handle adversity is what separates winners and losers.
Coyne decries the exclusivity of American golf clubs versus those in Scotland. An American club is self-contained, belonging to and available only to its membership. A Scottish golf course may be the domain of three or more clubs which share the land. Even the venerated St. Andrews course is closed on Sundays and open to the public as a park. “We took the open game from the closed place and made it a closed game in an open place.” That is, golf evolved in a country ruled by place and strict status yet most courses were open to the public. He goes on to suggest that “it was in America, the everyman land of bootstraps, where golf became truly exclusive.” Regardless of where it is played, the “pursuit of par” can be a great leveler. The doctor, the brick mason, the teacher, and the fireman, regardless of race or economic status, are joined in battle against the unwavering scorecard.
Coyne places his golfing efforts within the context of the places he played, the people he met, and the things, both cultural and historical, that he learned along the way. For example, where but in Scotland could one find a plaque on a golf course commemorating the death of Constantine I, King of the Picts? He was killed on that spot by the invading Danes in 847 A.D. It is widely believed that the term “black-balled” originated from the voting practice of the membership of Muirfield where a single black ball was sufficient to exclude an applicant. (That may be apocryphal since other clubs had similar practices.)
In the end, Coyne played 111 rounds of golf. An appendix records the yardage and scores for each course while another recommends places to stay and courses to play in various regions of Scotland.
A Course Called Scotland is a pleasant afternoon read. At times charming, hilarious, and poignant, it draws upon the author’s lifetime of chasing a golf ball across the world—to a place called Scotland in this instance—and the people he’s met along the way. It is a fitting complement to his Irish book and his novel A Gentleman’s Game, named one of the best 25 sports books of all time by The Philadelphia Daily News.