Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 29, 2008

Epic Golf Quests: Hey, It's a Living

Golf writer Tom Coyne has taken 16 months to try to go pro, and 16 weeks to circumnavigate Ireland via seaside courses. It's all in the service of a good yarn.

Jim Chairusmi

While daydreaming in your cubicle at work, have you ever wondered what it would be like to take a year off and chase a dream?

An overweight, 14-handicap golfer on the verge of turning 30, Tom Coyne decided to embark on a yearlong quest to do everything he could to elevate his game to make it through the PGA Tour Qualifying School.

Tom Coyne at the Mulranny Golf Course in County Mayo/Photo by Morgan Treacy
"I gorged myself on a good thing. I took my passion, golf, and turned it into my nemesis."

Tom Coyne at the Mulranny Golf Course in County Mayo/Photo by Morgan Treacy

Coyne, who wrote about his experience in Paper Tiger: An Obsessed Golfer's Quest to Play with the Pros, explains why golf can be a regular voyeuristic thrill show. "Tennis players don't watch Agassi smoke a ball through his adversary's racket strings and think, 'Yeah, I love it when I do that.' Middle-aged accountants don't look at LeBron and recall their own 360 windmill jam at last Wednesday night's pickup game. But every golfer, even the most bogey-dedraggled, has at some point amid all the punishment made a 30-foot putt. Or hit a drive that split the fairway, chipped one up next to the hole, stuck a five-iron inside the barrel."

Gelf interviewed Coyne over email about his next golf book, to be published in the fall; the Tiger Effect; and whether golf passes the "Stack of Pancakes" test. Coyne also explains why I have no chance to qualify for the Senior PGA Tour. The interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Coyne and other golf writers read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, June 5th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Last summer, you made your way across Ireland on foot, playing every seaside golf course in the country. It was a quest to play the world's greatest round of golf. It sounds like a great experience, but also a little crazy. Why did you decide to do it?

Tom Coyne: I didn't necessarily want to write another golf book, but I wanted my next project to be about Ireland. I've always been interested in Ireland and curious about my heritage, and I've traveled to Ireland since I was a teenager, doing a week here, a week there, getting to know the place in small, brief pockets. And with each trip, I couldn't help but notice how the place was changing. Ireland has gone from Europe's lesser cousin to a country seated at the head of Europe's table, with a booming economy and a young, vibrant working force—this wasn't your grandfather's Ireland, for the better, and perhaps for the worse, I suspected. So I wanted to do a book about Ireland now, as it went through these changes, before it became tougher to recognize.
But if I'm going to do an Ireland book, really, I'm not going to write a social history or a textbook. In one form or another, I've been writing about golf for the last 10 years, so golf was the natural lens through which to look at this strange and wonderful country. The fact that Ireland happened to be ringed with 50 or so of the greatest links, or seaside, golf courses on the planet didn't hurt. So as I planned my trip around Ireland, trying to decide where I would go and which courses I would visit, this map in my office started to look less like a country, and more like a challenge. If I went from pin to pin on my map, it would almost be like playing a golf course in itself—from hole to hole, town to town, county to county—and that was the genesis of the concept to play the whole of Ireland as one great golf course.
As for the walking part, when you play golf in Ireland, you don't take a cart. You walk and carry your clubs. So that's what I did, for four months and over 1,000 miles, I walked the entire periphery of the country carrying my clubs and playing every golf hole that got in my way. It's a story that's much more about the country, the people I meet and the friends who join me on the road, and what it feels like to take in the world on foot—it's a story about Ireland, but golf gives it its trajectory.

Tom Coyne

Coyne at Mulranny; 'golf was the natural lens through which to look at this strange and wonderful country,' he says of Ireland. Photo by Morgan Treacy.

GM: You must really enjoy golf and your wife Allyson must be a great woman for agreeing to let you embark on the four-month adventure. And this came after letting you play golf for 16 months straight for Paper Tiger.

TC: That's how A Course Called Ireland begins, actually, with the night I suggested to Allyson that it might be fun for me to go for a little golf trip in Ireland—"Thanks, honey, be back in 16 weeks." When I did Paper Tiger, we weren't married yet, so the year and a half of golf felt slightly less selfish. And while all this golf sounds like a dream, at the same time, she knew that it was my job—granted, it's a pretty great job, but these adventures help pay the bills, and they're not quite the party they sound. There are some dark moments in Paper Tiger and the Ireland book, and as with any fantasy, too much of a good thing is no good at all, and in both books, I gorged myself on a good thing. I took my passion and turned it into my nemesis, but by doing so, I got to look at golf and Ireland and even myself from all the angles, and I think the stories are better for it.
In all honesty, the Ireland adventure took very little persuading—she was going to join me for a few weeks in Ireland, so that was somewhat appealing. And remember, I had set some serious precedent for the Irish trip. After my last book took me on the road for 16 months, four months felt like a drop in the proverbial bucket. In the Ireland book, I call it the "asshole threshold," and over the years, watching me chase golf balls around, Allyson's had grown sturdier than most. All that said, she is the best, and I'm a very lucky man.

GM: Everything was different about golf B.T. (Before Tiger). Can you explain?

TC: To put it simply, Tiger made golf cool. The most-exciting, most-recognizable figure in sports is a golfer; how brilliant is that? I just don't get how people connected to golf and invested in its success don't have a shrine to Tiger in their backyard. People will ask me, "So what do you think of Tiger?"—waiting for me to lob some sort of critique—and I find it tough to get out all my praise and adoration quickly enough. I feel damn lucky to be a golf fan during this era, to be able to watch an athlete do such uncommon things under such an unprecedented microscope. Tiger's dominance has brought the disinterested observers into the sport, and he's thankfully helped to break down so much of the bullshit that surrounds a beautiful game. Golf used to feel much more hidden away, and it was a sort of nervously guarded privilege to play it or to care about who was leading a tournament on Sunday.
I was in St. Martin last month, and our taxi driver to the hotel, a native islander who had never left the Caribbean nor picked up a golf club, talked about Tiger Woods for 20 minutes. There's a bar on my corner here in Philadelphia, a working man's establishment, and that's where I watch the Masters, with carpenters and pipe fitters glued to the television—and no offense to Trevor Immelman or Zach Johnson, but those aren't the guys they're watching for. We have a great sport, and Tiger has helped millions of people understand that.

GM: You mention that the Tiger Effect has brought more true athletes to the game, guys with muscles and guts and killer sports instincts. If this was B.T., do you think some of today's young golfers might not have taken up golf? It could also be argued that we really haven't seen another great young golfer really emerge yet, since Tiger has been so dominant.

TC: There is no question that Tiger has brought more athletes to the game of golf. I don't know why all the new talent hasn't bubbled to the surface on the tour yet. One could argue that it has, if you look at Adam Scott, Sean O'Hair, Aaron Baddeley, but they certainly haven't reached Tiger heights. The fact is, nobody probably ever will (but keep an eye out for Anthony Kim, who I think has the best shot at being the young stud on tour—incredible talent and poise for his age).
Tiger raised the bar, then raised it again, and again, but you'll notice he's not winning the Masters by 12 shots anymore, and that's no doubt due to the fact that better athletes in better physical condition are turning to golf—again, because Tiger has made it cool. The effect is most evident on the junior level. Twenty years ago, If you could break 80, you could probably get a spot on an average college golf team. Today, you have 14-year-olds destroying par all over the country. If you look at the scores these kids are shooting in junior events, it's absurd—I don't know if the talent at the very top has changed that much, but it's obvious that the width of talent has just exploded since Tiger came on the scene. When I was in high school, we couldn't get enough kids to go out for the golf team, and the only ones who did had fathers who were members at a country club. Now the quarterback plays golf in the summer. So does the point guard. And that's because the richest, most-recognizable man in sports is a golfer.

GM: Besides Tiger, who are some of the golfers you enjoy watching? Is there a golfer on Tour who has a similar game/style to yours?

TC: The golfers on tour who have a style similar to mine are the ones who are no longer on the tour, i.e., the ones who weren't quite good enough to make it (not to give away the ending of Paper Tiger, but one could probably guess that I'm not answering these questions between rounds at The Players Championship). If I had to pick a name, I'd probably say Rory Sabbatini, in that he's kind of a basher, a guy who hits it, finds it, goes and hits it again. That's kind of my game: Try to beat it, then figure out a way to make par from behind a pine tree.
Like I said, if Tiger is playing, I'm watching. But I also root for O'Hair for his Philadelphia connection, and I like Boo Weekley and Brandt Snedeker—golf needs characters, so I cheer for the guys who stand out, and who play fast. I'm not a big fan of the golf automatons coming out of the golf academies. They play golf like they're doing an algorithm.


Tom Coyne

Coyne in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Every weekend, he says, 'I'll have a small taste of the best golf can offer.' Photo by Jeff Fusco.


GM: As a casual golfer, I really related to your comment in the intro about how it's the one or two shots per round that we strike perfectly that make us all come back and try to master this impossible game.

TC: That's the hook, that potent lure that keeps us all coming back, strong enough to send me off around the world for a year and a half, trying to play professional golf. And as silly as that endeavor sounds, the truth is what the casual golfer does on a Saturday is, in places, exactly what Tiger does. We've all made a five-foot putt, or made a lucky chip-in, or hit a green, or split a fairway. The differences between us and them are matters of consistency, frequency, and—while we might not end up on tour—consistency is something that our golfing brains tell ourselves we might develop. I'll never know what it feels like to dunk, but every weekend I'll get a feeling for what it's like to hit a ball off the sweet center spot of an eight iron, and I'll have a small taste of the best golf can offer. It's enough to keep you slogging through the shanks and double bogeys.

GM: Short of dedicating a full year of your life to nothing but golf, how much does one have to practice to become a little better than "The Best Player You Know?"

TC: To get to that level, meaning a top club player or a scratch handicap, practice is obviously important, but after beating so many balls on the range and having mixed success, I've become a proponent of doing almost all your practice from 100 yards and in, and then just play tons and tons of golf. Figure out how to golf your ball, learn how to get yourself around the course with the swing you have, and just learn how to play. Most players spend hours on the range trying to hit the perfect five-iron. You might hit your five-iron three times a round. You're going to hit 40 putts, but you don't bother with the putting green. Tour players miss a lot of fairways and greens, by the way. You don't have to hit a perfect straight golf ball—getting to scratch is about learning how to score, and you only learn that by playing a lot of golf holes. If you want to get to an elite level, it certainly takes coaching and head-shrinking and training and all the bells and whistles—but if you want to be the best player on your block, learn how to live with your ball flight, keep your ball in front of you, make more putts, and get up and down from everywhere. You don't have to be particularly blessed athletically to be a good putter or chipper.

GM: I'm almost 32—nearly the same age as Tiger. I can shoot in the 90s, with a mulligan or three per round, on my best day. If I quit my day job tomorrow, do you think I could be ready to challenge Tiger on the Senior Tour when I turn 50?

TC: No. Let me rephrase that. No way. Anything is possible, and there are probably a few stories out there like yours, but a few reasons why the odds are against you—one, the Champions Tour is damn tough to get on to if you haven't already played on the PGA Tour. The Q School offers something like five spots for walk-up qualifiers, and considering the millions of like-minded men with a Senior Tour dream, those are tough odds. And the competition at that level has been playing for big money in big tournaments for 30 years, while you have been hitting balls on the range. That's what I learned in Paper Tiger: that there is absolutely no substitute for tournament experience. You can't practice it or pay for it. Getting comfortable playing that big-time golf requires another skill set entirely. Although maybe you have it and just don't know it yet.

GM: What's your favorite golf course to play? Have you ever played Augusta, Pebble Beach, or St. Andrews?

TC: I grew up on a William Flynn course called Rolling Green, and I'd have to say I enjoy golf there the most. It's also where I play with my Dad, and as a caddy and golfer, I've been around it a few thousand times, so in my imagination, it's sort of what a golf course looks like. I've played St. Andrews and loved it for the history and the setting—as a golf course, its pretty straightforward, and without the wind, its really quite easy—short holes, huge greens. Haven't played Pebble, and I've been to Augusta but only as a spectator. I've played Pine Valley, Merion, and a lot of the classic East Coast clubs, but links golf in Ireland is where it's at for me. I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the game, to the point where golf isn't all that interesting. But the Irish version still stirs the imagination, and the golf courses in Belmullet and Ballybunion are my favorites.

GM: Do you try to sell nongolfers on the appeal of golf? It seems like people either are hooked by golf or hate the game entirely.

TC: I don't think the two are exclusive emotions. Love/hate, it's like any long-term relationship (Allyson, skip this part), but there are moments of adoration, and moments of resentment; periods of ecstasy, and stretches of disgust. It's a tension at the center of the Ireland book, as I come to loathe the golf clubs on my back, but can't bring myself to pitch them into the ocean because they've been my companions over so many years and so many miles. I don't think I try to sell people on golf. I think my books have made the game sound interesting, or at least confounding enough, to tempt a non-golfer to give the game a try. It's sort of like when friends tell me they haven't read one of my books yet, and I tell them that's fine, as long as they own them. I'm not going to try to convert someone to golf, just to golf books. But for people who ask me if golf is as boring as it looks on TV, I will take a moment to explain why it isn't, and why it's a lot more interesting if you know a little bit about the game.

"I'm not going to try to convert someone to golf, just to golf books."
GM: What is your next project? Will it will be golf-related?

TC: I'm going to golf my way around Antarctica, carrying nothing but my golf clubs and a stick of lip balm.
I have a few ideas in the works, some of them golf-related. I don't think it will be another golf-quest story, at least not now. I might revisit that story in the future, but for now I'd like to do something from the comfort of my office.

GM: Final question: A non-golfer friend of mine likes to say that golf fails the "Stack of Pancakes" test, and therefore should be considered more of a game along the lines of Scrabble, or even pool or bowling. (The "Stack of Pancakes" test: If you can eat a stack of pancakes and still play without throwing up, it's not a sport.) Your thoughts?

TC: First, how big a stack? I ate pancakes before football games on occasion. And I have thrown up before golf tournaments—as described in Paper Tiger, the bathroom before Q-school was like a country club vomitorium. I can see the bowling comparison, but Scrabble is a slap in one's golfing face.
Golf can be played as a non-sport, certainly, played as an excuse to drink beer outdoors. And I can see how a sport where alcohol can make you a more-effective participant might raise a sporting purist's eyebrow. But the game being played at the top level today is by all means a sport—the guys winning on tour are almost all gym rats in top shape. To be able to control so many different muscles in your body as a clubhead moves around your torso at 150 miles per hour, you have to have buckets of athletic ability. Tiger's muscles don't just make him hit it further, they make him steadier over chips and putts and more balanced over every shot he hits. It's a different kind of strength required in golf, but if you take two golfers of the same ability, and one of them is out of shape, and the other is in peak condition, over four days, the latter will win every single time. That's not the case in Scrabble or bowling. Just because the action comes quickly and in spurts, and the contact is self-initiated, doesn't mean it isn't a sport. When Kobe Bryant is shooting free throws, is he not playing a sport? And by the way, a designated hitter in baseball could eat a smokehouse stack of pancakes smothered in chocolate sauce and still get his job done.

Related in Gelf

•Authors Rus Bradburd and Andy Mendlowitz also told us about their books on Ireland and sports.

Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.







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Article by Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.

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