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Book Review & Interview: Tom Coyne's 'A Course Called Ireland'
The Irish might complain that in reviewing an Irish golf book I should be quoting Yeats, not T.S. Eliot. But the man who had the humility to call Ezra Pound Il Miglor Fabbro - the better craftsman - had the perfect quote to describe Tom Coyne's golfing walk around the entire circumference of Ireland. Only those who risk going too far can possibly find how far one can go.
In what sometimes came down to an act of sheer will that made some question first his own sanity, then his young, pretty wife's, Tom Coyne walked roughly 1,500 miles around the rim of the island nation, playing every single seaside links course - from the largest resorts to the smallest nine-holers - including those in Northern Ireland. Yet Tom not only lived to tall about it, but the M.F.A. in Creative Writing degree holder and writing professor at St. Joe's in Philly wrote a terrific book about his journey.
Golf sure makes people do crazy things. Isn't it great?
Tom's book and trip were not merely some materialistic, self-indulgent boondoggle of a travel trophy - a golf trip to end all golf trips more akin to proof that the sports world has gone mad - than a serious pilgrimage. No, "A Course Called Ireland" is far more than just stories about the splendor of golf's ancient jewels. In a journey as much about self-, familial- and societal-discovery, Coyne gracefully uses his original, passionate and observant voice to weave poignant, charming stories that tell us "something priceless about a life that was, above all else, about people."
Starting in Kilkee and walking us down a thousand minor roads - when there was one, Coyne takes us into small towns with names so hard to spell, they're tougher than a triple-breaking putt at Oakmont, and to places where the dingiest B&Bs shine like a crown of glory to a man who walked 23 or 24miles. From a "Bog Road" so long and dismal that Coyne's dear friend sang to him for hours, "Tom Coyne's an aaaaaaaaaaass-hole, Tom Coyne's an aaaaaaaaaaaass-hole"; to 38 consecutive days of rain that turned Ireland into a stern country, freezing him to a cold cruel bosom; and from a resentful red-haired vixen whose eyes were a simmering shade of "I hate you"; to fabled Ballybunion, where no Tolkien Hobbit could have the stars shine more brightly on the end of his road, Tom's smooth delivery and soothing voice bring to life the real Irish, children of an older more graceful time, who "live a simpler life with fewer worries."
And yes, Tom did play a lot of golf and drink a lot of Guinness, but along the way, he: "Faced off against a gang of galloping livestock, gone toe to hoof with a mountain goat . . . climbed my way out of sandy pits and thorny ditches, scrambled up stone walls, splashed my way through deep and icy waters . . . felt speeding cars brush the hair on my knuckles. [Author's Note: One more than occasion he nearly got smeared like a fly on a windshield.] I had lowered my chin into a month long rain, peeled the blisters off my blisters, watched my feet turn to piles of soggy porridge . . . encountered flying fists, smelled the sour breath of a hundred lost men, [and] fought my damnedest not to become one of them."
This tells you far more than any scribbled scorecard, frothy beer, or skyline green could about people. In the end, that's what Tom shows us Ireland is really all about: people who live so close to one another they need and rely on each other to an astonishing degree. The pride and camaraderie that result are inspiring, and that's why people go to Ireland. We've lost sight of this important bit of societal wisdom in this country: N o matter how much you try to fence yourself in you can't fence the rest of the world out.
Let's meet Tom:
JF: Tell us about your writing background and how you became a writer.
TC: I did my MFA at Notre Dame in 1999, and my thesis was a novel called "A Gentleman's Game" about a golf prodigy who caddies at an exclusive East Coast country club. I was fortunate enough to get an agent shortly after leaving school, and the book was published by Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press in 2000 (I think - could be 2001!). The book was turned into a movie in 2001, which was a big thrill and gave me a chance to write a screenplay and watch it get produced. "Paper Tiger," a work of nonfiction, was my next book, and it chronicled my quest to become a professional golfer (didn't quite work out, but made for a good story.) And then this Ireland story. I've written for the golf magazines and I've published short fiction, bad poetry, and I now teach creative writing at St. Joseph's University in Philly.
JF: Why do this in the first place?
TC: A few reasons. I've wanted to do a book about Ireland for a long time - not just about Ireland, but something that gets to the heart of why so many Americans who have never seen the place feel so attached to it. And with the way Ireland is changing in the speedy, new European world, I wanted to get a picture of it, grab on to some of that old and new and see which side was winning out.
But I write about golf, and I love golf in Ireland, so golf was going to be a part of the story. So many Irish golf books have been done, and many of them quite good, so I knew I needed a different angle, a new way to take the island on.
In planning my trip, I literally put a map on my wall, put a pin in every golf course. And the island ringed with one pin after another suggested the idea to me - play it all. And in Ireland, when you play golf, you walk, so how could I play Ireland as one great big golf course and not do it on foot? It had also never been attempted before, which was certainly part of the temptation - not by car, bus, or helicopter, nobody had ever tried to take on this many Irish links in this space of time.
So this idea to play the ultimate round of golf, as an ex-caddie, had its attraction. But I suppose why I knew I had to do the trip and do it this way was because I don't really care to write just about golf. I'm not really into all the fine points of course design, I find course rankings somewhat silly, and my own scores have become less interesting every year. So I didn't want to write just a course review, or a travel guide - if it was going to be my story, then this was going to be about people and places, unexpected bends in the roads, good turns and bad ones. By doing Ireland on foot, I knew I would get all that - I couldn't help but not. I got to know it at a different pace, and was able to wander into one unlikely encounter after another, the kind of stuff that we too often design our golf trips to avoid. I knew if I walked it, I would come home with too many stories to tell, and the writing would be a process of elimination, which in some ways it was. If I just stuck to the golf without the walking and the characters and the history and the unforeseen challenges, it would have been a different book - one I'd probably not want to read, much less write.
JF: What do you stress most to your students about good writing and what distinguishes a merely pretty good writer from a truly great one?
TC: Specificity of detail is what I stress most to the students. I think that is so important for young writers to be able to get beyond the vague, the general, the cliché - ie, the easy - and get to the good stuff. You have to look hard. Damn hard. But if you do and you just give us one image or description or turn of phrase that we haven't considered before, then you're giving your reader something irrefutable, something undeniable. And whether you're writing fiction, creative nonfiction, whatever, trying to put forth something undeniable is the whole point - and you get there with one specific, genuine, intimate, careful detail after another. I don't mean a lot of fancy prose or flowery description or big words - but the absolute right words.
JF: That's exactly what Twain and Hemingway taught: use the precise word. As Twain said, writers are like music - they can be sharp or flat, dull or overly verbose. You know what those writers are trying to say, you also know that hey, do not say it.
TC: Exactly. You know the right words when you read them. Get enough of them together and you've got a voice. And then you're off to the races. Now also, a truly great writer has a curiosity you cannot teach, and a willingness to mine their experience and their dark corners in a way some writers are not willing to do. Sprinkle in God-given ability, and finish off with a willingness to work, work, work. It's easy to write when it's fun and easy - when it's your 10th revision, it's not so fun, but that's were the good stuff comes from, at least for me. Writing is writing. Revision is the work of writing.
JF: So then what's next for you to write and revise?
TC: I'm kicking around a few ideas, none of them golf-related at the moment. With the state of the economy, it's a good time to be playing around with new material, not such a good time for selling it. So I'm sketching out a novel and putting together some stuff for folks in L.A. to take a look at, and trying to get through my semester teaching a great group of freshman whose reading list is the O'Henry prizes.
JF: So who are some of your favorite Irish writers?
TC: The only other Irish golf writer I know, aside from some of the Irish writers from the papers over there, is Jim Finegan, the author of "Where Golf is Great," and perhaps the greatest American authority on golf in Ireland. He was writing about it before it was really even a story, and he writes with such grace and refinement on the subject, I was nervous to read alongside him at an event we did a few years ago where I was promoting my last book, "Paper Tiger." But he's a gentleman and a generous individual, and it's a real thrill to have his warm endorsement on "A Course Called Ireland."
JF: What did you learn about yourself that you didn't know before this trip?
TC: I didn't know I could do this, you know, live that way on the road, alone, out of a backpack. It was also tough in that it was four months of constantly meeting new people. I missed the comfort of friends and family sometimes. Especially [his wife] Allyson. What I missed the most about not having Allyson there, is that she's a great conversationalist. She's so easy to talk to.
JF: It had to be a great reunion, when you finally retuned home after four months, even though she did some of the trip with you.
TC: It was a great reunion at home with Allyson, and my dog nearly jumped through the door when he saw me.
Four months is a long time to be away. It was a fun couple weeks visiting with friends after having just walked an entire country - people who didn't believe me, and people who didn't recognize me from the lost weight. But very soon afterward, the whole experience felt like a dream. I had the blisters and golf balls to prove it, but back in my routine here in Philadelphia, Ireland seemed like another lifetime, and that person who lived out of a backpack for four months felt like some guy I used to know. Good guy though, I'd like to hang out with him again.
JF: (Chuckling) Wouldn't we all. On that note, what advice do you have - besides the packing advice in the book - for those inclined to try something similar?
TC: Good luck. Not too many walkable golf countries left on the map - people tell me I've got to do Scotland next, and that will absolutely never happen. Invest in your shoes and socks, bring ¼ of what you think you'll need, and make sure you like yourself a lot - you'll be you're only company for long stretches of them.
JF: Well if you know the secret to getting people to stop hating themselves, you'd put every psychiatrist alive out of business. (Laughter)
Let's talk a little about design. On page 79 you say "no hill was ever bulldozed flat in the construction of any golf course worth its salt." Tell us your thoughts on what is good golf course architecture.
TC: Good course architecture to me is totally unforced. It's fitting a golf course into the landscape, not fitting the landscape into a golf course. That's why I loved the older courses and the nine-holers around Ireland, places that weren't built by dozers because they couldn't have been. Eddie Hackett made links golf in Ireland what it is using a spade and an imagination.
The glory of links golf is that you can forget you're playing golf or trying to make a number, and you can get lost in this idea that you're out exploring dunes and coastline and ancient landscape - if everything's all pushed around and built up and rolled over, there's no magic in that. We have that in the States. Don't need to get on a plane for it.
The best course design in Ireland was the least course design in Ireland. Royal County Down was laid out in two days by Tom Morris, no bulldozers required. Another example is Cruit Island in Donegal; you couldn't have gotten a crew out there if you wanted to.
The courses that were most appealing to me were courses that let the random, wanton, wild terrain dictate the action. For a design to be really great for me, it has to pass the memory test - how many holes can I describe for you after a round of golf. When nature does the work as it did in places like Ardlgass and Otway and Spanish Point and Ballybunion, you get some wonderfully preposterous golf holes, and that's what I enjoy at this point. Played and traveled enough, manicured and manipulated layouts bore me. Give me something where I say, "This is a golf hole," and I'm happy. They stuck a tee here, dug a hole there, and said go for it. And there are those kinds of experiences all over Ireland, if you look hard enough.
JF: Now your favorite was Carne. Tell us more about that course.
TC: The experience at Carne wasn't about one hole in particular, it was the whole package. The back nine is just pure dunes madness, each hole more ridiculous and undulating and more unexpected than the last. The remoteness of the area out on the western edge of Ireland, the off-the-tourist-path quality, the Irish speaking pockets, and the great day of sun I had there with my father really added up to something tough to describe. I could go back there in the rain and I might not have the same opinion. But playing Carne the way I did seemed a perfect confluence of golfing factors to make it my easy favorite. Eddie Hackett seemed to think it was his best, which colors my opinion as well.
JF: You talk a lot about how in Ireland the wind makes a mockery of par and how good golf shots can so quickly and capriciously become bad golf shots . . . why do we tolerate it in Ireland, but denounce it here?
TC: Because everyone there is so nice! (Laughter) Also, the way we build our courses rewards a sexy ball flight, a high ball flight, not the ground game, which is so important there. We don't expect to see those things here, we expect the parkland style instead. I wish we were more tolerant of it. But, I think its because expectations are different. When you go to Ireland, you leave your expectations at home.
JF: On page 262 you express dismay that Tom Fazio redid some of Waterville. Tell us more.
TC: I don't mean to dis Fazio when I talk about his redesign of Waterville - I really love some of his courses, the man's obviously at the top of his field.What I was saying there was that I was disappointed to hear that anyone at all had been brought into redesign Waterville. When you're talking about a 100-year-old golf course set in dunelands, I hate to even hear the word redesign. Wind, rain, blowing sand will do all the redesigning a course might need. Redesigns smack of an American design impulse to go out there and build something perfect. Perfection, very American, and not a bad thing certainly - but great links courses aren't asking to be perfect, and they aren't meant to be so. I think Fazio did a nice job, by the way, the course is good as ever. But I don't remember liking it one ounce less before they plunked down the money to redo it - some places in my memories of Ireland just don't need to be redone.
JF: What are some of the best values in Irish golf?
TC: In the crowded southwest where all Americans are pulled to at some point during their journey, Dooks is good value, as is Skellig Bay for those who just want some decent golf with some nice views (it's not a pure links, and is a tad young at this stage). Dingle gives you a good price if you're willing to make your way out to the western tip of Ireland. Rosslare in the Southeast is a pure links, very classic, good deal as it's almost never visited by Yanks. There's tons of value as you get up into Sligo and Donegal - Americans tend to not go too much further north than Galway, but you can play Donegal, Carne, Enniscrone, Cruit Island without breaking the bank. Laytown and Bettystown on the East Coast was a deal. And my advice to the value-conscious would be to be open to the Irish nine-holers - they can be great, and at a handy price.
JF: And how about some of your favorite in the U.S.?
TC: I enjoy the golf course at Glenn Mills outside Philadelphia, a Bobby Weed design, really fun golf course across some wild terrain, and Cobbs Creek is an oft-maligned course in Philadelphia that was once a world-class PGA Tour-caliber track. It hasn't been in great shape for I don't know how many decades, and a friend was once mugged while playing it (finished his match and won one-up), but it has the bones of a classic East Coast turn-of-the-century track. Home to some of the first great black golf professionals as well, it's a historically significant place.
JF: Now you not only walked every golf course, but the whole way around the island. What were the longest walks on any given day?
TC: My top walking days were in the 22-23 mile range. I tried to avoid them, but there were a few stretches on the map where that was just the mileage to the next B&B and I didn't have a choice. Did one of those stretches with Allyson, and two by myself in County Mayo. They were brutal with a backpack, laptop, golf clubs on my back, but more brutal was the prospect of waking up the next morning and getting back on the road.
JF: What did you find in the solitude?
TC: The solitude of the walking was not too unlike the solitude of my daily routine. As I mentioned before, if you mind being alone or you need a lot of buzz around your day, writing probably isn't the day job for you. But the solitude in Ireland was combined with a lot of physical stress, so there were some panic moments to the peacefulness when a car came a bit too close, or where I didn't think I could keep going and was nearby to nothing. But the flipside of that was a remarkable contentedness at the end of the day - arriving exhausted but teeming with this sort of excitement about what I had just done. I did a lot of mumbling and singing. I absolutely talked to myself. How could you not?
JF: Besides the terrible weather you got - a record rainfall and 38 straight days - what was the worst thing about Ireland?
TC: We arrived in Ireland during a heat wave - mid- to high 80's every day - which our wardrobes weren't prepared for, then walked our way into the wettest summer in Irish history, which our spirits weren't prepared for. All four seasons in one Irish afternoon is a cliché over there, but it's a good one, and true. The temperature's settled into a temperate zone for most of the summer, but it was the wind that could make June feel like November. I stopped checking the forecasts early in my trip. Chance of rain, chance of sun, again and again and again.
There are so many great things about traveling in Ireland that I hate to pick out the worst thing, but I'd have to say that getting around for a tourist is no easy prospect, whether you're on foot or in a car. The wrong side of the road is a nice introduction to Ireland when you pull out of the rental car place, as is the fact that most cars are stick, with the stick on the other side. Walking the tight rural roads is really treacherous, and it took me a while to trust cars to pull over and make room for me - which they always did, thankfully, or I wouldn't be typing this today. Ireland is a small country, 20th the size of Indiana, and if you can spring for the chopper, you can be teeing it up anywhere in the country within an hour. But the winding roads make a relatively small distance a half-day affair. Of course, winding rural roads are one of the charms of Ireland as well. Getting stuck out in an area where the town didn't have an ATM was a regular nuisance. But small-town nuisances are the other side of small-town niceties, so it is what it is.
So there it is: not just the golf trip to end all trips, but a sparkling story: part sports, part travelogue, and part societal exploration. Like Eliot recommended, Tom Coyne didn't just go to the end of the Earth, he walked along its entire edge . . . and oh how much further he journeyed euphemistically. Slante, Tom, and dia dhuit (thanks).
"A Course Called Ireland" went on sale nationwide February 19, 2009, and is available in bookstores nationwide as well as at www.amazon.com and www.tomcoyne.com. It is published by Gotham Books, a division of the Penguin Group.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.