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Q&A: Tom Coyne’s Quest for Golf Answers

Author of 'A Course Called America' talks to Morning Read contributor Tom Bedell about golf in America (and why private clubs should allow for more public access), relationships and sobriety.
Author Tom Coyne believes a course such as Bandon Dunes Golf Resort's Old Macdonald debunks the thinking that America does not have any links courses. [Pictured is the 7th hole at Old Macdonald]. 

Author Tom Coyne believes a course such as Bandon Dunes Golf Resort's Old Macdonald debunks the thinking that America does not have any links courses. [Pictured is the 7th hole at Old Macdonald]. 

Tom Coyne’s “A Course Called America” debuted in May, rounding out a trilogy of books about his golf-mad travels — the others being “A Course Called Ireland” and “A Course Called Scotland.” Coyne spent most of 2019 playing 295 courses across all 50 U.S. states — 5,182 holes in all, in a nifty 21,727 strokes (a 4.19 stroke average). He finished just before COVID-19 shut the country down, which worked out nicely as far as a writing schedule went.

In between travels Coyne has been an associate professor of creative writing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, but recently resigned to take a senior editor position at The Golfer’s Journal. Morning Read contributor Tom Bedell spoke with Coyne before the book’s recent launch, on a morning when Coyne was characteristically heading out to play 18 holes.

Morning Read: You’re the Jedi Master of golf-binge excuses. Your first two golfapaloozas inherently assume that links golf is the game in its purest form. But is it safe to say that you discovered golf in the U.S. has its own unique qualities?

Tom Coyne: Absolutely. I was definitely a links snob most of my life. When asked, “Do we have links golf in America?” I’d say, “No, we don’t have fescue greens, don’t have the wind … " or give any number of reasons. I finally got over myself and thought, having really only played in the U.S. in the Philadelphia area most of my life, why not go see for yourself?

The wonderful thing American golf has going for it is its pure and absolute wide-ranging variety. We have everything. We do have real links golf — not a ton of it, but we have it, be it Highland Links in Cape Cod or Old Macdonald in Bandon. We have a ton of great seaside courses. The best parkland courses in the world. We have mountain golf, desert golf. The variety is stunning. My palate of what beautiful golf is became much wider.

MR: I called your goal to play all the U.S. Open courses and find the great American golf course MacGuffins — you really just wanted to play a s---load of courses, right?

TC: [Laughs] I’m pretty lucky to match up golf and writing, the only two things I really know much about. But I always say it’s selfless work. You can’t play 300 rounds this year without losing your job or your marriage, but I’ll go do it and you can feel like you have.

MR: We appreciate the sacrifice.

TC: I’m here for you. But my publisher and editor and I wondered, “How are we going to organize this?” America is pretty damn large, right? We needed some kind of guiding principles, and no matter what you think of the USGA, playing the U.S. Open courses insured I would tell the history of golf in America, even if accidentally.

RELATED: Excerpt: A Visit to the Heartland From 'A Course Called America'

MR: Speaking of playing abroad versus in the U.S., you do ponder that one mark against us is our preponderance of severely private courses, not that you don’t play them. Is there any way out of this mess?

TC: We’re coming out of this pandemic golf boom and it’s tough to see a way to keep that going when we keep bumping up against the fact that 90 percent of our extraordinary golf is private, and expensive private. So what do we do? I have always argued for some scheme closer to the British Isles model, where visitor golf is an actual thing. There is no issue at Lahinch [Golf Club], say, which is still a wonderful club and a great place to play even though they have visitor tee times. It hasn’t eroded their soul. Putting aside a few hours a week for people to come from the outside and enjoy what you have — and the fees help subsidize the golf course — I think that makes a lot of sense. It makes so much sense, actually.

MR: Come the revolution. Worth campaigning for.

TC: It is. I’m doing my bit.

MR: You first noted a new, sober you in your Scotland book, and you refer fairly often to your sobriety in the current book, too.

TC: I don’t think you need too many degrees to put together the obsessive nature of my quests and see how they match up with an addictive personality. I pursue golf in not the healthiest dosages. It’s pretty extreme. But I replaced one thing with another that’s not going to kill me. Maybe.

MR: One episode talks about the group of sober golfers you play with.

TC: I excerpted some of that in The Golf Journal as “The Lucky Ones”, and was excited to win a best feature award from the Golf Writers Association [of America] for it. But the greater impact was hearing from people starting up their own such leagues in other cities, which is wonderful, and from people who made a change in their lives because of it. I heard from one guy whose wife had shown him that article and he hasn’t had a drink since. Stuff like that is, for me, quite overwhelming, having been down the path myself.

MR: And of course, the book is really more about the people you meet and play with rather than the courses themselves.

TC: I hope all of it is about that. The subtitle is “The Search for the Great American Golf Course,” and that raises two questions. What is a great golf course?, and that’s something of interest to golf heads and to me, why one course is better than another. But the bigger and more important question to me personally — especially in 2019, a very interesting time in our country — was to go out and experience it, to see my own country, and then coming up with some idea of what America meant to me was important. And it was good for the soul, because I certainly left the adventure feeling much better about my country than when I went into it.

MR: One recurrent theme is playing golf with dad. Parents and kids in general, but you and your dad in particular. Not to give too much away, but it makes for a wonderful ending.

TC: Thank you. The dad stuff was really in my mind through all my travels. And when you’re on these long drives through Nebraska or Colorado or wherever, your mind wanders, and so I was definitely recalling my mom and dad driving across the country early in their married life out to a [Navy] base in San Diego, where he learned to play golf. So there was a notion that I was somewhat following in his footsteps.

Living the life I do, experiencing these wonderful gifts in my life as a dad myself, as a husband, as a sober person, I felt a lot of gratitude when I was going around. And when I think about gratitude for golf I think about my dad. He gave me golf. When I didn’t want to play it he made it accessible. He waited for me to find it on my own and I appreciate that. I fell in love with it, I wasn’t forced to love it, and his allowing that to happen changed everything in my life.

It was almost like every road I went down my dad was involved in some way, and that was great. He’s north of 85 now and he’s read the book and it was very emotional for him. I wish him many years to come, but I feel good I was able to tell some of his story and he was able to read it.