Once more unto the links

When I was in college, I spent a semester studying literature in London. I spent most of my time getting lost in the West End and talking about books I hadn’t read as if I had written them, waiting for the bartender to pull another pint of bitter. I was twenty years old with a handful of pounds knocking around in my pocket, roaming the city in search of bookshops and free museums and girls who fancied a Yankee accent. It was the time of my life. But I don’t recall any part of that spring abroad as fondly as I remember the weekend my roommates and I hopped the train for Scotland.

I forged a passable handicap certificate for my flat-mate and waited for my spikes to arrive in the mail from home. We picked a bank holiday weekend and entered our names in a lottery for a Saturday foursome, and when we arrived at our destination Friday evening, our names were posted by the first tee, owners of a late afternoon tee time—the last of the day—at the Old Course at St. Andrews. We ran off to rent golf clubs and find a bed for the night, then went to toast our good fortune, sure to ask the bartender for whiskey, because as we had warned one another during the train ride from London, when in Scotland, you don’t call it Scotch.

I have chased a golf ball around much of the globe, but my college weekend in St. Andrews remains the standard against which all other golf getaways have been measured. It remains unsurpassed. We lost golf balls all over Scotland that weekend, soaked through to our skin after packing nothing but sweaters, with smiles stuck to our faces as we walked fairways that we knew we would remember for the rest of our lives. We warmed our soggy bones with clubhouse whiskey and we didn’t talk very much, a little bit stunned by what we had just done. While our friends were backpacking around Amsterdam and Bruges, we had just lived our fathers’ dreams. I called mine to tell him that I had just signed my card from the Old Course, and to warn him about the charges headed for his Amex. Nothing I night have learned or accomplished that semester could have made my dad any prouder.

It was a different life, and looking back, it seems a perfect one. I am no longer in touch with any of the boys who made up that foursome, but I know that every July when the Open championship comes back to our mornings, we each recall an erstwhile weekend, and wish that we could go back. It is one of my rare fond memories where I don’t wish I that had a greater appreciation of the experience as it was happening; I appreciated everything about my afternoon on the Old Course. Every swing, and every step.

Years later, as I watched Phil Mickelson lift the Claret Jug at Muirfield, that trip came back to me with not just nostalgia, but a bit of urgency as well. Breaking 80 with rented clubs, eating cheeseburgers instead of the haggis, and a golf course that felt both accidental and perfect at the same time—I was there again, shaping my shots off the sea breeze, waiting for Phil to pass the jug along. I could play that golf. I had played that golf. Pure links golf was about playing with the landscape, not over it, and it didn’t demand pretty or perfect golf shots; rather, links golf required guts. Perseverance. Creativity. Balls. It was a boxing match, stay on your feet and find your way home first, and I loved everything about it. Mickelson rope-a-doped the field that Sunday and turned me into a Phil fan, and as I watched the rest of the field pull up lame behind him, I got a text from a British friend who I expected was forlorn about his championship going to the grinning American.

Julian was an easy-going limey who was always ready and ill-prepared for my golf adventures. He had joined me on my trip around Ireland with little more in his bag than designer sneakers and a comb, but if a journey offered the possibility of golf followed by a bright afternoon spent in a dark pub, Julian was up for it. He was born and raised in Manchester UK, found love in the States, and had recently relocated to Germany with a new bride and baby. Our chances of crossing paths seemed relegated to chance, until Julian texted to suggest a get-together of my particular flavor:

Did u know there are only 15 brit open courses? Let’s play them.

It might have seemed an absurd request for a golfing reunion, but Julian knew he had the right audience. Not only was I in a particularly wistful links mood, recalling the long and wavy dune-scapes of a former golfing life, but something had happened a few months before this Open that had my fingers itching for the oldest trophy in sport, the one Michelson was sticking to his lips at that moment. Just that May, I had lived every bad golfer’s dream, and violated every good golfer’s protocol, surely bringing me decades of bad luck on the course for having hoisted the soft silver of the Claret Jug with my own hands, and smiling for a picture.

I was revisiting Portrush in Northern Ireland as the host of a travel television show that involved me ad-libbing course commentary to the effect of “amazing” and “really amazing” a few dozen times per episode. When we finished filming at Royal Portrush, we met the club captain to thank him for the interview and assure him that the show had an Oprah-like following among golfers in the States—surely, he would soon have to travel in disguise. Pleased with our efforts, he mentioned that they had the Open trophy in the back, and asked if we would like to see it. Portrush was hosting the Irish Open that year, so we said sure and thank you out of courtesy, about as interested in the Irish Open trophy as we were in another cup of tea. But when the secretary brought out the trophy from her office, I believe I actually leaped. A little hop, and then I looked all around me—who was here? Where’s the security? Do they possibly know what that is?

“Here you go,” she said. “Makes a great door stop.” And she handed over the greatest trophy in golf. I stood there in a hallway in the Portrush clubhouse, blushing a deep shade of crimson with my fingers wrapped around the Claret Jug.

It had never occurred to me that they would be minding the Jug for Darren Clarke, who was a member at Royal Portrush, so this show and tell caught me dumbfounded. I remembered to ask for a picture, and I quickly looked at the list of names—true to legend, a giant GARY PLAYER stood out twice as tall as the rest (the last year they allowed the winners to get their own engravings done). I was clutching the cup that had been held by every golf immortal, from Tom Morris to Bobby Jones to Hogan and Palmer and Nicklaus and Tiger.

“Does my hair look alright?” I asked as I joined that list, a big smile for the crew’s cameraman. My hair didn’t look alright, but the jug was in perfect focus.

Golfers who have any chance of ever touching the Claret Jug never do until they earn it. The real players don’t want to lift it, while the schlubs would wrestle each other for a quick feel. Somewhere in my golfing life, I had become one of them. The spectator. The schlub. I had once played professional golf and teed it up in a tour qualifier with Sean from Bristol, holding my own with a Brit who had just made the cut at the Open at Troon, but here I was, another blank face along the ropes waiting for an autograph. I had touched the Jug without even attempting to play for the chance—I hadn’t even teed it up at Portrush that afternoon. My clubs were home in the basement beneath baby clothes, and I had not played a competitive round of golf in seven years. I couldn’t remember the last time I really needed to make a putt. I had no recollection about sincerely caring about golf, and excused myself from golf ambition by believing that good golfers had to be bad dads or absentee husbands. Truth was, Mickelson was neither. So I had given a good chunk of my life to golf with little to show but a closet full of resentments and a photograph of one of the great phonies of the game.

The Jug and I

The Jug and I

In A Course Called Ireland, I played more Irish links than perhaps any person alive (that is to say, all of them). That links knowledge and passion had been shelved, an old manual for a car I no longer drove. In Paper Tiger, I learned the golf swing at the most micro of levels, and tried on every swing tip, golf fix, and head-shrinker in the game in my quest for next-level golf. But as I approached forty, I now had children and had learned honesty and gained something I had never touched on a golf course—perspective, and a bit of genuine self-knowledge. I had something I never before had on the course—the ability to be comfortable with success. When I used to pick up a golf club, no matter how low the final score, my golf had been a process of satisfying a need to fail. Golf was about the shots that didn’t go in. It was about the fear of less than perfect, the anticipation of the worst—it was a fight between my will and my and my golf ball that no golfer has ever really won. A lot of golfers play that way. Maybe all of them, to some extent. It was time for that to change, and for me to put all the pieces of my golfing quests together and finally find what I was looking for all along: The secret of Shivas Irons. The secret to golf. The secret to everything. I was finally open to it. And there was the Open, waiting for me to prove it.

What if the secret to great golf wasn’t in degrees of loft or impact angles or shoulder rotation? What if it wasn’t in hypnosis or first tee affirmations prescribed by performance psychologists? What if the secret was already within us? What if it was out there in the universe all around us? What if it was a matter of looking at the game from a completely different point of view—not a frightened self-centered one, but a fearless and selfless one? What if there was harmony and balance and good golf shots all around us, just waiting to be found? What if there was only one thing to really beat on the golf course—fear and its million manifestations—and if we could do that, could we possibly lose? It all sounds easy and charming, but it needs to be earned and tested. And there is no place better to do that than where the game was born, and where it still feels old today, where it is still about the simple endeavor of putting a ball into a hole that is plenty large enough to fit it; a place where the game feels authentic, none of the pretense or edifice of the modern game, but a sport played through an untamed landscape that reminds you on every hole that your game is a tiny and simple part of a much larger experience; a place where Mickelson came out champion, where the golf wasn’t perfect or lovely, where it was about keeping the ball in front of you, finding it, and getting on—fearless.

As I watched the end of the Open at Muirfield, I wished for that chance, while my three-year old explained that we had watched enough daddy shows, and that Doc McStuffins was coming on. My wife was about to have our second child, and my days of roaming the links with nothing ahead of me but another round and another pint and another story were long behind me. Sorry Julian, I thought, but I wouldn’t be taking that trip. I couldn’t summon a reason, not anymore. Life had changed, and as with millions of men, golf had gone the way of hair gel, two-seaters, and season tickets.

And then, there was a reason. Whether it was Darren Clarke or my mate Julian or memories of the first tee in St. Andrews, it became clear that I didn’t have to quit my golf dreams. I had to get back to living them. And this dream was a simple one. I expressed it to my wife as, “Do you think the girls are too young to travel to Scotland?” But what I was really saying was, I want to go find the secret of golf, and qualify for the greatest championship in sports.

I was never more comfortable in my life than I was walking between links’ dunes with a set of clubs strapped across my back. And somewhere in those dunes, on the oldest and truest links in the world, I had learned something about the game. Something simple. Something I had lost, and if I could find it again, in a caddy or in a clubhouse or in a cave in the highlands, I could understand this game. Figure it out. I could be Phil. Not because I hit it like him, but because I would have found the secret to what makes the game simple. As simple as its soul. I wanted to play Scotland, not to understand how to golf well. Rather, to understand why.

And so I will.  And I hope you will come along and follow me here.

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About Tom Coyne