Book review: A course called Ireland

Forgive fellow golf writers their resentment of Tom Coyne. His well-reviewed first novel, A Gentleman’s Game, was adapted into a well-reviewed film, co-scripted by Coyne and starring Gary Sinise. (Player haters would note it went straight to DVD; more generous observers would admit they’d contract the yips for such success.)

Coyne turned to first-person nonfiction with Paper Tiger, which saw the former standout junior golfer devote two years to his game, securing top teachers, mind-game gurus, trainers and technology in a quixotic attempt to earn a Tour card – an idea that every grass- and ink-stained wretch has had but which Coyne (an occasional Golfweek contributor) somehow parlayed into a publisher’s advance.

At first glance, Coyne’s new book, A Course Called Ireland, should drive his brethren batty. The concept: Play every links course on the Emerald Isle, land of his forefathers. If this sounds less like a pitch than a mogul’s dream vacation, there is a twist: Coyne would walk the 1,000-plus miles between courses.

This deal-cinching trope would make even the most jealous of us think twice about, well, following in Coyne’s footsteps. The author himself takes pains early on to explain his ambulatory approach.

It’s something to do with toughening a body and lifestyle gone soft, reconnecting with the game’s basic nature and so on. Whether you buy this justification or sense a whiff of blarney, it hardly matters, because the real reason to envy Coyne, and to buy this book, is that his writing outstrips even his salesmanship.

Coyne takes what could have been a numbing travelogue and jams it as tight as his lone knapsack with insight and humor. One memorable scatological incident in a quaint B&B will leave the reader doubled over; even better, when the event takes a serious turn, Coyne shows the intelligence, here as elsewhere, to extract larger meaning. Golf proves the author’s vehicle, not his ends. There is plenty of substance, about the courses and the game, yes, but also about a rapidly changing Ireland, for starters.

Still, Coyne’s greatest strength remains his writing style, light and conversational. On his walking shoes: “They were brown leather with important-looking straps, a big black rubber toe that announced their wearer as a person on his way to a place more timid souls didn’t go. That, or as a sucker who paid far too much for a pumped-up pair of Docksiders.” Coyne must work hard to make his prose read so easy.

Given Coyne’s centrality to the action, the only surprise, and disappointment, is that we don’t learn enough about his life. His wife makes a few cameos but, like their relationship, remains in soft focus.

Is she unusually independent? Supportive? Deferential? Hard to say. Money concerns are alluded to but not detailed. The back cover, and only the back cover, raises the issue of possible fatherhood. It’s a credit to the writer that after four months in his company, teeing it up, drinking Guinness and running from stray dogs, we still want to know more.

– Evan Rothman

A Course Called Ireland

>> By Tom Coyne
>> Gotham Books, 2009
>> 311 pages
>> $26

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