There is something almost unspeakably powerful about experiencing a work of art that blurs the lines between the characters’ life experiences and your own life’s journey.
When the story evokes questions, fears, joys, doubts, gratitude, and regret that you have experienced, you find the line between entertainment and self-examination three steps behind you. You live on every next word because you find your life on every next word.
Ostensibly, A Course Called Scotland is a first-person narrative travel journal of a man’s golf quest to play all of the golf links on Great Britain. The author’s ambition is a hope of unlocking the secrets of the game of golf, and a dream of qualifying for the Open Championship.
It’s a pleasant enough hook to garner the interest of any golfer. However, that’s not the story or the book I read, or more accurately, not the book that I experienced.
When I received my copy of A Course Called Scotland, I was incredibly excited to read it. I’d listened to Coyne interviewed on multiple golf podcasts during the promotional phase around the time the book was published and had hoped to read it one day, but life kept getting in the way.
As fate would have it, the book would arrive at my house less than a week before two friends and I would be leaving for our own Scottish golf adventure. I remember thinking, “what could possibly be better to read on the series of flights I would take to The Old Country?”
The premise of the book was to memorialize Tom’s travails as he attempted to play every links course in Scotland (and the few true links courses in Wales and England, too, for good measure).
I had hoped to gain a little spiritual or strategic insight into the golf courses that I would be playing, or perhaps helpful tips about getting around and where to eat in St. Andrews. I had no idea what an emotionally wrenching journey that the book would set me upon while I was on my own trip of a lifetime.
The story begins when Tom receives a phone call from his oldest and best friend., Robert. Robert dredges up a pub promise daydream they both had when they were younger men, which was to play all of the courses Open Championship.
The journey around Scotland, as proposed, is a Devil-may-care fantasy proposed by one unburdened by the weight of responsibilities, untethered to any particular ambition except to hop from one 19th hole to the next, regaling new best friends with tales of the day’s golfer versus course battles.
Therein begins the real drama of Tom’s story, his internal struggles with his desire to do the right thing when his head, his heart, and his soul are pulled in different directions, and whether Robert is well enough to make the journey.
It’s one thing to daydream about an epic roadtrip of golfing Nirvana as a twentysomething with time to chase birdies and barflies. It’s quite another idea with Tom approaching his 40s, with a family and a career balanced against Robert, nostalgia, and ego pulling another direction.
In some respects, this book is a follow-up to Tom’s bestseller, A Course Called Ireland, his story of walking the island of Ireland by traveling from one golf course to another. Though the logistical challenges of Scotland were different, I have to think that the task’s logistics always felt doable after Ireland.
This time, his journey has a defined ending place on a hard time-certain deadline: a tee time in a qualifying tournament for The Open Championship. His tournament is less than two months from his first links tee time, with 111 rounds of golf to be played during which he must find the secret to golf.
The race against time, the will needed to continue to march forward, swing after swing, all the way to the end of the journey, on schedule with his game and mind in tact, creates an additional stratum of drama to the journey.
The story unfolds in a simple , conversational style in plain terms. The words are honest, not gussied up for pretense or panache, as if readers are witnesses to Tom’s internal monologues hearing how people really think and talk to themselves.
The value of such a tale from a purely golf perspective is that Tom gives readers a kernel of wisdom and a nugget of information about each golf course along the journey. While he attempts to be kind to each course he visited, the honesty The descriptions of the arduous parts of getting around Scotland are insightful for any golf trip excursionist.
The tale gains an additional layer of richness with each no name town that has a humble yet wonderful golf links that most readers will not have heard of otherwise. The backstories of such far flung places and the pride of the people found there are endearing and heartwarming.
It’s a revealing insight to lands not so much that time forgot, but to places people choose to live a simpler way. Life in villages tucked into harsh corners of requires a certain no-frills grit that carries a quiet dignity that inspires the golf courses that aren’t on any travel agency list of preferred partners.
The interactions with the community of golfers, innkeepers, friends new and old, and family, transform these passersby of his journey into characters that he develops real relationships with, and who become accomplices to the caper.
Golf is the connective thread of the characters, the tie that introduces so many random strangers and their kindnesses to Tom, and binds them all to his life.
I didn’t finish the book until long after I’d returned from Scotland. I took great interest comparing and contrasting where our pilgrimage had crossed paths with Tom’s. Cross-referencing the lists of favorites and “bests” from the back pages of the book will be an integral part of future trip planning for me.
The journey proved less cliché than a Corvette or a career change, but it was a mid-life crisis in his relationship with golf. Eventually, the mechanism that compartmentalizes golf, keeping it separate from the rest of life, eventually breaks down and the golf struggles affect the rest of his life, and vice versa.
In more serious moments, driving alone or chasing pars as a single on some hidden, local gem course, Tom reflects on solitude, on life experience, on kindness, and on Robert. It becomes clear that he and Robert are chasing different things on this counterclockwise race around coastal Scotland.
It’s there, in those parts of the tales from Scotland, that I couldn’t get away. The similarities between our journeys cut too close, creating a deep emotional investment that turned an underdog story into difficult self-examination.
Robert bothered me. Deeply. He had all the markers that someone like me recognizes instantly. I spent a lot of time trying not to see characteristics in myself, so they’re easy to spot in others now, even characters in a story.
Robert and Tom were, in fact, on two separate, simultaneous journeys in Scotland. While Tom was chasing the secret of golf in rain gear, Robert was chasing an eternal road trip, a last call for a tab he was never going to pay. The similarities to that journey cut too damn close, too.
There were moments when, frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading, scared that I wouldn’t like what I saw of my own journey reflected in the book’s pages. But the quest is compelling, the dramatic crescendo building steadily as Tom’s clock continues to tick.
Fortunately for the author, golf and sanity win out. A Course Called Scotland concludes in a way that left me still rooting for the underdog. Like any worthy quest, the journey ends up being worth the effort, as gratitude, camaraderie, and love prevail.
Tom finds lots of secrets of golf along the way, none more complicated than the next. He eventually realizes that the secrets have less to do with golf and more to do with life than he wanted. Fixing his golf swing was merely treating the symptom.
It’s a book that every golfer should read. It’s a story that every impulsive escapist should read. It’s an emotional slalom course drawn on a map Scotland, leaving readers to connect the dots with their own stories and journeys.
I think I’ll wait a golf season or two and read it again. I started the book on my flights to Scotland, but I didn’t finish it until several months after I had been back. I’d found my own Askernishing in Scotland, and I needed to process it in my own time.
But Tom’s is a just and worthy quest, and I think it’s a journey I’ll need to accompany him on every few seasons to find those secrets all over again. Scotland is that good, it keeps one coming back.