Searching For The 'Secret To Golf' On Scottish Links07:38

Pitching from the Highland dunes. (Kevin Kirk/Recounter Photography)
Pitching from the Highland dunes. (Kevin Kirk/Recounter Photography)
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During the 2013 British Open, Tom Coyne got a text from a friend in Britain:

“Hey, there are 14 Open courses. We should go play them all.”  

Coyne’s friend was pitching to the right person. Coyne had written a book about trying to qualify for the PGA Tour and another about playing every seaside course in Ireland. 

"Compared to sort of what I’d done in some of my other books, playing 14 courses was really quite reasonable," Coyne says.

Coyne thought a quick spin around Scotland’s many links courses might yield a good magazine article that would appeal to U.S. golfers. But what, exactly, are “links”?

Links Golf Vs. Regular Golf

"Basically, when we say 'links', we’re referring to dune land," Coyne says . "You can go out and play in the dunes because no one is using the dunes except for the sheep.

"And it also means that the course has kinda been sculpted by nature. You see all these crazy dunes, and these moundings. And those were not put there by bulldozers. They weren’t put there by shovels. They were put there by Ice Ages, by shifting continents. They were put there by miracles of nature.

"You have to engage the terrain. You can’t just pretend it’s not there and play over everything, like we kinda do here. And if you’re doing that, you gotta use your imagination."

“I wanted it to be ... a no-stone-unturned kind of search for the secret to golf.”

Tom Coyne

At his home outside Philadelphia, Coyne’s imagination began to run wild. He bought a map of Scotland and a box of pins and began to plan the trip. He thought …

" ‘Well, if I'm going to go play these 14, I should play this course and that course...’ So the list just grew and grew and grew. And the map got more crowded with these pins and finally arrived at a total of 107 destinations. Which was obviously quite absurd."

It took Coyne nearly a year to arrange tee times and places to stay — and to coordinate flights, car rentals and ferry schedules. It was a full-time job for the college professor, husband and father of two.

Coyne’s final itinerary expanded to 111 rounds at links courses throughout Britain. He’d play all of them in just 57 days. The last would be a qualifier for the 2015 Open. If he made it, it would fulfill his dream of playing golf at the highest level.

But Coyne wanted more than that.

"I wanted it to be a very much a no-stone-unturned kind of search for the secret to golf," Coyne says. "Because I didn’t want to leave and say, ‘Well, if I’d gone there, maybe I’d have met a person or found something or figured something out — something would’ve happened in my game or my swing, and that would’ve unlocked golf for me.’ "


As part of his exhaustive tour of British links courses, Tom Coyne played the 2015 Open qualifier at Bruntsfield. (Courtesy Tom Coyne)
As part of his exhaustive tour of British links courses, Tom Coyne played the 2015 Open qualifier at Bruntsfield. (Courtesy Tom Coyne)

The Trip

Coyne arrived in England in late April of 2015. His first stop: a links course on England’s southeast shore.

"Ah, Littlestone. It was a great place to start," Coyne says. "We got good links weather: wind and rain. And I believe I opened with a score of 80."

That’s pretty good for you and me. But for a guy whose goal is to qualify for the Open?

"You might as well have shot a thousand," Coyne says.

After playing 13 more rounds in England and three in Wales, Coyne arrived in Scotland. He golfed his way up the east coast to fabled St. Andrews, where he was joined by his wife Allyson and their two children. He walked the famous Swilcan Bridge with them. And he played the Old Course with his 82-year-old father.

Tom Coyne and family at St. Andrews Castle. (Courtesy Tom Coyne)
Tom Coyne and family at St. Andrews Castle. (Courtesy Tom Coyne)

"It was cold and the wind was blowing things all over the place, blowing balls across the green," Coyne says. "It was barely playable. And my dad smiled through the whole thing. Which was amazing." 

But there was one slight problem that threatened to ruin this idyllic scene. 

"On around the 16th hole, I noticed that there was something missing on my hand," Coyne says. "And I realized my wedding ring is gone."

Coyne says he had lost a lot of weight walking 28 courses during the first 16 days of the trip. He thinks that and the constant cold had shrunk his ring finger by two sizes.

"And Allyson is in St. Andrews at that point," Coyne says. "And I’m just spending the next three holes trying to think, like, 'What am I going to say? What are we gonna do?' You know, this is a wife who’s definitely given more than her share to the game of golf as her husband takes off for months at a time to do these ridiculous things. And here it is, I lose my wedding band on a golf course.

"Then this miracle occurs. On the last hole, a caddy comes running from the distance, and he arrives to our group out of breath and says, 'Did anyone lose a wedding ring?' And I just thought, ‘This is the greatest place in the world. My miracle, my St. Andrews miracle. You know, if I don’t qualify for the Open, that’s OK. I got my miracle.’ "

Memorable Rounds

There were other memorable, albeit slightly less miraculous, rounds at other less famous Scottish courses.

Tom Coyne prepares for plus-fours hickory golf at Kingarrock. (Courtesy Tom Coyne)
Tom Coyne prepares for plus-fours hickory golf at Kingarrock. (Courtesy Tom Coyne)

"One that sticks out that I definitely see in my dreams, or my nightmares, is the opening tee shot at a place called Machrihanish," Coyne says.

"The first tee shot there is right on the beach and it’s sort of on, like, a little rocky precipice. And what you hit out over is a public beach. And the fairway is on the other side of that beach. Now, what’s on that beach are things like children, families, sand castles, joggers — you know, there are people using the beach that's separating you from where you’re trying to hit."

For the record, no one was injured by Coyne or his golfing partner that day.

Coyne was nearing the end of his trip. And his golf — or more precisely, his links golf — was getting better.

"I had to learn how to play in the wind," Coyne says. "You have to read break into your putts, depending on how the wind’s blowing. So I definitely became a much more creative player. I feel like I have many more shots in my bag than I did before I went over there."     

At the Open qualifier at Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield Links on June 22, Coyne applied all he had learned … but came up short.

Tom Coyne going for birdie at Castle Stuart Golf Links. (Kevin Kirk/Recounter Photography)
Tom Coyne going for birdie at Castle Stuart Golf Links. (Kevin Kirk/Recounter Photography)

The Trip Ends

As he holed out, he tried to put his 57-day, 111-round experience into perspective.

"It was a little bit confusing, to be honest," Coyne says. "Because I had been in this chase mode. I was chasing good golf, I was chasing the next round, I was chasing the next town. And to hole out and finish my final round and go from 'next' to 'stop,' it felt really bizarre.

"A Course Called Scotland" by Tom Coyne
"A Course Called Scotland" by Tom Coyne

"Because I had just become so accustomed to the next shot. And so accustomed to the next opportunity to do better. It was … it was complicated."

Coyne’s back in the States now. He’s a professor of English at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. This weekend, he’ll be watching closely — and a bit wistfully — as the world’s top golfers compete in The Open at Carnoustie.

I asked him if he plans to make another trip similar to the one he made to Britain.

"We had friends over the other night, and one of them slid me a map of New Zealand," Coyne says.

Coyne looked at his wife and waited for her reaction.

"And she got all excited. And so I said, ‘You don’t need to push me. Let's do it.’ "

Could it be that Tom Coyne still hasn’t discovered the secret of golf? He’d better keep looking for it.

Tom Coyne’s new book is "A Course Called Scotland: Searching the Home of Golf for the Secrets to Its Game."

This segment aired on July 21, 2018.


Gary Waleik Producer, Only A Game
Gary Waleik is a producer for Only A Game.