Friday, June 19, 2015

Tom Coyne's Scottish Golfing Odyssey

The Irish Golf Blog - Tom Coyne Scotland Kingdom
Tom Coyne on the 9th tee at Cruden Bay
“I brought five balls with me,” I said to Tom, as we stood on the 4th tee at Cruden Bay, just north of Aberdeen. “You’re welcome to have whatever I’ve got left at the end.”

Tom Coyne is doing one of the fastest tours of Scottish links golf in history. 107 courses in 57 days. The day I met him and played Cruden Bay, he had already played 18 that morning – at Newburgh-on-Ythan.

Tom is in the process of writing a book. It’s
a follow-up or, more accurately, a continuation of his bestseller, A Course Called Ireland. I’m sure you remember when he walked around the coastline of Ireland in 2007, playing every links he encountered on the way, and then turned the stories into a highly entertaining book.

This time, Tom is not travelling by foot. No, a big estate car gives him a chance to relax and travel in comfort… and lord knows he both needs it and deserves it. It’s not one car though… it’s a bit more complicated than that. On Tom’s website ( he lists his travel methods as ‘ten planes, six ferries, four cars, two trains, and one bicycle’. There are islands to be visited, the wild extremities of the northern highlands to be overcome and the long, lonely roads from one golf course to the next to be endured. And then there’s the Open Championship Regional Qualifying on Monday (June 22nd), which is the final goal of his travels. The course is Bruntsfield Golf Club, outside Edinburgh… and it will be the only parkland he plays on his journey. He plays off Scratch… when he walked around Ireland he played off 7. But that’s a whole different story… called Paper Tiger

If he qualifies, then we may be looking at a new adventure entirely.
Views over the front nine at Cruden Bay (including the 9 hole St Olaf
course). The clubhouse is on the left of the photo.
Cruden Bay really starts to flex its muscles from the 4th on, but I waited until the 5th tee to lose two balls. I won’t describe the beauties and challenges of Cruden Bay – you can read my review here on Golfshake, and/or look at the 60 photos on Flickr.

Tom is an easy guy to play golf with - he’s relaxed but doesn’t waste time, happy to soak up the atmosphere, take in the views, but not hang about. With groups of Americans in front of us it was always going to be a slow round… given the quality of the courses he is playing he’ll be behind a lot of them… but apart from a couple of muttered ‘hurry up’ comments he wasn’t concerned. There’s plenty to admire at Cruden Bay, after all, and a rainbow hung over Slains Castle (Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula) for several holes.
Slains Castle from the 15th tee.
“They stop serving dinner at the hotel at half eight,” was about as bothered as Tom got. We’d teed off at 3.30pm, so it shouldn’t have been a problem… but that was before we discovered Cruden Bay has a multitude of blind shots (including a par three).

We chatted about his adventures so far, how the book came about, his favourite courses (Murcar, down the road, was one)… and his health.

“It’s a two loop trip,” he said, gesturing to his waist. He’d lost enough weight to move his belt up a notch. He reckoned he’d manage one more before the trip was over (as of June 7 he’d lost 22 pounds).
Tom takes on the daunting approach to the Index 1 14th hole. The green
is somewhere below that pole.
We were walking down the 9th – high above the sea and having just left one of the most breath-taking settings for a tee box I have ever encountered – when I asked how this book came about. The title is A Course Called the Kingdom: In Search of Scotland, a Secret, and a Jug. Tom’s quest is to play every links course in Scotland, searching the highlands for the secret to golf.

But before he got to Scotland and the book, he faced a marathon. No, I’m serious. He ran the Paris marathon. Bet you weren’t expecting that! But that is a story for another day and not mine to tell.

For anyone who has read A Course Called Ireland, it’s not a huge leap to see why Tom has found himself in Scotland, battling the elements, playing golf on courses that date back over 400 years, lapping up the scenery and trying to improve his game. Wouldn’t every golfer like to be in a position to play St. Andrews in the Open Championship? And if your answer is ‘no’… you’re just lying to yourself.
Views over some of the back nine at Cruden Bay. The 14th fairway is
immediately below.
The most obvious question, from one Irish golf writer to another golf writer who has played the best Irish links has to offer, is… ‘How does the Irish and Scottish golf experience compare?

This is Tom’s answer, verbatim:

Scottish vs. Irish links...the million dollar question.  It's a question I probably think about every day, and then very quickly try to not think about it.  I don't want this book to be a Scotland vs. Ireland comparison story, but given my experience with golf in Ireland, my head often goes there.  I could write about the differences in any number of ways, and may or may not in the book -- differences in the courses, people, hospitality, setting, weather, quality, quantity, convenience... lots of little differences.  One’s not better than the other, but different. 

But to discuss some differences rather succinctly, the sheer amount of links courses here in Scotland perhaps allows for a bit more variety.  There are subtle links, simple links, easy links, nuanced links, painful links, joyful links, big, small, and everything in between.

Tom flops a shot onto the 7th green.
"When I think of an Irish links, I conjure a very clear image in my mind of hulking dunes – a la Enniscrone, Carne, Ballybunion – but I haven't really put my finger on what that image might be for a Scottish links because, again, they are so varied.  Overall, I think links golf in Ireland is a bit more about the drama of the dunes.  It's jaw-dropping.  And while my jaw has dropped over here, you appreciate these links the more you think about them.  To oversimplify, could I say Ireland appeals more to the golfer's eye, with more of the UK links appealing to the golfer's mind?  That sounds overly clever, but perhaps there is some truth in it.  And of course there are exceptions.  This probably has plenty to do with the fact that golf has been over here so much longer, so the courses weren't necessarily built for visual drama or for attracting visitors, a la newer courses.  And on a simpler level, I find a lot more classic 9 out, 9 in links over here, that old-school two-way street of a golf course, where I only recall a few in Ireland.  Again, the product of the age of those links.  One other difference that I have enjoyed very much on this trip -- there are so many links, often one right next to the other, which minimizes travel and maximizes golf.  I've often thought that this might have been an easier walk than Ireland, and then I got to the Highlands -- hour and a half drive on a one lane road today -- and thought otherwise.”

It is an interesting and honest answer and one worth re-reading.
A view of the 14th green from the 9th tee (you approach from the right)
By the time I left Tom, a little after 8pm in the evening, he didn’t take the golf balls I had offered… partly because his wife had paid a recent visit and brought six dozen golf balls… partly because that 8.30 dinner time was rapidly approaching… and partly because I had only one ball left.

It was a pleasure to meet and play golf with Mr. Coyne, and I wish him the best of luck on Monday... and beyond.


  1. The burning question is whether you think Tom is good enough to qualify for the Open ...

    1. Effortless swing, crisp ball striking, knocked in a few birdies with no trouble at all... certainly he's good enough... if he's not worn out from his travels.

  2. Lovely read..Tom is coming to see us at Musselburgh Old Course later today, looking forward to meeting him.

    1. Did he make it? I saw his island flight was cancelled.
      Of any course, anywhere, Musselburgh has been the one I want to experience. Hope it's all going well.