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Opinion & Analysis

Book Review: A Course Called America

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“My dad’s America was exceptional, but there seemed nothing exceptional about another country that traded in the easy currency of fear” — Tom Coyne

It’s an ominous quote to begin a review, for sure, but now that our attention is focused, it’s an important one to consider as we revisit the micro and the macro of the journey that led to A Course Called America. Golf in the USA could be assigned any number of crossroads junctions, all of which will help to determine its paths as we move past the first 20 percent of this century. It shall not return to the America of the 20th century, but it can learn from the mistakes and successes of its past. The Robert Thomas “Tom” Coyne who penned this novel is not the one we know from his earlier fiction, experiential, and travel works. The currency that he doles out, and the only one that he accepts, is a bitcoin of benevolence and beneficence.

The hilarity and chicanery of alcohol-infused transgressions sit deep in his youthful, pre-recovery past. In their place, the hilarity and chicanery of middle-aged men figuring out their place in the world are introduced, and the unplanned buffoonery of golfers being golfers is often in the spotlight, thanks to Tom Coyne’s set of ears.

“Let’s sit by the fire and make grand statements,” he said as we grabbed two seats in a booth, and he caught me up on his latest golf travels. “So, enough about me,” he said. “Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”

That’s right: Tom Coyne listens well. After completing the third of his A Course Called volumes, it occurred to me that listening is what a great storyteller does best. The subsequent construction and telling of the story is the result of the hearing + processing = listening formula. In both Ireland and Scotland, Coyne listened with the ear of a visitor, of one curious to learn about the customs, culture, and creativity of countries not his own. In America, the task was more daunting. The USA is his country, a status that experience and intimacy, as well as baggage.

Leaving one’s own enclave in this largest nation reveals how little we know about our own state, the other 49 states, their residents, customs and culture. We think of the USA as one nation, but how can it possibly be one of anything? That is the subtext of Coyne’s third and final installment in the series. As with all fine writers, there are multiple layers of text to consider.

“… I felt moved by the notion that there were people who were willing to do impossible things, and if you were like me, you took them largely for granted. And now I was linked to one of them — the proof was here in my hand — and suddenly, my being American felt less like a happy accident.”

Before he met Ryan and knew all of this, Tom Coyne had laid out plans for A Course Called America, and framed the trip around two asterisms: a visit to every state for golf, and a round on every US Open venue still in existence. In the back of his mind was a search for what he termed the great American golf course. Under the assumption that he would fin it, Coyne left his Philadelphia-area home in the spring of 2019 for the first time. Nine or so months later, he returned home for the last. Never anticipated was the arrival of a virus that would cause the world to shut down. It was Coyne’s great fortune to conclude his trip just as the global pandemic began its globalization.

The aforementioned dual structure allowed a build-out of the important macro themes present in our world today, and how they interlace with golf. Climate change, gender and race relationships, equitable access, addiction and recovery, and communal support all received scrutiny from Coyne.

“I’d been pissed at DB for lumping me in with the rest of the wankers; now I was pissed at myself for lowering my head and staying quiet. Part of me was curious about what he’s say next.”

Before he travelled the roads and skies of North America, Coyne utilized his various social media accounts and contacts to determine which courses and clubs merited a visit. Anticipating just enough to fill his time, he was compelled to cull an enormous number of venues, paring his list to a manageable number that often involved seven-hour drives after full days on the course. The vagaries of club schedules necessitated more than one revisal of his itinerary.

A Course Called America is about people. It’s about human relationships, competition, support structures, and opportunity. This brings us back to the notion of Coyne as listener. It’s easy to begin a sentence with “I.” One letter, whose subject is the one we all know best. What Coyne did throughout ACC America is ask about his playing partners, his venues, his food, his accommodations, and any other aspect of the trip that should interest his readers.

What all those people and places did was answer, in loud and grateful voices. It wasn’t always the anticipated response; it was usually better and deeper and more satisfying. It might not have been the palatable reply, but it was an honest and sincere and transparent one. As much as we need a short-game lesson, we need a listening one even more. The lesson plans on how to listen, recall, and learn are presented here by Professor Coyne.

If we listen to Tom Coyne, we learn a lot about what he likes. We learn the architects that he prefers, although there is one contemporary architect who appears to fall under the jury still out heading. I’ll let you guess which one. We learn the types of topography, grass, and terrain that make golf a pleasure or a nuisance for him, and he finds more than anyone’s fair share of each, from sea to shining sea and beyond.

At the beginning of A Course Called America, we suspected that yet another layer lies beneath: the song of Family Coyne, or at least the part that relates to golf. Throughout the 400 pages of this final journey, Tom Coyne connects the dots of his parents’ cross-country journey, their cross-decade journey, and his journey through life and golf. The magic is in the telling, and we are well-served by his efforts.

The verdict is this: jump on social media and ask @CoyneWriter (Twitter and Instagram) if he’d consider a three-pack of the books, if you haven’t read them. If, like me, you’ve read and enjoyed the first two, head over to his website and place an order for A Course Called America. You’ll find yourself and your course amid the pages, even if the names and faces are different.

“Kathy, I’m lost”, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America –Paul Simon

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Consistent setup is key to success

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In follow up to last week’s post, Top 4 reasons golfers don’t improve, I want to dive into what I believe to be the most common problem affecting mid- to high-handicap players. This is a big topic that will help nearly every golfer, regardless of your skill level, so it’s going to take two articles to cover it.

Here’s part 1.

We all tend to play golf in a constant cycle of swing-and-correction, swing-and-correction, but my observation is that most of the time our bad swings are caused by improper, or inconsistent setup.

I’m a firm believer that once you have played golf for a while, you have probably developed the ability to have a reasonably repeating and effective swing path and method. Even though it might not be textbook, it’s yours and has your fingerprints all over it. And the fact that you occasionally strike really good shots proves that your swing has the capability of producing results that are gratifying.

I certainly don’t suggest you shouldn’t work to improve your swing technique – the better the mechanics, the better and more consistent the results you are going to get. But my point is that your swing has produced good shots before, and it can do so more often if you just “fix” one thing – your starting position.

The single issue that troubles golfers of all skill levels, from tour player to 100-shooter, is the ability to be consistent. And I’m a firm believer that many – if not most – bad shots are the result of a bad starting position. Think of it this way: no matter how good your swing might be, if you start each shot with the ball in a different position in relation to your body core’s rotation axis, you simply cannot get the clubhead back on the ball consistently.

The ball is 1.68” in diameter, and the effective striking surface of an iron or fairway wood is only an inch or so across. That puts pretty tight demands on your ability to get the club behind your head and back on the ball with consistency.

Let’s compare golf to a baseball hitter. He’s standing in the box and the pitch can be anywhere in the strike zone. He’s got to have good technique, but is heavily reliant on his eye/hand coordination to get the bat on the ball. Darn difficult task, which is why the very best hitters only average .350 or so, shank off lots of fouls and completely whiff the ball at least 20% of the time! If you translated that to golf, no one would ever break 150!

The single thing that makes this game remotely playable . . . is that we get to start with the ball in the exact spot where we want it – every time.

I have a friend in the custom club business that did some research measuring the setup consistency of hundreds of golfers of all skill levels. What he found is simple, but revealing. His methodology was to have golfers address and hit a series of 6-iron shots, stepping away and taking a fresh setup for each one. He found that good players with low single-digit handicaps showed the ability to put themselves in almost the exact same position in relation to the ball every time. Measuring from the back of their heels to the ball showed an average deviation from shot to shot of less than 1/4 inch.

But he saw that the higher the handicap, the more shot-to-shot error in setup consistency the golfer exhibited – 20-plus handicap golfers exhibited an average shot-to-shot deviation in distance from the ball of up to two inches or even more! That’s the entire width of the clubhead! It’s a wonder they ever hit it at all!

This variance is a major reason why we can get “in the groove” on the practice range, but have difficulty taking it to the course.

So, think about that for a few days, and next week, I will share how you can quickly build a solid and repeating setup, so that you can give yourself the best chances of hitting good shots more often.

If there is any true “secret” to improving your ball-striking, shotmaking, and scoring, this is certainly it.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: High octane ball compression and artistic touch around the greens

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From the Olympics to taking out the glancing blows in your irons and chipping it close. Wisdom in Golf has your back.

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Podcasts

The 19th Hole (Ep. 165): One-on-one with Shane Bacon

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Host Michael Williams talks with the co-host of the Golf Channel’s Golf Today about the Open Championship and Collin Morikawa’s place in the history books.

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