As Attentions Turn to Hazeltine, a Group of Golfers Head to Ireland in Pursuit of a Different Cup
I knew we were in trouble when he split the 1st fairway. Tony's was a relaxed and compact swing, and we watched its ease replicated across the links of Rosses Point in County Sligo. At 66 years of age and banking 23 shots on the scorecard, Tony assured us his opening par was an anomaly. Soon we were questioning Tony's understanding of that particular word—anomaly doesn't mean again and again and again, until you've drubbed your tournament host 7 and 6 on day one of the tournament. Even our caddie from Sligo was wondering by the 14th hole: "Tony, where did you get this 23 handicap? Did you win it in a raffle?"
With the golfing world's eyes set on Minnesota, 44 golfers from around the world headed to County Mayo, Ireland, this week with a different cup on their minds. And this weekend as we watch the events unfold in Hazeltine, we will know the glory of battling for our own trophy. While the golf in the Ryder Cup might be great, on the western shores of Ireland, the golf is something better. It is grand.
It is a strange and wonderful thing when something you write goes off into the world and takes on a life of its own. In 2007 I walked the circumference of Ireland with golf clubs strapped to my back, playing every links course in my path, and scribbled down the story of those four months in a book, A Course Called Ireland. I hoped people other than my parents would read it (they got free copies—they better have), but as I sat at Wednesday evening's awards dinner in the ballroom at the Mount Falcon Estate and looked at a roomful of golfers from California and Texas, from Canada and Australia laugh and pat shoulders and commiserate over their three-day golf donnybrook in the dunes, I felt a paternal pride for the wee volume that brought us all together. And even though Team Coyne lost in the inaugural Coyne Cup and I had to watch the victors pass the winning crystal, I felt immense gratitude for three things—I was grateful for this game, for the friendships it effortlessly forges and for the fact that it doesn't rain in the ballroom at the Mount Falcon.
Nearly 10 years after my walk, a friend at Old Sod Travel suggested we put together a trip for folks who might be curious to sample some of the courses I lauded in my story. We decided to make it a team match—we would draft two sides, then pit Team Coyne versus a team captained by the source of much of the book's comedy, Paddy the Caddy from Kinsale. We anticipated a 12-on-12 grudge match, but suddenly we had two busloads of golfers headed to the championship links of Rosses Point, the unrivaled dunes of Enniscrone and my favorite course in Ireland, Carne in yonder Belmullet.
Day one saw a jetlagged pack of golfers fighting the rain across Enniscrone in a practice round, wide-eyed from the holes they had just traversed. Half the group had never been to Ireland, and the sandy mountains of Enniscrone were a quick reminder that golf is different here. Paddy and I arm-wrestled over sticks and sandbaggers that evening, assembling our sides and donning our players with their respective team's cap at the welcome dinner. Bets were made and trash talk was lobbed across the tables, the wagers and bravado each growing bolder as the Guinness disappeared. We pledged our loyalty to our colors and set the tall crystal of the Coyne Cup on the highest shelf of the hotel bar, and a gang of strangers quickly bonded over golf's most beautiful delusion—that tomorrow we would play our best.
On Day 1 at Rosses Point, we might have been able to handle Tony in our better-ball match (Tony's game would return to earth in later play, his handicap proving legit) if only his partner, Paddy the Caddy, had not brought along his secret weapon. It was located just below Paddy's nose, and from the 1st tee on, it remained open and unchecked. Paddy's steady stream of punchlines, sound effects and spontaneous nicknames were too much for our pairing to overcome; we dropped our opening match and Team Coyne was staring at a 7-4 deficit. The busses dropped us at the Beach Bar in Aughris Head, a thatched waterside pub that I ranked as No. 1 of the 242 I had visited on my odyssey. In one of its hallowed nooks I plotted the next day's comeback. As the pints flew across the bar to a gang of 40 thirsty golfers, a surefire strategy emerged: Try to be less hung over than your opponent. It wasn't going to be easy for my team at a watering hole such as the Beach Bar, but neither was listening to a Paddy victory speech.
When I heard the next morning that Team Paddy members had hosted a late-night cartwheel contest in the bar of our five-star hotel, I felt confident in our prospects in that day's Stableford format. Under sunny skies, Team Coyne scrapped for net birdies and pars across the rollercoaster that is Enniscrone and tightened the margin to two points. It would come down to the bounty of points at stake on day three in the singles matches, and the captains' recipes for matchups would decide the Cup. Back at the hotel, Paddy and I holed up in a lounge by the fire and plotted our battles. Actually, we ate steaks and chips and told Paddy's jokes to the hotel manager, pausing occasionally to match up players who would get along. On this trip, that was easy work.
I had always wanted to plan Irish and Scottish buddy trips, but I lacked the buddies (I'm not entirely without friends, just friends with the time and the budgets for 10 days of playing abroad). The spirit of the Coyne Cup was to tackle this dilemma. It had to be a quick-hit: four days of golf, a young-dad friendly trip (with trip extensions for those with looser schedules). It had to be affordable (golfing the gems of northwest Ireland meant great value) and easy for guys who, like me, couldn't wrangle a dozen golf buddies willing to write that check. It seemed to work for the Coyne Cup; players came as singles or as twosomes but gelled into a lodge of like-minded individuals. They liked golf. They liked my book. Or they liked to be really polite to their host—either way, our plan to build a first-class, barrier-free bridge to the links of Ireland found an eager audience. And what an audience it was.
Far from the 10 guys you've been traveling with from your club since the '90s, in our team rooms sat the women's world speed golf champion, a vet from Afghanistan, two professors, the director of golf at Florida's top golf resort, a Canadian grandmother, an individual battling Parkinson's, an Australian who bought my book for 50 cents at a store in Arizona, Googled me and signed up for the trip—and best of all, my 82-year-old dad who played four days in a row without so much as a limp. Good people find each other if you give them a good place to do it, and County Mayo is one of the really good places.
I was happy for Paddy as he lifted the cup I had lugged to Ireland and unpacked for security to prove there wasn't a trophy-shaped bomb in my bag, happy he was my friend, happy we would be doing this again in 2017 at Machrihanish in Scotland, happy that everyone in the room wanted to sign up that night (we are expanding the bus count if you're interested) and happy that, even though the weather at Carne that afternoon had been apocalyptic (in New Jersey, we would have been evacuated), it was still the best golf setting on the planet. It was warm and dry at Mount Falcon, and the company was grand.
Tom Coyne is the author of The New York Times bestseller A Course Called Ireland and the forthcoming A Course Called the Kingdom from Simon & Schuster. Visit www.tomcoyne.com.