Courses and Travel

The Luckiest Suffering Golfer in the World

Tom Coyne's walking trip has not been a leisurely stroll.

Tom Coyne, author of Paper Tiger, is making his way across Ireland on foot this summer, playing every links golf course in the country. In Fall 2008, he'll publish a book about his adventures, A Course Called Ireland. In the meantime, he'll be writing a travel journal for GOLF.com. This is the fifth installment; the rest are here.

If you've ever had a hard time convincing your wife that an afternoon of sitting around the clubhouse, waiting for you to finish a round of golf sounds like a good way to spend a day of your vacation, may I offer a suggestion.

Hand her an overstuffed backpack, and ask her to walk to the course.

After four weeks away, it was something wonderful and surreal to meet my wife in the Sligo train station. And after heading out to Strandhill, a relatively short walk by my standards, seven miles or so, she was thoroughly convinced that this wasn't the vacation some of our friends have been imagining it to be. Granted, I know how fortunate I am to be living this adventure, and no matter how lonely the road gets, it sure as hell beats digging ditches. But when Allyson dropped her bag in Strandhill, a quaint surfer town along the coast of Sligo, our 1.5-star hostel was quite good enough. We were there. There could have been mice setting the table for breakfast; she wasn't going to be walking another foot.

"This isn't easy," she explained. "This is serious. This is work."

I have to admit, I was pleased to hear her agree. But I was even more pleased that I'd finally figured out a way to get my wife to tell me, "You'd better be playing golf tomorrow."

Allyson and I had a wonderful week, and we did take some time off the road to enjoy Donegal Town (stayed in an amazing hotel, St. Earnan's House, just outside the town and set on its own tiny island). But the walk to Mullaghamore from Rosses Point (as great a course as I remembered it) just about turned this week's story into one of taking cabs around Ireland. The walk was a bruising 21 miles, and by the end of it Allyson was mumbling to herself, "Hey, if I get hit by a car, at least I won't feel it." Let the record show, I offered a number of alternative transportations for my wife, but she insisted on walking with me. She wanted to see what I'd been doing, what I'd been patting myself on the back about this last month. Was 20 miles really that many? The pack couldn't be that heavy, could it?

Allyson eventually confessed to not wanting to switch places with me anymore, not Philadelphia humidity for Irish rain, not an air-conditioned office for the winding roads of Donegal, not golf-traveling for insurance-broking. Not for a long shot. I'm not sure what's going to come of my decision to walk Ireland in the end, but thus far I've inadvertently invented the world's first golf trip that any spouse will find impossible to resent or envy you for.

Having now crossed the 400-mile mark on my walking tally (413 to be exact, and that includes the six to eight miles I log when walking the courses themselves), I have likewise begun to wonder about my ambulatory M.O. Each afternoon, I ask myself a few more times, What the hell am I doing out here? There are ample busses, trains, I'm offered a half-dozen rides daily. But there is something about walking this country that, as mind-numbing as the green-field-stone-wall-another-freaking-sheep scenery can be, is quite amazing. Dare I say spiritual? Accomplishing one's destination at the end of every day, it's a sense of satisfaction that I've rarely experienced so regularly, or in such a tangible way. Arriving at a town that once seemed an impossible distance away — it just feels good.

And when you play Ireland, you walk. Carts/buggies seem to be a more regular option at courses desirous of the American golf dollar, but when we first came to Ireland years before, leg-weary from our travels to Enniscrone, we walked. When we played the New course at Ballybunion because we couldn't get on the Old, and we got lost for a half hour searching for our next tee box, climbing up and over dunes, pulling our rental clubs along, we walked. And in this trek around Ireland, I'm not looking for my next golf course, I'm hunting for that next tee box on what I'm finding to be the greatest stretch of golf holes in the world. From Clare to where I now found myself in Narin-Portnoo, I haven't played one disappointing round of golf yet.

Some courses shine more brightly than others — Lahinch and Doonbeg are worth the money, surely, but Carne and Narin-Portnoo must not be overlooked. Strandhill and Bundoran have been fun courses I'd never heard of, with rollercoaster, seaside terrain (for a course unknown to most Americans, Bundoran's 11th might be as pretty a hole as I've played in Ireland), and Enniscrone and Connemara were certainly both worth the walk.

I suppose I set out for this trip on foot because this journey needed to be more than a feast where I gorged myself on golf greatness; it needed to be hard, too. Some misery to counter the joy of links golf in Ireland. I feel as if I'm earning what I'm learning about Ireland, step by step, blister by blister. I suppose it just feels more authentic to me than telling you I played a lot of Irish golf, so now I really know the place. And that was the idea, to know this place authentically, to know why so many people like myself are drawn to this country, perhaps even to know why so many people left. If all I could tell you was that golf here was grand (which it is) and not figure out something about the real life of real Irish people (which I have), I would have considered these four months misspent.

Perhaps the most welcome, yet unforeseen side effect of my non-mode of transportation is that I've met loads more curious people than I would have otherwise. I've had dozens more thoughtful conversation than I might have were I the typical yank wandering around town with a golf hat and a sunburn. Granted, it's sort of a freak-show connection I'm making with the locals — "You've walked here? From Clare? Are you mad?" But it's often the start of a nice talk about their country and about mine. Some coverage on the radio and in the newspapers here has helped get the word around about the crazy American walking golfer. I was stopped on the road just the other day, and asked by a stranger, "Mr. Coyne, how are you getting on?" And I'm glad it happened, because the stranger also let me know that the golf course I was walking to was in the exact opposition direction.

When I meet Irish golfers who ask me how long I'm over, and I tell them that I'll be golfing my way around Ireland through August, I'm quick to tell them, "And I've walked here. From Clare ..." before they can make a joke or an observation about my being spoiled, even for an American, before they can tell me what a lucky bastard I am. We both know I am anyway. I just don't want them to think I'm a lazy bastard as well.

Next, on to Cruit Island, Rosapenna, Portsalon, Ballyliffin ...

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