Fear and Golfing in 2018

In two-thousand and eighteen, golf was there for me.

In this season of cheer and children’s smiles, I want to smile, too, and share a jolly missive of hope and year-end glee, but I can’t bring myself to blow smoke up 2018’s backside. I look around at the world and ponder this year’s headlines, and I believe that we’ll recall 2018 as a year of confusion and discord and fear. And fear sucks. It’s bad for the soul, and terrible for one’s golf game. So as I look back on this year of national acrimony, I am more thankful than ever for this game that we play. And in 2018, I needed to play it a lot.

I posted more than a hundred scores this year—not bad for a guy in the Northeast, where 2018 brought the worst golf weather any of us up here can recall. I escaped our swampy courses for the beautifully burned-out fairways of Ireland, and hopped around to friendlier climates for 36-hole days in Oregon and Wisconsin, in Florida and Virginia. And in every one of those rounds, I found gratitude that I was a golfer, lost in my forever pursuit of par, where nary a political word was shared, and fear remained where it belonged—in my hands as they hung over 4-foot putts.

I am grateful that I was a golfer in 2018, because in that safe bubble of tee times and itineraries and gregarious playing partners, the world was right and well. Despite the churn and burn of the outside world, I hereby proclaim that the state of our golfing union is strong. To the casual observer, golf was exciting and intriguing again, thanks to he who needs no name. The FedEx playoffs were finally must-watch events for more folks than just us golf-heads, with Tiger fighting in fifth gear. The vision of him being swallowed by the crowd at the Tour Championship is my favorite golf image of the year—maybe of any recent year, because our game was, for a moment, a rock show, frenzied and combustible, and beautiful.

As for the Ryder Cup—well, it had stories both joyful and doleful, depending on your flag. And the majors—while the annals of golf might remember 2018 as history-making, I left Augusta unsatisfied, and the same for the US Open and PGA. A dual major champion is stunning stuff, but I couldn’t help but think that the winner of both would rather be doing something other than dismantling golf courses, and to someone who has only succeeded at dismantling his own scorecard, such indifference feels hard to root for. The Tiger-Phil thing was weird viewing, but any golf buzz in November is good golf buzz, and it may have introduced us to golf’s next stage for success—golf and gambling, which isn’t really a new idea at all. It’s a throwback to golf’s heyday of wagering on the Morrises or the Parks in match-ups at Musselburgh. As legalized sports gambling spreads across the country, if you consider golf too pure a pastime to be sullied by bookmakers and Vegas lines, remember that the Open championship probably doesn’t exist today if the spectating gentry didn’t like to wager.

So while the pros did their thing in 2018, they didn’t make it a great golf year. I watch their game a few hours every week, but I think about our game most hours of every day—our courses, our destinations, our struggles and triumphs—we, the golfing masses and the golf afflicted. This seemed to be a year where that bursting golf bubble finally settled, and even gained fresh air. The tweets turned from word of another course closing to news of dream courses coming to life—new tracks at Sand Valley and Streamsong and Pinehurst should all be on your 2019 list, and the continuation of the trend in nine-holers and short courses—see Sand Valley’s Sand Box and Pinehurst’s Cradle and Bandon’s Preserve and Streamsong’s Roundabout, not to mention Winter Park and Sweetens Cove—it seems the future of golf in America is centering around an obvious idea that we lost in the TPC years: Fun. And I had a lot of it in 2018.

I can’t reflect on the year without noting a big personal event: I released a new book, after a number of years without one, and if you read The Golfer’s Journal, you may have sampled a slice of it in No. 5. In doing the research for A Course Called Scotland, I played 111 rounds in 57 days, but the more meaningful number to me is the dozens of friends I made along the way. I was joined by people from Colorado and Canada, from London and Germany, from Chicago and Georgia and Florida and Boston and New York.

Before the book was released in July, I invited them all to join me for golf at my home club outside Philadelphia as a mini book-launch celebration, expecting maybe one or two to show, because I had yet to fully grasp how golf and travel can bond people. We can’t hide our true selves over 18 holes—the game reveals our bests and worsts—and travel, I learned, does precisely the same thing. Spend 10 days on the road with anyone, and you’ll see their lowest and highest incarnations, while revealing your own in turn. You’ll find genuine, and it’s genuine that turns strangers into people you will know for the rest of your life. I’m convinced of this, because every single person who visited me in Scotland showed up in Philadelphia, flying in from around the world for golf and laughs and memories. Aside from my family’s health and my daughters’ milestones—I won’t bore you with tales of their swim meets—it was my favorite moment of 2018.

Launching a book isn’t all joy and relief and back-slapping, in case that’s how you imagined it. Rather than floating around in a sense accomplishment, I found myself paddling for life in a sea of doubt and insecurity, anxious about the book’s reception and commercial prospects. But as I sat around a table in my backyard with a dozen people who I could have never imagined sitting around a table in my backyard, I saw that this unlikely crew of formerly random playing partners had become our own club and inner-circle, not unlike TGJ’s Broken Tee Society. And I was no longer paddling. Before it even hit the shelves, the book had done more than I dreamed it might accomplish. The worries would eventually return, but on that evening, there was no room for them at the table. On a June night in 2018, there was no fear.

Tom Coyne is the author of A Course Called Ireland and A Course Called Scotland, both New York Times best sellers, as well as the forthcoming A Course Called Home. He is an associate professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.