Sullivan County Golf Tom Coyne

Noisy Time, Quiet Place

2023: The year a seeker stopped chasing golf glory and learned to enjoy the moment 

He wasn’t sneaking on, but the flags were out and the shop was closed, and he swore he was planning to pay after he finished his round.

Jimmy had passed the course a hundred times before, but this April morning he had clubs in his truck and some hours to kill. Our greenskeeper was the only other person out there. Winter was slow to leave these mountainside fairways, and the locals wouldn’t arrive until May, if they arrived this year at all. Word had gotten around that the 100-year-old course was finally closing, so they had planned to play elsewhere in 2023. But Jimmy hadn’t heard about any of that.

He had the place to himself and wondered where everybody was—the sun was bright and this course was a charmer. A real find, he realized, with long views and tilted fairways, a slice of golf goodness obscured by dark clubhouse windows and an empty parking lot, where a faded sign on warped plywood called it the oldest golf course in the Catskills.

sullivan county
No. 4 at Sullivan County

He raised his hands in surrender as the superintendent’s cart approached. He tried to pay, he explained, and was going to try again when he finished. The super introduced himself as Shaun and told him not to worry—he was glad to see someone out here and there was always time to settle up, today or tomorrow or next week. The rule at Sullivan County Golf Club was that if you saw pins, go play and figure out how to pay for it later.

They talked for longer than either of them expected. The winters in Liberty, New York, left you hungry not just for golf but for conversation as well, and new faces were welcome. Jimmy had moved up from Staten Island and been running a plow truck since December—he rode shotgun and worked the blade for the driver. He didn’t miss the city much, aside from the friends and the food. He said he’d be up here a lot more if the place was going to open this year, and Shaun explained that it was, and that he might be looking for a guy to help in the pro shop. Jimmy was a retired diesel mechanic who’d done two stints in the Army—he’d never worked in the golf business and hadn’t played much since being the fifth man on his high school golf team, but Shaun assured him there were no prerequisites for the job, other than a willingness to babysit the register for a modest wage. They shook on it and Shaun said he’d let the new owner know he’d found a shop guy. And that afternoon, I heard about my life’s first official hire. 

A golfer’s year-end reflection might revisit the places we played, or tally our strokes-gained, or file through our closets to note the logos we’d collected. Most of us will recall the people with whom we played more vividly than the places, and in 2023, my list of golf partners was far shorter than year’s past. By an unexpected turn of events, I became a golf course operator, so while I traveled fairways every morning, I did it on the back of a Toro, and always alone. In the afternoons I’d sneak out for nine, usually without anyone to mark my card or watch me drop another ball from my pocket. And at the risk of sounding like a misanthrope, it was the best golf year of my life.

I’d become a chaser of names and a golf glutton—play more, meet so-and-so, play better, get the hat, keep moving. When I settled in the Sullivan County Catskills for a year, it took time to curb the wanderlust and learn to stand still. My golf world got smaller and quieter this year, in a fortunate way.

Sullivan County’s new management: Shaun Smith (left) and Tom Coyne (right).

We were blessed by a steady stream of Broken Tee Society members to keep us busy, plus a few hundred who joined as nonresident members. Their embrace of our golf course reversed its trajectory and turned Shaun’s and my pipedream into a new vocation. Jimmy came early every morning—he never used an alarm clock, as Army life had trained his feet to hit the floor at 5 a.m. I learned that he’d enlisted out of high school and then went back into the reserves at age 42 after working for two decades as a diesel mechanic. A Tom Clancy novel inspired him to give it another go, he said, and the Army only took him at his age when he agreed to forgo a pension. Then 9/11—his Staten Island unit worked the site for weeks—and he eventually found himself a gunner in Iraq and then Afghanistan at the age of 50. “The next oldest guy in my unit was 24 years old,” he told me. “They made me do the same PT, but I had always been in shape. I could beat most of the guys half my age.” His Humvee got hit hard twice in Iraq, and two Purple Hearts later, he’d earned himself that pension.

John was the afternoon guy, and his black Jeep usually arrived an hour before his shift—not a lot else to do up here for a retiree other than fish and golf, and John from Brooklyn wasn’t much for chasing trout. He wasn’t the hiking type, either, as his spine was wrecked and he walked with a heavy limp. He’d worked every job from truck driver to baseball coach to stockbroker and landed this gig because he lived across the street. He was an excellent cook with a head full of Italian recipes (he was also the only one of us who dared to use the clubhouse’s forsaken kitchen) and would whip up sausage and peppers when big groups showed. He had the toughness of an underboss but saved that side for the cart-path violators; in truth he was a softie who rescued a puppy from the market two towns over, a poodle he named Ringo who spent the summer sleeping under a rack of golf shirts. When John turned on the charm, he was our biggest asset—you’d come back just to hear him bust your chops again.

Gary split mornings with Jimmy—he’d come to New York from Portland years before as a jazz musician, and was now Catskills retired as well. He wore a cap and dark glasses and played our point-of-sale screen like a piano. The youngest of our team was Chris, Shaun’s right-hand man, who didn’t talk a lot or play golf, but as the only one of us born here, he had the place in his veins and cared about it deeply. I never saw Chris not working—long beard and glasses and a tank top even in the cold, he could fix everything we broke, and we broke just about everything. He listened to Korn and pounded energy drinks as he mowed, then would help his mom, who’d taken charge of watering the flowers around the clubhouse. He was a few years clean from a pill problem, and that only endeared him to me and Shaun even more—two recovering drunks who knew what it was like to wake up terrified of the day ahead. It wasn’t something any of us talked about because we didn’t need to.

Shaun was in his 40s with a 5-year-old girl who had moved his family up from Queens to get some land and chase some trout. My being here was all his doing—a DM sparked a chain of events that saw me renting a house nearby and learning how to do inventory and payroll. The regulars started to return when word got out that we were open. They started bringing their friends when they found that Shaun and Chris were making small miracles happen—the course was in the best shape in 20 years, so the locals said—and my summer fling with a golf course was showing signs of becoming something real. My dad came up from Philadelphia in July, and at 89 years old, nine holes of modest distances felt just right. I have a picture of him sitting in one of our Adirondacks by the first tee with green mountains in the background, drinking a tall neck by himself. He’d grown up in the mountains just south of here—Scranton, PA—and watching him relax at twilight at his son’s place was about as peaceful as he’s ever looked on a golf course.

Sullivan County Golf Tom Coyne
Golf was played here, and that’s all that matters.

We live in a noisy world and golf has been particularly loud of late, but we didn’t hear much of that in Sullivan County. I heard the roar of my mower until I didn’t really hear it anymore. I heard Gary asking prices for the register, and I heard John complaining about Gary changing all the prices that morning. I heard Jimmy tell me which carts were working and which weren’t. I heard Shaun tell me about the trout he’d spotted in the stream by No. 2 and how he’d hook it by the end of the year. I didn’t hear much from Chris—just a nod when his machine passed mine each morning.

I worried a lot in the beginning. Was the course good enough? Could we keep it going? What could we afford to fix or add? Would people come? I worried less when I realized none of it was up to me. We’d put in the hours and see what the books said come October. And when I worried less, I saw more. I saw what was there instead of what wasn’t. I saw the deer—dozens called our acres home, and I watched the spring fawns turn to teenagers by September. I saw eggshells in a bunker where the snapping turtle’s clutch finally hatched.

We were co-workers instead of playing partners—too much work and too few people to get out together—until everyone finally teed it up in late October, the day before the shop was scheduled to close. Everyone but John, that is, who tripped over Ringo the night before and broke his leg. I visited the next day and brought him bagels from the good place and filled him in on what he missed. It killed him to not be out there.

Jimmy talked enough for all of us, lamenting each shot while Gary shook his head and laughed at his misses. Shaun played fast, as he always did, and Chris didn’t play but walked with us the entire way, swigging from a can of Monster as we went. When we got to No. 9, our season’s final hole, I wondered if I should say something or make a toast or mark the occasion, but I didn’t say anything. I was glad I didn’t, because as Shaun teed up his ball, he turned and told us, “Fellas, no matter what happens from here on out, we’ll always have that year we ran a golf course together.”

And then he smacked his driver and the ball climbed and flew against a backdrop of trees turning orange. We watched, and enjoyed the quiet.

There’s more to the Sullivan County story. Hear what Tom Coyne and his superintendent are up to in New York: A Course Called Home.

Episode 140: A Course Called Home The Golfer's Journal Podcast