Interview With Tom Coyne – Author Of Paper Tiger

Tom Coyne released his highly acclaimed Paper Tiger – An Obsessed Golfer’s Quest to Play with the Pros in 2006. He was a super keen golfer that could drive the ball over 300 yards, but was a very average 14 handicap at the time.

He decided to dedicate his life to golf for a full year and attempt to go to PGA Tour Qualifying School. An exceptionally good read detailing all the events that took place in order to take his game to the next level. Diets, work regimes, golf psychologists and latest equipment – everything you can think of!

Paper Tiger – An Obsessed Golfer’s Quest to Play with the Pros is listed in our Best Golf Books.

You were so single-minded and committed in your quest to become a pro, seemingly deaf or ignorant to naysayers. Was that a front? Or was your determination indeed that overpowering?

There were a lot of people who thought my quest something of a fool’s errand, but I found it pretty easy to dismiss the naysayers not because I was cocky or thought it would be easy, but because I understood exactly where they were coming from. If someone had told me they were going to give every moment and every penny of one year to golf and try to qualify for the tour, I would have laughed it off as well.

I knew how unreasonable my endeavor sounded, so the doubters did not really bother me. I could imagine some of them probably resented what I was up to as well–who does he think he is? And why does he get to do this, when I’m a better player–hey, I could do that if someone gave me a book deal–that kind of thing. So I expected that and got some of it, but it really did not distract me. The focus definitely wasn’t a front.

Golf does this funny thing — along with breaking your heart, often and deeply, it sometimes whispers in your ear and tells you, They don’t know how good you really are. I listened to that voice, and remained convinced I could really play if I just kept grinding, grinding. I was so fully invested–emotionally, professionally, physically, and financially–that I really had no room to be anything but determined. I did not give myself any outs. It was all or nothing, and I did not have the luxury of the latter.

If there were any “maybes” in this quest, it would have probably ended after my first tournament.

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Image Credit: Kevin Kirk/Recounter Photography

You put yourself through some brutally extreme diets, training, practice routines etc. Would you say that’s a reflection of your personality, or simply your passion for golf?

It was definitely a mixture of both. Golf is certainly my passion–along with writing, they are the two things over forty-something years that have never bored me, and that have never fully satisfied me in terms of what I might do or accomplish. I have never left a golf course not wondering about what might have been, a putt or chance missed, just as I’ve never finished a piece of writing that I would not revise again given the chance (a reason why I’ve never read any of my books after their publication). So the obsession at the heart of the story is certainly part of my personality.

I thrive on obsession, on single-mindedness, on getting lost in some unreasonable endeavor. It has taken me a while to understand this is what makes me tick, though it should have been rather obvious from a life of obsessive endeavors. The books since Paper Tiger have had intense obsessions at their core, and thankfully readers seem to identify with this way of chasing something and come along on what is probably an unhealthy way of living, to experience its strange highs and real lows. But I can’t imagine myself getting so obsessed about another pastime.

Golf just lends itself to a lifetime pursuit, so I feel fortunate that I’ll always have golf holes to play in my sleep.

Did you think at the time that your experience had the makings of becoming such a captivating, entertaining and heart-wrenching book? How unique would you say your story is compared to others?

I set out on Paper Tiger with two goals–to turn pro and qualify for a tour, and to write a really good book. It was a challenging balance, and one I don’t talk about much in the book, this added pressure in the back of my mind that if I fail at this, not only do I fail at my golf dream, but I fail as a writer.

Some days I felt like a golfer who happened to be recording his experiences, and on the tougher days I felt like a writer pretending at golf. But it became pretty clear as I got into the tournaments and the drama of that sort of life, living on the cusp of your dream, that if I just captured it all as honestly as I could, that it would work as a book.

The results would be less significant than the process, which was a relief in that the results were something I could not guarantee, not in the least. I think my story is pretty similar to that of a lot of men and women trying to squeeze through that bottleneck of great golfers. I’ve heard from a lot of top players who appreciated that I shed some light on how tough it is, and why they aren’t on the tour when everyone at their club things they should be.

I hope the story is also identifiable for anyone who is thinking about going all-in on their dream, golf or otherwise, in that it tells you the costs and the rewards of living life in total pursuit. So I don’t think those ideas are necessarily unique. The unique part is probably that I wrote it all down.

You wondered at the start of the book whether the pros made it because of innate talent or obsession. Did you find your answer?

People still ask me–is it talent, or is it something else that marks the difference between them and us? It’s both, which is never the lame answer people want to hear. Of course it’s talent–you have to have the athletic ability that allows your body to do certain things with a golf ball. But I saw that talent everywhere I went during Paper Tiger. At qualifiers around the world I saw fields stuffed with birdie-making talent, wide swaths of guys whose names we would never know. So it was obvious that talent mattered, but it wasn’t all talent. Obsession mattered, sure, but we were all obsessed, so that wasn’t enough.

Confidence was much more vital than the obsession. I played tournaments looking around at all the great players, trying to not get in anyone’s way. But the real players played it as if this was their home field and no one was in their way–no one else was even there for them, it seemed. It was this sort of effortless confidence, even a cockiness, the way they knew they were the best players there, even if the scorecard that day said they weren’t. Going into this adventure as a professed outsider, that was a confidence I never really acquired, nor was I entirely able to fake it.

Though I did feel that way when I came home and played with my old golfing buddies. I was wicked on a Tuesday afternoon, where I felt like cock of the walk. That the real players were able to feel that way at a Q-school was so impressive, and illusive. Takes more than a year to earn that confidence, unless you are born with it, or you just somehow believe it–which I would classify as the sort of most wonderful and brash ignorance that one can have.

To think golf is easy is absurd, dumb even; but I was told early in Paper Tiger that I was going to have to get a little dumber if I wanted to make this game easy. I’m not saying that great players are stupid–far from it–but getting too cerebral about the game and its challenges lends itself to fear. I was a genius packed with fear. They were cocky aces who just went and played, tournament golf as natural for them as breathing air. Guess who carded the better numbers?

I just saw a piece about tour golfers and ADD, and how a lot of top players probably have it, and that made perfect sense to me. To be able to forget about the last shot, to focus intensely for brief periods, and to not get too bogged down in your thoughts–that thing we treat kids for in grade school seems like golfing gold to me.

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Image Credit: Kevin Kirk/Recounter Photography

Looking back on your experience/quest, would you say you enjoyed it? Anything you’d do differently that may have changed the outcome? And any regrets?

I am now a husband, a full-time writing professor and a father of two incredible little girls, so the idea that I can get fifteen minutes to pursue anything selfish seems an extraordinary indulgence–the fact that I was able to live this way for 500+ days not that long ago just boggles my mind. It’s like it was a whole other life I think I lived but can’t entirely believe it–thankfully the book is sitting here to remind me that I did.

So looking back, wow, what an incredible opportunity for which I could not be more grateful. Waking up every morning with nothing on the horizon but golf–for many horizons–it was brilliant in a way that I could not appreciate at the time, and that you can’t appreciate until life has grown you up. It was a lot harder than I though it would be–I expected it would just be a blast, days full of golf joy–but when my game started to regress at points, and it did, I felt genuine depression. What a privileged life, to be able to get depressed about my golf problems. But when you give your absolute everything to something, and it gives you nothing in return but frustration–it rattles you. It rattled me for sure.

But looking back, hell, I would take all that golf depression back in a minute to say that I’m going to go golf for a year, see you in 2018. Although I would miss my life here. I don’t get to be the selfish maniac I was during Paper Tiger anymore, and that is a very good thing, no matter how much fun it was. Today I get grateful about all the stuff I have versus obsessing over what I want–most days–and that’s something I think anyone needs to figure out if they’re going to be happy. That said, if I were to do it again, I would have played boatloads more tournaments.

There is golf, and then there is tournament golf–they are two totally different sports. I never quite got comfortable in my tournament skin; playing a four-day event for money or status never got normal for me, the way it seemed like status quo for the guys who were at the top of the board. More time figuring out how to get the ball into the hole quicker in tournaments and less time in the studio on camera trying to master the perfect golf swing–that would have served me better, I think.

The life of a professional golfer is a completely unnatural one in many ways. What do you think are the biggest discrepancies between perception and reality in this respect?

I think one looks at the life of a tour pro and sees how tidy and glitzy it all looks and might think of it as a pure pleasure cruise–golfing for your living? Sign me up! I think something people don’t see, and that I tried to focus on in the book, is not just how hard it is, but how few players get to that place where golf has made their life easy. We are talking the top 1% of the 1%, a handful of names that live a comfortable golf life.

But pro golf is something else–for thousands of others, it’s an absolute grind where you lose more money than you win (entry fees on the mini-tours aren’t mini) and you have to deal with the struggle of being so damn good at something, yet reaping no reward–not for your talent, nor for all the work and the time. We glorify, romanticize the life of anyone who is playing for a paycheck, but the life of a top amateur who wins trophies but makes his money elsewhere is the one who has it made, in my view anyway–they get to enjoy their golf, and their lives.

I also don’t think we consider the loneliness that comes from this lifestyle, and I think that’s part of the experience both for those who have broken through and those who haven’t. You can’t mind being alone if you’re going to do this, and if you happen to like it, all the better for you. It’s why Arnold Palmer’s gregariousness stands out in such relief among a crowd of tour players who are probably somewhat introverted. I certainly can be, and I love golf as an outlet for that desire to just do something solo, for it to be entirely my own thing.

We know about all the other stuff that goes into the great golf grind–the work, the money, the crappy lifestyle–but I have heard from a fair number of players who just got sick of themselves, in one way or the other. The flip-side is that golf rewards deep and singular self-obsession, so if loneliness works for you, golf can be a great gift.

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Image Credit: Kevin Kirk/Recounter Photography

We love your writing, as do so many other adoring fans. Any new books in the pipeline?

I am currently editing my latest golf obsession story, A Course Called Scotland, which is something of a sequel to A Course Called Ireland. The book will be out in the summer of 2018 from Simon & Schuster. I say something of a sequel in that the book is actually quite a bit different than the Ireland book, though the title might suggest a straight repeat.

In A Course Called Ireland, the goal was just to survive the route, checking off every links in the country as I hoofed my way around the island. Scotland has bigger ambitions and has more of a Paper Tiger element to it–I played 110 rounds in 57 days, visiting every links in Scotland, and every course to ever host an Open, in search of the secret to golf, and in the end I put it to the test in a qualifier for the Open. So it is something of the travelogue and golf tour that Ireland was, but in this book, the shots matter.

It’s also probably a little more grown up than the Ireland book, fitting as I’ve grown up quite a bit since then, as it gets into golf and relationships and my life in a more thoughtful, dare I say more soulful way. But at its core, its about obsession of course. My obsession with obsession–it keeps the chase going.

To see more of Tom Coyne’s work visit tomcoyne.com

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