A Gentleman’s Gameby Tom Coyne
“Coyne starts his book with a punch . . . and keeps coming at you with tough, tight prose that doesn’t let up.” –Gwen Florio, The Philadelphia Inquirer
A Gentleman’s Game is the story of young Timmy Price, whose mastery of the game of golf inspires awe among the adult membership and envy among his peers on the shaded fairways and immaculate greens of exclusive Fox Chase Country Club. But when his self-made father forces Timmy to become a caddy at the club to teach him a lesson in humility, he is thrown into the hardscrabble world of the behind-the-scenes workers who make the game possible. And when his best friend and fellow looper, Jamie Byrne, abruptly stops showing up at the caddy hole, it begins a series of events that will force Timmy to confront the dark secret that hides behind the community of Fox Chase.
Soaring and lyrical, A Gentleman’s Game is an internationally acclaimed debut about an extraordinary young man and the game he loves that is like no other.
“Coyne starts his book with a punch . . . and keeps coming at you with tough, tight prose that doesn’t let up.” –Gwen Florio, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A wise and wonderful debut . . . Tom Coyne is a writer to watch.” –Nicholas Sparks, author of The Notebook and Message in a Bottle
“A Gentleman’s Game has tremendous heart. . . . Shot through is the loving but almost dangerous yellow light of Richard Ford, and more appropriately, Tobias Wolff. . . . A book about fathers and sons, and a great one at that.” –Joey Sweeney, The Philadelphia Weekly
‘deftly drawn . . . A darkly ironic meditation . . . [on] privilege, power, and rules . . . It’s freshly imagined and written, with moments of drama that have nothing to do with making a putt.” –Kevin Robbins, Austin-American Statesman
“A stunning first novel . . . Through Coyne’s eloquent, quiet prose a story . . . unfolds with the pace, dignity, and control of a really fantastic birdie. This book will make you love golf. . . . It will make you love language. And it might help you understand what a man wants.
” –Melissa Katsoulis, The Times (London)
“An emerging writer’s master stroke.” –Gary Mullinax, Wilmington News Journal
By the time I was thirteen, I was pure.
They came to the driving range without clubs, without any intention of practicing themselves, and they leaned against knotty oak trees, swatting mosquitoes, smiling to each other and shaking their heads. Watching. Some went mmm mmm like there was butter on their lips, and some stood with church faces, quiet and grave and stiff with wonder, studying me as I launched ball after ball out of the shadows. A sweep of air pulling my shoulders, the hum of iron tearing soil in my hands, the hollow click of steel smashing into Surlyn that made a white-haired woman oooh, made her leather-skinned husband whistle. Someone else might say nice turn, or nice rip there, boy, but Mr. Logan always said, “Pure, Timmy. Absolutely fucking pure.”
Charlie Logan had a face like the ass end of a ham, red and shredded by the bottomless cup of Scotch that grew from the end of his arm.
He was lopsided without his Styrofoam tallboy of Johnny Walker Red and a few flakes of ice. The caddies called it a Logan soda. The secret perk of caddying for Charlie was that he was soupy-eyed oblivious to how much he drank, so when he traded his cocktail for a five-iron, the caddy on his bag that day could filch a few healthy mouthfuls while Logan rubbed his eyes, waiting for the golf ball at his feet to stop swaying. “Keep it full,” he told his caddies. “My bag. Try the front pocket. Might find something in there.” They always did, and Logan never noticed the caddies’ faces when they returned his soda, their eyelids pulled taut at the corners, their lips curling back inside their mouths.
“Timmy, that goddamn swing is gonna take you to Augusta, he said, white bits of skin hanging from his sunburned lips. On a sunny afternoon, and sometimes on one that wasn’t so sunny, you could find Charlie napping on a bench at the range, cup teetering on his medicine ball of a belly, not a drop spilled on one of those afternoons when he had been drinking since noon in the men’s grill, speaking too loudly about his three-putts, paying and collecting on bets, calling everyone he saw his old friend, on one of those afternoons when you didn’t have to ask the bartenders for rounds, because at Fox Chase Country Club, you don’t ask, and you don’t pay.
You just get.
“I’ve seen swings, hell, I had a swing. Damn, damn decent swing,” he said, running his fingers through his scalp, looking at his palm. “Ungrateful bastards.” He shook a few loose hairs from his hand, then laughed and spread his legs wide for a solid base. “Put potential in one hand, spit in the other, see which fills up first. Understand?”
“Your father must be a proud man,” he said, not waiting for me to answer. “If I had a son like you, well,” he looked at the empty metal buckets toppled in a mess around me, “you’d be hitting twelve buckets instead of ten.”
He chuckled and smiled at his drink. He had two daughters I saw at the club at Christmas and Fourth of July parties, girls whose mother colored her hair to match theirs, three blondes with hair spilled down between their shoulder blades, just touching the tops of their asses. They matched their outfits as well, and the gentlemen went slack-awed when the trio strolled into a Christmas gala, draped snugly in red velvet, chins up, shoulders back. And there was Charlie Logan, a little bit behind, soda in hand, green blazer and patches of gray chest hair poking out of a golf shirt, his eyes looking like they might slip down below his nose, his wife walking in front of him as if he were some unfortunate brother.
His girls were not golfers. They didn’t go through the ranks of the junior clinics with the other members’ children. Fox Chase was a club for gentlemen, owned by and open exclusively to three hundred and fifty bond-holding members. The clubhouse was tucked back at the end of a long winding drive, behind trees so thick with needles that people drove past the place every day of their lives, never knowing what was there. The rules of the club allowed wives and daughters to use the driving range and putting green at their leisure, and on Tuesday mornings and Sunday afternoons the course was all theirs. But Charlie called such policies an embarrassment, and no daughter of his was going to tee it up at his club, not on any day.
“The way you turn on that ball, it’s just,” he said, his words sliding into a wheeze as I took my address, quieting my body, thinking without a thought. And in a moment I was watching a ball roll upward against the air, hanging there on the breeze before falling fast and straight and knocking up against a thin metal sign. Two hundred yards. On a dot.
“That’s pure, Timmy,” Charlie Logan said. “Absolutely fucking pure.”
There was something in my bones to turn like that. A golf ball at my feet, a pause in my shoulders, and a silent, effortless click.
I was tall but not big, a quiet sort of large. My limbs were lanky and elastic, and that mattered. Physicality mattered. There were all the intangible ways of being good at golf. The real players were coated with a dust of something that the others couldn’t have–talent, luck, confidence, charm even–was that gift in being gifted, and golfers chased it in circles, in seven-thousand-yard laps of short grass to discover that some people could do, and some people could want. And while being graced with talent was good, being tall was simple. Physics mattered. Longer limbs meant a longer arc, which meant more speed at the club head. That meant more momentum at impact, and it all meant more violence tearing through two ounces of golf ball.
I grew tall without growing awkward, and by thirteen I could look most of the men at my club in the face. Including my father. When you are small, the idea of being taller than your father is strange and implausible and a little unfair. You expect it to be a real moment when your head rises above his, fireworks and a page in a scrapbook, a line penciled and starred on the edge of the kitchen doorway, 5’10″–age 13. But one day I was looking my father level in the eyes, and on another day his eyes were somehow lower than mine, and it was like everything else in life that goes ahead and happens.
I could beat balls at that range for hours with no sense of time, just ball after ball after piles of balls. But when the shots were all scattered out among the weeds, there were times when a burning would start up in that space where my spine is wide above my hips, where the bone would feel too thin and too hot. My back would bunch up into lumps of bone and muscle, purple and black, and my shoulder blades would pop as I lay in bed, telling myself I was falling asleep. There were times when my fingers ached to where I couldn’t hold a pencil, when I would wait until morning for my hands to go fluid again to fill in the answers on my school assignments. Calluses the size of nickels covered both my palms. They didn’t hurt, but there were times when my father would catch me staring down at my hands, and he would make a sound with his nose and tighten his eyebrows and tell me calluses were natural, and he would remind me then that no, they didn’t hurt, no matter how large or hard or orange in color.
When he came to see me at the driving range, he did not hover over his son like the other fathers. He didn’t stand behind me with his arms crossed. He didn’t lift his fingers to his lips and watch the pieces of my golf swing, studying me as if I were something to be deciphered. The other fathers stood close, reminding their boys of their bad habits, shaking a finger at the same mistakes, but my father would only stop for a second to tell me to stay in the shade because that Irish skin of mine was fertile soil for melanomas. If he saw that the back of my neck was getting pink, he would shake his head slowly, as if it took all his strength to do so, and tell me that only a real jerk would stand out here in the sun with skin like mine. Then he would turn and walk off toward the clubhouse, his shoulders hunched, his hands tucked deep into his pockets.
He never turned to see me watching the way he walked. He never caught me looking for that touch of fear in the way his feet never dragged. Sometimes he came back down the path with a blue tube of sunblock and sometimes he didn’t, but what stays with me is an image of my father that’s stuck between silence and unrest, and I watch, waiting for that image to change–his wool cardigan sweater hanging from his shoulders, thin and yellow, his back curled over an iron blade he said they would never make again, his eyes moving from ball to hole, hole to ball, ball to hole, the concentration pumping in his temples, his scalp lined with effort. It’s the preparation I remember, never the contact that came after.
“This is where I find my strokes,” he would say as I watched him at the practice green, choking down on that eight-iron and bumping a ball across the grass carpet, making it check for just a second, then release and roll and curl to the lip of the cup, where ball after ball would die, hanging on the edge, the odd one turning over into the hole and rattling around the bottom. “I have to find them somewhere. I can’t go hauling off like you young gorillas,” he said. “They don’t ask how. They ask how many.”
On an afternoon in late July, I was beating my driver, launching shots over the fence at the end of the driving range. I gripped the club and wrung sweat from my fingers, ball after ball jumping off the screws. I watched them move out into the orange light. They would be gone for just a second when I would hear the sound of branches rattling from the other side of the fence.
“You’re gonna kill someone doing that,” my father said.
He had been standing behind me for I didn’t know how long.
“There’s no one back there. There’s no one else here,” I said, quickly teeing up another ball, coiling my shoulders, cranking another one out of the park. There was the sound of leaves rustling, and then a hard ding from one of the tractors hidden in the brush that grew beyond the range.
“Hey, Hank Aaron,” he said. “You drive for show, putt for dough. There’s no pictures on a scorecard.
Speaking in clich’s was a safe way for us to converse without talking, and golf was full of them. Banal truisms were passed between golfers like secret handshakes.
I turned to look at my father, the afternoon light settling on his face. There was age all over him, his cheeks raw and marked with tan blotches, his lips thin and liver-colored.
“Jimmy Shaw’s dad was up here watching him, and he said I should charge people to watch me swing.” I tried to laugh when I said it. “There was a little crowd up here before,” I mumbled, looking down at the five striped balls left to be hit.
My father pulled his hands out of his pockets, rough with gray hair and a touch shaky. He folded his arms in front of him, tipped his head to the side.
“You’re a lucky kid, Timothy Price,” he said.
“I know,” I said, and I tore at another red-striped range ball, boring it straight and hard into the center of the fence.
“You do? Do you know why?”
I stopped and looked at him, then looked down at my palms, which were pink and covered with black bits from my worn rubber grips.
“Because your father doesn’t push you,” he said. “Because you play if you want to. If you don’t, I’m not going to be the one who makes you. I won’t be one of those fathers Timmy, standing up here and looking over your shoulder.”
“Norman Dane’s in the grill right now, talking about Myles doing this and Myles doing that. I won’t live my life through my sons, Timothy,” he said. “Would you want a father like that? A father who never leaves his son alone, pushes him until the kid hates his guts? Is that what a kid wants? Is that what you want?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, because of course I didn’t. And of course I did.
He turned and walked back toward the path, and I watched my father lower his eyes and take careful steps. Fireflies had begun to light up along the walkway, pale green lights flickering around the clubhouse in the distance, everything around us having slipped into the slow summer darkness.
I stood there waiting for the buzzing to start up in my fingers, wishing for another hour of daylight and a hundred more balls.
Copyright ” 2001 by Tom Coyne. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
About the Book
Timmy Price is a natural, even at nine years of age. His golf swing makes grown men’s jaws drop, the grace with which he pummels that little white ball into the center of a fairway makes him the envy of his teenage peers.
As a reward for his undeniable talents, his less-than-effusive father teaches him a lesson in humility by making him work as a caddy at his exclusive Fox Chase Country Club–where he learns the secret language of the men whose livelihood depends on the generosity of men obsessed with a little white ball, and what kind of ugliness exists beneath the well-pressed artifice of privilege.
When his best friend and fellow caddy Jamie Byrne disappears, a story too dark and too mammoth for a teenager to swallow unravels before his innocent eyes. Set against the backdrop of his ongoing successes on the links, Timmy is faced with an accelerated need to grow up–for his friend, for his family, and for his own father.
A Gentleman’s Game is a fast-paced, well-written novel about a boy’s born talent to win at a game that very few ever master, and his inability to recognize and achieve what he really wants and needs–the outward approval of his passive Irish father.
Questions for Discussion
1. Jimmy Price’s efforts to not live his life “through his sons’ has had opposing effects on Casey and Timmy. How can the outcome of such a conscious effort not to do something turn out such different personalities in his sons?
2. What does golf represent to Casey? To Timmy?
3. Why does Timmy never talk about golf when his mother asks about his day (unlike his father)? What fuels his self-censorship, even though golf is all he thinks about (p. 13)?
4. What does Timmy’s father mean when he says “It’s the arrow, not the Indian” (p. 68)? What idea is he trying to convey to his son?
5. Jimmy Price’s Irish stoicism and inability to father his children (Neither with love or discipline) is exemplified when he arrives home to find that Casey has torn up his rose bushes because he didn’t return from the links in time to bring his son to buy important Springsteen tickets. Jimmy says nothing, and the following spring he neglects the new branches that begin to sprout. “He let those that could grow, grow until they died out. He did not water them. He did not feed them his special blue powder” (p. 76). Is this reaction typical or expected of him? Where does his rage go? How does the way he tends to his decimated roses the next spring compare to how he conducts himself in his closest relationships (wife, children)?
6. When Casey tells his father he’s going to quit the football team, Mr. Price threatens to send him to boarding school. Why is this response so unexpected from Mr. Price (p. 113)? His “hands-off” fathering style doesn’t seem to apply to Casey in this instance. Why does he want his son to continue to play so much? How is this reaction different from how he handles Timmy? Why the disparate treatment? What is it in Casey that his father relates to? What is it that is “killing him” (Mr. Price), according to Mrs. Price (p. 153)?
7. What does the character of Foster Pearse represent for Timmy? The fact that Mr. Price continues to drive Timmy to work with Pearse every week but never gets out of the car is significant. How and why?
8. Why does Timmy cite the war like metaphor of ‘dunes and foxholes’ when contemplating the light and shadows over the golf course at night? What is he really talking about (p. 146)? Jamie and Timmy bury Jamie’s father’s gun in the sand trap at the fifteenth hole at Fox Chase. It was “a little piece of power to keep to ourselves’ (p. 146). What power do we later learn the buried gun represents? Does Timmy’s promise never to tell hold true in the end?
9. In the ‘stormy” chapter when Casey strikes his mother, the author interjects with a story about when he and his father were trapped in a thunderstorm on the course. “All metal must go. Keep your distance from the trees. Stay low and stay flat.” This is, as he puts it, the ‘simple step-by-step to safety. . . ” (p. 152). When he leaves the house, running into the rainstorm that is the backdrop for the slapping scene between Casey and his mother, he says “there was no process, no step-by-step to safety.” Does this explain some of what draws Timmy to golf? What is it? What is the ‘safety” of this “gentleman’s game” for Jimmy? For his father?
10. Why does Jimmy tee up a ball and line-drive it into his father’s car in the fourteenth chapter? What leads him to finally settle the four-year-old “gentleman’s bet” (p. 168)?
11. Pine Acres Golf Camp represents a veritable “baptism by fire” (or entry into adolescence) for Timmy–in more ways than one. He has his first encounter with being an outsider “Yank”; he has his first intimate experience with a girl; he accuses someone of cheating and is then infuriated by how the other players in his foursome stay quiet about it (p. 193). How does this experience of a transgression gone unpunished repeat itself later in the book (p.251)? Why is how Timmy handles it the second time around so significant? What does it say about him? About how he is “his father’s son” after all?
12. Why was it so important for Mr. Price to win the Member-Guest Tourney with Timmy as his caddy/teacher? How is this a turning point in their relationship?
13. When Timmy says, “it started to make sense why he did not play these tournaments. I had been wrong–it wasn’t that he feared success, or that defeat brought him his own sad security. My father wasn’t about winning or losing, because all my father wanted in the world was something steady . . .” he speaks to an earlier assertion he himself made about golf’s highest virtue being “consistency, consistency, consistency” (p. 63). Is this a window into his father’s passion for (obsession with) the game of golf? Is what draws him to the course each week a quest to satisfy his need for steadiness and consistency? Might this also explain Timmy’s passion for the game?
14. Mr. Price confronts Mr. Logan as he lambastes Walter with racial epithets and threats during the Member-Guest tournament (p. 234). He is forthright, assertive, and aggressively outspoken (very out of character). Then, Walter leaves the course, silently, without making a fuss, never to return. For the first time, we see Mr. Price take a stand, and it seems in order to return Timmy’s world to the “order” to which he is accustomed, someone (Walter) has to lay down and take it. How satisfying is this? Is it a cop-out? Or a pivotal moment that leads to the events that follow?
15. The character of Myles Dane represents the polar opposite of Timmy. How effective is the juxtaposition of these two boys’ experiences? What message do you come away with at the end of the book? Who is the more fortunate son? Why?
16. It isn’t until Mr. Price wins the tournament that he seems to take notice of his wife (before the black-tie dinner). Do you think their relationship has changed for the long term? Or will it resume as before, once the sensations that accompany victory subside?
17. Judging from the last two chapters, how do you think the author feels about private clubs? Are the last two chapters satisfying? Or veiled self-congratulations?
18. What gave Mr. Price the courage to bring the Ben Hogan photograph into the house and place it in Casey’s old room (p. 257)? What does it say about his relationship with Casey, if anything?
19. What is the significance of Coyne’s “OUT” and “IN” titles for the two sections of A Gentleman’s Game?
20. Why is Mr. Price pleased when Casey quits the football team? What has changed in him (p. 260)?
21. Is the way in which Jamie’s experience with Mr. Norton is resolved in the New Water community satisfying?
22. Is Timmy his father’s son? Or his mother’s son? Why?
Other Suggested Reading:
A Mulligan for Bobby Jobe: A Novel by Bob Cullen; Spikes: A Novel by Michael Griffiths; The Money-Whipped Steer-Job Three-Jack Give-Up Artist by Dan Jenkins; Lure of the Links: Great Golf Stories Edited by David Owen and Joan Bingham; The Bogey Man by George Plimpton; The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield; How I Play Golf by Tiger Woods; The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Golf by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht; The Greatest Player Who Never Lived: A Golf Story by J. Michael Vernon.