Golfing the lower 48: Dylan Dethier roughs it in ’18 in America’

Like Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey before him, packed his used car and meager life savings and set off to see and write about America. From a gritty municipal course in Flint to rubbing elbows with Phil Mickelson at Quail Hollow, Dylan Dethier’s goal was to play a round of golf in each of the lower forty-eight states. One of them: Gray Walls in Marquette, Michigan.

Written by Linzie Janis, Nick Poppy & Ben Brown

It’s difficult to say, but the highlight of young Dylan Dethier’s gap year probably was not the time he narrowly avoided being hustled out of hundreds of dollars on a Las Vegas golf course. Nor was it, likely as not, the occasion in which he nearly got in an ax fight with the person breaking into his Subaru.

One thing that does stick in the mind of the author, golfer and college student was “the way people opened their lives to me. They opened their golf courses, their houses … their spare couches. People were really willing to help a kid with a dream.”

Shortly before the start of his freshman year of college, Dethier came down with a travel bug. So, like Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey and a host of others before him, he packed his used car and his meager life savings, and set off to see and write about America. Unlike his wandering forbears, he had a very specific goal: to golf in each of the lower 48 states.

Dethier and his family weren’t part of the country club set, and he grew up “thinking golf was this game played by rich white guys.” Always something of an athlete, he came to love and enjoy the sport – and to realize that golf wasn’t just for the elite.

“Golf was more than that,” he said.

Dethier’s road trip reflected that belief.

“I wanted to play the best country clubs,” he said. “I wanted to play the worst municipal courses and everything in between to see where golf fit in.”

The result was the engaging travelogue (golf-logue?), “18 in America: A Young Golfer’s Epic Journey to Find the Essence of the Game.” Dethier’s book is as much about finding the essence of America and the essence of himself as it is about golf; the sport is a useful, green-hued lens through which to view of these things.

In his travels, Dethier played at famous courses like Pebble Beach and Sawgrass, and at the less storied like the Swartz Creek municipal course in the shadows of Flint, Mich.’s shuttered automobile factories.

Among the most memorable stops was a course in New Orleans that had seen better days.

“You could hardly tell the green from the fairway from the rough,” he said.

Dethier learned that only a few years earlier, “the course had been under eight feet of water during Hurricane Katrina.”

That the course was open at all was something of a triumph, and the course superintendent was philosophical about golfing in the wake of Katrina.

“If there was hope for the golf course, maybe there could be hope for the city, too,” Dethier said.

Encounters with hustlers and thieves aside, what resonates in “18 in America” is Dethier’s optimism, and his talent for perceiving and telling of the good in things, be they golf or people.

“What I found was that golf was really a game of hope,” he said. “There’s this real sense that things will get better in a round of golf, whether it’s the next shot, the next hole [or] the next day after a really bad round. That … was something that could connect the richest CEO I met to the unemployed guy playing at the municipal course.”