Author Interviews
6:55 am
Sat August 17, 2013

'18 In America': Coast To Coast With Golf Clubs In Hand

Originally published on Sun August 18, 2013 6:35 am

When Dylan Dethier graduated from high school a few years ago, he didn't go on to the local college, join the Army or hitchhike cross-country. He hit golf courses, on a trip across America to play a round of golf in each of the Lower 48 states.

He played the posh course at Pebble Beach, yes; but mostly public courses across the country, including one in hard-hit Flint, Mich., another in North Dakota and one in a corner of Alabama. Over the course of a year he slept with an ax under his car seat, lost his virtue, and looked at America from green to shining green.

And he's written a book about that year: 18 in America: A Young Golfer's Journey to Find the Essence of the Game.

Over the course of his trip, Dethier saw a game with regional accents — golf looked a little different everywhere it was played. There were Western courses with laid-back club pros who drove pickup trucks and wore denim instead of argyle. In Minnesota, he sprinted through a soggy, snow-soaked course to get his 18 holes in before he froze solid.

Dethier tells Scott Simon (during a round of golf, of course), about playing golf in Flint with two African-American men who'd once worked for General Motors: "There were a number of factors that made it different than the golf that my parents were afraid of me falling in love with, and that made it appealing, and these guys were great."


Interview Highlights

On his most beautiful hole of golf

"The hole that comes to mind is the 15th hole at Bully Pulpit golf course in Medora, N.D., which is really, it's in the heart of the Badlands, and they leave golf carts for you at the base of this hill, and you drive up and up and up, and all of a sudden, you're on top of the state, it feels like. And you look around in every direction and there are these skeletons of mountains. And then you kind of look down, and you notice that there's this little mouse pad of a green, about 160 yards away, that you're supposed to hit onto while the wind is whipping like 50 miles per hour across your face. And that was just a moment where I just stood there and thought, 'Wow, this game is pretty cool, and that it's brought me here is so cool.' "

On why people play golf

"It's a game of possibility. So even in these places where people seemed to have lost hope, there was this possibility of things getting better the next hole, or the next day, because golf has this way of bringing people back. You know, you can play the worst round of your life, and then there's always this two-part reaction, and the first one is like, 'God, I'm never playing this game again.' And then the second one that comes right after that is, 'Gee, we gotta get back out there tomorrow. We gotta right the wrongs that we committed today. I can figure it out if I just change this one thing.' "

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When Dylan Dethier graduated high school a few years ago, he didn't go onto the local college, join the Army or hitchhike across the country. He hit the links on a trip across America to play a round of golf in each of the lower 48 states. He played the posh course at Pebble Beach, yes, but mostly less-celebrated courses across the country, including one in hard-hit Flint, Michigan; another in North Dakota; one at a corner of Alabama.

Over the course of a year he slept with an axe under his car seat, lost his virtue and looked at America from green to shining green. He's written a book about the year, "18 in America: A Young Golfer's Journey to Find the Essence of the Game." We caught up with Dylan on the many links of the East Potomac Golf Course in Washington, D.C. which is not exactly St. Andrews, but blustery.

Go ahead, you go first.

DYLAN DETHIER: I'll start? All right.

SIMON: Quiet, everybody, quiet, quiet. Mr. Dethier is putting. Thank you.

DETHIER: They're rolling a little slow.

SIMON: Oh, thank you for that tip. Where is the hole, out of curiosity?

DETHIER: Oh, its like you want to play it off the left side of the tree.

SIMON: Oh I see. OK, all right.

DETHIER: Touche.

SIMON: We'll step away from the game for a moment before I fall too far behind. Over the course of his trip, Dylan saw a game with regional accents. There were Western courses with laidback club pros who drove pickup trucks and wore denim, not argyle. He slogged through a snow-soaked course in Minnesota to play 18 holes while he could still putt without frostbite.

I asked him about a round he played in Flint, Michigan, a city that's been struggling for a generation.

DETHIER: Golf looked different in Flint than I had seen it before. You know, I had heard that Flint would be a desolate place and I was even shocked at just how kind of barren the landscape was. And so, we played at a municipal golf course really in the shadow of two old factories with two African-American men who had worked for General Motors.

So there were a number of factors that made it different and that made it appealing and these guys were great.

SIMON: Dylan Dethier played a lot of unpretentious courses across the country. The course we played might be especially modest. Eighteen holes of putt-putt golf laid out on Astroturf and concrete alongside the Potomac River approach to Reagan National Airport in the middle of Washington, D.C. Not a lobbyist in sight.

But a humble course didn't improve my grip on the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: I bet I should do the thing where you throw the blade of grass up to the wind?

DETHIER: Yeah, right. I don't think the wind has as much affect in miniature golf but maybe for the more refined player.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah, that's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALL BEING HIT)

SIMON: Oh...

DETHIER: Uh-oh.

SIMON: Oh, that's a bad one, yeah. Rolling back. So you're kind of on the green.

DETHIER: Yeah, you should come up and join me first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF BALL BEING HIT)

SIMON: Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

DETHIER: It's the late round fatigue.

SIMON: Yeah, that's it. Exactly. You see, Dylan has that special touch that great golfers have, whereas I have a desperate grasp, the way people cling to the side of a boat when they're drowning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: I might have had metaphor on my side, but Dylan Dethier had skill, strength and his youth notwithstanding, experience. Later in the round, after I could no longer calculate how many strokes I'd fallen behind, I asked Dylan about the most beautiful hole he'd ever played. It wasn't Pebble Beach.

DETHIER: The hole that comes to mind is the 15th hole at Bully Pulpit Golf Course in Medora, North Dakota, which is really, it's in the heart of badlands and they actually leave golf carts for you at the base of this hill and you drive up and up and up and all of a sudden you're on top of the state, it feels like, and you look around in every direction and there are these skeletons of mountains.

And then you kind of look down and you notice that there's this little mouse pad of a green about 160 yards away that you're supposed to hit onto while the wind is whipping like 50 miles per hour across your face. And that was just a moment where I just stood there and thought, wow, this game is pretty cool that it's brought me here. It's so cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALL BEING HIT)

DETHIER: Oh, this looks good. It's good.

SIMON: Oh. Oh. Seven inches away from a hole in one.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: A little too proud of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALL GOING IN HOLE)

SIMON: Over here on the links after playing with friends, strangers who became friends and even a hustler he met on the driving range in Las Vegas, Dylan developed a notion about what keeps people coming back to golf.

DETHIER: Really, people play it because it's a game of possibility. So even in these places where people seem to have lost hope, there is this possibility of things getting better at the next hole or the next day because golf has this way of bringing people back. You know, you can play the worst round of your life and then there's always this two-part reaction, and the first one is, like, God, I'm never playing this game again.

And then the second one that comes right after that is, like, gee, we've got to get back out there tomorrow. We've got to right the wrongs that we committed today. You know, I can figure it out if I just change this one thing. And it makes golf frustrating but it also makes it strangely hopeful.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALL GOING IN HOLE)

DETHIER: There they go.

SIMON: I'm been keeping score for a few holes because it's just too embarrassing. But I'm going to guess over 18 holes you made like 20 shots and I made 150, so an NPR tote bag signed by Nita Totenberg is yours.

DETHIER: Well, thank you.

SIMON: I mean, what advice would you give me?

DETHIER: What advice would I give you? Give up, but other than that...

SIMON: Take up archery?

DETHIER: Remember the good shots. How about that?

SIMON: Well, that's not difficult. I only had one or two.

DETHIER: Yeah, play more holes with bridges on them.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Good advice for life. Dylan Dethier, thanks so much for being with us.

DETHIER: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Dylan Dethier is now 21, heading into his senior year at Williams College. His book, "18 In America."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.