Driving through

Features - Cover Story

A cross-country journey taken in imperfect circumstances provides an intimate glimpse at golf’s place as a safe and unique recreational activity.

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May 5, 2020

“You ask me why I’m a hobo and why I sleep in the ditch. It’s not because I’m lazy, no, I just don’t want to be rich.” – Carson Robison & His Pioneers, Hill Billy Medley, 1932

A large part of the country has stalled, yet the truckers and stragglers traveling Interstate 40 between Kingman and Flagstaff accelerate beneath the dark northern Arizona sky.

Empty ditches … and gulches … and washes … and rivers … are plentiful along the highway. Darkness separates eyes from geographic splendor. I am fortunate to be one of the stragglers, especially knowing a suite secured by redeeming points awaits in a nearly empty and modern Flagstaff hotel. I don’t learn until the following morning that the suite has a view of snow-covered Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona at 12,635 feet.

On the first night of April, to begin a month filled with unknowns, I consider myself something neither I nor Carson Robison aspired to become – rich. Robison sings the first of many medleys I consume on local radio during an unplanned, five-day, four-night, safety-induced, cross-country journey. Few stations resemble 100.9 KWLP-FM, an entity owned and operated by The Hualapai Nation emanating from Peach Springs, Arizona, population 1,090. Two days later, though, I discover 106.1 KTGX-FM, “The Twister,” a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based station playing country tunes released 88 years after Robison & His Pioneers traveled to the United Kingdom to record their medley.

The reason I’m listening to random songs and podcasts in random places involves a trip featuring a gigantic twist. I flew to Southern California on Tuesday, March 17 to see my sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew for the first time in 13 months. The COVID-19 pandemic intensified in California – and elsewhere – early in a scheduled week in the isolated High Desert community of Ridgecrest. One week in the desert led to two as offices everywhere, including the one responsible for publishing this magazine, adapted to remote work models.

Staying an extra week allowed me to build a three-hole Lego golf course and play backyard golf on Bermudagrass with a pair of children being raised in a town where the only golf option sits behind the gates of a U.S. Navy research and development installation. I watched my niece turn 7 and foolishly tried summiting a slippery 8,451-peak alone the following day. I also observed my sister and brother-in-law juggle full-time jobs with taming a 4-year-old boy and home-schooling a first-grader missing her classmates and teachers. The extended time in their home gave a new 40-year-old without children a glimpse at the anxieties facing millions of families.

Editor Guy Cipriano walked 18 holes at Rustic Canyon on March 17, two days before California’s shelter-in-place order was issued.
© guy cipriano

After two memorable weeks, a tricky decision had to be made. I live and work in Northeast Ohio, three time zones and more than 2,300 miles from Ridgecrest. Flying required a return to Los Angeles and potential close contact with numerous other travelers. Driving required a significant time commitment.

Fly or dive? Drive or fly? I labored over the decision. I asked multiple confidants, including the kids, what they thought. But I knew this was solely my call and safety had to override all other factors.

You lose control when you enter a major city, return a rental car, shuttle to the terminal, check bags, clear security and board a plane. Driving was the safer option.

So, at 12:21 p.m. local time on Tuesday, April 1, I slipped a pair of suitcases and a bag of golf clubs into the back of a silver Nissan Pathfinder and waved goodbye to my West Coast family. I wiped a few tears beneath my left eye and cued up the second episode of a multi-part podcast series about Alister MacKenzie. With yellow wildflowers blooming in a desert on my left and the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevadas on my right, I developed a singular focus: Can I make it to Arizona in time to find an open golf course?

Yes, I played golf on the drive home. Plenty of it.

Sometimes I felt guilty about it. But I only played alone. I only played 9 holes at each stop. I thoroughly washed my hands immediately after debit-card transactions. I only took a cart once and that was to squeeze a third nine into a dreary drive through Missouri. I never touched a flagstick or course accessories.

I discovered Cerbat Cliffs and Hidden Cove Golf Course in Arizona; Bill and Payne Stewart Golf Course, Oak Meadow Country Club and Pevely Farms Golf Club in Missouri; and Hartley Hills Country Club in Indiana. Each course offered a sense of place and serenity, two things missing from many lives as COVID-19 curves escalated.

Earlier in the trip, before I realized I would be driving home, I walked 18 holes with a pair of strangers at packed Rustic Canyon, a trendy and bouncy Gil Hanse-designed course in suburban Los Angeles. That was on March 17. I also walked 9 holes at Trona Golf Course, a rugged, sand-fairway course outside Death Valley National Park, on March 23. Between those two rounds, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide shelter-in-place order. A red coachwhip slithering beneath sagebrush represented the only other sign of life at Trona Golf Course, where a family membership costs $85 per year, visitors drop $5 into an honor box to begin their round, and average July and August highs exceed 100 degrees.

Once the iNaturalist community identified the snake as nonvenomous, my fears of being stranded on California’s most remote golf course subsided. The following week, when the long drive commenced, I demonstrated no fear. I avoided reading or watching COVID-19 news. I flipped the radio station upon any mention of the virus. Somehow, I made it through Oklahoma without hearing Hanson, Garth Brooks or Blake Shelton – or any mention of COVID-19. Somehow, I made it through Oklahoma without playing golf either, because even crazy golfers seek warm ditches – or at least warm car seats – when spring wind speeds are higher than the temperature.

Drive. Arrive. Pay. Sanitize. Play. Sanitize. Drive a few hundred miles more.

I never felt safer than experiencing the joys of random golf courses on a random trip.

April 1

Ridgecrest, California to Flagstaff, Arizona

432 miles

Here’s something else I avoided: keeping score. When you keep score, you should play the same tees every hole. When you don’t keep score, you can play the forward or back tees on any hole, allowing you to save time or enjoy a spectacular view.

At Rustic Canyon, still wobbly from the flight into Los Angeles, I added 76 yards of challenge by playing the 14th hole, a long par 4 that can be shortened by carrying an environmentally sensitive area hugging the left side, from the blue tee. My ball landed in a waste bunker between the ESA and fairway. I stumbled to make, um, yeah, an eight on the hole. The locals in my group then suggested we play the par-4 16th from the back tee. Totally worth it. The view is 240 feet above the lowest point on the course and provides encompassing views of a thought-provoking course designed between canyons.

So, 15 days later, I ascended to the back tee on the fifth hole at Cerbat Cliffs. Carved into a terra cotta plateau, the elevated tee begins a 384-hole playing parallel to I-40 in northern Arizona. Trucks outnumbered passenger vehicles. Down in the fairway, around the 150-yard marker, a sign for Exit 51 entices drivers with logos for a half-dozen restaurant chains. Kingman, population 29,742 and growing, represented the largest city I had entered since leaving Moorpark, California, home of Rustic Canyon.

Established as a railroad town in 1882 and a popular stop along Historic Route 66, remnants of the old West and signs of Sun Belt progress converge in Kingman. Cerbat Cliffs symbolizes the city’s transition. Golf was first played on sand greens in Kingman beginning in the 1920s, a 9-hole course supporting turf arrived in the 1970s and the current 18-hole course opened in the 1990s. The front nine features holes flanked by red cliffs and mesas, slender Mediterranean cypress, and par 3s over water and between rocks.

The sun was setting as I foamed out (welcome to non-contact golf) on the ninth hole. A trip-long theme emerged as I walked off the green. I didn’t want the experience to end. Common sense prevailed over golf sense. I still had a 150-mile drive to Flagstaff. I made one more stop before returning to I-40. Kingman supports an In-N-Out Burger and the drive-thru was just five cars deep.

Order. Pay. Grab two cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake. Sanitize. Park. Eat.

I felt rich. Golf and gluttony costs just $23.06 in Kingman. The Old West still exists.

April 2

Flagstaff, Arizona, to Amarillo, Texas

608 miles

Cerbat Cliffs borders Interstate 40 in northern Arizona.

Grand Canyon National Park: CLOSED.

Walnut Canyon National Monument: CLOSED.

Meteor Crater National Monument: CLOSED.

Petrified Forest National Park: CLOSED.

Let’s begin revealing the awesomeness of Hidden Cove Golf Course.

Arizona is perceived as a golf-rich state with terrific November-April weather. That’s true if you live in, own a second home near or frequently visit the Phoenix-Scottsdale-Mesa and Tucson metropolitan areas. The two markets combine to support 4,779 of the state’s 6,057 golf holes, according to the National Golf Foundation’s 2019 Golf Facilities in the U.S. report.

Well, Arizona covers 113,988 square miles, meaning golf can be as tough to find as fresh water throughout most of the arid state. Only one golf option exists within five miles of I-40 between Flagstaff and the New Mexico border.

Hidden Cove possessed everything I sought: proximity to the interstate, distance from other humans, routing promoting brisk play, value and a sense of place that can’t be replicated. The City of Holbrook, population 5,093, which “began as a town of railroaders and cattlemen, outlaws and rugged lawmen,” according to its website, owns and operates the 9-hole course. A cattle guard separates a paved, red-dusted road from the gravel parking lot. The modest maintenance area occupies the same lot as customers.

I entered the barren lot at 10 a.m. I didn’t want to bother a pair of employees mowing playing surfaces, so I knocked on the door of the two-level clubhouse. Silence. I knocked again. More silence. I turned the knob and noticed a locked box: PLEASE PLACE FEES IN THE BOX. A whiteboard describing course policies listed the rates at $10 for 9 holes, $20 for 18. I stuffed a $20 into an envelope and stared at words I have never seen prominently displayed in a pro shop: Remember: Gopher snakes eat gophers!! Please Don’t kill them. The same whiteboard reminds members to pay their $30 monthly dues at city hall and lists a number to schedule a tour of Hopi rock art.

The only rocks I saw in the next 1 hour, 20 minutes were red mounds framing Hidden Cove’s northern boundary. The kidney-shaped sixth green begins a closing stretch framed by piles of red boulders. Fly an approach on No. 6 and 8 or slice a drive on the par-5 9th, and you no longer need a Sharpie to mark your ball.

Firm fairways with 12-to-6 stripes and howling wind enhanced the experience. On consecutive holes, I smacked a 180-yard drive into the wind, followed by a 330-yard effort with the wind. Nary a cloud hovered above. Like the previous evening at Cerbat Cliffs, I wanted more. But this was the longest mileage day of the trip. I left a birdie putt on No. 9 a half-inch short, grabbed the ball, washed my hands, snapped the only selfie of the journey and walked past a light green sign with brown letters: Thank you! GOLFERS.

I tossed the clubs into the trunk and applied sanitizer. I pondered the sign before leaving the parking lot.

A large sign thanking golfers. What a thoughtful gesture.

Thank you, Hidden Cove. Thank you, Arizona.

New Mexico golf courses: CLOSED.

April 3

Amarillo, Texas to Springfield, Missouri

543 miles

The average April low in Amarillo: 41 degrees. The average high: 71. Translation: Golf weather.

Jitters accompanied every morning, so I quickly showered, brewed coffee, checked email and packed. I bypassed opening the blinds. I didn’t bother opening a weather app.

I left the hotel through sliding lobby doors. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Jason Aldean lied. There’s nothing charming about the “Amarillo Sky” on this day. Now, I opened a weather app: 27 degrees. Winds exceeded 20 mph, which I later learn, are tame for the Great Plains. If the Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council were open, I’m envisioning somebody with an affable drawl urging me to, “Come back and see us when the gusts get to 40.”

I simply wanted to warm the interior of the SUV to 40 degrees. I endured a 12-minute thaw cycle, sipping coffee and moping. You can still play golf using safe practices in many places during a global pandemic. You can’t play golf when the ground is frozen.

A sense of urgency yielded to nomadic behavior. I drove into downtown Amarillo and walked around Hodgetown, a Minor League Baseball stadium that officially opened for play 359 days earlier. The occupants are called the Sod Poodles. Anybody in the golf business likes sod and prairie dogs seem cool. If the team shop were open, I’m envisioning myself dropping $73 on Sod Poodles swag.

I drove 146 miles through howling winds and desolate, flat landscape to Elk City, Oklahoma. The bulk of my travel diet consisted of apple and strawberry Nutri-Grain bars, clementines, fruit snacks, peanut butter-filled pretzels, water and coffee. I noticed a billboard for a BBQ joint as I approached Elk City and placed my lone carry-out order of the trip. I devoured “Brisket N’ Bird” with fried okra and a side salad while staring at a bronze elk.

I needed to exercise and found plenty of space in downtown Oklahoma City. I ran past empty buildings, including the 925-foot Devon Energy Center, at 2 p.m. on a Friday. I was one of two people running along a canal in the trendy Bricktown district. I stopped at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, site of the horrific 1995 bombing. Before the government built a formal memorial, a chain-link fence protected the site and visitors left messages and mementos for the deceased on it. A chain-link fence still stands outside the memorial and visitors continue paying unsolicited tribute to the victims. Wind wasn’t the only reason for eye moisture on this run.

Only 106 miles separate Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city. Hopes of a twilight nine faded on Interstate 44. I spent a Friday evening running along the Arkansas River and through downtown Tulsa streets. No traffic, happy hours or baseball games. No golf weather on this day.

April 4

Springfield, Missouri to Bloomington, Indiana

439 miles

Oak Meadow Country Club is the only 18-hole course in Rolla, Missouri.

While hiking a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California’s rugged Owens Peak Wilderness, I listened to a TalkinGolf History podcast episode featuring Kevin Robbins, the author of “The Last Stand of Payne Stewart.” The conversation added context to the life and behavior of Stewart, a two-time major champion who died in a 1999 plane crash.

Undecided if golf could be played on a dreary and damp Saturday morning two weeks later in the Ozarks, I searched for a golf course near my fourth different bed in four nights. The name of the closest course solidified the decision to play.

A life-sized cutout of the Springfield-born Stewart holding a Top-Flite bag and wearing a Miami Dolphins shirt with aqua knickers greets customers in the Bill & Payne Stewart Golf Course pro shop. Even more than 20 years after his death, Stewart’s personality – and wardrobe – fascinate. Whenever the PGA Tour resumes, it needs a Stewart-like figure to emerge.

My wardrobe proved boring. I donned black rain gear and clutched coffee as I marched down the first fairway. I had something every golfer should experience in front of me: an empty Perry and Press Maxwell-designed course. Unlike some of the Maxwell’s other designs, including Southern Hills, a Tulsa course I nearly drove past the previous evening out of curiosity, the Bill & Payne Stewart Golf Course is open to all. The Springfield-Greene County Park Board owns and operates the course, along with three others, including one named after Horton Smith, the winner of the first and third Masters.

I had never played a Maxwell creation and the morning became magical on the second hole, a lengthy par 5 with just the right amount of elevation change and directional slurve. The coffee had served its warming purpose and it was apparent most of the Maxwell routing, which opened in 1947 as Grandview Municipal, had been preserved. The color contrast offered by dormant and delightfully playable Bermudagrass fairways added to the charm. I desperately wanted to spend nine more holes with the Stewarts and Maxwells. But I glanced at the pro shop and waved goodbye to the Stewart cutout.

Needing to walk after ordering a cheeseburger and a salted caramel malt from a rural Missouri drive-thru, I stopped for nine at Oak Meadow Country Club, a 62-year-old semi-private course between Springfield and St. Louis. Walking Oak Meadow’s hilly zoysiagrass fairways negated the midday gluttony.

Oak Meadow is the only 18-hole golf course in Rolla, population 20,293, and I marveled at the civic boosterism. Local businesses sponsored flags, tee markers and course signage. Names are carved into benches. The club’s social calendar is listed on a sign attached to the front of the clubhouse. The second and third holes are par 3s with forced carries over the same lake. An engraved brick honors the lake’s designer, Bill Bray, and urges golfers to “remember him fondly as your ball disappears.” I carried the lake on the second hole and cursed Bray on the third.

I only had nice things to say to myself about Oak Meadow and Rolla as I proceeded to St. Louis. By that point, the weather reached the mid-40s and, perhaps, I thought, I could squeeze in another nine.

Enter Pevely Farms Golf Club.

The sprawling suburban St. Louis course didn’t mesh with my previous golf experiences. The Arthur Hill design opened in the late 1990s, when course owners/developers were devoting hundreds of acres to a single course. I pulled into the parking lot shortly after 5 p.m. and a dozen other vehicles occupied spaces. I didn’t want to be that Guy who kept employees waiting for the last golfer to clear the course, so I decided to break a trip rule and take a cart. The decision proved wise as the course meanders across a former dairy-show farm. The neighborhood surrounding the course boasts gaudy, modern homes.

The front nine had variety and views of varied surroundings, including farmland beyond the sixth green. Despite the cart, the nine took 1 hour, 33 minutes to traverse, the longest round of the day. I returned the cart to a pair of enthusiastic young workers. They asked a few questions about my trip, but we kept the conversation brief. They had the ultra-important task of sanitizing carts; I had more than 250 miles to my next stop.

The Show Me State showed me plenty of terrific Transition Zone turf.

April 5

Bloomington, Indiana to Middleburg Heights, Ohio

350 miles

I skipped the most efficient route home and spent Saturday night and Sunday morning in Bloomington, home to Indiana University, where I studied four years to become, well, somebody who wrote about golf for a living. A 2002 graduate, I hadn’t been on campus since covering a football game involving Penn State and Indiana in 2007.

The first weekend of April should be filled with activity on a college campus, especially a large one celebrating its bicentennial. Instead, I spotted eight people during a two-hour Sunday morning run past where I once lived, worked, studied and recreated. The campus, for the most part, looked the same as I remembered with a major exception – the golf course has been improved. Officials set May 1 as the official opening of The Pfau Course at Indiana University. A new course and clubhouse were constructed on the same site as the old course. The project cost $12 million. Some donor is very rich.

I pulled into the empty parking lot and wondered whether a self-guided tour of a public university’s golf course can be considered trespassing. I resisted temptation and vowed to walk the nearly 8,000-yard course in a formal capacity by 2033.

Seeking an authentic and legal Indiana golf experience, I pulled into the parking lot of three courses between Bloomington and the Ohio border. The sun, an object I hadn’t seen since New Mexico, emerged and all three courses appeared too busy for a quick solo nine. Finally, less than 25 miles from the Ohio border, I discovered the Heartland version of what I experienced at Hidden Cove.

Hartley Hills is a 9-hole course in Hagerstown, Indiana, home to 2,000 “Happy People,” according to the sign on East Main Street. Hoosier-born architect Bill Diddel, a mentor to Hoosier-honed golf legend Pete Dye, designed Hartley Hills in 1928. The first four holes are hilly for central Indiana. A farm borders the flatter fifth and sixth holes. Views of grain silos rest beyond the eighth green. The ninth hole plays back to a clubhouse serving as the rural community’s social hub.

Hartley Hills matters to Hagerstown. You can find advertisements for 18 main-street businesses on the scorecard. The official population has dwindled below 1,700, yet residents continue supporting their course.

The final approach shot of the trip missed the ninth green to the left. I noticed the same man who greeted me when I arrived sanitizing carts. I thanked him for his work and asked him to thank the superintendent for providing a product that helped shorten a long drive. He grinned and responded, “I am the superintendent.”

The superintendent and pro and mechanic are the same person at Hartley Hills. I spent the next 45 minutes chatting with Bret Etchison, who charged me $6 to walk nine and provided hand sanitizer when I arrived. We stood eight feet apart. His hospitality and ingenuity made a hobo heading home feel rich for having the safety of golf to keep him company.

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor.