RAWLINS, Wyo. -- The loud rumble of 18 wheels caught my attention.
Just as I was about to head toward the first tee, a massive semi-truck pulled into the parking lot of the Rochelle Ranch Golf Course, a unique municipal course adjacent to Interstate-80 in southern central Wyoming.
"Probably a couple of truckers ready to play some golf," Rochelle Ranch Golf Professional Kevin Gannon said matter of factly.
Truckers who play golf? Really?
Too bad they were gone when I finished my round. I would have loved to meet them. It seems truckers only have time for nine holes. On the road again. Just like me.
I didn't schedule a cross-country, five-day golf road trip for the fun of it. Necessity dictated a mad dash across the country's midsection. I needed to get two dogs, a car and a few more personal items from Michigan to a new home in California. What golfer drives 2,400 miles through eight states without stopping for a round or four?
I needed my rounds to be convenient to the highway and worth the detour. I got way more than I bargained for -- mostly ideal fall weather, mountain views, antelopes for playing partners, golf and gambling, and even an undiscovered new course. Better still, I teed it up for the first time in Iowa, Wyoming and Utah, checking three more states off my to-be-played bucket list (only 14 states to go to hit the magic 50).
Days 1-2: Golf and Gaming in Iowa
I was sure my GPS had gone haywire searching for the Riverside Casino & Golf Resort in Riverside, 20 minutes south of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. After a few back roads through cornfields, I pulled into the parking lot just as a large collegiate golf tournament was finishing a 36-hole day.
It's hard to imagine a more complete golf resort in Iowa. The rooms were surprisingly stylish with massive glass-wall showers that can be made private from the bedroom with the push of a button, closing a set of curtains. For dinner, I joined a long line of hungry gamblers for BBQ night at Robert's Buffet, a fulfilling meal that hit the spot. While my father-in-law donated to the slots, I wisely rested up for the first of many long days ahead.
Teeing it up on Blue Top Ridge with Director of Golf Bryan Haas the next morning maybe wasn't such a great idea. My back was stiff from sitting in the car for 500 miles. Haas, who happens to be one of the finest Titleist clubfitters in the country, makes the game look easy. I tend to make it hard. If I had more time, I would let Haas put my game back together at the club's impressive indoor fitting/teaching studio, one of the best in the Midwest.
Golfweek ranks the brawny Blue Top Ridge third among the top public golf courses in Iowa. The 7,432-yard course opened in 2007, but the catastrophic floods that plagued the region in 2009 demolished much of the front nine. Original architect Rees Jones rebuilt four new holes that reopened in 2011 safely away from the Iowa River (replacing holes 2-6).
High ridges and hills turn up the volume on a more dramatic back nine. The longest hole in the state -- the 665-yard, par-5 16th hole -- and the short, risk-reward, 360-yard 17th hole promotes wild swings in the leaderboard down the stretch. Don't be surprised to see Blue Top Ridge hosting a big tournament on TV in the not-so-distant future.
Days 2-3: Nowhere Nebraska
Another day, another 511 miles.
The Comfort Suites in Gothenburg -- roughly 250 miles west of Omaha -- turned out to be the perfect salve to my wounds. Not only was there an outdoor hot tub where I could stretch out my back, I discovered a lighted putting green and partially fenced-in back lawn where I could run the dogs.
Just a few miles down the road, the 7,002-yard Wild Horse Golf Course -- no. 88 on Golf Magazine's "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" -- lived up to its billing as the top course in state. The masterpiece of Dan Proctor and Dave Axland melds into the barren backdrop so well. The vibe at Wild Horse feels so downhome, from the friendly greeting in the tiny pro shop to the tree stumps as tee markers and the steer skulls as 150-yard markers.
The four-foot-high fescue grasses were so tall that the dirt cart paths seem like a maze. I never knew what the next hole would look like until a green tee emerged from the landscape. The surprises revealed from those tees were mostly good, especially the short but treacherous 15th hole, a par 4 of 342 yards. Wild Horse is a course I'd pay to play every day. Yes, I'm a little bit of a cheapskate -- peak rate is just $60 -- but it also speaks to the course's character and fun factor.
Days 3-4: Wild in Wyoming
To kill some time while driving, I did a little research on Wyoming. Siri, on my iPhone, revealed the state's population (583,000) compared to New York City (8.4 million) and the most famous athlete (nobody, really) and person (maybe Dick Cheney?) ever born in Wyoming.
When I booked the Hampton Inn Rawlins, I had no idea it was right across the street from Rochelle Ranch, ranked as the fifth-best public course in the state by Golf Magazine. Talk about dumb luck.
Not many people realize how simple traveling cross country with dogs can be. Every pet-friendly hotel was more than accommodating (as long as you pay the extra pet fee and make sure Fido doesn't chew up the bedspread or bark all night). I was originally booked in a third floor room at the Hampton Inn, but a friendly clerk upgraded me to a suite closer to the side door on the first floor so the dogs could go in and out without disturbing other guests. That room happened to be closer to the free cookies in the lobby. Win-win.
The following morning I was amazed that a course intertwined with one of America's busiest highways could still be so natural. The traffic noise at Rochelle Ranch never intrudes on the serene setting. Golfers are too busy worrying about blown-out bunkers in the middle of fairways, thick sagebrush lining every hole and mucky salt flats that swallow balls. I saw more antelopes than golfers during my round.
At nearly 8,000 yards, Rochelle Ranch is one tough cowboy, especially when the wicked winds whip up on the plains. Golf Digest ranked Rochelle Ranch no. 29 among the nation's "50 toughest courses" in 2007 (it dropped off the magazine's "75 toughest" list in 2011). Luckily, my morning was soft with virtually no breeze. That made playing one of my favorite risk-reward Cape holes of all time more manageable.
The 444-yard 13th hole boomerangs around a large pond. From the Antelope tees (second set), it's a mere 212-yard carry over water to an apron of fairway short of the green. I belted one safely across, then settled for par after a mediocre chip.
Days 4-5: Ugly in Utah
After four days of spectacular September sunshine, my forecast turned sour in the heart of ski country in Utah.
Fortunately, my digs in Park City, east of Salt Lake City, got a little swankier. Nobody does pet friendly like the Waldorf Astoria. As well as the staff at the Waldorf Astoria Park City treats their human guests, they went above and beyond for the dogs, leaving four treats and cushy dog beds in the room. I was a little jealous: Where were my Scooby snacks?
I found them downtown at the High West Distillery, the first legally licensed distillery in Utah since the end of Prohibition. After a short rib taco appetizer, the best Caesar salad I've ever had, a fried Krispy Kreme donut topped with ice cream for dessert and a whiskey tasting, I was living proof that every dog has his day.
Reality came the next morning during a deluge on the first tee at Park City Golf Club, a solid municipal course near downtown. The first green looked more like an extension of the pond fronting the second green. As the rain continued for much of the front nine, my hosts and I almost quit several times.
A warm breakfast sandwich and hot chocolate at the turn revived our spirits for the back nine. Even through the gloom, it was easy to see the 6,622-yard course's charms. It wasn't a destination course that you'd drive specifically to play. That would be The Canyons, a new Gene Bates design set to open next spring. I discreetly walked my dogs around several of the holes near the hotel the night before to get a feel for the 6,256-yard par-70 layout. It looked beautiful, yet difficult, kind of like my entire journey.
It wasn't easy driving through cornfields, plains, mountains and fields, but I'm so glad I did. Indeed, this is America, The Beautiful.
Remember the lyrics from second grade: "O beautiful for spacious skies"? I lived them for five memorable, golf-filled days.