OSSINING, N.Y. - The rain began at dawn, which doesn't make for the best day for golf. But to Dylan Dethier, 21, there's no bad day for golf.
"There's a lot to be said for a different kind of golf," Dethier says on the soggy first tee at Hudson Hills, a public course 30 miles north of Manhattan. "Some days are easy: sunny and 80 degrees. And some days you try to finish while you can still feel your hands."
The day is misty but mild, nothing like rounds Dethier played in Minnesota and North Dakota when snow lined the fairways.
In 2009, he took a year off between high school and college to play at least one round of golf in each of the Lower 48 states. He chronicles his solo, low-budget, 35,000-mile adventure in 18 in America: A Young Golfer's Epic Journey to Find the Essence of the Game (Scribner).
His publisher had suggested an interview while golfing, which seems a good way to spend a workday - if you call this work. Dethier, an English major and member of the golf team at Williams College, does not.
With puddles dotting the course, Dethier recalls a round in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in gale-force winds. "Who knew you could have 30-foot swells on a lake!"
His trip was not just about par, birdies and bogeys. In a casino in Cabazon, Calif., he learned the addictive dangers of blackjack. In a motel somewhere in Pennsylvania, he lost his virginity to a lonely waitress. In Las Vegas, he was almost taken by a golf hustler who looked (and smelled) like "a homeless Johnny Depp" and pretended not to be able to play well until bets were placed: "$50 a hole, $100 a side, $200 for the 18."
He began without much of plan. Some mornings, he'd type "golf course" into his GPS and drive to the nearest one. That was part of the appeal: "to wake up and be able to go anywhere, not knowing what was going to happen. A lot of people envied that."
He spent about one-third of the nights sleeping in his car, a 2002 Subaru Outback. On and off golf courses, he relied on the kindness of strangers, friends and friends of friends. He was treated to a lot of free rounds.
Dethier is not from the country club world of golf. At age 5, he fell in love with the game at "a shoes-optional par-30" near his grandparents' home in Maine. He never took a lesson but made his high school team in Williamstown, Mass., where his dad - a hiker, not a golfer - is a geology professor at Williams.
That's where Dethier was headed after high school, despite a "feeling that I had never really done anything." A cross-country trip would be something. His parents initially were "dubious." At first, he describes them as "lenient," then adds, "maybe trusting is a better word."
He spent about $6,200. Part of his goal was to be "self-reliant and understand what it means to live when money is always an issue."
He kept a blog, and six months into his trip, he was interviewed by a USA TODAY sportswriter. Dethier was disappointed in the article, "all about golf, rather than the essence of the trip." But it triggered a flood of e-mails and invitations for free rounds and places to stay.
"Which, in a way, was great," he says, "but it threatened what I was trying to do. Not just play the best of the best (courses), but to see a cross section of America."
He played several elite courses, including Pebble Beach on the California coast, but his most memorable rounds occurred "where golf didn't seem to belong," such as Hawktree, near Bismarck, N.D., where the bunkers are black, filled with coal slag instead of sand.
In New Orleans, he played a city course ruined by Hurricane Katrina. The superintendent told him, "If we could rebuild the golf course, maybe there was a chance for the city, too."
Dethier came to see golf as "the game of hope," no matter how hard and frustrating it can be. His advice to duffers: "Lower your expectations."
At Hudson Hills, a county-owned course he calls "creative," our foursome includes the book's editor, Paul Whitlatch, and publicist, Brian Belfiglio. Only Dethier, who plays to a 3 handicap, consistently keeps his ball in the fairways. He cheers our good shots, doesn't laugh at our errant ones. After the first hole, we stop keeping score.
That's fine with Dethier, who regards scorecards as "the best - but also the worst - thing about golf." He adds, "We ruin lots of beautiful experiences by quantifying them."
In the end, golf isn't about the numbers, he says. "It's about the possibility at the beginning. Not knowing how you're going to get there."
Amid thunder and the threat of lightning, our round ends after seven holes.
Dethier is uncertain about his post-college future. He hopes "to do something with telling stories and writing."
As a golfer, he knows he's not talented enough to go pro. "But golf will always be a game I love. My coming of age has a lot to do with golf. That's something I'll never lose."
Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY