DOWN ROUTE 66: Good golf mixes well with all the nostalgia

For years it had been on my bucket list of things to do. I wanted to make a driving trip down Route 66. Upon retirement from my full-time job as a sportswriter I made that trip happen.

In June, 2010, the two of us took off on a drive of nearly 6,000 miles, which included some side trips that took us through eight states on roads that once were heavily travelled. The once-famous Route 66, which opened in 1926 and was closed in 1984, is still marked by road signs and many of its attractions still attract tourists looking to reconnect to a simpler time, when there weren’t many chain hotels or franchise dining establishments.

For us this journey was all at once nostalgic, interesting, sobering, educational, entertaining, enlightening and – above all – very much worthwhile. It gave us a glimpse of what America used to be and brought into focus how much it has changed.

And that got me to thinking about making another, very similar, dream trip. Why not combine the unique offerings of Route 66 with rounds at golf courses along the way? This trip is still a dream, but it could be done. I haven’t played all the courses that I’m about to propose, but each is just a few miles off of Route 66 and the myriad of attractions it offers.

Like Route 66 itself, the public courses were chosen because are – or at least seemed to be – out of the ordinary in one way or another. Presumably they are all in keeping with the spirit of Route 66.

So, let our journey begin.

It starts at the corner of Michigan and Adams in downtown Chicago, but that’s just a photo shoot opportunity. Get to Joliet, and that’s where the fun begins. Route 66 is called Joliet Road for a stretch, and that’s where you’ll find a small park with both an ice cream stand and garage, called Dick’s on Route 66, with most unusual rooftops. The ice cream stand has a replica of the Blues Brothers and the garage across the street is adorned with an old car. You just don’t see places like that anymore – except on Route 66.

GOLF STOP NO. 1 – How about Cog Hill’s No. 2 course, called Ravines, in Lemont. I like fun golf, and this one has always been one of my favorites.

Continue on through the little town of Wilmington, which has a Route 66 landmark – the Launching Pad Restaurant with its big Gemini Giant statue. Just a few miles away, in Odell, is a gas station that opened in 1932 and is one of the oldest attractions on Route 66.

We found Illinois didn’t offer as many Route 66 attractions as some of the other states, but there was the first Steak & Shake restaurant in Bloomington and a rabbit ranch in Staunton.

GOLF STOP NO. 2 – In Missouri you go through the Lake of the Ozarks, which has a number of good courses. My choice would be Old Kinderhook, a Tom Weiskopf design in Camdenton.

You don’t drive far before you hit Cuba, Mo., a town of 3,500 that is a must-stop for Route 66ers. If you can endure tight quarters you should spend the night in the tiny rooms at the Wagon Wheel Motel and have breakfast at the Back in the Day Café. Cuba has promoted Route 66 better than any other community. The World’s Largest Rocking Chair is eye-catching but not nearly as interesting as the murals which adorn many of the town’s buildings. You’ll need to allow some time for sightseeing in Cuba.

From there you go briefly through the edge of Kansas and then hit Oklahoma, another state that embraces the Route 66 spirit. In Catoosa you’ll find a landmark, Totem Pole Park. The poles have intricately created paintings on them, and one is 90 feet high.

GOLF STOP NO. 3 – I’m told the lengthy Jimmie Austin layout at the University of Oklahoma in Norman is one of best campus courses in the U.S.

Before exiting Oklahoma you should visit the Round Barn in Arcadia, with a hayloft that is popular for weddings and other social events. Just a few yards further is Pops, a relatively new restaurant created with a Route 66 flavor. A shakes and burgers place, it has all glass walls formed with pyramids of pop bottles.

It seemed like tedious drive into Texas until we ran into the beautiful Stations of the Cross, featuring a 190-foot crucifix, in the town of Groom. Just west of Amarillo is the Cadillac Ranch, another must-see for Route 66ers. It’s a strange thing, and poorly marked on the road. Some eccentric art-minded individual bought a dozen old cars, buried them in the ground and spray-painted them. Guess this is something you have to see to appreciate.

In Adrian, Tex., you reach the designated midway point of Route 66. It’s 1,139 miles from the start in Chicago to the finish in Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, the sign giving you that information is a photographer’s favorite. Then it’s on to New Mexico.

GOLF STOP NO. 4 – Paa-Ko Ridge, a 27-hole facility in Albuquerque, may have the best course in New Mexico. Some say its scenery rivals that of Pebble Beach.

Albuquerque has an 18-mile stretch of a main street, Central Avenue, on Route 66 that is a microcosm of how the world has changed since the road’s heyday. You need to take this portion of the drive slowly to ponder the old hotels, the tourist-friendly restaurants and – sadly – the dilapidated buildings as well. Mile by mile you see how time changes. Some places tried to keep up with the times. Others didn’t.

Arizona comes next. First stop was in Gallup, home to the El Rancho Motel. Once a regular hangout for movie stars like William Bendix and Jane Fonda, El Rancho also had some cinema memorabilia worth seeing. The Indian craft shops nearby offer some interesting things as well.

The Painted Desert and Petrified National Forest are available for brief rest breaks as is the town of Winslow, made relevant by the Eagles’ song “Taking It Easy.’’ There’s a landmark at “the corner’’ made popular by that song. Those places, though, are just a warmup for the Grand Canyon outside Flagstaff. The views there are breathtaking.

GOLF STOP NO. 5 – In Williams, 30 miles from Flagstaff, there’s a layout with at least a good name – Elephant Rocks. It opened in 1990, green fees are moderate.

By now you’re in the home stretch. Only 321 miles in California remain on Route 66. The finish is at the Santa Monica Pier where a 1952 plaque honors humorist Will Rogers. You might also get a taste of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, which is also known as the Pasadena Freeway. It was the nation’s first freeway and connected Pasadena with Los Angeles. It took three interstate highways to replace Route 66 through California, though most of the old road remains.

Before you reach the finish line the California portion of the jaunt brings you into the state from Arizona over the Colorado River. San Bernardino, Barstow. Los Angeles and Pasadena are also on the route before you hit Santa Monica.

GOLF STOP NO. 6 – California has plenty of better courses, but I’ve always enjoyed the 36 holes at Brookside, in Pasadena. The economically priced courses are in the shadow of the famed Rose Bowl stadium, and just that setting makes them special.

Six rounds of golf, mixed in with at least a week of driving and sightseeing. Does that sound like fun to you? Once we completed our very memorable trip I commented that driving Route 66 once was enough. Now I’m not so sure.