When Joe Lenberg first heard about his wife’s idea for them to golf in all 50 states, he admitted to a little eye-rolling.
For one thing, Joe wasn’t a big golfer. His idea of vacation was sleeping late and relaxing, not getting lost at the crack of dawn while trying to find a golf course in a strange state. But since Joe’s a good sport, he gave his wife his version of the famous Field of Dreams phrase.
Joe said: “If you plan it, I will go.”
Jean Gunderson’s idea to golf in each of the 50 states occurred to her while she was on a business trip in Chicago in 2002 as a pharmacy manager for what used to be the Yakima Regional Cancer Care Center (it’s now the North Star Lodge Cancer Center). After doing a little online research prior to that trip, she realized she could hit a couple of different nearby courses while she was there, and one was in an adjacent state. “The idea just took off from there,” she said.
The Yakima residents dated in high school and graduated in 1959 from the old Moxee High School. Life took them separate ways, until 22 years ago when Joe’s mother and sister “contrived to get us back together,” as he put it.
Jean, 73, is now retired after 52 years of working in the medical field. She started golfing in her 30s, but she played (and still plays) mostly for the fun of it. Joe, also 73, admits he’s a golfing convert, although he’s still not retired. He is a partner in a Yakima-based company called Tele-Name that leases “vanity” phone numbers to businesses for marketing purposes.
“I think it’s a great sport,” he said. “You can play with anyone and have the playing field be level thanks to a handicap, it’s relaxing, and you’re in great surroundings.”
The pair felt a sense of urgency when they started their mission back in 2002 that was related to their age and a few health problems: Jean has a bum shoulder; Joe’s had heart trouble. But once they started, they found they weren’t bothered by things that flummox other travelers. The pair didn’t seem to mind getting lost. They didn’t let foul weather deter them, which often amused other golfers who would wonder what “those two old duffers were out there doing in the pouring rain,” as Joe said.
That easygoing reputation, they joke, has led them to compare themselves to otters. “When we’re together, we just want to go play,” Jean said.
And play they did. For three years, Jean tightly planned and coordinated their trips with vacation time and visits to relatives. In North Dakota, the couple played in two states at once at Bois De Sioux course in Wahpeton: the front nine holes are in North Dakota, and the back nine holes are played in Minnesota (players are welcomed by a “Welcome to Minnesota” sign after crossing a bridge over the narrow Red River). On one memorable occasion, they played 54 holes in one day. They’ve also golfed in eight states in seven days, and nine states in 10 days.
The pair have golfed around cemeteries, cacti, giant rock formations, tepees, assorted wildlife (including foxes, feral Hawaiian chickens, turkeys, coyotes and alligators) and they’ve even played at midnight on an Alaskan course. (Jean jokes that was her longest swing — she started the swing on one day and finished the next).
“It was never our goal to play the top courses,” Jean said, although the pair did stick to two rules: they had to be regulation courses of at least nine holes. They have played on a couple of courses that are modeled after famous greens, however, including the Tribute facility in Texas that is designed to resemble Scotland’s windswept open greens. They’ve played on some of the oldest courses in the United States, including Middlesboro in Kentucky that was designed in 1889 — and which is still played as it was originally designed.
Jean noted that some of their most memorable experiences golfing had more to do with being paired up with interesting folks from all over the country than the scenery. “Somehow we always manage to get paired with enjoyable people,” she said.
Their adventure took three years, and the last course they played was the Frog Hollow course in Middleton, Del. Jean kept careful notes regarding all the courses, and Joe jokes that his wife serves as his memory bank. If someone wants to talk about a course in a specific state, for example, “Jean will tell me where I was and whether or not I had a good time,” he said.
The couple has logged time on over 240 different courses at this point, although they now golf about once a week. “I play for the fun of it,” Jean said, and Joe agreed. “If you have to get stressed, you shouldn’t be out there,” he said.
After all the fun, Joe said he’s a little worried. “Now that her plans are finished up, she’ll need a new mission,” he joked.