WALLA WALLA - Thirteen-time Walla Walla All-City golf champion Jeff Thomas believes he could win a 14th title this weekend at the age of 59 if he wanted to. But he doesn't.
Fifty-seven-year-old Gregg Corn, the only graybeard to win the championship in the last six years, has already proven that he can play with the kids. But he doesn't consider himself a top contender.
Bill Fleenor, 58, has played in practically every All-City tourney since 1969 and won the championship in 1977. And he's come close several times since, but he believes his days as a true challenger are now behind him.
And Jim Beard, who was to the tournament in the 1960s and early '70s what Thomas became and then surpassed in the 1980s and '90s, chuckles at the idea of rekindling the past. Now a weekend golfer who puts the clubs in the closet when the weather turns, the 62-year-old five-time All-City champion says he has lowered his expectations and is "trying to find happiness in the 80s."
So you can pencil in defending champion Drew Reinland, recently graduated from Wa-Hi and bound for Lewis-Clark State College later this month, as this weekend's leading contender. And you can make another former Blue Devil, 2007 grad Rob Broadhead, who won back-to-back All-City crowns in 2007-08, as a co-favorite.
"We pretty much split every time we play," Reinland said of his rivalry with Broadhead. "It could go either way."
Nevertheless, Corn, Fleenor and Beard will all be in the field this weekend when Walla Walla's most enduring golf tournament unfolds. The first round is scheduled Saturday at Veterans Memorial Golf Course and the second and concluding round will be played Sunday at the Walla Walla Country Club.
Thomas, who turned professional for the second time in his career in 2001 and has not attempted to regain his amateur status, remains ineligible for the All-City.
"I'm technically a professional, and I don't know that I will ever apply for amateur status again," said Thomas, the general manager at the country club who claimed his last All-City title in 2000. "As an amateur, you get pressured to play in this and play in that. A lot of those pro-ams are played on Mondays, and that's a day when I can get a lot done. So (being ineligible) is a good excuse that I can't play."
Not that he doubts he could give the kids a run for their money.
"Sometimes I actually play pretty good," Thomas said. "With this new equipment, I hit it farther now than I did back in my 20s. My putting has improved, but my chipping has gone down hill, although I don't play enough to worry about it. And I am in better physical shape than I have ever been, and that helps.
"Those young guys hit the ball by me by about 50 yards, and I'm still 280-290 off the tee. But sometimes they hit it a little crooked, which gives me a chance. It's still a lot of fun to get into their wallets a little bit. I love the competition, and there's nothing like playing for 50 cents to get the blood flowing."
Corn still plays golf three or four times a week, be it at Vets, the country club or the new Wine Valley Golf Course just west of town. But maintaining consistency has been his vice.
"My last two rounds at Wine Valley, I shot 71 and 81," he complained.
But the two-time All-City champion insists that he is living proof that you don't always have to play your best to come out on top. He won his first championship in 1999 with a 4-under-par 140 for 36 holes, then won again in 2005 when he matched par-144 and beat Max Reinland in a sudden-death playoff.
"That first one was more satisfying because Jeff Thomas was in the field and I had lost to him by two shots the previous year," Corn recalled. "And I played really, really well.
"Sometimes you can play really well and finish second. Other times you can play a little bit scrapy and maybe hold on and win, which is what I felt I did the second go-around."
So what does Corn expect from himself this weekend?
"If I take care of my own game and the stars line up, I might be competitive," he said. "But I don't consider myself one of a half-dozen or so favorites. I will beat some of them but not all of them. But I will tee it up to win."
When Fleenor won the All-City in 1977, he remembers shooting 73 the first day and 74 the next for a 3-over-par 147 score. He might be able to match that this weekend, he said, but it won't be nearly good enough to win.
"The winning scores are a lot lower than they used to be," Fleenor said. "It used to be, if you shot a couple over par you had a good chance to win it. But that isn't going to do it now."
Improved equipment that enables players to drive the ball farther and straighter is one of the biggest reasons, Fleenor believes.
"If I hit a 290-yard drive, I'm the shortest guy in my group," Fleenor said. "Guys are hitting low-irons into greens where we used to hit 4s and 5s. I used to be happy with a 260-yard drive, but guys today are hitting 3-irons that far."
Better course conditions have also made a difference, especially on the greens, Fleenor suggested.
"You can make more putts because the conditions are better," he said. "It may be a different game now, but you still have to make putts."
Beard won the first of his five All-City titles in 1966, the summer after he graduated from Wa-Hi. After longtime Memorial greenskeeper Bill Gable became the first player in tournament history to win back-to-back championships in 1967-68, Beard returned from the University of Washington and strung together three consecutive titles beginning in 1969, then added a fifth crown in 1973.
"I was usually right around par," Beard said of his winning scores. "I might have been one or two under once, and even two or three over par once. But there were always some good players around, a bunch of us who usually played about the same.
"I just happened to rise to the occasion when it was the All-City. And once I won it once, it was easier, because I knew I could do it. Those other guys were always shooting at me."
Beard also recognizes how newfangled drivers have added distance to most everyone's game and, in the process, changed the game. Which only gives him pause when he considers Mike Early's tournament record 66-67-133 that has stood since 1981.
"The equipment wasn't a whole lot different then," Beard recalled. "That was just the start of metal woods. I think Mike Early was just that much better of a player."
As for his own game going into this weekend's tournament, "it's about as good as it's going to get," Beard said.
"I can't hit it as far, even with the newer equipment," he said. "Just being older and not as strong, probably not as flexible, is the difference. You can't get as big a pivot on the ball and be able to swing hard and still hit the ball square.
"It doesn't matter how long or how well you play, it's how often that makes the difference. You've got to play enough so that your timing is right and you hit it square."
Winners By Year
1950 - Ed Fiddes
1951 - Frank Sontag
1952 - Ed Fiddes
1953 - Jack Sias
1954 - Reed Clark, Jr.
1955 - Ed Fiddes
1956 - Don Woodard
1957 - Larry Pepin
1958 - Harold Bristol
1959 - Ed Fiddes
1960 - Bob Hirsh
1961 - Mike Dunham
1962 - Rick Jaffe
1963 - Ed Fiddes
1964 - Jim O'Rourke
1965 - Mike Anderson
1966 - Jim Beard
1967 - Bill Gabel
1968 - Bill Gabel
1969 - Jim Beard
1970 - Jim Beard
1971 - Jim Beard
1972 - Harold Bristol
1973 - Jim Beard
1974 - Kirk Bierwagen
1975 - Dwight Maddess
1976 - Harold Bristol
1977 - Bill Fleenor
1978 - John Steele
1979 - Carl Stritzel
1980 - Brian Southwick
1981 - Mike Early
1982 - Jeff Thomas
1983 - Jeff Thomas
1984 - Dwight Maddess
1985 - Jeff Thomas
1986 - Jeff Thomas
1987 - Jeff Thomas
1988 - Dwight Maddess
1989 - Jeff Thomas
1990 - Jeff Thomas
1991 - Jeff Thomas
1992 - Jeff Thomas
1993 - John LeFriec
1994 - Robbie Bigelow
1995 - Jeff Thomas
1996 - Jeff Thomas
1997 - John LeFriec
1998 - Jeff Thomas
1999 - Gregg Corn
2000 - Jeff Thomas
2001 - Ron Smith
2002 - Devin Kaylor
2003 - Eric Kimball
2004 - Max Reinland
2005 - Gregg Corn
2006 - Max Reinland
2007 - Rob Broadhead
2008 - Rob Broadhead
2009 - Drew Reinland
Tournament Record - Mike Early, 66-67-133, 11-under-par for two rounds at Veterans Memorial Golf Course, 1981.