Resilient All-City tourney keeps on trucking

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WALLA WALLA - Ed Fiddes won the first Walla Walla All-City Championships golf title in 1950.

And tournament officials have crowned a champion every year since as the All-City has imbedded itself as an enduring late-summer staple in the valley's sports scene.

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin was the tournament's original corporate sponsor and remained so until the mid-1970s when the newspaper decided to end its association with the annual event.

Ron Coleman, then a vibrant young professional at Veterans Memorial Golf Course, picked up the reins for a couple of years before the Walla Walla Exchange Club stepped up and took on sponsorship duties. Under Tom Baffney's stewardship, the Exchange remained involved into the 2000s, but waning interest in the tournament ultimately prompted the club to sever its ties.

At that point in time, it appeared that the All-City was doomed.

But two local golf enthusiasts, Bill Fleenor and Howard Crosby, put their combined energy - not to mention their bankrolls - behind the tournament and kept it alive for a few more years.

"If somebody didn't take it over, it was going to die," Fleenor recalled in a telephone interview earlier this week. "We didn't want that. We resurrected it, worked on some things, tried to pump up the interest and get it back in gear.

"It has never taken off like the old days, but we were able to get around 100 players."

Last year, when Fleenor and Crosby finally decided that they had done all they could, the local golf pros, Lisa Hyland at the Walla Walla Country Club and Doug Newman at Memorial, came to the rescue.

"We did it all by ourselves last year," Hyland explained. "It was a tournament that had been going on since 1950, and we didn't want it to die. So Doug and I got together."

One of the steps the pros took to try and enhance tournament interest was to bump up prize money by foregoing green fees.

"Both clubs totally waived green fees," Hyland said. "We wanted to keep it affordable for everyone and at the same time we thought it would help if we gave back more to the players."

Last year's field of 83 players - a far cry from the record 244-player field established back in the early Exchange Club years - was nevertheless disappointing. But the emergence of a new sponsorship group for this year's event suggests brighter days ahead, Hyland believes.

A Walla Walla couple, Scott Larsen of Adams Golf, a golf equipment company, and Jeannie Balmer of H&H Sports & Loan, are putting up $750 each to help underwrite the tournament. And they've also been busy acquiring other sponsors, including a $250 contribution from Banner Bank.

"Banner Bank's donation will help cover food costs after Saturday's play," Balmer explained. "And we have a lot of other sponsors who have donated $50, $75 or $100, people who have just wrote checks, and all of that money will go into the purse."

Plus, Balmer said, O'Brien Motors is sponsoring a long-drive contest and Valley Vision Clinic a putting contest, both of which will be held in conjunction with the All-City tournament.

This year's tournament will be played Saturday at Vets and Sunday at the club. Play begins at 7:30 each morning on graduated tee times.

Entry fees for the tournament remains at $75, which, of course, covers both rounds of golf plus dinner following Saturday's round catered by Bob's Backstage Bistro. Cost of the long-drive contest is $5 for three tee shots and the putting contest fee is $1 per round, and players can enter as many times as they wish.

Based on a field of 120 players, players will be competing for $2,500, according to Memorial's Newman. The field will include a championship flight, a women's division, a senior division and several handicap flights, depending on the number of entries.

"We will crown a senior champion, a women's champion and the overall champion," Newman said.

The two golf pros went into the tournament hoping for 50 entries at each club. As of earlier this week, however, there were 30 players entered at Memorial and 34 at the club.

"It's a little disappointing," Hyland said. "With this new sponsor, I thought we would get more participation. I don't know if people are busy or what's going on."

The official entry deadline was Wednesday and pairing were being drawn today. Hyland did stress that late entries would be accepted.

"Typically, our club members are very late in signing up," she said.

"I think the potential for this tournament is very great," she added. "Our new sponsors are getting a lot of local people to put money toward it. I would think that if they continue on this path, they will get even more people to contribute.

"But you have to have players who want to play and who want the competition. That's a tough one."

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