WALLA WALLA — The Walla Walla All-City Championships golf tournament is in deep trouble again.
Participation in the annual event, which will be contested this weekend for the 62nd consecutive year, has fluctuated wildly over the years. And the field of 49 players who will tee off Saturday morning at Veterans Memorial Golf Course is one of the smallest on record.
Reasons range from the economy to communication issues to a simple lack of interest. But head golf professionals Lisa Hyland at the Walla Walla Country Club and Doug Newman at Vets remain determined to fight the good fight and keep the All-City on life support while they search for a cure.
“It has been a great event over the years, and the town needs something like this,” Newman said. “All of the courses in Walla Walla have their individual events, but there is no other individual stroke-play tournament, other than the club championships, at any of those venues.
“The All-City is needed. It’s something that is done in almost every community. I think it’s a matter of generating some excitement and encouraging people to participate.”
Hyland is of like mind.
“We don’t want to see it fail,” she said. “The Walla Walla community should have a champion to represent the city. But we’re going to have to change some things, I think, although exactly what I don’t know.”
The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin was one of the tournament’s original sponsors, and the event flourished in those early years. But when the U-B dropped the tournament in the 1970s and the country club opted out as well, fields began to dwindle.
Ron Coleman, who was then the head golf pro at Memorial, grabbed the reins and used his considerable promotional skills to breath new life into the All-City. Coleman teamed up with the Walla Walla Exchange Club as the tournament’s new sponsor and fields that easily exceeded 200 players became common.
“I think we topped out at 244 players one year,” remembered Tom Baffney, who as an Exchange member served many years as the tournament director.
By then the country club was once again hosting one of the two days of play, and the All-City enjoyed many years of unparalleled success. But gradually interest began to wane, and when the Exchange Club bowed out several years ago, the bottom fell out.
Two individuals, Bill Fleenor and Howard Crosby, did their best to keep the All-City afloat for several years. H&H Sports & Jewelry teamed with Adams Golf to co-host the tourney the last couple of years and will do so again this year along with DA Davidson. But their contribution is limited to paying for Sunday’s post-tourney meal.
“I think we had 30-some players one year, so this year is not an all-time low,” Hyland said. “We picked back up to about 100 players, dropped back to 80 and last year we had about 70.”
Both club pros have noticed a recent reluctance to participate in tournaments in general and in individual stroke-play tournaments in particular.
“There seems to be a tendency to shy away from the pressure of individual play,” Hyland said, noting that best-ball and scramble formats seem to be more successful. “Our Chapman tournament was full this year, but the Seniors was down. And we had to cancel the Men’s Amateur Invitational in May because we only had 12 entries.”
“Most people are just not into the idea of playing competitive golf,” Newman said. “We’re seeing a lot of play, but most are doing it for recreation rather than competition. Even most of the good players, the low-handicap players, are kind of staying away from the competitive part of the game.”
There’s also the economy to consider, Hyland and Newman agree, although the All-City’s $75 entry fee, which includes green fees and a barbecue dinner following Sunday’s second round of play at the country club, shouldn’t be a deterrent, they feel.
“Economics is definitely a factor,” Hyland said. “It’s affecting memberships at clubs all over, though we are very fortunate here that we are maintaining our membership. A lot of clubs are not.”
The pros also agree that not enough is being done to promote the All-City tourney.
“Maybe we are doing a poor job of letting people know about the tournament,” Hyland said. “We put it in our newsletters and send it out in e-mails, and I know Doug has signs up at his pro shop. But maybe we’re not getting to the rest of the public.”
“Lisa and I both have more than full-time job taking care of all of the operations of golf here in town,” Newman said. “We don’t have the time or the resources to go out and do what needs to be done. There has to be a driving force behind the tournament, someone to take the bull by the horns.”
That would be a committed sponsor .
The Exchange Club didn’t put any money into the tournament, Baffney recalled. But Exchange members played a relevant role just the same.
“We were able to get all of the outside sponsors,” Baffney said. “We would have 40 or 50 sponsors who would contribute $75 or so apiece. All of that went into the prize fund, and out of the entry fee we were able to cover the cost of the meal.”
There’s one other quick fix that just might rekindle interest in the tournament. The new Wine Valley Golf Club just west of town on Highway 12.
Wine Valley is a spectacular 18-hole links course that has drawn rave reviews in golf publications across the country. But its very likely that many Walla Walla area players have never set foot on the course.
“We’ve discussed Wine Valley,” Hyland said. “We’ve talked about the possibility of having a three-day tournament, or staying with the two-day format and alternating courses.
“The problem is John can not give away his course,” Hyland added, noting that her course and Memorial both wave green fees for the All-City. “John would have to charge a fee, and that would raise the price of entry considerably.”
John is John Thorsnes, the former country club head professional who now runs things at Wine Valley.
“We have talked about it in the past, and I would certainly entertain the opportunity to become part of the All-City in the future,” Thorsnes said. “It would absolutely be good exposure for our course.
“But basically they want to play the tournament on weekends in the morning, and that is my prime time.”