WALLA WALLA — By the time Jeff Thomas turned professional for the second time in his golfing career in 2001, he had established himself as the most dominant figure in the long and colorful history of the Walla Walla All-City Championships.
Thomas mulls amateur status
By Jim Buchan
of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
WALLA WALLA — If Jeff Thomas can ever rediscover his putting stroke, he might decide to turn amateur.
Thomas, who is the general manager at the Walla Walla Country Club, gave up his amateur playing status in 2001 when he turned 50 and decided he wanted to take a shot at the Senior Tour, which later became the Champions Tour and features the best 50-and-over golfers in the world.
But in his second try as a professional player, Thomas only qualified for one Senior Tour event.
“The first time I tried, I made it,” Thomas recalled of the SBC Classic that he qualified for in Valencia, Calif. “And I had the opportunity to play with Charles Coody, who had won a Masters. And I almost got to play with Fuzzy Zoeller.”
What Thomas found, however, was that the deck was somewhat stacked against him on the tour.
“The tough thing is that you are coming out of here in February when you’ve only played one or two times in three months and you are teeing it up with guys who have been on tour their whole lives,” he said. “And they are good, there’s no doubt about that.”
Also, holding down a fulltime job was a disadvantage.
“Most of the qualifying tournaments were back east,” Thomas said. “Still working, taking a long weekend to go back there, the logistics were difficult. I only did three or four of them, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”
Thomas turned professional for the first time when he was 25 years old. He played for a period of time on the U.S. mini-tour, then spent two years on the Asian Tour.
“I held my own over there, covered my expenses,” he said of his two years overseas. “I had my best finish in the Thailand Open, where I believe I finished eighth.”
But he shot his best round, he said, in Calcutta, India.
“We were staying with an Indian family, and one night we had fish for dinner and it was wonderful,” Thomas remembered. “The next night we had leftover fish, and I woke up in the middle of the night and it was horrible.
“I was so sick the next day I couldn’t hit a 4-iron 150 yards. I picked up my putter and it felt like a 10-pound weight had been glued to the bottom.
“I shot 81 that day and I couldn’t have played any better. If I had been healthy, it might have been a 61 that day.”
What Walla Wallans know best about Thomas is that after applying for and regaining his amateur status, he took control of the All-City Championships as though it belonged to him.
He won his first All-City title in 1982 and 12 more after that before turning pro again in 2001. During those first 11 years of All-City eligibility, the only two times he didn’t win (1984 and 1988) he didn’t enter.
John LeFriec, who lived in Walla Walla for a short period of time, outdueled Thomas in 1993 and 1997. Robbie Bigelow got the best of Thomas in 1994. And Gregg Corn won the All-City in 1999 with Thomas in the field.
“I am proud of those 13 championships,” Thomas said. “Even though the field wasn’t as sharp as some of the other tournaments I’ve played in, I didn’t win them all. And that just shows you how hard golf can be. Some new guy comes to town and wants to knock you off the throne.”
Thomas, now 62 years old, hasn’t gone through the steps to regain his amateur status a second time. But if he ever does, he thinks he can still contend for an All-City crown.
“Maybe I’m having a pipe dream,” he said. “Some of these young guys can hit it so gosh darn far. But that hole is still just 4 1/2 inches wide.
“It hasn’t really crossed my mind, but I guess there’s a slight chance,” he said of applying for amateur status.
Perhaps once he gets his putter working again.
Thirteen titles in a span of 19 years is a record of excellence unheard of before his arrival in Walla Walla and unlikely to ever be challenged. Thomas won for the first time in 1982, shortly after regaining his amateur status, and his last championship came in 2000.
Ed Fiddes, who won the very first All-City tournament in 1950, is second on the list of multiple winners with five crowns. Jim Beard, a dominant player in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and Rob Broadhead, the tournament’s most recent kingpin, are four-time champions.
Harold Bristol and Dwight Maddess have their names inscribed on the championship trophy three times each. Bristol’s success spanned nearly three decades, with his first championship coming in 1958 and his third in 1976. Maddess claimed his first title in 1975, and his 1984 and 1988 victories were all that interrupted Thomas’ early domination.
Bill Gabel, Max Reinland, John LeFriec and Gregg Corn are two-time winners. Gabel won back-to-back titles in 1967-68, Reinland ruled in 2004 and 2006 before turning professional, LeFriec outdueled Thomas in memorable battles in 1993 and 1997, and Corn finished atop the field in 1999 and 2005.
Of all these players, Corn is the only one expected to be among the contenders this coming weekend when the 64th All-City will be contested. Saturday’s round will be played at the Walla Walla Country Club and Sunday’s round at Veterans Memorial Golf Course.
“Don’t ever count Gregg Corn out,” Thomas said as he assessed this year’s potential field. “He can still get it around.”
Beard and Maddess are still living here and are eligible, but neither’s game is of championship calibre. Likewise Carl Stritzel, who won his only All-City title in 1979.
Eric Kimball, Bill Fleenor and Ronnie Smith are three other former winners who are likely to enter this coming weekend. Fleenor won his only crown way back in 1977, Smith was the 2001 champion and Kimball claimed the crown in 2003.
“If Bill can keep it in the fairway, the way he chips and putts, he could contend, no doubt,” Thomas said of Fleenor. “And somebody just told me recently that Eric Kimball is getting his game back.
“Unfortunately, age is catching up with Ronnie,” he added of Smith. “He can still get it done, but I don’t see Ronnie shooting under par two days. But if he can get his putter working, he could be close.”
Thomas also singled out Beau Chester, Jorge Martinez, Aryn Morell, Larry Siegel, Jim McCarthy and Jim Hayner as potential contenders who play their golf at the Walla Walla Country Club.
“Beau is a possibility if decides to enter,” Thomas said. “Aryn is new to our club and has one of the prettiest golf swing and hits it a ton. And Jorge is another guy with a good golf swing.
“Larry Siegel and Jim McCarthy can keep it around par. And Jim Hayner just won our senior tournament with a first-day 71. On any given day he can beat anybody, and he hits it almost as far as some of these young guns.”
And, Thomas added, Mike Mitchell is yet another country clubber with championship potential.
“I wouldn’t leave Mike out,” Thomas said.
Mike Rostollan at Veterans Memorial Golf Course added Mike Ciez and Cole Sajonia, a pair of former Walla Walla Community College golfers, to the list of contenders along with Barry Wofford, who has been a longtime contender. Rostollan is also encouraging Jeff Reinland and Skip Molitor to throw their hats into the ring.
“Jeff could be a force,” Rostollan said of Reinland. “He is especially tough here on his home course. And Skip Molitor can shoot around par, although doing it two days in a row might be tough.
“Gregg Corn is our gamest player,” he added. “And Sean Taylor is another former WWCC player who is now playing out here.”
Out at the Wine Valley Golf Club, head pro John Thorsnes can name as many as five possible contenders if they choose to enter.
“Tyler Daniels, our greens superintendent, and Mason Palmer are really strong players,” Thorsnes said. “And Kevin Michelson and Vince Jimenez are two others.”
Ryan Baumgart, a 2013 DeSales High grad and the three-time defending Class B state champion, is probably the strongest player of the bunch, Thorsnes added. But Baumgart will be out of town attending a family wedding this coming weekend.
“Ryan’s playing really well right now and he would be a sure favorite,” Thorsnes said. “I think right now he’s carrying a plus-four handicap.”
But unless Thomas misses his bet, this year’s All-City will play out much like last year’s tournament did, when Greg Prins defeated Jeff Neher on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
“I would say it has to come down to those two,” Thomas said of the former Wa-Hi standouts. “They are both here in town, they are playing a lot and hitting the ball a mile.
“If you ask me to bet, it’s going to be Jeff Neher by three shots ... or maybe even five or six.”