New pros at Vets promise hands-on approach

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WALLA WALLA — Mike Early and Chris Repass are determined to prove that Thomas Wolfe was wrong.

Wolfe, of course, was a major American novelist from the early 20th century. And one of his best-known works, published posthumously in 1940, was titled You Can’t Go Home Again.

The novel centers on a fledgling author who writes a book that makes frequent and often disparaging references to residents of his hometown. This results in menacing letters and death threats that convince the young writer never to return home.

Early and Repass, who officially take over the operation of Veterans Memorial Golf Course on Jan. 1, don’t have that problem. They are Walla Walla natives who have maintained close, comfortable ties with their hometown even as their professional careers have kept them on the far side of the state.

“The good thing about us is that we still have a lot of contacts here,” Repass said last week when he and Early were in town to continue preparations for their big move from the Olympic Peninsula. Repass has been the head golf professional at the Peninsula Golf Club in Port Angeles for the past 27 years while Early has served as the head pro at the Port Townsend Golf Club over that same period of time.

“We have quite a network of people we still know in town,” Repass continued. “I play the Memorial course every year. Mike’s brother Dennis lives here, and he plays the course five or six times a week. It’s not like we’re a couple of guys from Port Angeles and Port Townsend who don’t know a soul here. We know everybody in town.”

Early, who is 62, graduated from Kennewick High School in 1969, but he spent most of his growing-up years in Walla Walla. Mike’s father, Wib Early, was the club manager at the Walla Walla Country Club on three different occasions, separated by short stints in the same capacity at the Tri-City Country Club and the Yakima Country Club.

“This is my hometown,” Early said of Walla Walla. “I was born and raised here. My brother kept asking me when I was coming back. I think even if I had retired over there on the Peninsula, I would have moved back here.”

Retirement plans have now been put off for “at least the next 10 years,” Early said, referencing the 10-year lease he and Repass signed with the city of Walla Walla, which owns the 18-hole Memorial golf course.

Early played two years of golf at Columbia Basin College and two years at Western Washington, where he qualified for the NAIA Nationals in 1973 and finished 16th individually while helping the Vikings to a 10th-place finish. He turned professional a year later and played two years on a mini-tour in Arizona before returning to the Pacific Northwest where he began his career as a teaching professional at Black Butte Ranch in Sisters, Ore., under former Walla Walla Country Club pro Bunny Mason.

Early moved from Black Butte to the Meridian Valley Golf Club in Kent, Wash., and from Meridian Valley to the Dungeness Golf Club in Sequim before landing in Port Townsend in 1986. As a player, Early won the Washington State PGA Championship in 1976, the Oregon Senior Open in 2003 and the Washington Senior Match Play Championship on two occasions.

Repass, three years Early’s junior, graduated from Wa-Hi in 1972. In his three years as a varsity golfer, the Blue Devils lost just one dual match and qualified for the state tournament all three years.

“I was our team medalist as a sophomore and junior,” Repass recalled. “State was a one-day deal back then and we didn’t finish high up on the food chain, but we made it every year.”

Repass then played three years of golf at Washington State.

“That was back when Peter Jacobsen and Craig Stadler were in the (Pacific-8 Conference),” Repass said. “I didn’t play with those guys, but I played in the same tournaments.”

Repass didn’t play his senior year at WSU to focus on academics.

“I wanted to graduate because it was costing a lot,” he said. “And I didn’t have a lot.”

After graduating from WSU in 1976, Repass returned to Walla Walla and went to work for Jim Henderson, who had by then replaced his father, Babe Henderson, as the head pro at Veterans Memorial. Repass turned professional in July of that year.

Repass’ career path took him to the Agate Beach Golf Course in Newport, Ore., to the Inglewood Country Club in Kenmore, Wash., and to the Everett Municipal Golf Course in Everett, Wash., before arriving in Port Angeles in 1986.

Both men remember Veterans Memorial Golf Course as a vibrant asset back in the 1970s and ’80s, and they’re convinced they can restore the buzz that has been in steady decline in recent years. The city and We-Man Vets Golf Inc. reached a financial settlement in May that terminated what had become an unsatisfactory 18-year partnership.

Since that termination, the course has been operated on an interim basis by the city and Walla Walla Community College’s golf and turf management programs.

“Jim DeMont, Mike Rostollan and Bill Griffith have done a tremendous job of maintaining the course,” Repass said. DeMont is the Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Director, Rostollan is WWCC’s golf management instructor and head coach, and Griffith runs the school’s turf management program.

Interestingly, unbeknownst to one another Early and Repass both looked into the possibility of leasing the course 18 years ago. But financially it didn’t add up back then, they said.

Eighteen years later they have made it work as partners.

“We sat down with the city and basically hacked out a negotiation,” Repass said. “There was a lot of back and forth, give and take on both sides.

“And we have a real positive working relationship with the city. They have a valuable asset they need and want to protect, and they understand that we are relocating three families.”

Along with their wives, Vicki Early and Barbara Repass, the new Memorial team will include 60-year-old Merle Pearce and his wife Linda. Pearce has been the greens superintendent at the Peninsula Golf Course since 1995.

“He’s a certified golf superintendent and a workaholic,” Repass said of Pearce. “He has already been over here six times and I think he knows more about the Memorial irrigation system than anyone else.”

What Early and Repass are determined to restore at Memorial is a hands-on approach that has been missing in recent years.

“We recognize that we have to bring back people who have played Memorial for years and years and have gone elsewhere,” Repass said. “Both of our strong suits are customer service and promotion. That is where we do a good job.”

“This is not our first rodeo,” Early said. “We have run hundreds of golf tournaments over the last three decades. That is our gravy. We want to get those people back and we want to focus on ladies and juniors.

“It’s going to be different, more hands-on service,” Repass said, “with two golf professionals and a hell of a good superintendent. We will do early morning specials, late-night specials and tap into the tourist traffic that is coming into town.”

And they’re not worried about the added competition of the Wine Valley Golf Club, the new course west of town.

“We know John Thorsnes (Wine Valley’s head pro) and he’s excited we are here, too, because it is good for the whole area,” Repass said. “We will work with each other.”

“We have three types of courses in this town,” Early added. “A private club (Walla Walla Country Club), a resort course (Wine Valley) and a public course (Memorial).

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