All-City

Chris Mehl follows his tee shot on the 14th hole at Veterans Memorial Golf Course during the final round of last year’s All-City tournament.

The All-City Tournament is set for next weekend, and when locals tee off Aug. 8-9 here at Veterans Memorial Golf Course and Walla Walla Country Club, it will mark the first sports game or tournament in this city in more than five months during the coronavirus pandemic.

As of Saturday night, 101 Walla Walla Valley residents had signed up to play in the 71st annual competition.

“This is going to be the first big tournament we’ve been able to have this year,” Walla Walla Country Club pro Lisa Hyland said. “We’ve had to cancel other tournaments.”

The last notable sports event here happened Feb. 29 at Whitman College, where the women’s basketball team lost a 57-55 battle with George Fox for the Northwest Conference postseason tournament championship. The Blues would play two more games on the road the following weekend, but the entire sports world was already cascading into a mass shutdown.

Amidst the quarantine, however, golf courses like Vets and the Walla Walla Country Club were permitted to reopen May 5.

Since then, despite some regulations, the local golf courses have seen business boom.

“I think you’ll find that every one of the golf courses in town have been extremely busy,” Vets pro Chris Repass said. “I’m also talking about the guys at Wine Valley (Golf Club) and the country club. They’ve been packed out there because people miss playing golf. I think nationwide, it’s been the same thing. It’s been off the charts with people playing golf.”

The big wave of customers includes many new faces.

“Our biggest growth is in, not the junior players, but what we call young adults,” Repass said. “We offer a young adult rate that goes for 18-30 years old. That’s been the biggest growing area for us.

“We took a hit financially, but the extra people coming into the door really helps.”

Walla Walla Country Club logs every round of golf played, and has seen an increase of more than 20 percent over last year.

“We’re getting lots and lots of rounds of golf being played,” Hyland said. “We’re very busy.”

Before opening at the start of May, groundskeepers took advantage of the closure.

“I think all the golf courses were helped, kind of like a silver lining, by being shut down because it allowed you to do a lot of extra maintenance things when nobody’s out there.

“You can top dress greens, aerify the fairways, do maintenance on the bunkers, that sort of stuff,” Repass said. “I think all the golf courses are in exceptional shape.”

That includes Walla Walla Country Club.

“We were able to do a lot,” Hyland said. “We were closed for six weeks, and now the course has never looked better. Everything was in great shape once we reopened.”

The Walla Walla Valley has lost most of its spring and summer traditions to the pandemic — those include Sweets baseball, as well as Little League and American Legion, the Peach Basket Classic, and the Fair & Frontier Days rodeo — all having been cancelled, one by one,

But the 2020 All-City Tournament was never really in doubt once the courses had gotten back to business for a few weeks.

“I don’t think so,” Repass said. “You can practice social distance while you’re playing golf.”

The All-City Tournament requires, as in years past, that participants reside within 30 miles of Walla Walla.

That’s helpful, especially this year, during a pandemic that has seen quarantines, health scares and travel limits.

“You’re looking at Milton-Freewater, Dayton, Waitsburg, and mostly Walla Walla people playing,” Repass said. “We’re staying well within our boundaries.”

Despite the pandemic, the 2020 All-City Tournament is expected to look much like previous years.

Vets will host the first round Aug. 8 with 18-hole stroke play beginning at 8 a.m., if not a little sooner to help players avoid spending too much time under a blazing sun.

Second-round action will take place likewise the following day at Walla Walla Country Club with another 18 holes before the top eight stick around for the Championship Flight starting at about 11 a.m.

Heat is the only real concern.

“These guys can handle that,” Repass remarked about the weather. “You start to get into the 100s, then it becomes a little debilitating, but 90-95 over here is not a big deal.

“They’re used to playing in that kind of stuff.”

Many of last year’s top golfers will be back at it.

Jeff Neher won the 2019 trophy, and Chris Mehl topped the Championship Flight with Carl Wheeler placing second, Dakota Baker third, and Tyler Daniels fourth as both Derik Heitzman and Jorge Martinez tied for fifth place.

All have registered this year.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Repass said. “There’s always the anticipation. Who’s going to win? How are they going to play?

“People look forward to this because it’s always been one of the major focal points of the year, golfwise.”

The tournament includes four divisions (Championship, Open, Senior and Ladies) with a maximum of 120 participants all together.

Last year’s field was only four golfers short of the limit, and Repass expects to come close again with the deadline for registration Wednesday at 5 p.m.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we filled it,” Repass said. “The COVID stuff changes things you can do, but this is golf. They’re looking forward to playing and competing. Everybody’s used to doing what they have to do now. It’ll be fun.”

Hector del Castillo can be reached at hectordelcastillo@wwub.com or 509-526-8317.

Hector writes stories about local sports, helps produce the daily section and updates the web site. A lifelong sports nut having grown up in Maryland, he joined the U-B with more than 15 years experience in journalism.