It’s going to be heating back up here in the Walla Walla Valley next week, with temperatures expected to climb into the high 90s.

Which only seems appropriate since the Walla Walla Country Club is hosting the 97th edition of the Washington State Women’s Golf Association tournament that begins Monday and has selected Burnin’ Down the House as its theme.

Not that the slogan has anything to do with July’s typically hot weather hereabouts.

As it turns out, the last time the local country club’s 18-hole women’s group put on this tournament was the summer of 1996. And five days before festivities were to begin with a Sunday practice round, the clubhouse burned to the ground.

The fire began at around noon on that hot July Tuesday. And by the time firefighters arrived on the scene, the clubhouse was engulfed in flames.

“It was a shock,” said Joanne Dunham, who was the tournament director in 1996 and will be one of 26 members of Walla Walla’s 18-hole group who will be playing in this week’s tourney.

“We sat there and watched it burn, and we knew we had a tournament to put on in five days,” she said. “And we knew we had to do it. We’d been planning for over three years and we were so ready.”

So Dunham and her tournament chairs met that very night and came up with a contingency plan.

“We asked for help, and banks and other businesses were so generous and donated so much. People just pitched in,” she said. “We set up large tents near the tennis courts where our events were held.

“It was hardest for our food committee chair, Margy Monahan, because she had to go out and find caterers.”

Club members also placed calls to the other private clubs around the state and assured them that the tournament would go on as scheduled.

“We told them, ‘We’ve lost our clubhouse but we’re still going to do it,’” Dunham said. “And we didn’t have one cancelation, even though they all knew it was going to be really hot.

“We accommodated them really well and the tournament was a hit. One that no one will ever forget.”

Joan Schille, who is this year’s tournament director, is determined to make this week’s tournament just as memorable.

“What they did in 1996 was so amazing,” Schille said. “The tournament was turned upside down and they never skipped a beat.

“And that’s why we are celebrating by Burnin’ Down the House this year. We’ve come full circle to celebrate what a nice job they did.”

This week marks the fourth time the Walla Walla Country Club will host this gathering of women golfers who represent private golf courses throughout the state. The first was held in 1950 and the second took place in 1967.

The tournament is held at each of the state’s 32 private clubs on a rotating basis. Last year’s event was played at the Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, and next year it will be contested at the Canterwood Country Club in Gig Harbor.

This year’s field of 100 — 108 would be considered a full field — includes players representing 19 of those private clubs. Walla Walla’s contingent of 26 players is by far the largest, followed by the Yakima Country Club with 11 and Meadow Springs Country Club of Richland and Fircrest Golf Club of Tacoma with nine players each.

The Walla Walla group includes five players — Dunham, Monahan, Jane Wilkins, Bonnie Ballard and  Helene Chong — who were also in the field in 1996. Three others — Cheryl Corn, Naomi Fulgham and Virginia Henry — won’t be on the course but will be on hand for non-golfing festivities this week.

“There were 16 Walla Walla women in all who played in 1996,” Schille said. “Some of them have moved away, others have passed on.”

Olivia Benzin of Tacoma, who this spring graduated from Oregon State University, has won the last four WSWGA titles. But she won’t be in Walla Walla this week to defend her 2018 crown.

“We have allowed college girls to play in the tournament the last several years,” Schille said. “And several of them have been plus-1 or zero handicappers. 

“I don’t believe we have any of them this year, although we do have some single-digit players. But by far the majority of players are in the 15-to-25 range.

Jane Harris of Seattle’s Rainier Golf & Country Club is the lowest-handicap player in the field with a 2.1 index. Schille, at 5.8, and Dona Dunovant, 7.6, are Walla Walla’s top contenders and are among 14 players in single digits.

Overall gross and net champions will be crowned following Wednesday’s final round of the 54-hole stroke-play competition. But the field will also be flighted — nine flights in all — and gross and net flight champions will also be recognized.

Play will begin with a shotgun start Monday at 8 a.m. Tuesday’s round will feature graduated tee times beginning at 8 a.m. off both nines. And a second 8 a.m. shotgun start will commence play on Wednesday.

The golf course will be closed to non-tournament play until 4 p.m. each day.

An appetizer party and a wine tasting will be held following Monday’s first round, a sit-down dinner is slated Tuesday at 6 p.m., and lunch and the awards ceremony will take place at the conclusion of Wednesday’s round.

The Tuesday dinner will also include the business of passing the WSWGA presidential torch from Walla Walla’s Sarah Michelson to Kathryn Gist of Canterwood. And the evening will include with a 17-minute video — Burnin’ Down the House — depicting the fire of 1996 and all that transpired in its aftermath.

“The video has interviews and pictures of the women and the tents and all the stuff they had to do to make the tournament happen,” Schille said. “And also fire photos that appeared in the paper.

“It worked out to be a nice story of what happened, when it happened and how it still managed to be a tournament. The video will explain what a wonderful job everyone did.”








Jim Buchan has been at the U-B since Sept. 1, 1968, beginning as a part time sports writer, advancing to full time after one year and then to sports editor until retiring in 2010. He now writes columns and features and occasionally covers games.