Memorial back on its feet under new operators

Jim Buchan of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

WALLA WALLA — I took a walk down memory lane recently with a couple of old pros.

At the invitation of Chris Repass and Jim Henderson, I took advantage of the opportunity to play 18 holes at Veterans Memorial Golf Course, the public track where I learned to love the game so many years ago. It was a fun afternoon.

Repass, of course, is one of the two new head professionals at Memorial along with his partner, Mike Early. Repass and Early are native Walla Wallans who returned home in January after many long years toiling as golf professionals on the west side of the state.

Henderson is a former head professional at Memorial who held down the job for several years back in the 1970s after taking over from his father, the late Babe Henderson. Babe served as Vets’ head pro from 1957 through 1975.

Jim was his dad’s assistant pro for several years before accepting the head position. And it was he who gave Repass his first golf lessons way back when.

I had the opportunity to play many rounds of golf with both Jim and Chris during my early years in Walla Walla. Jim, of course, was already a working pro at the time and Chris was one of the area’s young lions, helping Wa-Hi to three consecutive conference championships and earning a scholarship to play golf at Washington State University.

I was fortunate enough to play with Repass one hot summer day in 1973 when he shot a course-record 8-under-par 64 at Memorial. He was 19 at the time.

Chris still hits the ball as crisp as ever. And he was eager to show off his golf course, which had sadly fallen into disrepair under the previous operators.

Eager with good reasons.

The old course is quickly rounding into top-flight form. Perhaps better than ever, Henderson suggested, because of an irrigation system that wasn’t in place back when he was running the operation.

I’ve only played Memorial a couple of times in recent years, and I found it not only to be a well groomed layout but challenging as well. It played longer than I remembered, possibly because of that irrigation system. And when you stray off the fairways, left or right, you are likely to pay a price.

I heard a lot of wood-chopping the day I was there. And did some of my own.

Repass and Early are working hard to restore membership and increase play. And although the prior operators provided little in the way of records from which to draw comparisons, they believe they’re headed in the right direction.

“We have 105 members, who are our annual ticket holders,” Repass said. “I would have to say that is more than double what they had last year. So far we have exceeded expectations.”

After averaging 90 rounds per day earlier in the year, Memorial is now averaging closer to 115 rounds per day, Repass said.

Mike Rostollan, the Walla Walla Community College golf coach who helped run the Memorial course on an interim basis for several months before Repass and Early got to town, estimated there were about 15,000 rounds played at Vets in 2013.

“That’s not nearly enough,” Repass said. “But if we can get it up to 24-to-25 thousand …”

In Memorial’s heyday, he said, the course averaged more than 40,000 rounds of play per year.

“With all of the new competition in the area, those type of numbers might not be attainable,” Repass said. “But we would like to hope so.”

The new operators are encouraging play by offering Twilight League competition on Tuesdays, Ladies Day each Wednesday and informal men’s days each Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday morning.

“Those guys are pretty organized,” Repass said of the men’s day players. “We just set aside four or five tee times for each of those days, and at least once a week one of us tries to play with them.”

It’s that personal contact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mike Spanish, one of Memorial’s longtime players who often participates in the men’s day competition.

“They play a round of golf with you,” Spanish said of Repass and Early. “They’ll give you a tip if they think you need it, just like it used to be. And I’m seeing a lot of players who left the course coming back.

“And the course is in great shape,” Spanish added. “The greens are receiving the ball, and I can actually pinch the ball on the fairways again. I love it, and they are just getting started.

“And best of all, they are there every day.”

Another building block at Memorial has been a plethora of tournaments the new head pros have scheduled.

“We had an opening-day scramble in March, a masters tournament in April, a two-man best-ball and a Chapman in May, and we just had our six-six-six tournament,” Repass said. “And we also just had the Mid-Columbia Seniors, which brought in 150 players from throughout the Columbia Basin.

Memorial is also offering clinics for kids and special rates for seniors 62-and-over, young-adults 19-to-25 and veterans.

“We’re offering youth sessions in June, July and August — each session two hours a day, five days a week — through the YMCA,” Repass said. “That’s 10 hours of lessons each session, and kids can sign up through the YMCA.”

The special rate for veterans has been particularly popular, Repass said. It is offered every Monday and enables veterans to play for half price.

“It’s for anyone who has served even for one day in the military,” Repass said. “And we are getting a good response.”

Plans are also in the works to open a full-service restaurant in the near future, Repass said. In the meantime, the three main food groups — hotdogs, popcorn and cold beer — are for sale in the pro shop.

“It seems to be getting better and better on a daily basis,” Repass said of the progress being made as Memorial reinvents itself. “We haven’t had too many bad comments, and a lot of people have thanked us for getting the course back in shape.

“It’s a friendly place, and the people working here enjoy it. We are starting to be discovered again.”

And as for all of those trees that kept getting in my way the day we played, Chris had a simple solution.

“There are no trees in the fairways,” he reminded me.