Renewing the Legacy

Wine Valley Golf Club has lifted the Northwest Open Invitational to its prior status as one of the region’s top-tier events

by Craig Smith

The par-5 15th hole at Wine Valley (Photo courtesy Wine Valley Golf Club).
The par-5 15th hole at Wine Valley (Photo courtesy Wine Valley Golf Club).

Red wine is said to be good for the body, and Wine Valley Golf Club is proving good for the Northwest Open Invitational.

Some say it has revitalized one of the most historic tournaments in this corner of the continental United States.

The tournament is one of five “majors” on the Pacific Northwest Section PGA schedule, designed primarily for club professionals. It will be played at the Walla Walla course for a fifth straight year Aug. 18-20.

“Before it came here, it had fallen on hard times,” said John Thorsnes, co-owner and PGA director of golf at Wine Valley.

From 2000-2009, the event was held at six different courses and the field in 2009 was about 100 players. Last year, it was a full field of 156.

Thorsnes and the PGA Section both are interested in having Wine Valley continue as the tournament site.

Long Jim Barnes
A winner of four Northwest Open titles (1909, 1911, 1912 and 1913), “Long Jim” Barnes would go on to win two PGA Championships (1916 and 1919), the 1921 U.S. Open and 1925 British Open. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1989 (Photo courtesy PNGA).

Golfers compete on one of the top courses in the Northwest, a layout with no trees and no homes (at least, not yet).

Wine Valley moved up eight places on Golfweek’s 2014 national list of best modern courses (those built after 1960) to No. 89 this year. The only other Washington course on the list is Chambers Bay at No. 29.

The city of Walla Walla made an impressive list itself this year when Susan Kostrzewa, executive editor of Wine Enthusiast, ranked it one of the top 10 wine destinations in the world. That’s right, in the world. The article was in USA Today.

Jeff Ellison, CEO of the Northwest PGA Section, is among those on the Wine Valley bandwagon.

“It’s a good golf course,” he said. “It’s fun to play and it’s challenging because it’s hard and fast. You get to hit shots you don’t get to hit on a traditional Northwest golf course.”

Walla Walla also is centrally located in the huge territory of the PGA Section that includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana.

“It’s not often you hear the words ‘centrally located’ and Walla Walla in the same sentence,” said Thorsnes with a chuckle.

Thorsnes said the club loses some revenue from recreational golfers during the tournament, but figures that the exposure and word of mouth endorsements of the competitors are well worth it.

The tournament, generally acknowledged as being first played in 1905, has a significant place in Northwest golf history.

The roll call of past winners includes Fred Couples, Rick Fehr, Rick Acton, Don Bies, Brian Mogg, John Fought, Jim McLean, Jeff Coston, Bob Duden, Marvin “Bud” Ward, Al Mengert, “Porky” Oliver, Harry Givan, “Long Jim” Barnes, Rod Funseth and Robert Johnstone, among many others.

Wine Valley architect Dan Hixson’s brother, Doug, won it in 1996 at Awbrey Glen Golf Club in Bend. Retired major-league pitcher Erik Hanson, who won 89 games in an 11-year big-league career, won the tournament 2004 and has said he considers the triumph to be his foremost athletic accomplishment.

1991 NW Open program
Fred Couples won the 1988 and 1990 Northwest Opens. Pictured here is the cover of the program for the 1991 Northwest Open (Photo courtesy PNWPGA).

The defending champion is Shane Prante of Tom’s Golf Center in Olympia. He fired a final-round 67 for a 54-hole total of 202, 14-under par and won $7,000.

This is a big year for golf in Walla Walla, a town where the summer baseball team is nicknamed the “Sweets” after the area’s famous onion.

Wine Valley hosted the Pacific Northwest Senior Players Championship in April. The Girls’ Junior America’s Cup was at the Walla Walla Country Club in late July. The Washington State Men’s Amateur was staged at Wine Valley earlier this month, and the Northwest Open Invitational will be immediately preceded by the weekend Basel Cellars Winemakers Pro-Am on Aug. 16-17.

Last year the club hosted the 112th PNGA Women’s Amateur, and the summer before, in 2012, hosted the 111th PNGA Men’s Amateur Championship.

Walla Walla, which used to be known regionally for its wheat, onions and penitentiary, continues to gain national stature for its wine and golf. That’s proving to be quite a twosome.

Craig Smith worked for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska before moving on to the Associated Press, Seattle P-I, Charleston Gazette in West Virginia and Northshore Citizen in Bothell, Wash. Before retiring from The Seattle Times in late 2008, he penned a popular high school sports column under the byline “Sideline Smitty”, as well as being the newspaper’s golf reporter.