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Jim Meehan: Lilac Invitational’s new June start might help tournament blossom

UPDATED: Fri., May 31, 2019

Lilac City Invitational organizers have kicked around options for years to make an already enjoyable golf tournament more receptive to prospective participants.

They considered shortening the tournament to 54 holes, but like the uniqueness of being the region’s only 72-hole event. They thought about having a cut, but decided against it.

They’ve long debated finding the right spot on the calendar, but there really isn’t a perfect fit. August was a consideration, but the Fairways probably wouldn’t be in peak condition that deep into the summer heat.

So they went the other way. The 55th Lilac begins a four-day run Thursday, roughly a month earlier than its customary weekend following the Fourth of July.

The early returns are promising.

“There’s never any good dates, whether it’s scheduling a competitive tournament like the Lilac or a one-day charity scramble,” Fairways general manager Kris Kallem said. “It’s always hard.

“Being the week before the Rosauers (Open in mid-July) affected us. We weren’t getting the local PGA guys. The dates now are two to three weeks on either side of the Washington and Oregon opens and it gives guys a chance to fill a gap in their schedules.”

And help fill out the Lilac field. The tournament boasted 44 professional entries as of Thursday, nearly doubling last year’s 23.

The amateur numbers are down, but Kallem is optimistic that will change. “They tend to sign up late anyway,” said Kallem, adding that registration is still open. (Info: www.golfthefairways.com or 509-747-8418.)

The post-Fourth of July time frame was challenging, particularly when the holiday fell on a Wednesday with the tournament starting the following day.

June seems to be a better fit on the golf calendar. The Washington Open was held May 18-22. The Oregon Open is June 18-20, the Rosauers from July 17-21 and the Northwest Open is Aug. 19-21. Those are the PGA Pacific Northwest section’s four majors.

The Lilac will start two weeks after the Washington Open concludes and finishes nine days prior to the Oregon Open. The Lilac also matches up with an open week on Canada’s Mackenzie Tour.

Mackenzie Tour members teeing it up next week at the Fairways include 2016 Lilac winner Derek Barron, former Idaho Vandal Ryan Porch and Derek Bayley, former Washington State Cougar and two-time Rosauers champion.

The Lilac field includes North Idaho College golf coach and 2013 champion Russell Grove, 2014 champ Tony Robydek and last year’s champ, Vinnie Murphy.

Add in Corey Prugh, one of the top players in the northwest section, Billy Bomar, Kevin PomArleau, David Fern, Loren Jeglum, Gordon Corder, Connor Robbins and 2016 Lilac runner-up Jesse Schutte and there’s no shortage of contenders for the $10,000 first-place check.

“This is the strongest field since we brought the tournament back (in 2012 from a five-year absence),” Kallem said.

The Lilac made another pro-friendly move it hopes will result in more local entries. It sounds odd, but many pros don’t have a lot of time to play because of pro shop responsibilities, packed teaching schedules or busy family lives.

Kallem said a pro and apprentice subpurse has been added, with a projected payout of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 for the top three pros who don’t cash a larger check in the regular field.

“We have some local guys that can win this thing, no question about it,” Kallem said, “but there are a number of guys that look at it and don’t know if they can put enough time into their games to shoot 20 under. Maybe they can shoot 8 or 10 under and still make a check.”

The Fairways is in excellent condition, according to Kallem. The rough and native grass is thicker than it would be in July.

“The greens are as consistent and healthy as I’ve ever seen them,” Kallem said. “We’re working on the speed now, and it’s a little challenging to get them as fast as they are in early July. But if they’re a half-foot slower, that means we can put pins on some sloping parts of the green without it being unfair.”

Lilac mainstays, including the long drive competition, putting contest (open to the public) and live music are back, along with the relatively new par-3 Muni Madness shootout. John Durgan, whose father Joe founded the Lilac in 1960, greets players as the starter on the first tee.

The Lilac has never struggled to fuse entertainment and competition.

“I think this (June start) is where we’ll settle with the pro field doing so well this first year,” Kallem said. “I don’t see that date changing.”

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