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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Commentary: Lilac City Invitational sidelined as Fairways prepares to switch from 18 holes to 9

July 9, 2022 Updated Sat., July 9, 2022 at 5:08 p.m.

Brad Marek watches his drive during the final round of the Lilac City Invitational golf tournament last June at Fairways Golf Course.  (File/The Spokesman-Review)
Brad Marek watches his drive during the final round of the Lilac City Invitational golf tournament last June at Fairways Golf Course. (File/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

“We still have 18.”

That message pops up when visiting the Fairways Golf Course website. Click on rates, instruction, online store or events and “We still have 18” occupies most of a computer screen.

“I talked to a lot of people that used to be regulars and haven’t been out in a while,” Fairways pro Dakota White said. “And it was, ‘Oh, we just assumed you were nine holes.’ ”

What the Fairways didn’t have this year was the Lilac City Invitational, the course’s annual tournament/funfest/party that has been on golf calendars nearly every year since it was founded by Downriver pro Joe Durgan in 1960. The 57th edition of the Lilac was staged last June. By late fall, word started getting out there wouldn’t be a 58th with course ownership planning a housing development on the first seven holes.

That forced the Fairways to make a tough, early decision to shelve the Lilac at least for one year. White sent emails to Lilac regulars and player rosters from past events letting them know there wouldn’t be a tournament this summer.

The response was predictable.

“Nobody wants to see it go, that was the general sentiment,” White said. “But most people kind of understand the timing of things, the market and the owners’ predicament.”

As for the course’s season-pass offerings, White said, “It was an interesting position to be in. Normally, we do a presale in September and we didn’t know what to do about it. So we held off a little bit, but then it just came to a point where we had to do it because people were going to come to their own conclusions. We priced everything as nine holes, wrote a letter and sent it out: ‘Hey, there’s a good chance we go to nine holes.’ Just trying to be as transparent as we can from a golf course standpoint.”

Pros and amateurs from near and far looked forward to the region’s lone 72-hole tournament. Pros routinely posted low scores and amateurs battled for championships in several flights, augmented by the long-drive contest, putting competition, live music and a good cause – a hefty check presented to Shriners Hospital for Children-Spokane shortly after the tourney champ received the Joe Durgan Memorial trophy.

John Durgan, Joe’s son and former Fairways general manager who supervised the Lilac until 2007, announced every player’s name and hometown on the first tee box hour after hour for four days. Kris Kallem’s first Lilac was in 1990 as an amateur. He kept playing in it in different roles as Fairways pro, general manager and tournament director. He helped bring the event back – with John’s blessing – a decade ago after a five-year absence.

“I had a note when I checked in recently at the course, to me and John, from Mike Bennett to give him a call,” the recently retired Kallem said. “He played in it for a number of years and was part of a caddie group from Pebble Beach and we became close friends. It’s those memories. Change is inevitable as we all know, but that’s the saddest part, thinking of the legacy of the tournament and it goes way back before me.

“It was such a funky tournament and so different and we embraced that part of it. We didn’t want to be another golf tournament. It just put smiles on peoples’ faces and that’s what our industry is about.”

There is no finger-pointing at ownership, the Klar family based in Phoenix, or Buster Heitman, president of West Terrace Golf LLC, the company that manages the Fairways. Attempts to reach Heitman were unsuccessful.

“Ownership has been very patient,” Kallem said. “They have investors and partners that want it to be profitable, so you can’t fault them. It’s frustrating to (Heitman), too.”

So what’s next for Fairways and the Lilac? There are no firm plans for Nos. 8 and 9, but White is kicking around the possibility of a nine-hole short course, “like a wedge course out and back.”

“When (moving from 18 holes to nine) happens, I think it’ll be OK,” White said. “I think nine holes is popular, people’s time is valuable and a fair amount of people just play nine. A lot of people don’t want to spend four hours on the course.”

“Being able to shift and focus on nine holes, it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Kallem said. “Avid golfers want to play 18, but most people aren’t avid golfers. I’d like to think there’s a strong future for nine-hole facilities anywhere in Spokane.”

The future of the Lilac is another matter. White hasn’t ruled out moving the tournament to a different course in the region, but admits it “won’t be the same if we do move it.” Kallem noted it would be difficult to recapture the essence of the Lilac.

“We paused it for a year,” White said. “Now we spend some time and evaluate and see if we want to relocate it next year. It’s been a ton of change all at once, so I’ve taken the approach to try to adapt and stay positive. It’s unfortunate. I miss the heck out of it. It’s a highlight of the year.”

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