Lilac City Invitational back at Fairways
It's not just four days of golf but a family reunion and big party too as historical golf tournament is revived
By PAUL DELANEY
Watch out, the AARP mailings are just around the corner and will start plugging the mailbox at The Fairways Golf Course.
So will all the assisted living brochures, reverse mortgage literature, and coupons for Ensure protein drink.
What's bringing this attention to a golf course that just turned 26 is the return of one of the area's all time classic golf tournaments, the Lilac City Invitational, which will turn 49 years old this Fourth of July holiday weekend.
The Lilac, sponsored by Miller 64 Beer, begins today and concludes 72 holes later on Sunday and features both professional and amateur players. Pros will compete for a $6,000 first-place check.
“We are very excited about bringing the Lilac back, with players coming from as far away as Arizona, joining some of the finest professional and amateur golfers in our region,” Kris Kallem, PGA professional and The Fairways general manager said. “The Lilac is not just a great test of golf, it's like an annual family reunion, and we are very happy to continue and grow our donation to the Shriner's Hospital.”
The fact that the Lilac gets to live again was a long shot at best, but for largely varied reasons.
First there was the golf course itself. Had developer Buster Heitman not come along and persevered through the nasty recession, it's a good bet the now nicely manicured greens on which crucial putts are sunk, or fairways where golfers try to carefully coax a golf ball to travel where they want it to go, might be nothing more than a dried up weed patch.
It all started in 2007 when Heitman bought the land around the golf course. His business at the time was building homes. “The operator was struggling with it and the owner was ready to close it down,” Heitman said. “So suddenly I was in the golf business.”
But Heitman's timing was far from great as the bottom dropped out of everything about that time. And as we all have seen, it was not – and never has seemed to be – your garden-variety economic downturn.
“Unfortunately, the housing market is still kind of soft,” Heitman said. “We have been having success, Copper Basin has been building some homes out there.” Three secondary lots and 13 more on the fairways are all that remain he said.
Heitman has used the time to spruce up the course. “It's been fabulous, a great opportunity to work hard and redevelop the golf course and get it in such a good condition like it is now.”
“I didn't want to have a tournament until we got the golf course into good condition, and now is the right time,” Heitman said. The Fairways had done a single day tournament in the past to benefit Shriner's Hospital and this year's Lilac will also send money there.
A return of the Lilac name was also a long-shot at best considering it was Heitman who replaced John Durgan as the course's general manager when he took over.
It was the Durgan family, specifically patriarch Joe, the former head professional at Spokane's Downriver Golf Course, who helped launch this marathon tournament in 1960. The Lilac's 72 holes require golfers to be true iron men in order to finish all four days. The tournament moved to The Fairways in 1986 and ran through 2006.
There was, as could be expected, some initial bad blood. And for the Lilac to keep going there had to be some family involvement. “Mom was alive at that time and I went and talked to her about it and she said, ‘Son, if there's not going to be any of our family affiliated with the golf course then, no, no, they can't use the name,'” Durgan said.
As we know, time generally has a way of healing old wounds so six years later it was time to resume the tradition of the Lilac.
The Durgan legacy will be honored with the naming of the trophy, “The Joe M. Durgan Memorial,” John Durgan said. The plaque with the names of the 48 previous winners will be on display at The Fairways.
The Lilac is a different animal all together, Durgan said. “It's grueling, 72 holes, four days, and a practice round Wednesday, so you know, five rounds of golf in a five-day period,” Durgan said. “You think it's easy for those guys on tour? Go give it a shot.”
Durgan cranked up Mr. Peabody's “Way-back Machine,” remembering names from his youth who were instrumental in the original formation of the Lilac.
“Dad, Tom Tucker, Jack Bell, Bill Akers; when they started it, it was always with the design in mind that the everyday guy could go out and see what it's like to test yourself for 72 holes of golf,” Durgan explained.
Among those oldtimers, only two are still alive. Akers, who is in his mid-80s, and Durgan's uncle, Dick Durgan, will have a part in the reborn Lilac. “They will actually be doing some starting,” he said.
“If there was anyone who was really heartbroken and disappointed when things changed it was Bill (Akers),” Durgan said. “Bill wanted bad to see it get to 50 years.”
Now it seems there's a chance Akers – and many others with fond memories of the Lilac – will see wishes come true when next year's event tees off at age 50.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.