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Jim Meehan: Golf loses prominent figure with passing of longtime Esmeralda pro Bill Warner

UPDATED: Fri., July 12, 2019

Every once in a while, Gonzaga men’s golf coach Robert Gray employs a putting drill with his players that was passed down to him from Bill Warner.

“There’s one where you basically push the ball, there’s not really a backstroke, to keep the putter face square on the ball,” Gray said. “That’s one I still use off and on with some of the guys.”

Warner’s golf career was one of a kind. The Rogers High product became one of Spokane’s all-time best amateurs, once battling Jack Nicklaus at the U.S. Amateur. He played on Seattle University’s 1960 team that was later inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

Warner spent 37 years as the pro at Esmeralda, running the busy city course while providing instruction to players of all levels and life lessons to his young employees. Warner died in May at the age of 79. A memorial will be held July 19 at 11 a.m. at St. Joseph Church in Colbert.

Warner helped shape the careers of Gray, who started working at Esmeralda when he was 17, and Rex Schultz, who lived nearby and used to pick up range balls as a youth so he could practice for free at the course.

“Bill ran it like you would imagine, a mom-and-pop business in the best possible way,” Schultz said. “There was a big group of kids of various ages that would hang around and got into golf and we almost became part of Bill’s family. The way he ran it engendered that family atmosphere. I can’t imagine a better childhood than mine growing up at the golf course.”

Schultz went on to play at Washington State University. He returned to Esmeralda as an assistant for 18 years before becoming the head pro following Warner’s retirement in 2004.

“We weren’t from the rich part of town, but I can think of six kids that got Evans Scholarships, basically caddie scholarships,” Schultz said. “Bill was a big proponent of that and getting us through to college. I just felt really fortunate to have been there during that time.”

Warner wasn’t one to boast about his playing career, but he has a place in the record books. He is the only player to win the Pacific Northwest Golf Association (PNGA) Amateur and Junior Amateur in the same year (1957). Warner took the amateur at the Spokane Country Club and the junior event at Tualatin Country Club.

A few years later Warner and Nicklaus squared off in a close match at the U.S. Amateur.

“Lost to him on the last hole,” said Warner’s son, Mike. “I’m not quite sure if it was a quarterfinal or semifinal. Nicklaus won it that year. I always wonder, I think all of us do, where he could have gone had he chosen a different path.

“I run into people now and then that remember him from the olden days when he was kind of the talk of the town in the junior and amateur ranks.”

Some of Esmeralda’s longtime regulars told Schultz they used to see Warner making the two-mile walk, carrying his golf bag, from Rogers to the course after school.

Gray, who worked at Esmeralda for 11 years, recalled Warner was always willing to help kids and customers with swing tips.

“If they were struggling with their game, he’d say try this or that if they didn’t want to take a formal lesson,” Gray said.

Warner’s tutelage covered multiple aspects of the golf industry.

“I just got into the game maybe the year before I started working there,” Gray said. “I was just a rangehand the first year but once I moved into the pro shop it was, ‘How does this part of the business work, how do you deal with customers when they’re not happy and how do you make people feel welcome and part of it.’ Customer service. I learned a lot from him.”

Same goes for Schultz.

“He’s remembered every year (at Esmeralda) with the Warner Cup where we would divide up the some of the men’s club and compete in Ryder Cup-style matches. When he retired, we decided to name the event after him,” said Schultz, who stepped down at Esmeralda about three years ago. “He meant a lot to a lot of people.”

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