Jim Pliska opens the tee sheet at his two courses to host numerous amateur and professional events
by Steve Mims
Jim Pliska called Emerald Valley Golf Club in Creswell, Ore. his home course while playing on the men’s golf team at the University of Oregon. Later, he won the Oregon Golf Association Stroke Play Championship, held there in 1996.
So, it seemed to make sense that in 2002 he made the course his own, purchasing it for about $2.2 million and investing more for its renovation and improvements.
“I heard about Emerald Valley being for sale and thought, ‘I love that course,’” Pliska recalled recently during a conversation at Emerald Valley. “From when I played in college until then, it was kind of trending downward, the upkeep was lacking. The irrigation system was shot, and the clubhouse was in dire need of repair. I bought a fixer-upper, but I love golf and I was passionate about it so I thought ‘I can make it into a nice golf club.’”
Pliska, a native of Gresham, Ore., had success in golf and business and married those two passions with the purchase of Emerald Valley, and later with the creation of Wine Valley Golf Club in Walla Walla, Wash., of which he is the majority owner.
When Pliska’s collegiate career at Oregon was over in the late 1970s, he didn’t see a future in professional golf.
“I decided I like golf, but I did not want to be a pro,” he said. “I didn’t want to work in the pro shop or anything. I finished up at Oregon and got my business degree in finance and computer science and moved on from there.”
Pliska’s father, Harold, started Space Age Fuel, a petroleum distributorship, in 1982 and Jim worked at a couple stations pumping gas and cleaning bathrooms while in college.
“That was not something I wanted to do later in life, that was the reason I went to college, it gave me motivation,” Pliska explained. “My dad had two stations he owned and one he leased, and when I got out of school I worked with him for a year, but I was going to get a different job. I had a couple opportunities, I almost worked for a city finance department, but I didn’t know if I wanted to work in government. Then we ended up finding a small distributorship and bought it and then it grew from there.”
Father and son worked to build the business into 27 locations, but in the late 1990s Harold was ready to retire and Jim took over the business before eventually buying out his dad about five years ago.
“I was thinking, ‘Let’s sell this or sell it to me, one of those things, because otherwise I’m ready to move on,’” Jim said. “It all worked out well.”
Pliska ventured into the golf business when he purchased Emerald Valley two decades ago.
“People come into a gas station not because they want to, but because they have to,” he said. “It is a different attitude in golf because people are usually in a good mood when they come to play. It is fun to be around. The expectation when we came in here was to try and raise it up a bit and if you do that, you win.”
Emerald Valley is a championship golf course that plays 7,210 yards from the tips, but Pliska desired to make it playable for all golfers. One of the first things he did when he took ownership was flip the nines.
“Everyone used to come here and basically say it is too hard,” he said. “People would come here and not come back. They would say ‘I like the course, but not really.’ The reason for switching the nines is because the front side used to be the hardest side and now that is the back side. We get a lot of people who come out and want to play nine holes, usually beginners, and we wanted it to be a little easier so they would want to play. Then once they are warmed up, they get to hit the hard side. We tried to make it more playable for the average golfer.”
Golf course architect Dan Hixson, a former club pro with deep Northwest ties, tipped Pliska off about a property on about 250 acres in eastern Washington. The two began to develop Wine Valley in 2008 before the recession hit.
“Everything blew up, but we were halfway through, and you can’t stop or else it all turns back into weeds,” Pliska said. “So, we continued to push through it and finished the golf course. We did what we needed to do to get it open.”
Wine Valley opened in 2009 and plays over rolling fields surrounded by the Blue Mountains.
“I thought it was a good idea because of the wine industry up there and there were not a lot of great golf courses in that area,” Pliska said. “So I thought, ‘Let’s build something nice around here.’ I wanted something long enough to hold tournaments, but the idea was to change holes from day to day. You might play a par-3 at 250 yards today and tomorrow it might be 170. I am proud of that course, it turned out really good.”
As his businesses have grown, Pliska has remained one of the top amateur golfers in the area for decades, although his work schedule has put golf on the backburner at times.
“I was 50 or 51 when I bought Emerald Valley, so I played less tournaments, but still a few events every year,” he said. “I got the bug again right around COVID and started to get my game back. It is still not where it needs to be, kind of up and down, but golf is a crazy game because it teaches you a lot about yourself because you are always fighting adversity. You won’t always hit it perfect off the tee or be putting and chipping good, but you have to combat those things. Business is the same way, you keep pushing on and a lot of times things don’t go your way, but a lot of times they will.”
Pliska won the OGA Tournament of Champions in 1986, 1988, and 2000. He has qualified for the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Amateur Public Links, and U.S Mid-Amateur, with a berth in the U.S. Senior Amateur all that remains for a grand slam, but the 64-year-old will take another shot at that milestone this summer.
“I play the senior events; I’m getting too old for the younger stuff,” he said. “I have not qualified for the Senior Amateur, but I want to get there. I still enjoy the competitive aspect of golf. It pushes you a bit.”
Pliska has supported local golf in many ways, including working with the University of Oregon to build a practice facility for the Ducks at Emerald Valley along with The Jake, a state-of-the-art indoor/outdoor practice facility and clubhouse for UO golf teams named after Peter and Jan Jacobsen that is set to open in the fall.
Pliska has stayed true to his love of the game and of his desire to provide access to quality golf courses to regional events.
Emerald Valley has hosted numerous Oregon Golf Association championships, USGA national qualifiers, and the 2007 and 2017 PNGA Men’s Amateur. Wine Valley has been the site of the 2012 and 2016 PNGA Men’s Amateur, the 2013 PNGA Women’s Amateur, numerous USGA qualifiers, and from 2010-2021 was the site of the PGA Section’s Northwest Open Invitational. Along with hosting the Washington Men’s Amateur in 2014, Wine Valley will again host this championship this summer on June 27-29.
“I want to give back to amateur golf, I want to keep it strong in the Northwest,” he said. “I don’t mind giving up the courses for tournaments, amateur and junior events, because I want them to play a good golf course. We enjoy it and it is good for our greens crew and superintendents to get the course in premium shape.” Pliska has no plans to add another course, but also won’t count out expanding his portfolio. “I’m good for now, unless it is a perfect situation,” he said. “I am not saying ‘No,’ but it would have to be a perfect scenario.”
And golf in the region would only benefit from that scenario.
Steve Mims spent 21 years as a sportswriter at The Eugene Register-Guard. He was a finalist for Oregon Sportswriter of the Year in 2017.