Walking With Tigers

Published on Thursday, May 3rd, 2018 in Features

The Dahmen family — Ed, Jolyn, Zach and Joel

PART ONE: Pay The Kids

One doesn’t have to be around Joel Dahmen too long before realizing he is a bright and determined young man.

His early years were right out of a “Leave it to Beaver” script, complete with loving and supportive parents, comfortable living conditions and a boatload of friends. He was the second child born to Ed and Jolyn Dahmen in Lewiston, Idaho, in 1987. Brother Zach was two years older.

His grandfather, Dick Riggs, is a Lewiston community icon, a noted educator who was a school superintendent and teacher for over 40 years. Nearly everyone in the small community knows and respects him.

“We had a great life,” Dahmen reflected. “My dad worked long hours to make sure we had everything we needed and our childhood was filled with nothing but love and great family memories.”

His mother, Jolyn, was a high-school basketball player who fulfilled her childhood dream of being a Vandal by playing ball at the University of Idaho. It became apparent at a young age that Joel had inherited her talent and love for sport. He played in all the youth sports leagues and was one of those kids who excelled at whatever he tried.

Ed introduced him to golf and, by age six, he was able to play along with his dad’s group at Bryden Canyon Municipal Golf Course in Lewiston.

“The rule was simple. I could play as long as I kept up. If I fell behind, I had to pick up,” Dahmen said. “I learned quickly.”

Ed told a story about Joel before he started playing on the golf course.

“The Bryden Canyon owner/operators held a youth golf camp and, even though Joel was only four and a half, they let him in the seven-and-under group because his attention span was so good,” he recalled.

“At the end of the camp, a putt, chip and drive competition was held and they allowed Joel to enter these also. In the long-drive segment, all the older, bigger kids had hit their drives and little Joel stepped up as the last entrant. Those who were measuring moved toward the little guy so they could measure his drive, and were left agape when Joel sailed the ball way over their heads and up the fairway,” Ed said, beaming. “It was very funny to watch their expressions.”

Young Joel’s golf development was so quick that at age nine, shortly after his family moved across the river to Clarkston, Wash., he was encouraged to join the heralded Washington State Golf Association’s junior program.

Joel showed his ability to compete right away, winning or finishing near the top in almost every tournament he entered. In fact, he won his first of many state championships at age 10, while competing in the 11-and-under age group. He was beginning to make a real name for himself.

Geno Bonnalie was born on March 19, 1984, in Orofino, Idaho, in the heart of logging country. His father, Jim, had a thriving logging business at the time and still builds logging roads for the Potlatch Corporation.

The family moved to nearby Lewiston a few years later, and Geno graduated from Lewiston High School in 2002.

Jim was a competitive archer and he taught Geno to shoot when he could barely walk.

“We would go to a tournament almost every weekend and I won my first trophy when I was four. It was great and my dad was my best friend, so it was really special,” smiled Geno.

Jim Bonnalie said Geno was a natural archer.

“He caught on right away. He was able to focus on the target and block out the distractions around him, and that is not easy. He once shot a perfect score in a contest and that is a real rarity for anyone, let alone a young guy,” Jim said.

At age eight, Jim introduced Geno to golf, and gave him a few old golf clubs. Geno would hit balls all over a nearby field for hours on end.

“Then, one day, I hit this shot that flew all the way over the field, over the road and hit a house!” Bonnalie said, laughing. “I was hooked for life.”

In the summer, Geno’s mom would drop him off at Bryden Canyon Golf Course on her way to work and pick him up on her way home at night. He would play golf all day, every day, and did odd jobs like picking up range balls to earn lunch and practice-range privileges.

This was ideal for Geno, who loved every minute, and the employees at Bryden Canyon welcomed his company. He was liked and respected by people of all ages.

At age 12, Jim asked Geno to make a decision. He would either take him to the national junior archery tournament or buy him a new set of TaylorMade Burner golf clubs. Geno chose the clubs, and his love affair with golf blossomed further. Geno’s passion for the game was legendary around his home, but his talent never quite measured up to his inner passion, and he had an okay but largely unremarkable junior golf career.

Joel and Geno at Pebble Beach

Joel was 12 when 15-year-old Geno called and asked him to be his partner at a tournament in Grangeville, Idaho, a small town about 70 miles from Lewiston. Joel was excited as could be. This would be his first non-junior tournament, and this cool, older kid from Lewiston wanted him as a partner.

The boys were the only young people in the entire field. They did well in Saturday’s round, and right after they finished, Ed got a call from an excited Joel.

“Dad, they have this horse-race thing and Geno and I can win a whole bunch of money. Can I bet on myself, dad?” he asked.

Ed wasn’t sure if this was a good idea, but said okay, reminding Joel that he would be risking his own money. The Horse Race field included a bunch of men and, for many, it was as much a beer-drinking event as a best-ball golf game. Every team member put in 10 dollars, and the lowest score on a hole won the pot. If one tied, all tied, and the players moved on to the next hole, where 10 more dollars was added to the pot.

The first two holes were tied, but Joel won the third with a birdie. A vocal participant then bellowed, “Pay the kids!” This became the tournament chant when Geno eagled the fifth and sixth holes, and closed things out with yet another birdie on the ninth. “The kids” went on to dominate the tournament, and won multiple prizes.

“Joel came home with this wad of cash and he was absolutely glowing,” Ed Dahmen joked. “I guess this was his first experience of golf for money.”

Grangeville marked the first of many winning experiences for Geno and Joel, and a kind of big brother/young brother bond was formed that is still very much in place today. Joel was a boy with a man’s golf game, and Geno’s encouragement and insight helped him take his game to the next level. The relationship was perfect for both of them.

In the following years, Joel piled up junior wins. He stunned the area’s golf community by winning the Washington State high school tournament as a freshman, and continued to win everything in sight, often as defending champion. The news articles about his junior victories fill four scrapbooks and his trophies liberally grace the Dahmen and Riggs residences.

This run of excellence also resulted in an offer of a full-ride scholarship to the University of Washington, which was readily accepted.

At age 17, Joel was on top of the world. His potential upside seemed unlimited and, locally, he was a true celebrity. Things were as bright as they could be.

Then, things changed.

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