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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
While dispassionate golf fans wondered whether Fuzzy Zoeller might catch Larry Nelson in the final round of the recent PGA Championship, that same weekend a much more passionate golf crowd watched and waited anxiously to see if Walt Virginski, a perennial runner-up, would finally win his first Lithuanian Open.
The 11th edition of that ethnoclassic was held at the Heather Hill Golf Club in Plainville, Mass. The Open is the brainchild of Victor Babel, a Norwood, Mass. paint dealer, who wanted to prove that Lithuanian athletes weren't just linebackers ( Dick Butkus), boxers ( Jack Sharkey), tennis players ( Vitas Gerulaitis) and midget pinch hitters ( Eddie Gaedel).
When Babel inaugurated the not-very-open Open, entrants were required to have either maternal or paternal or, better yet, 100% pure Lithuanian blood coursing through their veins. A few years ago, after delicate negotiations, a handful of non-Lithuanian husbands of Lithuanian wives were grudgingly allowed to participate. Babel died last year, but his enterprising wife, Mickey, and her family have carried on the tradition.
Eighty golfers from as far away as Bellevue, Wash. and Saudi Arabia—no, Shaikh Yamani isn't a Lithuanian; the guy from Arabia was a U.S. consulting firm employee assigned there—teed off on a muggy Sunday, and when Virginski parred the first two holes, it seemed that, at long last, this was going to be his year.
The competition was doggedly tough and steeped in golf tradition. Some entrants sported golf bags two and three generations old. Joe Wilkas attacked the Heather Hill layout with a Jock Hutchinson long iron, a Bobby Jones five-iron and a Spalding driver dated Jan. 26, 1926.
Some seven hours after the first foursome set off (this tournament didn't have penalties for slow play), John Okelevich from Cape Cod was declared the winner. His score: a two-over-par 74. Three shots back was another Cape Codder, Julius Shipalauskas. Although the Shipalauskas clan produced this Open's runner-up, it was still no threat to golf's legendary Turnesa family. Julius' brother John came in with the tournament's highest score—a 146.
Virginski struggled to an 81, good enough for fourth place and some sympathetic pats on the back while he tried to forget his round over heaping platefuls of kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, dill pickles and "kugeli"—a stick-to-your-ribs Lithuanian potato pie.
At the awards ceremonies the optimism of today's Lithuanian golfer was glowingly evident. Frank Cvilikas, undaunted by his 129, proclaimed that Lithuanians will soon rule the golfing world once again. When asked just when the Lithuanians ever did rule the golfing world, Cvilikas, with a wry smile, answered, "When Johnny Goodman won the U.S. Open as an amateur back in 1933 and the U.S. Amateur in 1937." Yes, Johnny Goodman was the son of Lithuanian immigrants.