BESSEMER — According to Gogebic Country Club golf professional, Tyler Leskela, it is the largest golf tournament in the U.P. and northern Wisconsin with 100 two-person teams and a waiting list to get in. And it’s been like that for two decades.
It’s the Milakovich Memorial Tournament and it will be played this weekend at the Gogebic Country Club with golfers teeing off at 7 a.m. on Saturday. But it’s more like a golf reunion or homecoming than just a golf tournament. That’s because people come from as far away as California and Oregon and many look at the tournament as coming home. It’s a chance to renew friendships and reminisce about the good old days. Some golfers even plan their vacations around playing in the tournament.
The Milakovich is unique in that a number of the team partners are relatives. There may be up to six to eight Pierponts and Pavlovichs playing in the tournament.
George Boline, who has played in every Milakovich Memorial and has won it eight times with different partners, said it’s because the tournament is so much about tradition.
“It’s always been a first class tournament and it’s been so much about family,” Boline said. “Then when their kids got older, the kids played. The tradition keeps going.”
The tournament is steeped in another tradition – the Milakovich family tradition. Jim Milakovich has said that the Milakovich Memorial Tournament is still very important to his family because it honors the memories of his father, Nick, and his uncle, John, who laid the foundation for the present day tournament back in the ‘70s and 80s as well as their considerable contributions to golf on the Gogebic Range.
Over the years, the Milakovich family, along with a number of dedicated workers and volunteers, have built the tournament into a premier golfing event that golfers hold in high esteem.
The Milakovich Memorial is fun-filled tournament, but especially for the golfers in the top flights, it is very competitive and to win the championship flight would be a major accomplishment.
Pat Gallinagh, who has been a Gogebic Country Club member since 1976, said that the Milakovich tournament is a prestigious, major event for amateur golfers.
When John Houle and Justin Borseth won in 2011, Houle said “this is our Masters,” and Borseth called it his favorite tournament to play in.
On Saturday, all the teams play 18 holes and are placed in flights from the championship down to the 11th or 12th flight based on their scores. After the teams are placed in a flight, all the scores are wiped out and the teams get a fresh start on Sunday.
Jim Milakovich said in this format, you need a good partner who is consistent because you have to play well for two days and it’s hard to “keep things together” for 36 holes.
Boline, Leskala, Milakovich and Gallinagh were in agreement on what it takes to be in the winner’s circle on Sunday afternoon at the Milakovich Memorial.
The tournament has a best-ball format in which both golfers play a golf ball and the player with the lowest score on a hole marks it on the team scorecard.
“Teams cannot have a bad score on the same hole,” Gallinagh said. “It kills you when you do. No double or triple bogeys because you can’t make up for that.”
Leskela said that partners have to pick each other up when one golfer is having a bad hole and that if one guy plays aggressively on a hole, his partner needs to play conservatively to ensure a par score.
There’s an old saying in golf that “you drive for show and putt for dough” and Leskela believes the winner will come from the teams that putt the best.
Boline said that there have not been a lot of changes to the Milakovich over the years because you don’t mess with a good thing, but one big change has been the level of competition.
Back when he was winning championships in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Boline estimated six to eight teams had a chance to win. In 2013, he feels that number has risen to about 25 teams.
Gallinagh, Milakovich and Leskela all said there was “no clear-cut favorite” in the tournament.
But Boline and Milakovich said previous winners have an advantage because the first championship is the hardest to win and once that has been accomplished, golfers gain the confidence that they are good enough to win again.
Ironwood natives Dave and Paul Vaara won the championship flight last year after winning in 2008. And Gallinagh also likes the chances of the Borseth/Houle team.
Milakovich and Gallinagh said that a lingering winter and a spring with a lot of rain had its effect on the golf course.
“It’s playable but very difficult,” Milakovich said. “There’s been too much rain and it’s too soft. The weather was just against us and there’s some winterkill on the greens. Hopefully, the warm weather will dry out the course fast.”
Gallinagh said the course is playing longer because there’s no roll on shots. Longer shots usually result in higher scores.
Boline said the golf course was very wet in June, but both he and Leskela thought the course was coming around and drying out. Boline said the course would be hurt by more rain between now and Saturday.
Another Milakovich tradition has been holding the tournament on the third weekend in July every year. This has almost guaranteed nice weather or “Milakovich weather” for the tournament. If weather forecasts for the weekend are correct, golfers will be dealing with moderate temperatures in the 60s.
“And we’ve ordered nice sunshine and no wind,” Milakovich said.
Milakovich past champions
1988 – George Boline and Milo Larson
1989 – George Boline and Scott Larson
1990 – Dave and Greg Mariani
1991 – George Boline and Scott Larson
1992 – George Boline and Scott Larson
1993 – George Boline and Scott Larrson
1994 – George Boline and Scott Larson
1995 – Guy and Dave Vaara
1996 – Frank and Craig Zadra
1997 – Frank and Craig Zadra
1998 – George Boline and Scott Larson
1999 – Dan Lloyd and John Hale
2000 – Guy and Dave Vaara
2001 – Guy and Dave Vaara
2002 – Chris Thomson and Ray Atanasoff
2003 – Andy Borseth and Todd Roehm
2004 – Jim Milakovich and Rusty Malovrh
2005 – Ken and Tom Talaska
2006 – Dan Floyd and John Hale
2007 – George Boline and Scott Larson
2008 – Dave and Paul Vaara
2009 – Justin Borseth and John Houle
2010 – Dr. John W. Pierpont and John Pierpont IV
2011 – Justin Borseth and John Houle
2012 – Dave and Paul Vaara