‘The planet’s biggest golf tournament’ tees off Friday

By Cliff Kirkland

Though neighboring cities grow more brazen every year in their attempts to steal Biloxi’s 300-year-old history as the oldest settlement in Mississippi, tournament officials of the Slavic Invitational fear no such intrusion on their exalted position as the largest golf tournament in the state.

In fact, the Slavic unabashedly lays claim to being the biggest amateur golf tournament in the Southeast, and perhaps the nation, says longtime event co-chairman Andrew “FoFo” Gilich.

“If there’s a bigger tournament than the Slavic, I don’t believe it’s on this planet,” he said.

Nor could he imagine handling the logistics of anything larger than 496 two-man teams playing 54 holes each at five different golf clubs across the Coast over three days, or feeding the thousand players and their guests with roast beef pistolettes on course and sumptuous dinners in the expansive halls at Beau Rivage each night.

The 2012 Slavic begins Friday at Sunkist, Grand Bear, Windance and Shell Landing. The second round will be held Saturday and the final round Sunday, with the championship flight playing at Fallen Oak.

“Every year we feed the beast and every year it keeps getting bigger,” said Gilich, who also serves as the long-running president of the sponsoring Slavic Benevolent Association of St. Nikolai. “We had to turn away more than 20 teams this year because we would have had to add another course to squeeze everyone in.”

Gilich and his co-chair David Leckich oversee a volunteer staff of about 150 who help stage the event that began as a small club members-only tournament in 1973, with Rock Sekul being the first name etched onto the John Stanovich championship trophy. The next year it switched from November to July and from an individual event to a four-ball competition. It’s been played every year since, except for 2005 when Hurricane Katrina knocked it off schedule.

“This is our 38th tournament,” said Leckich, “and it will be our best. We have more players than ever before, but we’re ready. It takes a lot of work from a lot of people, but we take pride in the quality of the competition and the off-course social events.”

Naret Johnson and Lane Pippin return to defend their 2011 title against the strongest field in tournament history. There are more than 120 teams with handicaps of 10 or less. Johnson and Pippin will be challenged by the likes of Brandon Laird-Scott Jackson, Nick Beale-George Byrd, John Boothby-Bo Miller and Woody Cowart-Tim Goad Sr.

The field includes numerous past champions, a couple of sitting and past city councilmen from the Coast, at least one priest, several former All-American college athletes and a host of hungry, thirsty players who plan to make their marks at the refreshment stands scattered across the courses.

“One of the players, after finding out his team was added to the field just before it filled up, said he was looking forward to eating 107 roast beef sandwiches,” noted Gilich. “And there’s always a bunch of players who drain our beverage coolers with regularity.

“We want everyone to have a great time. And we never seem to have to a problem doing that.”

See photos and more: To learn more about the Slavic Invitational, click here.