If you close your eyes and try to imagine it, you can almost hear Jim Nantz welcoming you to another edition of Columbus' summertime tradition.

"Hello, friends. Half a century ago, a tournament was hatched one night at the now defunct Ski Lounge. High school buddies and college friends, eager to find yet another way to drink beer, organized their first Sunday get together around the fairways, greens and bunkers of Van Berg Golf Course.

"From an individual tournament that has morphed into a team event, players have competed for such esteemed honors as champion, best dressed and pin prizes that include the most high honor - pin prize for the guy who's never won a pin prize.

"Over the years, sons have been brought into the fold. The tournament moved to Quail Run then this year back to Van Berg after floodwaters ravaged the event's home for nearly 30 years.

"Though some players are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, they always return for the annual banquet beforehand on Saturday night, the golf Sunday morning and the picnic following.

"While the drives are getting shorter, and the fairways seem longer, there's no ounce of quit in this wily bunch. Players may no longer have to deal with "gotchas" as they did in the 1970s and '80s, but one can certainly fight an uphill battle against a field where anything goes.

"Welcome to the Polish Invitational."

OK. So, perhaps Jim Nantz will never sit down and write an opening monologue such as the one just imagined for a little golf tournament between friends in Columbus, Nebraska.

And chances are, at least early on, he may not have even wanted to be associated with it. But there's no doubting the camaraderie, brotherhood and good old-fashioned hijinks that took place at Van Berg Golf Course this past Sunday morning.

At some point in 1970, a group of friends who regularly enjoyed each other's company at the Ski Lounge - a bar downtown across from the old theater - formed the first annual Polish Invitational. Named for the ethnic background of many in the group, there were, though this figure isn't thought to be exact, 13 men in their early 20s who participated the first year.

Six original 'founding fathers' remain. Those half dozen plus roughly 30 more met for the 50th straight year at Izaak Walton on Saturday night. The group then played Van Berg for 18 holes Sunday morning and finished up with a picnic at Christopher's Cove Sunday afternoon.

Not that it matters, but the foursome of Chris Hanke, Matt Nosal, Gary Robertson and Steve Plantz took the title with a four-man scramble total of 56, four shots better than second place.

Larry Mulligan, a regular for decades, said Saturday night that "the fix was in."

"You can quote me on that," he said. "There's no honor among Poles."

The tournament was initially competed individually but has been a team event for more than two decades.

"Well, we played golf," said Don Nosal, one of the original founders, about how much the game influenced the formation of the tournament. "I don’t know if we’re still golfers, but we play golf.

"It wasn’t all that serious when we started. You could be teeing off and all of a sudden a cherry bomb might go off right behind you."

That's what was called a "gotcha" as Nantz referred to earlier. Well, an interpretation of what Nantz might say.

Instead of Mulligans, players purchased "gotchas" to cancel out whenever play was affected by the gamesmanship, cherry bombs included, of the other competitors.

"Actually, we were drinking beer, and we just needed an excuse to get thirstier," Jack Nosal said of the tournament's purpose. "So, we decided to play golf."

Initially, there wasn't a name for the tournament. It was meant to be a weekend to come to town, drink some beer and play some golf. Two years later though, basically the same group formed a softball team, and needed a name.

Ski Lounge went from softball team to tournament title name. But that created controversy. Because the tournament was named "The Ski Lounge Invitational" other bar patrons wanted in.

Owners Floyd and Ted Niedbalski persuaded the group a few years later to change the name since, "We've got other regulars in the bar who spend a lot of money at the bar and they want to play in the tournament and you won't let them in," Jack remembered."

"Excuse me, that's because we were calling it The Open," Don chimed in, "and we had to change it to The Invitational.

"Oh no, it was just the opposite. It was called The Invitational because they wanted to be invited," Jack responded.

"No, it couldn't be called The Open," Don answered.

"Well ... any way, they wanted to drop Ski Lounge, so we did," Jack said. "Then we came up with Polish, still trying to keep the Ski thing because it has nothing to do with skiing, just because of the last name and being Polish. So it's probably been The Polish Invitational for about 45 of the 50 years."

Steve Plantz was back for the tournament for what he guessed was his 15th appearance. Plantz is what the group refers to as an 'A' golfer, the best of the best upon which the other teams are formed.

Steve's dad, Bud, started up with the group a few years in and, according to Steve's memory, only missed a handful of times. Steve grew up in Lincoln, moved to Florida in 1992 and was eventually joined by his parents in 2004.

Still, Steve and Bud made the trip back of more than 1,600 miles to the Midwest to be a part of the yearly tradition. Steve celebrated his 50th birthday on Saturday, the first without his dad who passed away in October.

"I would bring him back every year. Now I’m going to continue with it," he said. "It’s kind of strange right now. I’m kind of finding myself right now because I’m not running back to take care of him."

Though he has no children of his own, Steve, an assistant golf course superintendent in Florida, is working on making some of his nephews part of the tournament.

"It’s just a good group of people. These guys are funny," he said. "To listen to their stories and how they grew up and what they’ve done, all the drinking days … it’s kind of neat to see."

There was once a trophy, but now, no one can locate it. Some were certain Steve's dad had it, but he can confirm that's not the case. Mark Kudron had it in his basement for a while, but it's not there either.

Lost to time it seems.

But the trophy wasn't always the most meaningful prize at tournament's end, Jack Nosal was once awarded "best dressed" with a gift he, nor anyone who was there, will ever forget.

In the early days of the tournament, when the players convened at the Ski Lounge, one of the members of the committee that year announced that there was a special award for the best dressed golfer.

"Jack Nosal. Jack, come up and get your reward, and they had this thing wrapped, it was a matchbox," he recalled. For the best dressed golfer, Jack here it is,' and I thought what the? So, they played it up right.

"I opened up this little thing and here's this matchbox. I open that up and here's this little snake, peered his head up. I'm at the end of the bar, shuffleboard is over here, I took one step and I hurdled, at least I think I hurdled, the shuffleboard in one leap. It wasn't as big as a night crawler, I don't think. But you couldn't prove that to me. That thing looked like a killer."

That's just one of the stories that get told and retold every year the first weekend after Independence Day, when the tournament is normally held. Unlike a fishing story, though, the snake seems to get smaller every year.

There are myriads of tales spun, re-spun and passed on to the next generation. Too many for this particular piece. But perhaps one more will help explain what's so special about the Polish Invitational.

For whatever reason, sometimes it's just hard to leave.

"We had our picnic in the park and we got all done around 1 o’clock in the morning. I happened to be the guy who was locking the gates when we left, and I told everybody to go out the east gate. Well, I was the last guy out, locked the gate, went home and went to bed," said Kudron.

"About an hour and a half later the phone rings. It was two guys and their wives that had gotten locked in the park. Then, I went to pick them up, and the wives were there, but they guys were not. I asked the two gals, ‘Where are your husbands at? They’re over at the Pawnee Bar.’

Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sports@columbustelegram.com.

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